Born in San Antonio, Texas, singer Ginny Simms moved to Fresno, California, while still a young girl. She began taking piano lessons as a teen and planned to become a music teacher. While majoring in music at Fresno State Teachers College, she formed a singing trio with two sorority sisters. Calling themselves Triad in Blue, they performed on local radio. When the other two young women quit to get married, Simms found work with the California-based orchestra of Tom Gerun, whose popular hot jazz band of the late 1920s and early 1930s had included Woody Herman and Tony Martin. Heard by Kay Kyser, the Ol’ Professor signed Simms as his female vocalist in 1936.
Simms spent over five years with Kyser, touring constantly with the group and appearing on its popular College of Musical Knowledge radio program. She often sang duets with male lead vocalist Harry Babbitt as well as group numbers with Ish Kabibble and Sully Mason. Simms began recording under her own name on Okeh Records in late 1940 while still a member of Kyser’s band, giving her a chance to present a more serious side to her talents. Vocalion, a subsidiary of Kyser’s label, Columbia, also released her songs with Kyser under the name Ginny Simms and Her Orchestra. She became one of the most popular band vocalists of her day, placing first in Billboard magazine’s 1941 poll for best female band singer and third in 1942.
Rumors circulated of romance between Kyser and Simms. She reportedly wanted to marry him at one time, but he wasn’t ready, and when he later popped the question she had changed her mind.
Simms appeared with Kyser’s orchestra in three RKO films: That’s Right—You’re Wrong, You’ll Find Out and Playmates. When RKO offered her a contract of her own, she accepted, leaving Kyser in December 1941. The chance to stay in California, where she owned a farm with her father, proved too tempting. She had barely seen her family since going on the road and hadn’t spent a Christmas with them since 1936. She wanted to settle down. “I was so tired and I had to rest,” she explained in an interview. “We were on the go all the time, and I wanted a home of my own—and some rest.”
Living at her farm on weekends, Simms took an apartment in Hollywood during the week. She soon began making appearances on radio and picked up her own five-minute program on CBS, sponsored by Kleenex tissues, only to have it cancelled in May due to war shortages. Unable to produce enough product to keep on store shelves, Kleenex cut back on advertising. She quickly found another sponsor in Philip Morris and opened the 1942 fall season on NBC with her own thirty-minute Johnny Presents show.
Simms became one of the most popular radio personalities of the war years. Her program continuously appeared among the top five for each of its seasons, winning accolades from radio industry professionals. She emerged as the most successful ex-band vocalist on the airwaves, even topping Frank Sinatra’s popularity.
Simms worked tirelessly for the war effort. Unable to tour overseas due to her weekly radio contract, she performed at nearby bases and devoted much of her air time to entertaining and helping soldiers. Her program initially contained segments where servicemen from all three branches of the armed forces were allowed to make phone calls to whomever they pleased, whether that be friends, family members, or famous celebrities. As the war progressed, her show changed format several times, always with a focus on the war. Dropping the phone call segments, she began to interview soldiers in camp and those who had just returned home from overseas. The show later visited hospitals and talked to wounded soldiers.
As the war neared its end in 1945, Simms’ program changed format again, featuring discharged soldiers in talent segments aimed at giving them a chance to enter show business. This format proved highly popular, and copycat series began to appear on local radio stations across the country. The Simms show was sued by an actor who claimed to have invented the idea, saying that Simms and Philip Morris had stolen it. A judge dismissed the suit and ruled that the idea couldn’t be patented.
Decline in popularity
While Simms proved dynamite on the radio, her recording and film careers failed to take off. She stopped recording for Okeh after leaving Kyser, and due to the musician’s union recording ban that started in August 1942 she didn’t sign with another label until Columbia in 1944, where she sang backed only by a vocal group for the first few of her dozen releases, until the ban was lifted in November. Though she sold records and placed high on many polls for favorite female singer, she never managed a major hit, remaining primarily a radio star.
Simms’ contract with RKO produced two minor film roles in 1942. She played another small part for Universal in 1943 before MGM signed her for a major role, starring with George Murphy in the 1944 feature Broadway Rhythm. She made two more minor films with Universal and then appeared as the female lead in the fanciful 1946 Warner Bros. Cole Porter biopic Night and Day, which became her last film appearance that decade.
