She was born Charlotte Rae Lubotsky on April 22, 1926, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Russian Jewish immigrants Esther (née Ottenstein) and Meyer Lubotsky. Mr. Lubotsky was a retail tire business owner. Rae's mother, Esther Lubotsky, had been childhood friends with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Rae was the second of three sisters, in between Beverly (1921 – 1998) and Miriam (called "Mimi"; born 1930). For the first ten years of her life, Rae's family lived in an apartment built for them above her father's Milwaukee tire store. In 1936, her parents purchased a home for the family in nearby Shorewood, Wisconsin. She graduated from Shorewood High School in 1944. She did radio work and was with the Wauwatosa Children's Theatre. In 1942, at age 16, she was an apprentice with the Port Players, a professional theater company that came for the summer to Milwaukee, with several established actors such as Morton DaCosta, who would eventually direct The Music Man on Broadway.