Singer Gloria Van spent most of her career in the Chicago area. Not as well remembered as other big band vocalists due to her lack of recording credits, Van had a moderately successful post-war solo career. A pioneer of early television, she was the sister-in-law of actress Fran Allison of Kukla, Fran and Ollie fame.
Born in Alliance, Ohio, Van’s family later moved to Chicago’s Southeast Side, where she attended Bowen High School and sold cookies at Goldblatt’s Department Store. She first discovered her vocal talents at age eighteen while dining in a restaurant whose gimmick required patrons to sing for their supper. The owner liked her voice and asked her to perform on weekends. She later sang with Chicago bandleaders Jerry Shelton and Vincent Bragale before heading to the West Coast, where she tried to break into film. Actor and bandleader Johnny “Scat” Davis heard her singing one night in fall 1941 at Earl Carroll’s restaurant in Hollywood and immediately offered her a job with his band.
Van quickly earned a name for herself on the bandstand as well as on the radio. She remained with Davis until the beginning of 1943 when, in need of quick cash, he scrapped his group to appear in the poverty row film Sarong Girl. Near the beginning of March, Van and several ex-Davis band members joined Gene Krupa, where Van replaced temporary vocalist Penny Piper, who was filling in after Anita O’Day had walked out a month prior. While auditioning for Krupa, Van met sax player Lynn Allison, and the two quickly fell in love. They married a few days later, literally, in between two shows while the band was in Pittsburgh. Krupa made the couple take a bow when the second show began. Allison was the brother of Fran.
In April, Treasury Department officials arrested Krupa in San Francisco on trumped-up marijuana charges. The band limped along until June, when it broke up after the leader was convicted on a felony charge and sentenced to prison time. Allison by that point had been drafted, and Van took advantage of the layoff to spend time with him in Atlantic City, where he was stationed. She then returned to Chicago, singing in local clubs until November, when she joined Hal McIntyre’s orchestra, replacing Anita Boyer. She and McIntyre were featured together on the cover of Down Beat magazine for February 15, 1944.
Van left McIntyre’s band in April 1944. Down Beat gave the reason for her departure as pregnancy, saying she wanted to be near her husband when the time came. Allison was at that point stationed in New Haven, Connecticut, where he was a member of Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force band, both as a sax player and as a part of the group’s vocal unit, the Crew Chiefs. Whether the pregnancy announcement was true and Van lost the child, or whether it was simply a public relations story is unknown. In June, after Miller’s band had gone overseas to Europe, Van was back in Chicago, singing in local clubs. There appears to have been no significant downtime in her career as one would expect after giving birth during that era, and a 1958 newspaper article reports that Van’s eldest child was only four-and-a-half years old.
Van worked steadily in the Chicago area over the next couple of decades. In early 1945, she played a night club singer in a television drama on experimental station WBKB, where sister-in-law Fran also worked, and later that year the station featured her on her own singing program. In early 1946, she joined Henry Brandon’s orchestra at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, where she received featured billing.
After Van’s husband returned home from the service, the couple formed a vocal and instrumental combo, Gloria Van and her Vanguards, which made its local debut in April. At first a quartet, then a quintet, and then a sextet, the group won an early episode of Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts and earned a radio contract with CBS. Dropping the instrumentation and becoming just a vocal quartet, they spent two years on the air starting in September 1946 with a twice-a-week fifteen-minute program titled Cinderella and Her Fellows, broadcast out of WBBM in Chicago. The group recorded on the Universal label in late 1947 and worked with Brandon’s orchestra in early 1948. They joined Buddy DiVito’s local orchestra later that year.
Van was out on her own again in 1949, hitting the Chicago club circuit and recording on local-based labels V.R.T. in 1949 and Life in 1950. In early 1951, she became a regular on NBC’s Wayne King Show, a pre-cursor of Lawrence Welk’s popular program, broadcast out of Chicago. She took time off to have her first child in mid-1953 but was working again by the first of 1954. 1955 saw Van busier in the studio than she had been in all her career. She recorded on the “X” label early that year, then on Mercury’s Wing sub-label that fall and Cleveland-based Reserve Records towards the end of the year. In 1956, she once again became a contestant on Talent Scouts as a “star of the future.”
In the mid-1950s, Van and Allison moved to Elk Grove Village, in suburban Chicago, where they remained for the rest of their lives. They had a second child in 1959 and a third at some point later. Van kept busy singing up through the mid-1960s, both locally and nationally, working in Las Vegas, appearing on Jack Paar’s television program, and touring military bases on the West Coast. She recorded on the Normal label in 1964.
Van retired from professional singing sometime after 1967 and became a receptionist at a local insurance agency, where she still worked as late as 1984. Allison, who became a salesman at a department store, passed away in 1993. Van still continued to occasionally perform, and in 2000, at 80 years of age, she came out of retirement to sing with the Elk Grove Big Band and the Yorkville American Legion Big Band. She sang with local big bands up until her death from kidney failure in December 2002, at age 82.
Though Van spent time with two name bands, she fell foul of the American Federation of Musicians recording ban that ran from August 1942 to November 1944. She did record a V-Disc with Hal McIntyre’s band however. ↩︎
Bowen High School was also Gene Krupa’s alma mater, though Van was eleven years Krupa’s junior. ↩︎
According to one of her sons in her Chicago Tribune obituary, in 1929 Al Capone’s gang killed Van’s father, who was a baker, because he refused to sell yeast, used for making beer, exclusively to them. Whether this is true or not is unknown. Neither that incident nor the death of her father are mentioned anywhere else. ↩︎
Television production was so new at the time that a reviewer complained about Van mugging at the camera to an annoying degree, suggesting to her that what worked in a night club with audiences several dozen feet away didn’t necessarily work on the small screen. ↩︎