The Razzle Dazzle of Mitzi Gaynor
There's a great pleasure in talking to veteran performers. They've been through it all and have many great stories to tell. Such was the case recently in a conversation with dancer/ singer/ actress/comedienne Mitzi Gaynor.
This great lady starred in such Hollywood successes as THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS with Ethel Merman, THE JOKER IS WILD with Frank Sinatra, the re-make of ANYTHING GOES with Bing Cosby and Donald O'Connor, LES GIRLS with Gene Kelly and SOUTH PACIFIC with Rossano Brazzi. She also wowed television audiences in the 60's and 70's with a series of specials that captivated America and had schoolboys rushing home from sporting events to watch them. Without a doubt, Mitzi Gaynor was a show business phenomenon and she remains one today as she prepares for the public television airing of her new documentary called "Mitzi Gaynor: Razzle Dazzle! The Special Years."
It was a mere thirty seconds into the phone call for Mitzi to be on a first-name basis with her interviewer and immediately the series of questions that had been prepared for the article were abandoned in favor of a free-wheeling chat between two old friends who had never met before. As vivacious as she was in the days of her Hollywood stardom, Mitzi impersonated the people she was talking about and was so dead-on with Ethel Merman that it seemed as though the original Mama Rose had somehow picked up the telephone and was taking over the conversation. Of course, this was Mitzi at her best!
Born Francesca Marlene de Czanye Von Gerber in Chicago, the star was always known as "Mitzi". Her family moved to Detroit when she was about four or five. "Wherever we lived, we stayed in an apartment and there were never any youngsters around. The only children I saw were the ones I met at school and they weren't the kinds of kids I had anything in common with. You see, I always wanted to be a ballerina/ice skater/opera star who could also do Hawaiian toe-tap hulas. I wanted to be Betty Grable and Maria Tallchief as well as Anna Pavlova. All the other kids just wanted to have fun. I guess you could say I never really was a child; I was really a grown-up in a kid's body. Whenever we found a dancing teacher who liked me and whom I liked, I'd go to dancing school and that would be my kind of fun."
Mitzi came from a family with a strong background in the performing arts. Her mother was born in St. Louis of Austrian parents and was a dancer. Mitzi's father was Hungarian and was quite a well-known cellist. "Do you remember when the orchestras used to come out of the bowels of the theater? My father conducted one of those at the Chicago Theater." However, she is quickly remarks that "Dancing is my life. My talent comes from God, of course, but it also comes from my parents." She also proudly states that she's "a Hungarian gypsy who has lots of paprika on my tail."
It's that Hungarian paprika that fills Mitzi with so much spunk. Speaking of her days in school, she reminisces about a certain singing teacher she had. "I loved her," said the star. "She inspired me and she was absolutely marvelous. Being a pain-in-the-ass Virgo, I thought I was the big thing. I was about nine at the time. She had me to her house and I met her mama, she prepared for me creamed tuna on toast with little peas in it. It was paradise and the teacher was wonderful. So naturally, being a pain-in-the-ass Virgo, I took advantage of that and felt I could get away with anything and began chewing gum in her class. The teacher asked me, ‘Mitzi, are you chewing gum?' I sheepishly responded, ‘Yes, ma'am' and she directed me to take it out of my mouth, which made all the kids began to giggle as kids would do. She then said, ‘Put it on the end of your nose.' Now this was a woman I had worshiped and adored and I just dissolved, putting my head in my hands until it was over. Later I said to her, ‘Oh, please forgive me,' and she answered, "You see, my dear, you can't take advantage.'" The incident may have shaken a little of the paprika from her tail, but the dancer learned a valuable lesson from it: "This was twenty five million years ago, but I'm telling you this because I'll never forget that feeling and from that moment on I have never taken advantage of anyone: my friends, my coworkers, my status; whatever that might be."
