Kathryn Grayson was an American actress and singer who appeared in some of the most popular and successful movies of the late 1940's and 50's. She had a rare combination of great natural beauty and a lovely singing voice which she could adapt to opera, Broadway shows or movie musicals. She appeared in twenty movies in all, including big hits such as 'Show Boat' in 1951 and 'Kiss Me Kate' in 1953.
BiographyKathryn Grayson was born on February 9, 1922 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her birthname was Zelma Kathryn Elizabeth Hedrick. Her later stage name was taken from her second Christian name and her mother;s maiden name of Gray. She had a sister, Frances Raeburn (born Mildred Hedrick), who also became an actress and singer, and two brothers, Clarence and Harold.
She moved with her family in 1927, to Kirkwood, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri, where she began her education in public and private schools. Her family all sang and Kathryn's ability was noticed early. When she was eleven she was introduced to Frances Marshall of the Chicago Civic Opera, who began giving her singing lessons, and who encouraged the young girl to pursue a career in music.
When Kathryn was 15, she moved again with her family, to Los Angeles, where she attended the Manual Arts High School, pursuing academic courses whilst also studying music, with the ambition of becoming an opera singer. Her looks and talent naturally attracted attention and she became a regular soloist in school and church productions. She eventually came to the attention of RCA talent agent W A Rush, who recognised her potential and signed her up to a contract with the classical record label, Red Seal Records.
Hollywood ContractIn 1935 MGM, the premier studio for musicals at the time, lost the services of the fifteen years old singer Deanna Durbin when her contract expired and she signed up with Universal studios. MGM began a search for a similarly attractive and talented young girl. Kathryn was just one year younger than Deanna and had a similarly mature voice. She was approached by MGM executive Sam Katz and after repeatedly turning him down Kathryn finally decided on a movie and not an operatic or a recording career, and signed a contract with MGM in 1939.
She immediately began to receive coaching in acting techniques as well as training her voice for the microphone instead of the stage. Her first film was in 1941, 'Andy Hardy's Private Secretary' in which she plays a school friend of Andy, played by Mickey Rooney. The movie was the tenth most popular film of the year and Kathryn gained favorable notices.
Supporting roles in similar films followed such as 'Rio Rita' and 'The Vanishing Virginian', both in 1942 and she was gradually given more important roles, firstly in 1943 in the WWII morale booster, 'Thousands Cheer' and then a starring role in 'Anchors Aweigh' in 1945, with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, which established her as a major Hollywood star.
Hollywood StardomKathryn re-teamed with Frank Sinatra for 'It Happened in Brooklyn' in 1947 and 'The Kissing Bandit' the following year but neither movie proved popular. She then starred with newcomer tenor Mario Lanza in 'That Midnight Kiss' in 1949 and again in 'The Toast of New Orleans' in 1950. Although Kathryn did not like the egotistical Mario Lanza, her partnership with him was very successful and both films were big hits. They proved a perfect springboard for Kathryn's most successful period on film.
Kathryn continued working with some of MGM's top leading men. In 1951 she starred with Van Johnson in her first non-singing role, in the comedy 'Grounds for Marriage' and in 1953 with Gordon MacRae in 'The Desert Song' but her best remembered films were with co-star Howard Keel. They were also her last films made with MGM. 'Show Boat' in 1951 was a major success and led to 'Lovely to Look At' in 1952, with music by Jerome Kern, and finally 'Kiss me Kate' as in 1953, an adaptation of the Broadway musical, with songs by Cole Porter. In 'Kiss me Kate' as Lilli Vanessi she was able to show her not inconsiderable acting talent as well as her singing.
After leaving MGM, Kathryn made only one more film, co-starring in 1956 with the Maltese singer Oreste Kirkop in the musical film remake of 'The Vagabond King' for Paramount Studios. Coming out in the same year as the film 'Rock Around the Clock' it proved to be an anachronistic disappointment and marked the end of Kathryn's movie career.
Television and Stage CareerKathryn continued performing and began appearing on the new medium of television in 1955 in General Electric Theatre and as her movie career wound down she continued to make occasional appearances in between her stage commitments. Between 1987 and 1989 she appeared as the same character in three episodes of "Murder She Wrote", starring Angela Lansbury.
As her film career declined, due partly to the general decline in popularity of film musicals, Kathryn appeared more and more on stage. One of her earliest ambitions was fulfilled when she performed in opera for the first time in 'Madame Butterfly' and during the 1960's she continued to appear in operas such as 'La Bohème', 'Orpheus in the Underworld' and 'La Traviata'.
Kathryn also appeared on stage in light musical productions such as stage versions of 'Show Boat', 'Kiss Me Kate' and 'The Merry Widow'. In 1962 Kathryn replaced Julie Andrews as Guinevere in the Broadway production of 'Camelot' and went on a highly successful tour with the production across America for sixteen months. She also reunited with her favorite partner, Howard Keel for a nightclub act, as well as making a tour of Australia with him.
Kathryn continued making regular stage appearances throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including her first drama performance in Lucille Fletcher's 'Night Watch" in 1982 and British farce with "Noises Off" in 1987. Ever resourceful, in the 1990's she toured America with her one woman show 'An Evening with Kathryn Grayson'. As she got older Kathryn forsook performing for teaching and gave private singing lessons at home in Los Angeles.
PersonalKathryn was married twice, firstly to actor John Shelton in 1940, divorcing after six years, then in 1947 to singer Johnnie Johnston, by whom she had a daughter, Patricia, born in 1948. The couple divorced in 1951.
Kathryn Grayson died in her sleep at the age of 88 on Feb. 17, 2010.
Kathryn Grayson Academy AwardsNo Nominations:
Kathryn Grayson Filmography
Andy Hardy's Private Secretary
The Vanishing Virginian
Two Sisters from Boston
Till the Clouds Roll By
It Happened in Brooklyn
The Kissing Bandit
That Midnight Kiss
The Toast of New Orleans
Grounds for Marriage
Lovely to Look At
The Desert Song
So This Is Love
Kiss Me Kate
The Vagabond King