Saturday, February 16, 2013

Forgotten Heroes of the Big Band Era: Rita Rio and her Mistresses of Rhythm

During the Big Band Era there were many successful female musicians such as Billie Rogers and Dolly Jones(trumpet), Margie Hyams(vibes), Mary Lou Williams(piano) and Vi Redd (alto sax).
The All-Girl Band was a popular format for lady players during those years. Most successful was the band of Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears.While the band was fine, Ina Ray's lovely face,figure and dancing put the group over. Other girl bands sprouted up including the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Thelma White, Ada Leonard and Rita Rio,the subject of this post.

Rita was born Eunice or Una Westmoreland in 1914.She started as a dancer eventually graduating to a part in Earl Carroll's Murder at the Vanities in 1934.She was a fine dancer and singer and learned to play piano,trumpet and clarinet. She soon teamed with fellow chorine, Rene Villon as a sister act. Although Una wasn't Latin, she played up the ethnicity and learned to speak Spanish. Her dark, exotic looks gave one the impression of genuine Latin heritage. Rene and Una worked in clubs and vaudeville until Rene's marriage in the mid 30s. With her savings, Una formed an All-Girl band and took the name, Rio Rita.

Like Ina Ray, Rita was full of energy strutting and dancing in front of the band waving her baton and showing off her good looks and sexy figure,she was billed as the "Mexican Jumping Bean". Her band, like Ina's was quite good and featured some fine lady musicians.Until we find some broadcasts of the band we can only enjoy their film clips and two shorts all available on Youtube.

Clips such as Sticks and Stones, I Cried for You and Feed the Kitty show the band to be a solid unit with capable soloists. The band made two full shorts, Gals and Gallons and Rio Rita and her Orchestra (1939).
Other titles worth searching for are My Margarita, Flying Feet, Pan Americonga and I Look at You with a young Alan Ladd added as "boy singer". Rita also appeared in a Columbia Glove Slingers short, Fresh as a Freshman singing Gypsy from Poughkepsie.

Rita's good looks and talents made her a natural for the movies and in 1941 she signed a Paramount contract .She had a featured part in 1942's Road to Morocco. Her new name was Dona Drake (pronounced Dough-na). In Paramount's Salute for Three(1943) she appeared as Dona fronting an All-Girl band. Most of her future roles were as a support usually singing and dancing. She had a featured role in The Girl from Jones Beach. Dona married designer William Travilla in 1944, he became a very successful clothing designer at 20th Century Fox. Dona continued her career into the 50s. She gave birth to a daughter Nina in 1951. She slowly curtailed her appearances retiring in 1954.

Dona still appeared in William's fashion shows of the 60s including a Merv Griffin Show spot. She was still lovely and trim.Bad health soon dogged her with heart and respiratory issues until her death in 1978 at age 63. My good friend and fellow collector Ed Reynolds recalls seeing the Rita Rio Band at a Boston theatre date around 1939 and called it a "Real Swinging Group".
Hopefully we'll get more films and airchecks of this intriguing and historical orchestra.
Stay tuned for Addendums.