Mitzi studied dancing with a woman by the name of Madame Kathryn Etienne. "She was a fabulous woman and was Nico Charisse's sister. Of course, Nico was Cyd Charisse's husband. As you know, Cyd's real name was Tula Finklea. She was an American Indian. She was also the best movie dancer I'd ever seen in my life. However, it was Mme Etienne who taught me to ‘give'." Slipping into Mme Etienne's accent-which sounds like a combination of Carmen Miranda and Danny Kaye-- the dancer says, "Mitzi, you must give darling. You must, you must! We are going to make Mitzi a movie star!" Mitzi looks back at that period of life and ruminates, "I was about eleven at the time. Now what were they going to do with an eleven year old kid who looked thirty?" Ultimately Mitzi's family moved to California was the urging of Madame Etienne.
"Anyhow, my auntie and I went to the Philharmonic Auditorium which is where they had the Civic Light Operas and we saw RIO RITA or something. I thought, 'Oh my gosh, wouldn't this be great?' Besides, I really wanted to be a ballerina. I looked in the program and saw that the choreographer was a woman named Ada Broadbent. Searching the newspapers, I found that she also gave dance classes. So I took dance class from her and she said, ‘Mitzi, I want you to be one of my dancers.' Now I am twelve years old but still looking thirty. I still have my first canceled check from my very first job. I got paid ten dollars for a New Year's Eve performance at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. I did ‘The Waltz of the Flowers en pointe and ‘The Dance of the Toy Soldiers'.
Later, Ada Broadbent invited Mitzi to dance in the Civic Light Opera. "My dream came true!" remembers the star. "So I started out with the Civic Light Operas. In my first job there I was a flower girl in a night club. Remember-- I started wearing a bra when I was ten--but mamma mia, I came out with my hair in a big bouffant thing and said, ‘Flowers for the lady' three times and I was already a pro! I had my social security card and I was ready to go!" Mitzi was also cast in the Civic Opera's versions of Jerome Kern's ROBERTA and THE FORTUNE TELLER which Edwin Lester though was good enough to take to Broadway.
Mitzi giggles effusively as she recalls her experience of doing THE FORTUNE TELLER on Broadway: "Oh yeah, sure! We had all these big, blonde, suntanned beefs coming to New York to do a few numbers en pointe. Well, we got destroyed! One time the comic at the beginning of the show stepped out of character and said, ‘I know that we outnumber you two-to-one but I guarantee we're harmless!' and those four people who were sitting in the theater just adored us! I think we played about six weeks."
She continues: "Everyone went back to California except me. I went to Philadelphia where SONG OF NORWAY was playing. I took over a part that every girl in the ballet wanted. This was Balanchine's company. They'd all been promised the role but then this Hungarian beef with paprika on her tail from Hollywood was brought in to take over the part. Well, nobody spoke to me and I had no rehearsal. I stayed with them all through the winter and then we came back to California where we opened the season. Then they were going to do Irving Berlin's LOUISIANA PURCHASE with the original cast. You know, Vera Zorina, Victor Moore, Billy Gaxton and Irene Bordoni. I was given a part in that. I was the ingénue. Every time I did a show, I got another step up and better billing, which we all work for, my darling! In this particular show my partner was Tommy Rall and we've been friends ever since."
It was in a production of THE GREAT WALTZ with Dorothy Sarnoff and Walter Slezak where Mitzi danced with George Zorich that she was discovered for the movies. At the same time she was auditioning for Cole Porter's OUT OF THIS WORLD and sang for the composer at his home on Mockingbird Drive in Hollywood. "It was a beautiful French Regency house with those gorgeous brass knockers on the doors. Now I'd never seen Cole Porter, so when a man answered the door wearing a white shirt and a black tie, I said ‘Hello, I'm Mitzi, Mr. Lester said I should come and sing for you.' The man told me he was the butler and I asked if Mr. Porter was home. The butler said, ‘He is indeed and he's expecting you, please walk this way.'
