Bruce was born Shirley Levy in Great Neck, New York, the daughter of Beatrice and Harry Levy. She began her career as a singer in the late 1930s with Larry Clinton and his band. A graduate of Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, New York, she made her Broadway debut in Louisiana Purchase, which was reportedly especially written for her by Irving Berlin. She was the first actress to play (and sing) the role of Julie in a Broadway production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Show Boat since the original production in the late 1920s. Bruce played the role onstage in 1946 and garnered favorable comparisons to Helen Morgan, who had originated the role on stage and on film.
After a long career as a singer and in films, Bruce is probably best-remembered for her recurring role as the domineering and meddlesome "Mama Carlson" (mother of the station manager played by Gordon Jump) on CBS' WKRP in Cincinnati.
Her only marriage (to Milton Nathanson, which ended in divorce) produced a daughter, Julie. Bruce died from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, aged 87.
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