Remembering Kathryn Grayson (1922-2010)

Kathryn Grayson, blue-eyed, button-nosed brunette star of MGM musicals who played opposite Gene Kelly, Mario Lanza and Sinatra, has died at the age 88 in her home in Los Angeles. The first time I ever heard Grayson sing was while watching That’s Entertainment on television years ago. I have always been drawn to soprano voices, and knew several accomplished sopranos myself. But this was the first time as a kid that I ever heard anyone applying the coloratura technique, which fascinated me. I made it a point to seek out her other films, including the 1951 adaptation of Show Boat and Kiss Me Kate, both co-starring Howard Keel, who once said she was “the most beautiful woman in the history of movies.”

She was born Zelma Kathryn Elisabeth Hedrick on February 9, 1922 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and would relocate to St. Louis and finally Los Angeles. MGM was desperately seeking a rival for Universal star Deanna Durbin, a young soprano whose career unexpectedly skyrocketed after MGM let her go. A talent scout for Metro gave the teenage Kathryn a screen test and she reluctantly signed (she wanted opera, not film). After she signed her contract, she was offered the chance to sing Lucia at the Met, but was convinced by Mayer that she should turn it down. Grayson wouldn’t appear onstage in opera for years, though she would sing many of the famed operatic arias in her films.

Her film debut was in 1941’s Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary who unwittingly caused Mickey Rooney’s eye to wander away from Ann Rutherford. Typical of the studio system, her role was basically an excuse to showcase her talent and to test her bankability; she sang Johann Strauss’ “Voices of Spring” in Italian, capping it off with a coloratura cadenza that culminated on a G above high C. After a few more roles, her career would take off as the top-billed star of Anchors Aweigh, in which she would introduce the song “All of a Sudden My Heart Sings.”

She would prove a cross-over artist as she brought much of the classical repertoire to film audiences, playing many characters were either aspiring or established opera stars or headlining numerous stage to screen adaptations. In many such films she was often paired with piano virtuoso Jose Iturbi, who served as an onscreen mentor of sorts. In The Toast of New Orleans (1950), Grayson would introduce the standard “Be My Love” only to be upstaged by Mario Lanza, who was the one co-star with whom she didn’t get along.

Though I have seen better singing-actresses (particularly coloraturas) in the years that have passed since I first encountered Grayson, I hold a special place for her for being that first. Many of the roles she played are negligible, excuses for a beautiful soprano to sing. For what it’s worth, I think her finest moment onscreen was as Lilli Vanessi in the bowdlerized film version of Kiss Me Kate, it offers her the rare chance to be something other than an ingenue, and she really took the opportunity to heart. She was slated to star in the film version of Brigadoon, but her contract expired and Kate would prove to be her final film as an MGM player. She would make three more films, none of them very successful. The last, a Paramount produced adaptation of The Vagabond King, proved a misguided flop and one that Grayson herself admitted should never have been made.

Grayson appeared in regional and stock productions of musicals and operettas after her film career waned, recreating some of her film roles in their original stage incarnations. She made only one appearance on Broadway, as a replacement Guenevere in the original production of Camelot in 1962 (where she reportedly sang the score up a third and added unnecessary coloratura flourishes). She would take star in the show’s national tour for almost a year and a half. In the ’60s, she also made many appearances in various operas with companies around the country.

There were a few TV appearances, including a recurring bit as Ideal Molloy on Murder She Wrote. She lived in peaceful retirement, teaching voice and making appearances about her MGM days and taping a few recollections for TCM.

Grayson was married twice. Her first husband was actor John Shelton, her second singer-actor Johnny Johnston. She is survived by her daughter Patricia Kathryn Johnston and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

From Anchors Aweigh, “All of a Sudden My Heart Sings” & “From the Heart of the Lonely Poet”: