LOS ANGELES (AP) - Kathryn Grayson, whose beauty and lilting soprano brightened MGM musicals of the 1940s and 1950s including "Anchors Aweigh," "Show Boat," "The Desert Song" and "Kiss Me Kate," has died. She was 88.
Grayson died Wednesday of natural causes at her Los Angeles home, said the actress' longtime companion and secretary, Sally Sherman.
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.
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 Hardy Family 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.
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.
She was born Zelma Kathryn Hedrick on Feb. 9, 1922, in Winston-Salem, N.C., her father a building contractor and realtor. Because of his business, the family moved frequently, finally settling in St. Louis, Mo. Her parents recognized her gifted voice and arranged an audition before opera star Frances Marshall. She encouraged the girl to continue her music lessons.
The family moved to Los Angeles so Kathryn could have more professional training. She came to the attention of Mayer, who had been searching for a lovely young soprano to rival Universal's sensational Deanna Durbin (Durbin had been under contract to MGM, but she was dropped in favor of Judy Garland).
When the newly named Kathryn Grayson sang two arias in "Andy Hardy's Private Secretary," Mayer realized he had a new star. Among her musicals: "Two Sisters from Boston," "Ziegfeld Follies," "Till the Clouds Roll By," "That Midnight Kiss," "The Toast of New Orleans," "Show Boat," "Lovely to Look At," "Kiss Me Kate," "The Desert Song" and "So This Is Love" (as Grace Moore).
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."
Her film career over, Grayson remained active. She realized her long-held ambition to sing in opera, and she also starred in 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 sang 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 Kathryn. Grayson never remarried.
In a 1988 interview Grayson remarked that she had given up writing her memoirs 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."
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press
Published by Morning Call on Feb. 18, 2010.