Arlene Francis, the witty actress and popular television personality, was born Arlene Francis Kazanjian on Oct. 20, 1907, in Boston. Her father was an Armenian immigrant, later painter and portrait photographer; her mother was the daughter of actor Alfred Davis. Even at an early age, Arlene said, “I started out with one goal: I wanted to be a serious actress.” She studied at the Theatre Guild and then went to Hollywood. Her movie debut was in Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), in which Bela Lugosi (often cast as a villain or mad scientist in many of his over 40 movies) tied her to an X-cross to extract her blood (trivia: Arlene and Bela were both born on Oct. 20). The live theater, however, was her first love, and she appeared in many plays. In 1935, she married movie executive Neil Agnew; they’d stay together for 10 years. Arlene made her Broadway debut in 1936 and had her first major role in “All That Glitters” two years later. She appeared with Orson Welles in the Mercury Theatre production of “Danton’s Death” in 1938, and in “Journey to Jerusalem” in 1940. Her big hit was “The Doughgirls” in 1942; it ran for 1-1/2 years. Arlene had auditioned for her first radio part at the same time she was getting started in the theater; she later recalled, “Radio came easily.” In the 1940s, she played in as many as five radio serials a day. Arlene married actor Martin Gabel in 1946 (he died in 1986), and they had a son, Peter. She also was host of a radio dating show called “Blind Date,” which was adapted to a TV series in 1949 (Your Big Moment (1949)), and she was the host (1949-1952). It was television that brought Arlene fame, and she became one of the highest-paid women in TV. Arlene was a permanent panelist on CBS’ What’s My Line?(1950) (a Mark Goodson–Bill Todman production) from 1950 through 1967 and continued as a panelist in a syndicated version that ran until 1975, thus being with the show for its entire 25-year run. She was warm, witty and had a cute laugh–and was always fashionably dressed. She wore a diamond heart-shaped necklace, which started a fad. She was still doing radio while on TV, and in 1960, she was the star of “The Arlene Francis Show,” a daily interview show in New York, on WOR; it ran for 23 years. Arlene retired from show business after that and lived comfortably. She was still giving interviews in 1991. Arlene spent her last years living in San Francisco. Arlene died of cancer on Thursday, May 31, 2001, in a San Francisco hospital, at age 93. Her many fans will miss her, Arlene was truly one of the greats.
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