Kathryn Grayson, whose beauty and lilting soprano voice brightened such popular MGM musicals of the 1940s and 1950s as “Anchors Aweigh,” “Show Boat” and “Kiss Me Kate,” has died at age 88.
Grayson died Wednesday at her Los Angeles home, the actress’ longtime secretary and companion, Sally Sherman, told The Associated Press.
“She just went to sleep and didn’t wake up,” Sherman said Thursday.
Grayson’s youthful ambition was to sing opera, but she wasn’t able to accomplish that dream until after her movie career ended. While still a teenager, she was placed under contract at MGM at a time when the studio was assembling a stable of musical talent that would dominate the era of great musicals.
“I thought they were wasting their time and money,” Grayson recalled of her first days at the studio. “I even told (studio boss) 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.
“He offered a deal: I would make a screen test, and if the studio liked the test, I would shut up forever. If not, I would go.
“It was the longest test in motion picture history. 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.”
Concerned, Grayson agreed to stay, and she turned down an offer to sing “Lucia” at the Metropolitan Opera. She later learned that Mayer had two ploys to persuade recalcitrant actors: to cry or to claim a heart attack.
Tryout in popular series
Like Lana Turner, Esther Williams, Donna Reed and other MGM newcomers, Grayson was given a tryout as Mickey Rooney’s sweetheart in the studio’s popular Andy Hardy film series. She played the title role in “Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary” and sang Strauss’s “Voices of Spring.” Mayer was convinced that he had a future star.
She was cast in three minor films, including a musical with Abbot and Costello, then played Gene Kelly’s girlfriend in a wartime revue that included major MGM stars, “Thousands Cheer.”
“Anchors Aweigh,” a 1945 hit with Kelly and Frank Sinatra, confirmed her star status. Her bell-like soprano made her the ideal co-star with Hollywood’s full-voiced male singers in operettas and other musicals. She made three films with Howard Keel, two with Mario Lanza, one with Gordon MacRae.
Other musicals included “Two Sisters from Boston,” “Ziegfeld Follies,” “Till the Clouds Roll By,” “That Midnight Kiss,” “The Toast of New Orleans,” “Lovely to Look At,” “The Desert Song” and “So This Is Love.”
Normally she was the most congenial of actresses during filming, but she did have one public flare-up with the temperamental Lanza. He lit the fire when he told an interviewer: “I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Kathryn because she was in my first two pictures.”
She took offense because she believed as an established MGM star, they were her pictures. She told an interviewer she objected to Lanza’s behavior on the set, especially his vulgar language.
Her last film, “The Vagabond King” in 1956, soured her on movies. She was scheduled to be reunited with Lanza, but he pulled one of his characteristic no-shows. An unknown Oreste Kirkpop (billed only as Oreste), was a last-minute substitution. “He couldn’t speak English, so the director, Mike Curtiz, told me to speak his lines. ‘But I’m not Francois Villon,’ I said. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Mike.” Oreste’s lines were dubbed.
“It never should have been made,” she told an interviewer. “(Composer) Rudolf Friml was so upset about it that he told Paramount he was going out of town for the weekend. He went to Hong Kong.”
Parents recognized gifted voice
Grayson was born Zelma Kathryn Hedrick on Feb. 9, 1922, in Winston-Salem, N.C. Her father was a building contractor and real estate agent. Because of his business, the family moved frequently, eventually settling in St. Louis. Her parents recognized her gifted voice and arranged an audition before opera star Frances Marshall. She encouraged the girl to continue her music lessons.
Finally sang in opera
After her movie career ended with “The Vagabond King,” Grayson remained active, finally realizing her long-held ambition to sing opera. She also starred in stage productions of “The Merry Widow,” “Rosalinda,” Naughty Marietta,” and “Camelot.” She and Howard Keel toured extensively in “Man of La Mancha” and appeared together in Las Vegas. She did concerts in Australia and appeared in a one-woman show of film clips and reminiscences.
She married and divorced MGM contract players John Shelton (1940-1946) and Johnny Johnston (1947-1951). The marriage to Johnston produced her only child, Patricia Towers.
She never wed again after her second marriage, and in a 1988 interview she said she had no intention of writing a memoir because it wouldn’t be the “kiss and tell” kind the publishers wanted.
“I’m a Pollyanna,” she confessed. “I had to stop writing because I love everybody and I was saying everyone was beautiful. I just happen to think people are pretty wonderful.”
She is survived by her daughter and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Sherman said no funeral service is planned.