On an Unattractive Announcer

Rita Zucca was not pretty. I will go ahead and tell you that about her from the start. Not much attractive about Rita, and she would be the first to admit that. A newspaper later described her as being “crossed-eyed, bow-legged, and shallow-skinned.” And that was one of the kind descriptions. As a young girl, Rita faced taunts because of her crossed eyes, but she found that she was smarter than most kids (and many adults), and she learned to answer the teasing with pithy and witty retorts that were often lost on her targets. And, luckily, Rita grew up to be in a business that didn’t require looks.

No, Rita is best remembered for her voice.

But we’re getting ahead of our story. This New York City native was born to an Italian immigrant family that had made its money opening a restaurant. The family scrimped and saved every nickel until it could relaunch the place as an upscale dining establishment. Rita’s dad worked day and night as did her mom and the rest of the family, including Rita. The West 49th Steet location for the restaurant was prime real estate, and Louis Zucca made it count. The eatery even had its own postcards! Such was its notoriety in the neighborhood—The Italian Garden, Louis called it.

Rita attended parochial school and then learned secretarial skills to become a typist and transcriptionist. Such was her head for business that her dad decided she should go back to Italy to see after some of the family’s land there. After all, in the late 1930’s, rumblings of war in Europe had turned into shouts of war, and it would pay the family to have someone on-site to protect the family plot when war came.

As we know, it did come, and with a vengeance. Mussolini’s Italy was a key ally to Hitler’s Germany, and the Italian dictator began clamping down on anyone who seemed to be disloyal to his regime and the Italian war aims. Rita’s dad advised her that the best course of action to protect the family land would be to become an Italian citizen, which she could easily do since her parents were still citizens. So, early in the war, Rita renounced her American citizenship and became Italian.

Because of her fluency in English, the National Italian Radio Network, which was looking to hire someone for some planned broadcasts in English, hired Rita on the spot. That’s why her voice was more important than her looks. One person later said about Rita that she sure was “no looker,” but, once she opened her mouth, the golden tones that came out sounded like dripping honey on the radio. And that’s exactly what the national radio company was counting on. She had more work than she could keep up with, almost, because her broadcasts were quite popular. Meanwhile, Rita fell in love and birthed a son in 1945.

After the war, Rita’s work on Italian radio first caused the United States to possibly consider bringing charges against her. When the Americans realized that she had renounced her citizenship, they dropped their case against her. The post-war Italian government, now virulently anti-fascist, did succeed in bringing charges against her. Rita served time in jail and was barred from ever returning to her home in New York.

All for being on the radio and speaking in her native tongue.

You see, the target audience for Rita’s broadcasts wasn’t Italians. No, rather, the target audience for Rita was her former fellow countrymen. Rita broadcasts were bits of news and entertainment specifically designed for the American servicemen fighting in Italy. The Americans were there after the Allied invasion of Sicily and then of the Italian mainland beginning in 1943. Her radio show was intended not to inform or entertain the Americans exactly, but, rather, to hurt their morale.

You may know her as one of the women the Allies called Axis Sally.

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