Kathryn Grayson Was An
Octave Above The Rest
The Former MGM Contract Player Talks With The Reel To Real Guys About The Glory Days Of Hollywood, Singing With Mario Lanza And Her Experiences With Frank Sinatra
Kathryn Grayson was an American actress that had style, flare and a voice that seemed to never end. Image provided by Reel to Real.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
Oct. 5, 2015 — We dressed to the nines for this one.
Dressing up (or down) often seemed to be the prime difference between hip, young, backwards baseball cap-wearing Tinseltown circa 1995, and the more staid adherents to old Hollywood rules of sartorial decorum governing press interviews. So, for us, it was suits, ties and Cole Haans buffed to a high sheen. After all, we had a date with a diva.
Kathryn Grayson, then 73, and once Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s reigning thrush in musicals and operettas of the ‘40s and ‘50s, commanded that token of respect. At least that’s what we figured, and we weren’t far off.
Under what she said was Louis B. Mayer’s benevolent and encompassing eye, Grayson literally grew up at MGM, engulfed and protected by the all-powerful studio system. Grayson came to believe she was special because everyone in MGM’s “extended family” was special.
The grounding Grayson managed to get at MGM was evident even back then. In a town where fame can be as fickle as it is fleeting, she had lived serenely in the same rambling mansion in Santa Monica for 50 years.
And that’s where we found her.
A longtime housekeeper led us from the foyer through a darkly paneled corridor and into a small library anteroom. There, Grayson, a bit pulpy with age, reclined in a highback chair. She was in a flowing red dress that pulsated; its bright red hue looking like a feathered ladies chapeau in a painting by Renoir. To add to the dramatic effect, Grayson was suffused in what could only be described as a weird theatrical glow. It was a couple of seconds before we realized she was benefitting from an uplight hidden from view on the floor behind the chair, one that beamed her shadow against the volumes lined tidily on the shelves. It was as if for old time’s sake, MGM cinematographer George Folsey himself had dropped by to do one last solid for a Metro alumnus.
To this day, Grayson is the only star we ever interviewed that could make an entrance just by sitting down.
“Ah, the gentlemen from the press,” she archaically exclaimed on seeing us, and in that instant we couldn’t help but be faintly reminded of the character of “Miss Havisham” from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations lost in time and living alone in her mansion, Satis House.
“I moved here from Bel Air with my husband (actor/singer John Shelton) just after World War II,” Grayson said. “He had been shot down over the Solomons and was rescued by a submarine off a Japanese-held island. After getting back stateside, our old house made him feel claustrophobic.”
In addition to neighbors Julie Andrews and Michael Crichton, Grayson said Mel Brooks and his wife Anne Bancroft had recently moved next door.
“A few days ago there was a knock at the door and I answered it,” Grayson said. “And what would you know but Mel Brooks was there. He asked me if Mario Lanza could come out and play. The guy’s hysterical.”
Grayson came by her singing early, perhaps even genetically. Surrounded by brothers and sisters with four octave ranges, Grayson would sing coloratura soprano to RCA Red Seal recordings of Enrico Caruso (she would later record for that label), and with her siblings perform impromptu quartets from Rigoletto and Lucia di Lammermoor.
“A friend and I used to climb over the fence at the St. Louis Municipal Opera Amphitheater in Forest Park,” Grayson said. “We would sing arias for the janitor who worked there. He always applauded and said we were as good as the singers who performed there on tour. Well, we thought we were pretty hot stuff until we learned that the janitor was stone deaf!”
Grayson was in California studying to be an opera singer when MGM expressed interest in signing her to a contract. On Saturday afternoon (so as not to conflict with high school), Grayson and her singing teacher visited the studio for an audition.
“I sang Deanna Durbin’s songs, Judy Garland’s songs, Jeanette MacDonald’s songs and even Grace Moore’s songs,” Grayson said. “I must have sung for two or three hours.”
She made the cut and was signed to a standard contract with an option for renewal and a salary increase at year’s end.
