The future Queen of Radio, literally descended upon the world of entertainment, like an angel visiting earth. The first time her name ever appeared on a theatre program, she was prophetically billed as “the voice of an angel.” Blessed with heavenly talent, she would use her gift to become a major star in the medium of radio.
Jessica Valentina Dragonette was appropriately born on St. Valentine’s Day, in a year that remains a mystery. Most accounts of her life list the date of birth around 1905; her original birth records were destroyed in a fire. She was the youngest of four children; her Italian heritage included a long line of successful professionals, many of whom had a great appreciation for the arts and all things musical.
Her mother and father were childhood sweethearts near Genoa Italy. Her young mother was in ill health and immigrated to the United States for medical reasons. She was cared for by an American doctor visiting Italy. When he returned to his native Pennsylvania, they followed to continue in his care. The couple settled in Philadelphia and became U.S. citizens.
Her father was an engineer and work assignments often took the young family out of the country. It was on such a business related sojourn that baby Jessica was born in Calcutta India; joining brothers Nicholas, Fred and older sister Nadea, to complete the Dragonette family.
Her mother’s overall health continued to deteriorate. Soon after the family retuned to the states, her mother suddenly passed away, leaving four young children in the care of their grieving father. Worried about the future of his children, he placed them into various schools in Philadelphia. Young Jessica was sent to the Landsowne Orphanage, always hoping that her family would be reunited.
Hopes were dashed when her distraught father was involved in a fatal accident. Jessica found solace in the next thing she loved most in life: her music. Without parents left to please, she decided to work hard developing her talent. Her goal would be to please untold millions through the performance of her music.
Applying herself to studies, Jessica went to the Philadelphia Girls Catholic High School, where her devout faith was nurtured by the extraordinary efforts of the Sisters of Charity, who guided the maturing Jessica in further developing her musical talents.
Her education continued at Georgian Court in Lakewood New Jersey. As a student, Jessica was invited to New York for singing lessons under the renowned teacher Estelle Liebling. Mother Superior cooperated by arranging school work around these trips; even granting a leave of absence to stay in New York for extended periods of time.
Under the tutelage of her new mentor, Jessica gained experience and formal voice training. When Miss Liebling learned that Broadway impresario Max Reinhardt was auditioning talent for his upcoming production of The Miracle, she recommended Jessica try out for the part of an angel.
More than 60 aspiring singers were on hand when Jessica arrived to audition. Although one of the last to perform, Jessica won the part on the spot, thanks to her ability to sing in true pitch without accompaniment. For the next 287 performances, the young schoolgirl thrilled audiences and cast members alike with her fine singing ability. During each performance, Jessica would ascend a rickety ladder – high above stage and seats – take her position on a tiny platform, then on queue sing her heart out! Song completed, she remained unseen by an appreciative and visibly moved audience.
During the run of The Miracle, Jessica learned a great deal about living on a meager salary, often missing meals completely or carefully making pennies go far at the automat. She matured as an occupant of the ladies dressing room; absorbing worldly lessons discussed by bawdy theatre veterans.
While continuing her studies with Miss Liebling, Jessica gained additional work experience through a short role in The Student Prince. Miss Liebling thought her pupil may be suited for the new and growing medium of radio. She arranged an audition at station WEAF and Jessica was again hired on the spot. Overcome with excitement, she left the studio and promptly forgot the date of her first broadcast!
Recovering in time to report for work, she entered the studio, approached the cold microphone and momentarily became discouraged -- thinking -- no one was out there to listen; she then proceeded to sing. Rendition complete, there was no applause or reaction of any kind, giving her a let down feeling.
Her depression was short lived; several days later she was presented with a bag full of letters from grateful listeners. She never again thought of the microphone as anything but a live audience. She was touched by the sentiments of her admiring fans; they were touched by the melodic quality of her voice.
Radio was introduced in the early 1920’s and by the end of the decade people were clamoring for more. It was an exciting time; the magic of the new medium enabled people to enjoy distant broadcasts, all in the comfort of their own home.
Commercial stations were starting in all major cities and program directors were desperate for talent. Jessica signed a five year contract with WEAF, after being in the business a little over a month.
Assigned to the Coca-Cola Hour, she became Vivian (the Coca-Cola girl), in an hour long series of operettas. It was here that Jessica really began to sense a companionship with the American public; receiving fan letters offering everything from grooming advice to programming notes. Correspondence, in many instances, would be a dialog (back and forth) that continued for years.
It was during her tenure with this show that Jessica initiated one of her signature trademarks: wearing beautiful gowns to perform, even if an audience was not in the studio to see her lovely ensemble. Her rapport with the audience convinced her that listeners could actually see her perform. Jessica would maintain this self imposed dress code throughout her career.