Rumors and popular legends romantically link Simms with then recently-divorced MGM chief Louis B. Meyer and cite her refusal to marry him as the impetus for the quick decline of her career post-war. A spurned Meyer reportedly cancelled her contract and ruined her chances for success. The truth is much more mundane however. Simms’ career remained strong for several years after working for MGM. Her decline was a combination of many factors, including an abrupt shift in the radio industry that affected a number of top stars.
In spring 1945, at the height of her career, Simms left NBC and Philip Morris for a higher paycheck and a new program on CBS, sponsored by Borden’s. Salary demands by radio talent had grown during the mid-1940s, drawing concern from both networks and sponsors. By spring 1947, program budgets had reached an all-time high, finally pushing executives to react with a mass purge of expensive programming in favor of cheaper alternatives. Even top stars like Abbott and Costello felt the axe of cancellation. Those who managed to return that fall did so at a reduced paycheck. Simms, whose Borden show had never reached the same level of popularity as her previous program, was not among the lucky few who survived.
The budget cuts of 1947 affected Simms in more ways than one. Many of the axed programs had originated from Hollywood, where salaries were higher. As a result, radio production shifted almost exclusively back to New York in the late 1940s. Simms, unable to find work in California, headed east in the summer of 1947. She put together a nightclub act and bided her time until CBS finally signed her as female vocalist for Percy Faith’s Coca-Cola radio program, The Pause That Refreshes the Air.
Simms, however, was unhappy in New York. She had married Beverly Hills engineer Hyatt Dehn in 1945, and the couple had a son in July 1946. Working on the East Coast forced Simms to leave her child in California, and she quickly found that she missed her family too much. She resigned from Faith’s program in December 1947 and returned home.
Another factor in Simm’s decline is the collapse of several independent record labels in 1946 and 1947. Having signed with ARA in early 1946, she found her recording career in limbo later that year when the company filed bankruptcy and went into receivership. The label was home to many top names at the time, most of whom, like Simms, had to wait out the legal proceedings to either be released from their contracts or have their contracts and masters sold to another label.
Once clear of ARA, Simms signed with Sonora Records, a division of Sonora Radio, in early 1947. She released several recordings for that label but by mid-year Sonora had stopped producing new disks. In November, they confirmed what many had suspected and announced that they were no longer in the record business. Simms had to sue the label in 1949 to recover the $5,000 remaining of her $10,000 contract guarantee.
Without a radio program or a recording contract, Simms virtually dropped off the industry’s radar. She worked sporadically on the nightclub and theater circuit, but always more of a radio performer, she was never at ease on the stage, and her shows received lukewarm reviews. A homebody, she spent the rest of the 1940s taking care of her family, giving birth to another son in 1950. CBS considered teaming her with fellow ex-Kyser vocalist Babbitt for a radio program in 1949, even going so far as putting together an audition, but it never materialized. She didn’t return to the air until 1950, when a fan-turned-producer created for her a 15-minute Sunday night program on ABC called Song Shop.
Briefly back in the limelight, she found herself cast in the starring role of the 1951 Allied Artists film Disk Jockey, which also featured performers Tommy Dorsey, Russ Morgan, Sarah Vaughn and George Shearing. 1950 and 1951 also found her pitching products for various companies, including Chevrolet, Rheingold Beer and Blue Bonnet margarine. In 1951, she replaced Dinah Shore as co-host of The Tide Show, along with Jack Smith, sponsored by the detergent company of the same name. The show was cancelled in 1952. Unable to effectively capitalize on her efforts, she quietly semi-retired from show business.
Simms continued performing sporadically into the early 1960s, but her desire to remain in California kept her at home most of the time. She and Dehn divorced in 1950, only to reconcile and then divorce again in 1951, Simms citing mental cruelty. She was briefly married to Bob Calhoun soon after and then married former Washington state attorney general Don Eastvold in 1962. Eastvold filed for divorce in 1963, charging her with mental cruelty, but the couple reconciled and remained together until her death from a heart attack in 1994, age 80.
Johnny was the name of the famous bellhop used in Philip Morris advertising. Many of their sponsored shows featured the Johnny Presents title, with the voice of Johnny introducing the program. Simms’ show was commonly called by that title in its early years though later it became known informally as The Ginny Simms Show. ↩︎
Dehn was co-founder of the Hyatt Hotel chain. ↩︎