They Had Voices Then...

Kathryn Grayson
February 9, 1922-February 17, 2010

‘I was stunned to hear that Kathryn just died. Her physical beauty and amazing voice wrapped into one can only come from an angel. She graced our presence in a troubled time. I e-mailed her to wish her a happy 88th. In the e-mail I said I do not? believe you were born. I think you dropped in from heaven for while to bring some happiness to a troubled world. Nobody as beautiful as you and who could sing like you could be human! She is back home again being an angel. I miss her already.’—YouTube post by hajune

By David McGee

Actress and operatic soprano Kathryn Grayson, who, as an MGM contract player in the '40s and '50s, lent her strikingly expressive voice to some of the silver screen's grandest musicals (Kiss Me Kate and Showboat, foremost among them), the retired from movies only to flourish as a stage actress before realizing her deepest held ambition—to sing opera—died at her Los Angeles home on February 17. According to Ms. Grayson's longtime secretary and companion Sally Sherman, the actress "just went to sleep and didn't wake up." She was 88.

Born Zelma Kathryn Elisabeth Hedrick in Winston-Salem, NC, Kathryn moved with her family to St. Louis, where a janitor heard the then-12-year-old songbird singing on the empty stage of the St. Louis Municipal Opera House, and subsequently introduced her to Frances Marshall of the Chicago Civic Opera, who became her vocal coach. The Hedrick family moved to Los Angeles, where Kathryn attended Manual Arts High School, where her singing caught the attention of Art Rush of RCA Redseal Records, who signed her to a recording contract. Seven years later, she was recruited by Sam Katz, the executive in charge of musicals at MGM, who saw her as the studio’s answer to Universal’s popular Deanna Durbin. Aspiring to be an opera singer, she was cool to MGM’s overtures.

"I thought they were wasting their time and money,” Grayson later recalled. “I even told Louis B. Mayer that. He said he knew a lot more than a 16-year-old girl who is and who isn't good material for pictures.”
Mayer struck a deal with the headstrong teen: she would take a screen test. If he liked it, she would shut up; if not, she would go back to her other life.

"It was the longest test in motion picture history,” Grayson said. “They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars; it was almost a two-reeler. The studio liked it. I told Mr. Mayer I didn't like it. He went home with a heart attack."

As she later learned, feigning a heart attack was one of Mayer’s pet ploys for winning over reluctant actors. In accepting MGM’s offer, though, Grayson turned down another attractive offer—to sing “Lucia” at the Metropolitan Opera.

She made her MGM debut as Andy Hardy’s private secretary Kathryn Land in Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary (a part that also featured her singing Strauss’s “Voices of Spring”) with Mickey Rooney in the title role.

‘Time After Time,’ a classic of the Great American Songbook, by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, was introduced by Frank Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson in 1947’s It Happened in Brooklyn.

Grayson became a leading lady and one of the cinema’s most beloved vocalists with her stellar performances in the wartime revue, Thousands Cheer (1943, starring Gene Kelly and a raft of other MGM stars, with music by Irving Berlin, Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, George and Ira Gershwin, Max Steiner and E.Y. [Yip] Harburg); Anchors Aweigh (1945—the first of three films starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, it won an Oscar for Best Music, Scoring of a Motion Picture for George Stoll, and was nominated in three other categories: Best Actor in a Leading Role—Kelly, who figured in a classic movie scene in which he dances with the animated Tom and Jerry cartoon characters; Best Color Cinematography; and Best Original Score—Jule Style and Sammy Cahn for “I Fall In Love Too Easily”; the movie also featured a very young Dean Stockwell as the child runaway); and Two Sisters From Boston (1946), in which she starred with June Allyson and Luaritz Melchior, in a cast that also included Jimmy “Schnozzola” Durante as shady club owner Spike Merrango, whose default line for getting out of jams was “I don’t know nuttin’,” and beloved film/TV comedia Ben Blue as Wrigley the butler. Sammy Fain and Ralph Freed wrote most of the songs for Two Sisters, including a couple of terrific Durante-Grayson duets, and an opera sequence based on music by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy provided both Melchior and Grayson ample opportunity for impressive display of their powerful, affecting voices. In 1947 she and Frank Sinatra had the distinction of introducing a classic of the Great American Songbook, “Time After Time,” by Sammy Cahn and Jule Style, in the Richard Whorf-directed It Happened in Brooklyn, which also featured Peter Lawford, Jimmy Durante and an uncredited Andre Previn on piano.

In the late ‘40s and early 1950s Grayson was an impressive, spunky presence in the film versions of Broadway hits Kiss Me Kate (1953), the 1951 Technicolor remake of Show Boat and Lovely To Look At (the retitled 1952 version of the stage hit, Roberta). Grayson teamed twice with actor Howard Keel on the screen, in Kiss Me Kate and Show Boat, and twice, famously, with the powerhouse, temperamental tenor Mario Lanza, in That Midnight Kiss (1949) and Toast of New Orleans (1950). Hard working, disciplined and congenial, Grayson objected to Lanza’s outbursts on the set and was offended by his profane language. When he bowed out of The Vagabond King (1956) at the eleventh hour, leading to the casting of the unknown, non-English speaking Oreste Kirkpop in his stead, Grayson had had enough—of Lanza and of the movies.

‘Let There Be Music,’ music by Earl K. Brent, lyrics by E.Y. (Yip) Harburg, from the 1943 film, Thousands Cheer, starring Kathryn Grayson, Gene Kelly and Mary Astor.

Grayson then began a productive stage career that found her reprising some of the musical roles that had made her famous on film, in productions of Show Boat and Kiss Me Kate, for example. The high point of her stage work came in 1962, when she replaced Julie Andrews as Queen Guinevere in Camelot, and starred in the show’s national company, breaking box office records and earning rave reviews during a 16-month stay that ended when she left the production for health reasons. Eventually she made it to the opera stage, appearing in several productions during the ‘60s, including Madama Butterfly and La bohème. She and her former MGM partner, Howard Keel, toured together in Man of La Mancha and teamed for their own show in Las Vegas nightclubs. Her dramatic stage debut came in 1982, in Night Watch, and over the next decade she played several other dramatic parts on stage and on television (including an appearance on Angela Lansbury’s hit TV series, Murder She Wrote). She also supervised Choral and Vocal Studies Program at Idaho State University, which is now named the Kathryn Grayson Choral and Vocal Studies Program.

Ms. Grayson was married twice, both times to fellow MGM contract players, the first being actor John Shelton, the second being actor/singer Johnnie Johnston, by whom she bore her only child, a daughter, Patricia Kathryn Johnston, born in 1948. Her daughter survives her, along with several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Kathryn Grayson and Mario Lanza, ‘Be My Love,’ from Toast of New Orleans, 1950. Lanza’s profane language and temperamental outbursts on the set eventually drove Ms. Grayson out of the movies. She took refuge on the stage, in the opera and on television.

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