Though not generally known as a band singer during her day, Peg LaCentra earned her place in the modern swing pantheon by her brief associations with Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. Diminutive, golden-haired, blue-eyed, and weighing only 93 pounds (42.2 kg), LaCentra had established herself as a popular radio vocalist and dramatic actress long before hitting the bandstand and was arguably better known than Shaw when she joined his first band in 1936. Despite her stints in two orchestras, LaCentra was still called a radio singer by the press. It was only later, when big band nostalgia came about, that her work with Shaw and Goodman began to overshadow her greater career on the airwaves.
A native of the Boston area, LaCentra got her start on local radio, singing and announcing on WBZ in 1930 while still a student at the Katherine Gibbs finishing school. As a female announcer, she was a rarity. LaCentra aspired to be an actress, but she also had a deep, rich contralto singing voice that captured the attention of those who heard it. Moving to New York, she gained national fame on CBS in the summer of 1932 singing with Phil Spitalny’s orchestra, and her photos soon began to appear in newspapers across the country. Contemporary sources also say that she made an appearance on Broadway at this time.
By mid-1933, LaCentra had moved to NBC, singing on Ray Perkins’ program in the evening and accompanying the Winters and Weber organ duo in the afternoon. She earned her own program in 1934 while continuing to sing on others. In late 1934, she performed with banjoist Harry Reser’s band on their weekly broadcasts. She also made her first recording that year, “The Fortune Teller” with Johnny Green and His Orchestra on the Columbia label.
In 1934, LaCentra expanded into dramatic roles. A gifted mimic with an ear for accents, she was capable of playing multiple characters in one program. In 1935, she appeared in the series Circus Night in Silvertown. She also co-starred in the Lucky Smith detective series starring then heavyweight boxing champ Max Baer. While in rehearsal on the show, a prop pistol was accidentally fired, and the shot from the blank cartridge burned Baer across the chest and LaCentra over the left eye and across the bridge of her nose.
LaCentra began to be billed as a blues singer in 1935. That same year she won the Radio City Party singing contest, which gained her further national attention. She appeared often in radio news and gossip columns. A 1935 interview noted that she ate whatever she wanted and never gained weight and that she had a constant stream of phone calls from men asking her out. She would always accept and then cancel later. She preferred to spend her evenings eating peanuts and gum, either at the movies or at Grand Central Station watching the trains come in.
In August 1935, LaCentra took an extended vacation in California, a trip which she saved enough money to afford by not wearing stockings and going bare-legged. When she returned to New York, she suddenly found that she’d been mostly forgotten by casting directors, who had notoriously short attention spans. In a column, she said it took her three months to make them remember who she was again. She was finally back on NBC in spring 1936, singing in her own program and with a new “swing” band under Dick McDonough’s baton on Tom Howard’s Jamboree.
On the Bandstand
LaCentra first heard Artie Shaw in 1935 when night club owner Joe Helbock invited the clarinetist to put together a group for a swing concert he planned to stage. Shaw took up the offer and created a temporary and unusual band that featured a string quartet. The group was a big hit at the concert, which was attended by LaCentra. She made it known to Shaw that if he ever assembled a working band and needed a vocalist, she’d be interested. Shaw’s band also impressed Tommy Rockwell, head of the Rockwell-O’Keefe booking agency, which was looking for an orchestra to compete against MCA’s Benny Goodman. He kept pestering Shaw to form a permanent group, and finally in the summer of 1936, Shaw did so. He took LaCentra up on her offer, and the band soon opened at the Lexington Hotel in New York.
Like in his temporary group, Shaw’s first orchestra, called Artie Shaw and His New Music, featured a string quartet. To that end, he brought in arranger Jerry Gray, who played violin. Gray was from Boston, La Centra’s hometown. Male vocals were supplied by saxophonist Tony Pastor. For LaCentra, it was as much of a lateral move as it was a career change. Shaw’s band quickly lined up a thrice-weekly radio show on CBS, keeping LaCentra on the airwaves. Her presence in the orchestra was likely beneficial to Shaw as well, as she had a recognizable name.
