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About The Artist
She was born Louise Selma Leonora Rautenberg in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her parents were Otto and Martha Hedwig Mathilda (Raatz) Rautenberg. They were married on April 3, 1915 in Milwaukee. Louise was their only child.
Otto Friedrich was a native of Prussia. Her mother was born in Michigan. Her father found work as a janitor per census records in 1920 and 1930. Her mother's parents were also natives of Prussia. Her mother died in May of 1957 at the age of 69. Her father had died in 1946 at the age of 69. His first marriage was to Anna Schmitz in 1899 in Fond Du Lac, WI.
Later, as a singer, fans knew Louise as her as Sally Foster.
The Beginning — Badger State Barn Dance
WLS' Stand-By magazine featured a cover story on her in 1936 and provided details into her early life and how she became a singer. Her mother was a pianist. "Sally" was playing the piano when she was six years old. But a black cat jumped through the parlor window and onto the piano keys, startling the little girl. It was taken as an omen at that age to avoid the piano.
She may have gave up piano lessons due to that black cat, but she did learn to play the violin, bass fiddle, guitar and mandolin. She would sing at home while her dad played the accordion.
When she was 17, a newspaper advertisement for a barn dance singer appeared in the local Milwaukee newspaper. The story goes that early on she may have heard a tune from a movie and burst out singing, "Glorious, glorious, one can of beer for the four of us..." This may have been in a public setting as her outburst was said to have embarrassed her parents. But she did answer the ad. Thus, the recent high school graduate who thought of becoming a private secretary turned her aspirations to becoming a singer on stage.
As these things sometimes go, she had a friend who had a friend who worked at radio station WTMJ in Milwaukee. He suggested she audition for the station. At the time, she was a bit scared to try it. But she began to think about it. She thought, if "...all the folks in church liked her singing, and all the people who came to the high school entertainments, then maybe a lot of other folks would like it too." Of course, her mind told her maybe they only applauded because they knew her. But she finally decided to pay the radio station a visit.
She asked for the man who knew her friend. He was friendly towards her and asked her to sing for him. She "..picked out an old homey kind of a song that she had known all her life." The radio person must have liked what he heard initially and asked her to sing another. While she sang, the radio person was thinking of where she might fit in. When she finished the second song, Sally heard him tell her, "Sally, you're pretty young to be breaking into show business, but I think I've got a spot that you'll like a lot. It's with a group that sings the same sort of songs that you've been singing here for me. Ever hear of the Badger State Barn Dance?.
She was overjoyed with what she heard and rushed home as she wanted to get her parents permission to join the cast of that show.She joined the cast of the Badger Stage Barn Dance and made her first appearance in Racine, Wisconsin in April of 1934.
That same month, the radio listening audience heard her for the first time over a Milwaukee radio station. She began to do road show work that took her to Iowa, Michigan and Illinois.
Before she went to high school, she had never heard hill-billy songs '...in their original setting.' But when she first hear such tunes, she knew she wanted to sing them for a living.
She was given the Civic Music Medal award that the Girl's Technical High School of Milwaukee gave out each year. Her stage career began and by November 1935, she had been heard over the radio air waves over 100 times.
Sally told the magazine that the most dramatic of her young radio experience was when she tried to do a difficult yodel number that she had failed to do so previously. This time she got it.
It was reported that her fan mail was such that she got over 400 requests for her photo in 1935 alone.
Chicago — WLS National Barn Dance
But life had another surprise for her. One appearance in Milwaukee, the house manager brought a 'stranger' named Uncle Ezra of the WLS National Barn Dance to meet her and at the age of 19, he offered her an audition for his show. She was such a hit with "...her distinctive style of singing...", the sponsors gave her a regular spot. She became a featured soloist on the WLS National Barn Dance on November 16, 1935.
Research will sometimes uncover unusual or trivial details. In May of 1937, readers learned that Sally had a fan in Braintree, MA who had her foot dimensions and would take pains to personally sees she had the perfect pair of shoes to wear. Three pairs had been already furnished for her spring wardrobe and two pairs of white shoes were said to be on the way to wear during the upcoming summer season. Readers later learned that the same fan sent her a crate of New England peaches in September.
Sometimes vacations were taken for health reasons. Sally had planned to take a week off in July of 1937 to recover from a tonsillectomy. She planned to do her recovery at a Wisconsin resort. But she was not the only WLS artist to undergo a tonsillectomy. Lee Hassell of the trio, Verne, Lee and Mary, was to also have the procedure done. The plans were to share a hospital room to make visits from the WLS staff easier.
She stayed with WLS for about two years. Fan mail rolled in from everywhere in the United States and Canada. She even had a few fan clubs start for her. She got a recording contract with Decca records.
Then life had another surprise waiting for her. After one of the Saturday night broadcasts of the Barn Dance, she was introduced to Pappy Cheshire of KMOX in St. Louis. He happened to have taken a few days off to visit with old friends in the Chicago area. But he had another devious idea in his mind. He wanted to see if he could get Sally to join the KMOX program "Barnyard Follies." At first she hesitated, but Pappy finally convinced her.
On July 17, 1938, the Winnebago County Fair Association and the Oshkosh Eagles Club sponsored a night program as part of the Midsummer Race Festival in Oshkosh, WI. Sally was part of the entertainment along with Rocky Mountain Mary, the Rustic Revelers, Phil De Mio, George Edwards and Taylor and Kent. Folks were charged an admission of 25 cents that covered admission.
Republic's Musical Almanac Left to right: The Maple City Four (Pat Patterson, Art Janes, Al Rice, Fritz Meissner); Sally Foster, soloist; Joe Fredkin, bass viol; Vic Smith, the Old Almanac Explorer; Jack Daly, guitar; Lew Klatt, accordion.