"I was led to the den where there was this big piano and he had all these silver framed pictures of queens and kings. Of course in his case there were more queens than kings, but I was looking at the furniture. You know those tags on the cushions that say ‘Warning: if you tear this off we'll send you to jail for the rest of your life'? I looked and there wasn't one tag like that. He was so rich he didn't have them. All of a sudden I heard ‘Ahem' and saw Mr. Porter sitting at the piano. He'd been watching me go through all his cushions. He was a little bitty guy and he came up to my boobies. Finally he said, ‘You're Mitzi' and I responded, ‘Yeah. Boy, did you scare me!' He asked what I'd like to sing for him and when I told him, he asked what key I'd like it played in. When I told him, he responded me that he didn't like to play the song in that particular key; to which I answered, ‘Well you wrote it, didn't you?' Can you believe this? So I sang for him a cappella and got the job."
So Mitzi was set to appear on Broadway in OUT OF THIS WORLD with David Burns. At the same time she was doing THE GREAT WALTZ downtown at the Philharmonic and was going to be in the movie, "So I tested for the film and I went into movies because everyone wants to be a movie star, darling!"
One of her first successes was Irving Berlin's THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS. In addition to Ethel Merman and Mitzi, the film starred Donald O'Connor, Dan Dailey, Johnny Raye and newcomer Marilyn Monroe. "I loved that film," remembers the dancer. "I got to play Ethel Merman's daughter and we became great friends. She's called me and says, ‘Hello Mitzelluh!' and I'd say, ‘How are you Ethel?' To which Ethel would ask, ‘How'd you know it was me, kid?' ‘I don't know,' I'd answer, ‘Just a lucky guess!' We were very close. I was going with Jack Bean at that time. We weren't married yet. Ethel wanted me to marry him. She'd keep saying, ‘That's a helluva guy, kid. A helluva guy!' Ethel was so naughty, but God she was good. I only got to see the very, very best in her."
There had been rumors circulating at the time that Johnny Raye was hearing impaired when he filmed SHOW BUSINESS. How could Mitzi work with a deaf singer in a movie musical? "Beautifully. He was lovely. He wore a hearing aid. He wore two of them, in fact. Whenever there'd be any bickering going on or anything, he'd just pull them out, go and get a newspaper and sit down and read." Mitzi laughs wholeheartedly when she recollects this and continues: "He was a little nonplussed by the experience of being in a film with so many seasoned professionals... He was a sweetheart, though. A real sweetheart."
Marrilyn Monroe was another matter. "She was in the process of giving birth to herself," comments Mitzi. "She was always late. It wasn't an affectation. It was because she was petrified. Ethel would be saying, ‘Alright, bring in the blonde!' and we'd sit and have a cup of coffee or something and I learned that: a) you don't tug on Superman's cape b) you don't spit in the wind c) you don't take the mask off the Lone Ranger and d) you don't make Ethel Merman wait...for anything!"
Perhaps the one screen role that Mitzi Gaynor will always be remembered for is the 1958 screen adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's immortal SOUTH PACIFIC. The soundtrack recording of the score has never gone out of print and remains a perennial best-seller to this day. The film also earned Mitzi a Golden Glob nomination as Best Actress in a Musical. What are the star's recollections of the film?
"I recall it was nothing but great fun and I loved meeting Lidia and Rossano Brazzi." At this point Mitzi slips into a remarkable Italian accent and beomes the couple, "Lidia, shut uppa you mouth," "Rossano, you international son-of-a-bitch!" Mitzi refers to them as "The Italian ‘I Love Lucy' and chuckles when she says it. "The movie was filmed on the Hawaiian Islands where the mean temperature is 1000 degrees in the summertime and the humidity is so bad you could drown just walking down the street, and Lidia came with big trunks filled with furs and chinchilla coats; she thought she 'was gonna meeta da king!' And there were times when we'd go to the beach and Rossano would wear an Italian bathing suit and I'd say, ‘Mamma mia, never before has so little fabric covered up so much Italian with all that gold around his neck! Oh God we had fun! We really, really had fun!"
