Most of us remember Mitzi Gaynor from the film adaptation of South Pacific. That landmark adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage launched Mitzi into an unusual stardom. She was a product of the studio system, often relegated to supporting roles in musical films. However, South Pacific was a bona fide blockbuster. You would have thought that the success of the film would have catapulted her to the top of the lists for starring roles in film and on Broadway. But for whatever reason, that was not to be the case. After South Pacific, only made three more films.
She was convinced to perform in Las Vegas, where she proved an overwhelming success. One thing led to another, and from her overwhelming success in Vegas she was asked to perform the Oscar-nominated song “Georgy Girl” at the Academy awards in 1967. Gaynor hadn’t seen the film Georgy Girl nor had she ever heard the song, but they staged it elaborately with spectacular choreography and costumes by Bob Mackie. The resulting performance brought about one of the longest standing ovations in Academy award history.
The buzz generated by this one-time performance was enough for television executives to give her a variety special of her own. Produced by her husband and manager, and as she will quickly attest, the real love of her life, Jack Bean, the shows aired once a year for ten years. Ms. Gaynor had Bob Mackie and his eye-poppings designs, as well as the frequent direction and choreography of Tony Charmoli (who choreographed Woman of the Year on Broadway), plus the help of noted choreographers Peter Gennaro, Bob Sidney and Danny Daniels. She was also able to get as many stars as there were in the heavens to make appearances, most notable in her one special Mitzi…and 100 Guys, which saw the likes of Bob Hope (performing a softshoe), Ed Asner, Ted Knight, Mike Connors, Jim Nabors, Andy Griffith Tom Bosley, Michael Landon (in a comic duet of “Delovely”) and a slew of others appear. When asked on WLIW about how she got all of them to appear, her simple answer was “We asked and they said yes!” Each year brought a different theme – and her one-hour specials turned out to be landslide winners in the ratings.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of South Pacific and the 40th anniversary of her first special, the simply titled Mitzi, a new DVD documentary has been released by City Lights Home Entertainment called Mitzi Gaynor: The Razzle-Dazzle Years, an introspective into the television specials with extensive footage of the shows as well as indepth memories from Ms. Gaynor herself, as well as Rex Reed, Kristin Chenoweth, Carl Reiner, Bob Mackie, Tony Charmoli and Kelli O’Hara. Ms. Gaynor herself is nothing short of gracious and humble, having a sense of humor about herself but also quick to give credit to everyone around her.
Looking at her perform throughout these specials, I can’t help but think of the variety of musical theatre roles she could have played in NY. From the lavishness of her specials, the first show that pops into my head is Mame. But I could also see her performing in Sweet Charity or Chicago as well. (Many of her costumes gave the censors agita, because they were rather coyly suggestive, especially during the ’70s, even though you really can’t see anything. After all, Mitzi is first and foremost a lady). Broadway’s loss was certainly television’s gain here.
Included on the DVD are several complete performances from her specials, including “Mitzi & Friends Salute Sondheim’s Company, with Jerry Orbach, Ted Knight, Suzanne Pleshette, Jane Withers and Cliff Norton performing “The Little Things You Do Together” set at a sophisticated dinner party in NY. Seeing the phenomenal Pleshette (yes she sings, in a baritone shades of Stritch and Bacall) here leads me to wonder if anyone ever thought of casting her as Joanne in Company. There are also some sketches, an outtake from the documentary about her appearance on the show the night the Beatles were on and a featurette with Mitzi and Bob Mackie discussing the costumes.
The performance footage seen on this documentary and in the bonus features has not been seen since the specials aired between 1968 and 1978. However, it would have been fun to see her showstopping performance at the Academy Awards on here, but I guess rights weren’t available.
Mitzi is anecdotal and warm, a complete delight to hear with many interesting stories about the people with whom she worked and an uncanny knack for impersonation. (And like I said, undeniably gracious and humble). It’s definitely worth taking a look as its probably in the listings for your local public broadcasting station (they are getting their pledge on!)