"The Sweetheart of the Fighting Fronts," singer Frances Langford was a World War II heartthrob beloved by troops for her performances as part of Bob Hope's USO tours. Born Frances Newbern in Lakeland, FL, on April 4, 1914, she initially aspired to a career singing opera, but a throat operation permanently changed her vocal register and she gravitated toward big-band music, earning the nickname "The Florida Thrush." While performing on a Tampa radio station, the 16-year-old caught the attention of bandleader Rudy Vallée, who extended an invitation to appear on his national radio program. After appearing on Broadway in 1931's Here Comes the Bride, Langford relocated to Hollywood, where she appeared on Dick Powell's radio show Hollywood Hotel. Langford rocketed to overnight success singing the now-perennial "I'm in the Mood for Love," a song written expressly for her to perform, while co-starring in the 1935 Alice Faye vehicle Every Night at Eight. She would go on to feature in close to 30 Hollywood films, most notable among them Broadway Melody of 1936, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and The Hit Parade.
In 1941 Langford replaced Judy Garland on comedian Hope's Pepsodent-sponsored radio show, and soon after participated in his first military program at Riverside, CA's March Field. When Hope began assembling celebrity revues to entertain U.S. troops stationed overseas, Langford was a regular presence, performing in Africa, Italy, and the Pacific Theater. Servicemen adored her, and her experiences overseas informed her daily newspaper column "Purple Heart Diary," which was later adapted into a 1951 film of the same name. After the war, Langford starred opposite Don Ameche on radio's The Bickersons -- in 1951, the actors reunited as stars of the short-lived ABC television daytime variety series The Frances Langford-Don Ameche Show. She made her final film in 1954, playing herself in The Glenn Miller Story, but now channeled most of her energy into her nightclub career. In 1955, she married outboard motor heir Ralph Evinrude, moving to his 400-acre estate in Jensen Beach, FL.
Together Langford and Evinrude opened a tiki bar dubbed the Outrigger Resort that was a popular destination for fellow celebrities. Langford was a headliner there for close to two decades. In addition, she returned to television with the 1959 NBC series Frances Langford Presents, retitled The Frances Langford Show the following season. In 1966 she gave her farewell USO performances, joining Hope on a tour of Vietnam before returning to the comforts of the Outrigger stage; she performed less and less in the years to follow, devoting much of her time to sailing and fishing than singing. Langford sold the Outrigger following Evinrude's 1986 death, additionally donating their former beach house to serve as the Frances Langford Visitor Center of the Florida Oceanographic Society. In 1989 Langford made her final on-camera appearance when she was featured in Entertaining the Troops, a television special recalling Hope's USO tours. Five years later, she married Harold Stuart, the assistant secretary of the Air Force under former president Harry S. Truman. Langford died of congestive heart failure on July 11, 2005, at the age of 91. ~ Jason Ankeny