The photo we found for Republic's "Musical Almanac" had a bit of other details about the show. It was sponsored by the Republic Steel Corporation which made things like Republic Farm Fence, Barbed Wire, Studded "Y" Steel Posts, Galvanized roofing and other steel products for the farm.
She also recorded with another WLS Barn Dance group - the Hoosier Hot Shots.
St. Louis — KMOX Barnyard Follies
She went to KMOX and by 1945, she had already spent over six years at the station.
The Barnyard Follies at that time included Skeets Yaney, Frankie Taylor, Linda Fields, Roy Queen as well as a new addition to act as emcee when Pappy was away, Rusty Marion. Sally had her own show at the time as well, Sally Foster and the Ranchers. They were sponsored by the Pillsbury Flour people three days a week and by Tintex the other three days of the week. The "Ranchers" were made up of Wade Ray (the pug-nosed fiddler), Roy Fields (accordion flash), Eddie Gentry on mandolin, Bob Hastings on guitar and Stuffy Austin on bass fiddle. If that was not enough, she was part of the Ozark Varieties program that aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) network on mornings from 7:15 to 7:45am.
KMOX Barnyard Follies Gang—
Kneeling: ? - comedian
1946 - Marriage and Moving To Hollywood
She left KMOX and St. Louis in May of 1946; she was going to Hollywood, CA. She had also recently married Earl W. Steil, an announcer. (Further research indicates his brother was orchestra leader Ted Steele.) The exact date of their marriage is not known at this point. Mary Miccolis of the Miccolis Sisters was to take over the solo spots for Sally.
In early 1947 Billboard reported that Sally was the featured vocalist on 13 shows per week over the CBS network originating from KNX in Hollywood. The shows included "Sunrise Salute" (Monday thru Saturday), Pappy Cheshire Show (Monday thru Saturday) and the Hollywood Barn Dance on Saturday evenings. Pappy's show aired at 7am and included The Plainsmen and Jimmy Wakely, too.
However, other than mentions of songs she sang on the Hollywood Barn Dance, nothing seemed to have happened for her in Hollywood. Some previous articles found seem to indicate she may have did some screen tests, but no evidence of her in movies.
Richmond, VA — WRNL
Sally Foster moved to Richmond, VA with her husband and joined the staff of WRNL. "The Girl With the Smile In Her Voice" made her debut with WRNL's popular group, the Westernaires at 6:05pm on Monday, September 1, 1947.
In 1948, she was being heard over WRNL in Richmond, VA with the Westernaires group. Matt Pelkonen mentioned in his Matt's Chats column that she had come to WRNL with her group, the Westernaires. We think this was in error as there was already an established group called the Westernaires on the air in Richmond. Sally's husband, Earl Steele (the spelling seen in publications, though research found in obituaries the name was spelled Steil). A November ad for an appearance on the Paul Whiteman show listed the members of the Westernaires at that time: Jimmy Whitely, Zeb Robinson, Irvin Gurganus and Pokie Kersey.
Sally and the Westernaires made an appearance on Paul Whiteman's "On Stage America" in November of 1947 along with another WRNL act, The Harmonizing Four.
A question and answer column in April of 1948 indicated she was only appearing on the 6:05 - 6:15pm program Monday through Friday. Earl was an announcer on WRNL. But by February of 1949, readers learned why they were not being heard on the air in Richmond. The couple had moved to Minneapolis.
The reader will note in the accompanying large WRNL promotional ad that Earl Steele (Sally's husband) is shown as well. The Whiteman's salute to WRNL was part of the station's Tenth Anniversary Celebration.
Minneapolis, MN — WCCO
Sally Foster and her husband, Earle Steele moved to Minneapolis, MN in late 1949 and joined the staff of radio station WCCO. Sally's debut was marked by a promotional ad touting her first appearance on two shows on December 18, 1948 — The Red River Valley Gang (sponsored by Robin Hood Flour) at 6:30pm and The Murphy Barn Dance (sponsored by Murphy Feeds) at 7:30pm. Her husband also joined the staff of announcers for the station.
It appears those shows would later evolve into the WCCO "Saturday Night Radio Party."
In October 1951, Earle had a new role at the station as a producer.
She cut two sides for Decca on May 21, 1936 in Chicago, IL. One side was "Woman's Answer To Nobody's Darling." The DAHR database of historical recordings indicated she did the vocals and accompanied herself on the guitar. She cut an additional eight sides on December 8, 1936 in Chicago and again accompanied herself on guitar. Two sides were not released: "Don't Take The Sweet Out Of Sweetheart" and "When The Azaleas Start Blooming."
Another session took place in Chicago on January 29, 1937. This time "The Travelers" group backed her on the five recordings. One tune, "The Cradle And The Music Box," was not released. The Travelers group (per Prague Frank's Discography site) were WLS musicians that included Buddy Gilmore, Zeb Hartley, Bill Thall, Art Wenzel and Otto Morse.
On November 13, 1945, she cut two sides with the Hoosier Hot Shots. She gut another two sides with the group for Columbia on January 22, 1941 in Chicago.
The 1960's, the couple had moved to Illinois. News articles indicated that Earl Steil (the spelling he was using then) was promoted to General Sales Manager at radio station WKFM. Later, he joined WWMM-FM (92.7) in a similar position located in Arlington Heights, IL in September 1973.
Louise (Sally) Rautenberg Steil passed away suddenly at her home on October 1, 1973. Her obituary indicated the couple had lived in Arlington Heights the previous seven years.
Earl passed away in late October 1975. At the time he was an account executive at radio station WYEN-FM in Des Plaines, IL. The couple had no children.
Credits & Sources