WEAF merged with WJZ to become NBC. The new network moved to a larger studio and planned a series of operettas sponsored by Philco. Jessica inaugurated the show and performed a new musical every week.
One afternoon, after the show, she was summoned to the top floor of the studio for an experiment. Executives had gathered around a device that would send Jessica’s image over the air to a distant location some 20 miles away. This test occurred in 1928 and was the precursor of what we now refer to as television.
For two and a half years, she tirelessly performed on behalf of Philco, until they left NBC for the CBS network. Jessica was still under contract to NBC; therefore she was assigned to another series. The resulting move would cause her rising star to soar even further into the upper stratosphere of broadcast radio.
The Cities Service Concert Series, provided entertainment with a philosophy that good music – performed well – would always attract an audience. When Jessica joined the cast in 1930, the show really hit its stride. Broadcast live every Friday night from 8-9:00 p.m., the format included a variety of quality music, all orchestrated by Rosario Bourdon. Blending operetta, popular music and ballads, the show quickly became a favorite with a discriminating audience, earning ratings that placed the series among the most popular offerings in all of radio.
In addition to English, Jessica impeccably sang in German, French, Spanish, Italian and Russian. She was so good, she once fooled a diplomat into thinking Russian was her native tongue. Never one to use printed music, it’s estimated she memorized over 75 operas and more than 500 songs.
The Cities Service Show offered quality, talent and needed perfect timing. This was the age of live radio. Performers had to quickly learn and rehearse a show in time for the next broadcast. Execution was crucial; the show had to begin -- and end, on time, without a minute to spare. This of course placed a lot of pressure on performers, all of whom didn’t have the luxury of flubbing a line and starting over. Until recording equipment improved, this was how radio operated and it was under such stress that radio stars earned their living.
Jessica was so popular that she became synonymous with the sponsor. She was voted Queen of Radio in 1935 via a nationwide pole of listeners conducted by Radio Guide Magazine. Her immense popularity resulted in over 1,000 fan clubs sprouting up throughout the country. Her relationship with Cities Service lasted until 1937 and ended with all of the twists and turns of a radio soap opera.
Tastes were changing as evidenced by new and different programming. Jessica felt the show could retain its philosophy while updating the format to change with the times. One recommendation would allow her speaking roles in addition to singing; however the sponsor was resistant to the idea. Their reasoning: “Why risk interfering with success?”
Paying lip service to her programming advice, Jessica became discouraged with the future prospects of the show. Her sister, Nadea Loftus, who served as business manager, noticed something curious one day while reviewing her contract. Apparently when last drawn, management neglected to include an option clause that previously was part of the agreement. Without the option, Jessica was free to leave the show at the termination of her contract period.
Thinking long and hard about future possibilities, Jessica decided it was time to test the waters. The people at Palmolive expressed interest in her performing on their show; they sought to feature her talents in a new series of operettas. The salary offered exceeded the figure she had been earning, coming in at 2,500 dollars a week. Jessica decided to accept the offer and soon broke the news to her superiors.
The news was a shock and a significant firestorm erupted as executives quickly decided to publicize her departure as a termination due to outlandish salary demands. Jessica took it all in stride with her usual no nonsense approach. She made her decision regardless of the reasons bandied around radio gossip: right, wrong or indifferent – she was on to other challenges.
Beginning work on The Palmolive Beauty Box in 1937, Jessica was supposed to reinvigorate what was once a highly touted series. The Beauty Box had suffered a significant ratings drop since its debut in 1934.
Sadly, the format changes were never made; the program was shortened to 30 minutes and ratings didn’t improve. The show folded later in 1937 and Jessica was simply told that the sponsor was discontinuing the program. After ten years of rigorous live performing, Jessica was without a regular series. Maybe it was time to take a vacation.
As a proper manager (and sister), Nadea encouraged Jessica to relax a little and tend to her health. Jessica admitted that her devotion to work and career may have taken its toll. She took a breather from her grueling schedule and began entertaining the thought of performing concerts, for her legion of fans across the United States.
Her concert career kicked off in Philadelphia, with a benefit for the children’s wing of St. Mary’s Hospital. In an unselfish gesture, Jessica donated her concert fee: half to the hospital and half to her Alma Mater, Georgian Court. Throngs of fans packed her performance at The Academy of Music; flowers and gifts arrived from well-wishers all over the United States and Canada.
Critics raved – and Jessica received a new title – Princess of Song, from the admiring press. That moniker would be utilized to publicize future concert events, as she crossed the country, performing for appreciative audiences.
In towns big and small, Jessica traveled the vast countryside, sometimes doing as many as 15 shows a month, usually to crowds that were standing room only. Life on the road was not always easy. Travel included harrowing flights; running to catch late trains and meals consisting of cheese sandwiches and milk, in the back of a speeding car. She would supplement meals by trying to eat healthy between engagements. She feasted upon oatmeal, raisins and her own mixture of pineapple grapefruit juice.