"You know, we had to re-dub the whole picture because the camera was a new, the Todd-A-O camera, and Josh Logan (the film's director) would get so into directing that he'd put his hands in his pockets and jingle his change. That was all picked up on the soundtrack. Also, airplanes would fly overhead and no matter how hard you try you can't stop airplanes no matter who you are. You just can't stop airplanes. The crew, though, was divine!"
Looking back on the finished product, how does Mitzi feel about the colored filters that were used throughout the movie? "If you saw the movie now, you probably wouldn't even notice it compared to what goes on in film these days. It's just amazing. What happened was that Josh wanted to use the filters to develop a change in mood. When he saw the dailies he felt he had to eliminate the filters but the ramifications were such that we'd have to start shooting the film all over again. Don't forget that was fifty years ago." At that point the film actress paused. "Fifty years ago. Isn't that scary?"
Fifty years may be a long time, but it's not scary when one realizes that Mitzi Gaynor is still a vital force in the performing arts. She is the president of the Professional Dancer's Society which helps both active and inactive dancers and she works with the Actors Fund of America to provide low income housing, retirement and nursing facilities for entertainment professionals.
Despite a career that was marked by incredible achievement, Mitzi Gaynor is still searching for new projects. Her latest is the public television documentary called "Mitzi Gaynor Razzle Dazzle: The program wonderfully celebrates her television special and features what could easily be called "the best of the best". Among the highlights of the program are her duet with Michael Landon as they perform Cole Porter's "DeLovely", Mitzi's solo turn in Leonard Bernstein's "I Can Cook Too", a dramatic "Love is Blue", a charming rendition of Kander and Ebb's "Married" (which features a cameo appearance by her late husband Jack Bean) and a sensational version of Leiber and Stoller's "I Am Woman" with Susanne Pleshette and Jane Withers. It should be mentioned that Mitzi looks absolutely sensational in one stunning Bob Mackie gown after another. The entire documentary flies by much too quickly and features incisive commentary from Rex Reed, Kelly O'Hara, Kristin Cheoweth, Carl Reiner, Bob Mackie, choreographer Tony Charmoli and dancers Alton Ruff and Randy Doney. Mitzi also does her share of the commentary and it's good to know that time has only enhanced her beauty and sharpened her sense of humor. The show makes the viewer realize how good variety specials were on television and leaves them yearning for a revival of this video art form.
"Mitzi Gaynor:Razzle Dazzle! The Special Years" airs tonight October 11, 2008 at 8 PM on New York Public Television WLIW (Channel 21). It's part of the station's fund raising programming and will feature Mitzi live and in person between "acts" of her documentary.
Still, Mitzi isn't about to rest on her past successes. In the works is a stage show called RAZZLE DAZZLE: MY LIFE BEHIND THE SEQUINS. It's promised to be a song and dance extravaganza and will tour the United States and Canada before coming to Broadway.
It was mentioned that the movie WALL-E features several tunes from HELLO, DOLLY and the film seems to have sparked interest in a revival of the 1964 show. Of all the names that have been bandied about as being the new Dolly Gallagher Levi, Mitzi Gaynor's has been curiously absent. Would she consider a return to Broadway if such a revival became a reality? "That is something I would have to think about. I was there on opening night and I saw Carol Channing. It was an absolutely fantastic thing. I've never considered it It's a lovely part and now that you've put it in my ear, I'll have to think about it." Wouldn't it be wonderful to see Mitzi Gaynor coming down the stairs of the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant in a red gown that Bob Mackie has created just for her? To say nothing about how incredible she'd look twirling around the stage in the "Dancing" number in Act One? We'll all have to wait and see. Until then, we can pacify ourselves by watching her incredibly entertaining "Mitzi Gaynor: Razzle Dazzle! The Special Years" when it airs on WLIW on October 11th. (8 pm).
For more information, please go to www.missmitzigaynor.com