Chiq­uita’s jin­gle singer dies

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Steve Mar­ble steve.mar­ble@latimes.com

Mon­ica Lewis, a busy singer and per­former, gained fame play­fully pitch­ing bananas.

Mon­ica Lewis, who started her singing ca­reer as a teenage fill-in for Benny Good­man and later be­came fa­mil­iar to mil­lions as the play­ful voice for Chiq­uita Bananas, has died at her home in Wood­land Hills.

Lewis died Fri­day of nat­u­ral causes, her for­mer pub­li­cist Alan Eichler said in a state­ment. She was 93.

Lewis’ ca­reer as a singer and per­former spanned decades. She was a jazz singer, an inau­gu­ral per­former on the Ed Sul­li­van show, a USO tour en­ter­tainer, a dis­as­ter f lick ac­tress and a pitch­woman, plug­ging prod­ucts such as Camel cig­a­rettes and hosiery.

But her 14-year run start­ing in the mid-1940s as the voice of the Chiq­uita Banana — re­peat­edly ad­vis­ing lis­ten­ers not to keep the fruit in the re­frig­er­a­tor — pushed her into near-cult sta­tus. Chiq­uita Brands notes on its web­site that the jin­gle, at one point, was be­ing played 376 times a day on ra­dio sta­tions across the coun­try, a push to pro­mote what was then still an ex­otic fruit.

Lewis re­vis­ited the Latin-fla­vored jin­gle in a 2007 seg­ment on “Jimmy Kim­mel Live.”

“It lasted 14 years,” Lewis said of the banana com­mer- cial in a 2013 in­ter­view with the Washington Post. “And it paid my rent for a long time.”

Lewis was born in Chicago on May 22, 1922. Her mother was an opera singer and her fa­ther a con­duc­tor. With the De­pres­sion bear­ing down on them, the fam­ily moved to New York when she was 11 and by the time she was 17, Lewis was per­form­ing at lo­cal clubs, de­spite be­ing un­der­age.

In her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “Hol­ly­wood Through My Eyes: The Lives & Loves of a Golden Age Siren,” Lewis wrote that it was jazz pi­anist Leonard Feather — later a Los An­ge­les Times jazz critic — who tipped her off that Benny Good­man had a press­ing need for a singer af­ter Peggy Lee had run off with the band’s gui­tarist.

Dur­ing au­di­tions, Lewis said that Good­man halted most of the as­pir­ing re­place­ments af­ter just a few bars, but al­lowed her to com­plete an en­tire song.

“He said, ‘OK, kid, come back at 7:30 tonight,’ ” Lewis told the Times in 2011.

But the gig with Good­man would be short-lived. Lewis’ par­ents felt she was too young to go on the road, and she quit the band, Ei- chler said.

Lewis con­tin­ued to per­form, ap­pear­ing along­side Frank Si­na­tra and oth­ers. Her ca­reer stalled in the 1950s, how­ever, when she signed a two-year deal at MGM. She made only two films and the stu­dio seemed un­sure how to mar­ket her.

“They wanted a threat,” Lewis told The Times. “A threat to Lana Turner. It was be­ing in the right place at the wrong time.”

She later signed a record­ing con­tract with Capi­tol Records but found more last­ing em­ploy­ment as an advertising pitch­woman. Lewis also ap­peared in guest roles in tele­vi­sion shows like “Wagon Train,” “Mar­cus Welby, M.D.” and “Rem­ing­ton Steele.” She had roles in a string of dis­as­ter epics, from “Earth­quake,” a 1974 film star­ring Charl­ton He­ston, to “The Con­corde — Air­port ’79,” the last in a se­ries of air­port calamity films.

Lewis was among the per­form­ers pro­filed in the 2014 doc­u­men­tary short “Show­folk,” which de­buted at the Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val. She at­tended the pre­miere.

Lewis, whose hus­band, Jen­nings Lang, died in 1996, is sur­vived by sons Rocky and Mike, and three grand­chil­dren.

As­so­ci­ated Press

NEAR-CULT STA­TUS Mon­ica Lewis and Ron­ald Rea­gan at Ciro’s. Lewis be­gan her ca­reer as a vo­cal­ist with Benny Good­man’s

band. At one point, the Chiq­uita Banana jin­gle was be­ing played 376 times a day on ra­dio sta­tions.

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