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First episode of “Little Orphan Annie” radio show airs

April 6, 1931

Who's that little chatter box?
The one with pretty auburn locks?
Whom do you see?
It's Little Orphan Annie.
She and Sandy make a pair,
They never seem to have a care!
Cute little she,
It's Little Orphan Annie.

-Opening lyrics of “Little Orphan Annie” radio show song

In the midst of an economic depression, radio listeners across the United States needed a spot of sunshine. Little Orphan Annie began life as a comic strip character but found her voice in a ten-year-old Jewish girl named Shirley Bell. The radio show was first broadcast, with Ovaltine as sponsor, on April 6, 1931, with Shirley Bell playing the part of the adventurous, feisty red-head. For the next ten years, she helped make Little Orphan Annie a beloved American icon.

Shirley Bell was born in Chicago on February 21, 1920. According to her obituary, Shirley’s father walked out on the family when she was a little girl. Her mother, Irene, was reputedly an archetypal stage mother, making her two-year-old daughter sing and dance in any Chicago synagogue that would have her, until she won the part of “Little Orphan Annie.”

Shirley Bell Cole’s biographer Susan Cox told the New York Times: “She was the only one working, and she earned all the money for five immigrant Jewish families.” Shirley continued to play the iconic and peppy Annie throughout the 1930s. In 1941, the 21-year-old married businessman Irwin Cole. The marriage lasted until his death in 1998. Shirley died on January 12, 2010 at age 89. She kept her red Annie wig all her life and could produce that distinctive, high-pitched radio show voice until the end.

Source: Shirley Bell Cole, the Voice of Little Orphan Annie, Dies at 89, New York Times.

Little Orphan Annie
Full image
An example of Little Orphan Annie’s enduring popularity. From the public domain.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "First episode of “Little Orphan Annie” radio show airs." (Viewed on December 19, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/apr/06/1931/shirley-bell-cole>.

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