In her singing days, the diminutive soprano stood a little over 5 feet tall and weighed around 100 pounds. Depending on the light, her blue eyes sometimes appeared hazel or even brown, prompting Jessica to joke that her eye color was actually “plaid.” She was described as having a beauty that shone through her eyes; her complexion was clear and fair; her hair was golden with wide natural curls. A staff photographer at NBC once said “nothing in her appearance, conversation or manner seems artificial.”
In March of 1938, on a frozen Midwestern night with the temperature hovering around 18 degrees below zero, a large crowd of brave souls ventured out into the shivering ice and snow to hear Jessica perform.
Her drawing power built to a crescendo that summer when a crowd of 150,000 fans gathered at Chicago’s Grant Park to personally see their beloved Jessica. Although it was an evening concert, fans started assembling early in the day, anticipating her appearance. People from near and far, many of whom had never seen their favorite little singer, camped out under the scorching sun; strangers whiled away the time by exchanging stories about their devotion to Jessica. A local gentleman related how he visited a hospitalized friend when word got around that Jessica was on the premises. A request was sent for her to visit the floor of his sick friend; she responded with a prolonged visit and even sang for the occupants. An older woman with no family commented how she sent Jessica a family heirloom because she wanted it to be in the possession of someone she loved.
Jessica would often receive letters from fans and add their requests to her concert venue. Appreciative fans would respond with gifts, dinner invitations, and other mementos. She received a charm bracelet, adorned with objects depicting sponsors products, from her adoring public in Columbus Mo. In Detroit, college students picketed a concert, in an effort to win a date with Jessica.
After a performance in Toronto, a young woman had a premonition of being injured and ultimately cured by Jessica’s singing The Ave Maria. An accident actually occurred and the woman was hospitalized in serious condition. At a pre-arranged time, a radio was brought into her room and the song performed. The woman indeed recovered and this fascinating story was retold on an edition of Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
Her concert series was augmented by sporadic radio performances throughout the late 30s and early 1940s, including The Ford Sunday Evening Hour and Saturday Night Serenade.
In 1939, Jessica provided the singing voice of Princess Glory, in the full color animated motion picture, Gulliver’s Travels. This was to be her only movie credit. A segment had previously been filmed for The Big Broadcast of 1936, with the stipulation that she would have final say regarding its inclusion in the picture. She ultimately decided to have the spot cut from the film; Paramount studio abided by her wishes.
Much of her energy during World War II was devoted to charities benefiting our armed services. Her dedication to duty even earned her an honorary commission as a Colonel, along with numerous awards from the Army and Navy.
When pressed by media to discuss wartime politics, Jessica would politely respond that as a singer, she would gladly comment about music. She once remarked that “The Star Spangled Banner” never had more meaning for her than it did during the Second World War. It was her belief that music can help morale; therefore her contribution to the war effort was through song. She was unselfish in performing frequently for the troops and selling lots of war bonds.
She met her future husband, New York businessman Nicholas Turner, at a party given by mutual friends in 1944. After a three year courtship, the couple married in 1947. A private ceremony was held at the residence of Francis Cardinal Spellman, as vows were exchanged.
Jessica always maintained that her career took so much energy that she could not possibly consider marriage. After she married, her focus indeed shifted away from performing and more toward assisting the needs of others. A lifelong Roman Catholic, she donated a great deal of time and talent to church activities, resulting in numerous awards and even recognition from the Pope.
Mr. and Mrs. Turner lived in Manhattan, surrounded by former radio contemporaries, who now were friends and neighbors. Trying her hand as an author, Jessica penned an autobiography, Faith is a Song, in 1952. Within its pages, the lady who had been very secretive regarding her personal life and career came forth with a lot of interesting information about her years in the field of entertainment. Included in her memoirs was a frank assessment of her mysterious departure from The Cities Service program, so many years earlier. The full details had only been speculation until Jessica’s book hit the streets.
Her efforts in the literary world were followed by Your Voice and You in the 1960s. This book is best characterized as a text outlining the lessons she’d learned about voice projection and vocal technique. She also wrote poetry in English, French, Italian and Spanish.
Early in 1980, Jessica became ill with an asthma attack, which resulted in her being hospitalized. She was home from the hospital only a short time when heart failure claimed the petite soprano on March 20th, 1980. She was survived by her husband Nicholas; her older sister Nadea; nieces, nephews and a legion of fans who fondly remembered her storied career.
The former Queen of Radio left a legacy as one of the biggest stars the medium had ever known. The unassuming lady with a clear sweetness of emotion in her voice was a true pioneer in radio and left an indelible mark on its early history.