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Actress & Recording Star Monica Lewis, Voice of Chiquita Banana, Dies at 93

Monica Lewis, a former Benny Goodman vocalist who headlined the very first broadcast of the "Ed Sullivan Show," was THE VOICE of the popular Chiquita BANANA cartoons, clowned opposite Jerry Lewis, Red Skelton and Danny Kaye, turned down a marriage proposal from Ronald Reagan and went on to play co-starring roles in such films as "Earthquake," "Airport 1975" and "The Concorde--Airport '79," died on June 12 of natural causes at her apartment in Woodland Hills, CA. She was 93.

Lewis was born May 5, 1922 in Chicago to a musical family headed by her father Leon Lewis, who was a symphonic composer and conductor. Her mother Jessica sang with the Chicago Opera Company and her sister Barbara was an accomplished classical pianist. Her brother Marlo became head of variety for CBS-TV and created Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town" show.

Monica studied voice with her mother from the time she was a toddler, but when the family lost everything during the depression, they moved to New York to stay with relatives while they started over. In order to supplement the family's income, Monica quit school when she was 17, took a job as a radio vocalist and soon had own program on WMCA. This led to her debut at the legendary Stork Club (though she was still too young to drink). In 1943, Benny Goodman's vocalist Peggy Lee eloped with guitarist Dave Barbour, and Goodman was frantically auditioning hundreds of girls trying to find a replacement. Monica auditioned and got the job, performing with Goodman that same night on national radio. She finished out his New York engagements, but when it came time to go on the road, Monica's mother felt she was still too young to travel. She quickly went on to star on such national programs as "Beat The Band" and "The Revere Camera Show," and joined Frank Sinatra as co-star of "The Chesterfield Hour-Music That Satisfies".

In 1945, Lewis was briefly married to Bob Thiele, a former disc jockey who had started a small independent label, Signature Records. She scored a series of hits on Signature including "Put the Blame on Mame," "But Not For Me," "I'm Gonna Be a Bad Girl," and "The House I Live In," and when the company was bought by the larger Decca Records, she continued her string of hits with "A Tree in the Meadow," "The Gentleman is a Dope" and "The Bluest Kind of Blues".

In 1947, while co-starring with columnist Ed Sullivan in the annual Harvest Moon Show at Loew's State on Broadway, she introduced Sullivan to her brother Marlo and suggested they try to do a variety show for CBS, to complete with Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theatre" on NBC. The result was "Toast of the Town," which made its debut on June 20, 1948, with Monica headlining alongside composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein and the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

Records and television led to movies, and in 1950, Monica signed an exclusive contract with MGM for both films and recordings. Groomed by the studio's drama coach Lillian Burns, she was given singing, dancing and acting roles in such films as "Inside Straight" with Barry Sullivan, "The Strip" with Mickey Rooney," "Excuse My Dust" with Red Skelton," and "Everything I Have is Yours," in which she got to dance with Gower Champion (the only girl to ever do so, other than Marge). Later roles included "Affair With a Stranger" with Victor Mature and Jean Simmons and "The D.I." with Jack Webb.

In 1951, Lewis became the darling of the G.I.'s when she toured the frontlines of Korea with Danny Kaye, often coming under enemy fire. Upon her return, she signed with Capitol Records, scoring a hit with "Autumn Leaves," and became a popular advertising figure for such companies as Piel's Light Beer, Camel Cigarettes, General Electric, and Burlington Mills' hosiery, for whom she was named "Miss Leg-O-Genic".

She also began a 14-year campaign as THE VOICE of Chiquita Banana, a popular series of musical cartoons that were shown in movie theaters, and soon the entire country was singing along to "You should never put bananas in the refrigerator-No No, No No!"

On the personal front, Lewis had CELEBRATED romances with Ronald Reagan (who had been newly-divorced from Jane Wyman), Kirk Douglas and writer Liam O'Brien. In 1956, she met and married widowed MCA/Universal production executive Jennings Lang, putting her own career on hold in order to become mother to his two young sons, Robert and Michael, whom she adopted. They were soon joined by a third son, Rocky, now a successful screenwriter, producer-director and author. The Langs also opened their Beverly Hills home for a series of major political and charitable causes, playing host to an array of notables that included Sen. Ted Kennedy, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, and the Beatles (who actually performed a benefit show in their backyard).

As the children grew older, Lewis began accepting guest-star roles on such popular TV shows as "Wagon Train, "Night Gallery," "The Virginian," "Marcus Welby, M.D.", "Remington Steele," "Ironside," and "Falcon Crest". She also made a series of cameo appearances in several of her husband's films, in order to accompany him on location, which led to prominent supporting roles in "Earthquake" with Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner, "Charley Varrick" with Walter Matthau, "Nunzio," "Sting II" and the disaster epics "Rollercoaster," "Airport 1975" and "The Concorde-Airport '79".

She resumed her singing career in 1985, with appearances at such popular clubs as the Vine St. Bar and Grill and Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill in Los Angeles, and Danny's Skylight Room in New York. She also recorded several new albums, including "My Favorite Things," "Monica Lewis Swings Jule Styne," and "Never Let Me Go." Following her husband's death in 1996, she recorded a tribute album tracing their 40-year marriage, entitled "Why Did I Choose You?".

Lewis wrote a successful memoir in 2011 with collaborator Dean Lamanna, "Hollywood Through My Eyes". In 2014, she was approached by filmmaker Ned McNeilage to be among the veteran performers profiled in his documentary short "Showfolk" and she found herself back on the big screen at age 92. The film had its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and went to win numerous awards on the festival circuit, including the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Palm Springs International Film Festival, with Lewis usually taking a bow. In January, 2015, she appeared at the Million Dollar Theatre with a screening of "Earthquake" for Vintage Los Angeles.

Lewis is survived by sons Rocky and Mike (the noted jazz pianist), daughter-in-law Karen Lang, niece Joan Golub, and three grandchildren.

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