by Joe Regan Jr.
Melissa Ritz has written and is performing an exceptional one-woman performance entitled Bombshell of Rhythm: The Life and Secrets of Ina Ray Hutton the forgotten female band leader and singer. The performance features Ritz singing and dancing and is replete with numerous video clips from Hutton’s life. Julie Kline developed and directed Ritz’s performance which has had successful engagements in Fringe Festivals in Las Vegas, Hollywood and Washington D.C., where it was awarded “Favorite of the Fringe.”
Ina Ray Hutton was born Odessa Cowan, her mother Marvel (who was deserted by Ina’s father) was a piano player in a Negro hotel, using the stage name Marvel Ray. At an early age she was singing and dancing to her mother’s music. A natural dancer, she went with a friend to a dancing school on the other side of the tracks, and was so good that she was featured in the dancing school’s recital. Her successful career included stints as a dancer with Gus Edwards, in the Ziegfeld Follies as a showgirl, and she was ultimately represented by Irving Mills at William Morris (who added the “Hutton” to her name because Barbara Hutton was prominent at the time). The agent insisted she sing and dye her hair platinum; one of the first numbers she sang was “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street.” When she was a showgirl in the Ziegfeld Follies, Ritz shows us that rich stage door Johnnies turned her on to liquor with a flask she kept for the rest of her life next to her breasts.
Ritz plays Ina Ray Hutton (as well as her numerous husbands, along with managers Gus Edwards and Irving Mills) with many heat generating costume changes, and the show features video clips of her poverty-stricken neighborhood in Chicago and clips of Ina with her all girl band, the Melodears. They appeared in several Hollywood films. When World War II started, all her girls decided to quit so Ina Ray led an all male band which became a very successful act all over Europe and on USO tours. On one of the tours she met her fourth husband, Randy Brooks, a trumpet player who had a great success with his instrumental of “Tenderly.”
Hutton fought the label of being a “novelty” act, wanting equal billing with the male bands popular at that time. She was featured on the covers of national magazines but forever had problems not being taken seriously as an artist.
When I was a teenager Ina Ray Hutton had a live TV show in Los Angeles produced by television pioneer Klaus Landsberg on KTLA. She replaced Harry Owens one summer and was so successful Landsberg gave her a weekly show. Most of the members of the band were not good looking and she sashayed in tight gowns in front of them, always hogging the camera. Although she only had female guests, many of them were talented women. One guest star in 1947 was Josephine Baker who was appearing in downtown Los Angeles. Ina Ray’s younger sister, June Hutton, was also a successful singer, married to Axel Stordahl, Frank Sinatra’s conductor/arranger. Hutton not only incorporated songs she had learned from her mother into the act, but sang racy double entendre songs like “Doing the Suzy Q” and “Milkman Keep Those Bottles Quiet.”
There are eighteen musical numbers in the play, all from Ina Ray Hutton’s history. She always supported her mother, but was not able to visit her for fear of her racial past being exposed. Brooks had a stroke which ended his trumpet playing and Hutton supported him. She finally divorced Brooks.
Another man who met her while she was headling in Las Vegas owned a ranch in Northern California. Deciding to retire at the peak of her fame, she married this man in 1968, retired on his ranch in Northern California. She was able to convince her mother to come live with them for the rest of her life, where she died forgotten in 1984. To sum up her life, the last number in the show is “Was It Worth It” and Ritz does a very dramatic and emotionally moving rendition of this number.
Bombshell of Rhythm: The Life and Secrets of Ina Ray Hutton plays a weekend schedule at the Soho Playhouse (16 Van Dam Street between Varick and Sixth Avenue) throughout August. Contact www.sohoplayhouse.com for the complete schedule.