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The "Incomparable" Hildegarde Record

Souvenir Record Album of Wisconsin songs recorded by the "Incomparable" Hildegarde, 1968.
(Museum object #2001.50.13.1-2)

"Hildegarde was perhaps the most famous supper-club entertainer who ever lived," said Liberace, another Wisconsin native. "I used to absorb all the things she was doing, all the showmanship she created. It was marvelous to watch her, wearing elegant gowns, surrounded with roses and playing with white gloves on. They used to literally roll out the red carpet for her."

Tommy Thompson received this 45 rpm "Souvenir Record Album" featuring two songs by the "Incomparable" Hildegarde, "The Dear that made Milwaukee famous," during his term as governor of Wisconsin and donated it to the Wisconsin Historical Society upon leaving office in 2001. The record's Milwaukee-based production team included band leader Jerry Blake, composer Kenneth F. Lonnborg who penned the music and lyrics for both songs, and Dave Kennedy who owned the recording studio and Raynard record label that produced the record in 1968. A June 16, 1969 Fond du Lac "Commonwealth Reporter" article stated that "Wisconsinland" was a new song making its public debut the weekend of June 14-15, 1969 at a performance by Hildegarde at a New Holstein supper club.

Hildegarde Loretta Sell was born Feb. 1, 1906 in Adell, Wisconsin, the daughter of German immigrants. Her family moved to New Holstein when Hildegarde was 6 months old and later to Milwaukee where she sang in the choir and played in the orchestra at St. John's Cathedral High School. After high school she attended Marquette University's music school with hopes of becoming a concert pianist, but was unable to complete her schooling due to lack of tuition money.

By the early 1920s Hildegarde was playing piano for silent movie houses and travelled with various vaudeville acts. Soon after, she moved to Europe and began performing with larger shows in London and Paris. Hildegarde's big break came when she signed a contract with BBC radio and enjoyed much success in the 1930s. Her popularity continued to grow and she appeared on the cover of Life Magazine in 1939. Revlon even created "Hildegarde" shades of lipstick and nail polish.

Upon returning to the United States, Hildegarde introduced two new radio programs. "Beat the Band" aired in 1943, and "The Raleigh Room" aired on NBC radio from 1944-1947. By the late 1940s Hildegarde was the highest-paid cabaret singer in the world with a reported annual salary of $150,000, and performed regularly at New York nightclubs over the next decade.

Musical tastes changed in the late 1950s, however, so Hildegarde began performing in supper clubs and stage shows and recorded dozens of LP records. In 1961 Hildegarde received the honor of "First Lady of Supper Clubs" from former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. A year later she performed at Carnegie Hall for the first time, and in 1963 published her autobiography, "Over 50-So What!"

Although she concentrated on staying in good physical health, Hildegarde's schedule slowed as she grew older. Still, at the age of 80 she celebrated 60 years in show business by selling out Carnegie Hall. She continued to perform on a limited basis throughout the 1990s. Her grand career finally drew to a close on July 29, 2005 when she passed away at the age of 99.

[Sources: "Wisconsin State Journal," August 1, 2005; "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel," July 31, 2005.]

Posted on August 25, 2005

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