Unfortunately, Shaw’s New Music, though loved by critics and music aficionados, failed to catch on with the public, and in early 1937 he scrapped the band and formed a new more standard swing group. Gray remained for a while as arranger, though he no longer played in the orchestra, but finally returned to Boston. LaCentra and Pastor also both remained, but when Shaw decided to shift home base to Boston as well, LaCentra stayed in New York.
Meanwhile, Goodman had taken notice, and LaCentra was soon back on the radio in April, singing on his Swing Revue program. Goodman was still seeking a replacement for Helen Ward, who had left the band at the beginning of the year. He’d first tried Margaret McRae and then Frances Hunt, not finding either to his liking. LaCentra was his third candidate for the job. She sang and toured with the band for the next few months, but Goodman also finally decided to let her go, and by fall she had been replaced by Betty Van.
After leaving Goodman, LaCentra made a musical short with Al Cooper’s orchestra for Columbia, titled Penthouse in the Sky in contemporary sources but listed as Rooftop Frolics in modern. By early 1938, she was back on radio, both acting and singing with Paul Sullivan’s orchestra on the NBC Blue program For Men Only, where she played all the female roles in the script. By spring, she had her own ten-minute singing show, Peg LaCentra and The Serenaders, and in the fall she began performing on Three Jesters as well. LaCentra also recorded several songs on the Bluebird label in 1938, backed by Jerry Sears.
In January 1939, LaCentra married character actor Paul Stewart. She continued appearing on the radio, though after mid-1941 she became less active, branching off into other endeavors. In May 1942, she gave a singing performance at the Stage Door Canteen in Philadelphia, and in January 1943 she opened on Broadway in a supporting role for the drama The Patriots at the National Theater. The production ran until June.
In 1944, LaCentra made a musical short for the Army’s GI Movies series. The shorts featured the bouncing ball method for community singing, and each was dedicated to a different theater of war. In 1945, Stewart went to California to appear on a mystery program, and LaCentra followed, taking an uncredited role in the production to be near him. In 1946, she won a supporting role as a nightclub singer in the Joan Crawford film Humoresque and was then cast in the action musical Cowboy Blues starring Ken Curtis and Jeff Donnell. She provided singing voice-overs for three more films and then retired in 1947 as Stewart’s career began to take off.
LaCentra began appearing on radio again in the early 1950s, and in 1953 she attempted a musical comeback, making her first singing appearance in a decade when she opened at the Blue Angel in New York on September 10 for a two-week engagement. In 1955, LaCentra made her first television acting performance. She went on to appear in more than twenty films and television programs, the last being in 1964. In 1975, she appeared on radio one last time in an episode of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater.
Peg LaCentra passed away after a heart attack in 1996.
Modern sources say she was born in Boston. The only contemporary source that lists her birthplace gave it as Revere, Massachusetts, which was part of the Boston area. Modern sources also list her full birth name as Margherita Maria Francesca LaCentra, but the only contemporary source to reference her birth name gave it simply as Margherita Francesca LaCentra. ↩︎
Baer worked on the series while training for his fight with James J. Braddock. Braddock was considered a long-shot to win, and Baer didn’t take the fight or his training for it seriously. He notably clowned around in the ring at the start. Braddock went on to beat Baer in one of boxing’s greatest upsets. ↩︎
The quotation marks around the word swing come from the original source. ↩︎
Born Paul Sternberg, Stewart was a member of the Mercury Theatre with Orson Welles. He appeared in the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast and later made his screen debut in 1941 as Raymond the butler in Citizen Kane. In 1935, LaCentra’s roommate had been Agnes Moorehead, who also became part of Mercury Theatre. ↩︎
Typically cast as a villain, gangster, or tough guy, Stewart went on to appear in more than a hundred films and television programs up until the time of his death in 1986. ↩︎
Columnist Walter Winchell suggested that she took the Blue Angel engagement because she needed extra money to pay off taxes. ↩︎