Thursday, February 18, 2010

Godspeed Soprano and Actress Kathryn Grayson

Kathryn Grayson, the beautiful soprano who starred in classic MGM musicals, passed yesterday at the age of 88.

Kathryn Grayson was born Zelma Kathryn Hedrick in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on February 9, 1922. Her family moved often when she was a child, until at last they settled in St. Louis. Realising that she could have talent as a singer, her parents set up an audition before opera singer Frances Marshal. Marshal saw promise in young Kathryn, and encouraged her family to continue her voice lessons. The family later moved to Los Angeles so that Kathryn could receive more training.

It was after the family moved to Los Angeles that Kathryn Grayson came to the attention of Louis B. Mayer of MGM. Mayer had been looking for a pretty soprano who could match Universal's own Deannna Durbin. Grayson herself had doubts about a movie career, as her ambition had always been to perform in opera. When she told Mayer that she thought they were wasting their time, he gave her an ultimatum: they would make a screen test and if MGM liked it she would stay, if not she would go. As things turned out, the studio did like the rather lengthy screen test they gave her. Grayson did not and told Mayer so. He then went home and had a heart attack, which convinced Grayson to remain (a decision which forced her to turn down the chance to sing "Lucia" at the Metropolitan Opera). She later learned feigning a heart attack was often a ploy Mayer used to keep actors to stay at MGM.

Like many of MGM's starlets, Kathryn Grayson was given a try out in an Andy Hardy movie opposite Mickey Rooney. Her first part in a film was the title role in Andy Hardy's Private Secretary in 1941. She then played in three minor movies: a comedy  (The Vanishing Virginian),  a musical opposite Abbot and Costello (Rio Rita), and another musical (Seven Sweethearts) before starring in a major motion picture. Grayson was cast as Gene Kelly's girlfriend in the MGM extravaganza Thousands Cheer, released in 1942.

Following Thousands Cheer Kathryn Grayson played opposite Gene Kelly once more in Anchors Aweigh in 1943. The next several years she starred or appeared in several major motion pictures, including It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), The Kissing Bandit (1948), Show Boat (1951), and So This is Love (1953). What may have been her best role was also one of her last, playing Lilli in Kiss Me, Kate. Her next film, The Vagabond King, released in 1956, would be her last. Having a bad experience on the film, which she thought should not have been made, convinced her to leave motion pictures.

Kathryn Grayson made a few appearance on television. She appeared in two episodes of General Electric Theatre and on Playhouse 90 and Lux Playhouse. She later appeared in an episode of Baretta and in the recurring role of Ideal Molloy on Murder She Wrote. Grayson remained very active on the stage. In 1960 she finally achieved her goal of performing opera when she performed Madame Butterfly, La Traviata, and La Boheme. She appeared on Broadway in Camelot in 1962, playing Guinevere. She would go onto star in the touring version  of the musical for sixteen months. In 1982 Grayson played her first stage role with no singing in Night Watch. The following year she appeared in Orpheus in the Underworld for Opera New England. From 1988 to 1997 she toured in her own show, An Evening with Kathryn Grayson. In 1996 and 1997 she appeared with Van Johnson in Love Letters. She spent her remaining years giving voice lessons.

Howard Keel, her co-star in three movies (including Kiss Me, Kate) once referred to her as the most beautiful woman in the history of movies. And while Kathryn Grayson was obviously pretty, one must suspect that Keel was referring to more than her physical appearance. She was perhaps the most congenial actress in the history of Hollywood, with the only harsh words she ever spoke being directed towards co-star Mario Lanza. No on had harsh words to speak of her. What really made Kathryn Grayson stand out, however, was her voice. One could not help but take notice of Kathryn Grayson when she was acting, but when she started to sing she consumed one's entire attention. Quite simply, Kathryn Grayson had one of the most beautiful voices in the history of the film. This is not to say that she was not a great actress, as she was. She was equally convincing as the rather sweet natured, naive Magnolia in Show Boat as she was the "shrew" Lilli in Kiss Me, Kate. Quite simply, Kathryn Grayson was a remarkable performer, a great actress, and an incredible singer. She will be missed.

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