Penny Singleton was a talented actress and labor leader who brought the comic strip character Blondie to life in a series of films and voiced Jane Jetson in the animated series The Jetsons. She passed away on November 12, 2003, at the age of 95, due to respiratory failure. In this article, we will look back at her life and career, and pay tribute to her legacy.
Early Life and Career
Penny Singleton was born as Mariana Dorothy McNulty on September 15, 1908, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of a newspaperman and began performing professionally as a child. She only completed sixth grade in her schooling and toured in vaudeville as part of an act called “The Kiddie Kabaret”. She sang and danced with Milton Berle, whom she had known since childhood, and actor Gene Raymond, and appeared on Broadway in Jack Benny’s The Great Temptations. She also toured nightclubs and in roadshows of plays and musicals.
She made her film debut in 1930 under her given name, Dorothy McNulty, and played several roles as shady characters. She changed her name to Penny Singleton after marrying dentist Laurence Singleton in 1937, although they divorced in 1939. She remarried, to Robert C. Sparks, a Marine Corps officer and film producer, in 1941. They remained married until his death in 1963. Singleton had two daughters, Dorothy and Susan.
Blondie and Dagwood
Singleton’s most famous role was that of Blondie Bumstead, the wife of the bumbling Dagwood Bumstead, in the Blondie series of films. The films were based on the comic strip by Chic Young, which depicted the misadventures of a small-town family. Singleton was cast opposite Arthur Lake, who played Dagwood, in the first film, Blondie, in 1938. They proved so popular that a succession of 27 sequels was made from 1938 to 1950. Singleton and Lake also reprised their roles on a radio comedy from 1939 to 1950 and in guest appearances on other radio shows. Singleton’s husband, Robert Sparks, produced 12 of the sequels.
Singleton and Lake were widely regarded as the perfect screen incarnations of Blondie and Dagwood, and their films were praised for their freshness and originality. Singleton said that she was proud and grateful to be Blondie, and that she tried to play her as a real and sympathetic and warm woman. No one else ever played Blondie and Dagwood on the big screen. Two later Blondie TV series were short-lived.
The Jetsons and Other Roles
After her stint as Blondie, Singleton was the voice of Jane Jetson, the wife of George Jetson and the mother of Judy and Elroy, in the animated series The Jetsons. The show was created by Hanna-Barbera as the futuristic counterpart to their highly successful The Flintstones. The show ran in prime time for just one season, from 1962 to 1963, but has been widely seen in reruns. Singleton also voiced Jane Jetson in two Jetsons movies, The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones (1987) and Jetsons: The Movie (1990).
Singleton also appeared in the 1964 film The Best Man, but spent most of her time touring in nightclubs and roadshows of plays and musicals, such as Call Me Madam. She also made guest appearances on TV shows such as The Lucy Show, The Munsters, and The Love Boat.
Singleton was active in union affairs as a vocal member of the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA), the union representing touring performers, chorus girls, and other entertainers. She pushed for union reforms and, as union vice president in the 1960s, helped lead a strike by the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. She was elected president of the AGVA in 1958-1959, and again in 1969-1970. She was the first woman to serve as president of an AFL-CIO union. She testified before a Senate subcommittee in 1962 on the union’s treatment of women variety workers. She was also involved in charitable causes, such as the USO and the March of Dimes.
Death and Legacy
Singleton died of respiratory failure on November 12, 2003, in Sherman Oaks, California. She was 95 years old. She was survived by her two daughters, four grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. She was buried at San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Singleton was a versatile and talented actress who entertained millions of people with her roles as Blondie and Jane Jetson. She was also a trailblazing labor leader who fought for the rights and welfare of her fellow performers. She left behind a legacy of laughter and courage that will not be forgotten.