In addition to her singing ability and rather delicate facial features – large pellucid eyes, a pert nose and high cheeks that tapered to a slightly jutting chin – Grayson had another fabled asset. Fellow contract player at MGM, Ava Gardner, once said that Grayson had the biggest bust on the lot. Regardless, Grayson didn’t think she was pretty enough for pictures.
“Edward Johnson, who was head of the Metropolitan Opera in those days, approached me and asked if I wanted to sing Lucia on stage. I loved the opera and wanted to do it desperately, but Mr. Mayer said no. He told me that if I made my operatic debut before the release of my first picture, I would be known forever after as an opera singer. However, if I was a hit in the movies, then I’d be internationally famous for the rest of my life.”
Grayson, who was the self-styled “spoiled brat of the lot” at MGM (she used to make the commute from home to studio on her Harley-Davidson motorcycle, against the advice of studio executives), didn’t agree with Mayer’s plan.
“I was still furious,” she said. “We had this tremendous row, until finally he said: ‘Kathryn, you’re such a little rebel, I want you to go to a mountaintop and yell, ‘Go to hell!’ and then I want you to listen to the echo coming back at you. I then want you to yell, ‘God bless you!’ and listen to that echo.’”
That’s when Mayer’s philosophy sunk in. “He wanted us all to have happy lives,” Grayson said, her voice clutching a bit.
Throughout our visit, Grayson proved to be one of Mayer’s biggest boosters, deferentially referring to him as “Mr. Mayer.” It was a totem of respect echoed by many (but not all) of the MGM leading ladies we interviewed over the years. Understandably, the studio was a finishing school for many young women who never had time to pursue a formal education and Mayer was the “pater familias” who lorded over all of it.
Grayson made her film debut in 1941 opposite Mickey Rooney in Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary.
“Those Andy Hardy films were a training ground for MGM starlets,” Grayson remembered. “Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Donna Reed and Esther Williams all got their start in those pictures. I didn’t realize until quite recently that my Andy Hardy movie was one of the top-ten moneymakers in 1941.”
Grayson’s initial success was followed up with starring roles in a series of lighthearted musicals including Anchors Aweigh, co-starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.
“Frank was one of the sweetest people with whom I’ve ever worked,” she said. “During Anchors we would do our close-up shots at the end of the day. Frank and I would feed lines to Gene during his close-ups, but Gene would be mysteriously AWOL when it came time to feed lines to us for our close-ups. Gene was very ambitious about all aspects of filmmaking and would be off somewhere learning about cameras or some such thing [actually, Kelly was often engaged laying out the choreography for the film]. Frank, on the other hand, didn’t have to be ambitious. He was Frank Sinatra – already a star.”
Grayson remembered recording the whole score of the film in one or two days. “Sometimes the music would come into our hands wet, still smelling of ink,” she said.
Living under a strict dietary regimen of steak and tomatoes for lunch (high-energy protein) and soup and salad for dinner, Grayson starred in and recorded the soundtracks for Kiss Me Kate, Show Boat and two films starring another operatic sensation, former Philadelphia truck driver Mario Lanza.
“I went to the Hollywood Bowl in 1948 with Mr. Mayer, his secretary Ida Koverman and my husband to hear Mario sing with the Bel Canto Trio,” Grayson recalled. “He had such a beautiful voice. He came to the studio the next day and we sang together for the benefit of the sound technicians. Their verdict was that we sounded great together. The only problem was Mario’s weight. He was heavyset.”
But trimming a few stone from a leading man wasn’t much of a hurdle for a studio that boasted of creating “more stars than there are in the heavens.”
“I lent Mario my masseuse to help him trim down, and in a few months we were ready to start filming our first picture, That Midnight Kiss, which was followed soon after by The Toast of New Orleans.”
The only memorabilia from those halcyon days that Grayson ever kept was a dress she wore in that first film with Lanza.
“Everything is gone now,” she said wistfully. “The MGM backlot is leveled. The whole studio system fell apart when Mr. Mayer left MGM. He loved quality. I hear the Sony people who now own the former MGM studio have beautiful gardens there; I wish they’d make beautiful pictures instead.”
A lyrical lament from one of MGM’s storied songbirds.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
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