News Column

Remembering Esther Williams, the 'Million-Dollar Mermaid' [San Bernardino County Sun (CA)]

July 8, 2013

YellowBrix

Esther Williams, the film star and original bathing beauty who graced the silver screen and countless swimming pools across Southern California, passed away on June 6 at her home in Los Angeles.

At 91, Williams had been out of the spotlight for many years, but her unique legacy lives on in her films, and a splashy poolside lifestyle that personified Southern California's allure in the 1940s and '50s.

Few stars of any era can say they've had a unique movie genre created specifically around their looks and talent, but Esther Williams could have made that claim.

Esther Jane Williams was born in Inglewood on August 8, 1921. Her family moved to Southern California to be near the Hollywood studios where Esther's older brother Stanton had become a child star.

To many of her fans in Southern California, Esther was a genuine hometown girl, who hit the big time right in her own backyard.

Esther's Inland Empire fans felt a strong connection because she was a frequent guest at the Arrowhead Springs Hotel, the posh resort above San Bernardino, where the hotel's exquisite pool took on her famous name.

From an early age, Esther sensed that water was her natural element, and she dreamed of a career as a swimmer. When she graduated from high school, 17-year-old Esther Williams was a stunning, competitive swimmer who already had caught the eye of movie studio scouts. She held numerous swimming records and titles, and was a serious contender for a spot in the 1940 Olympics.

Esther's dreams seemed to be crushed when the Olympics were cancelled due to the onset of World War II. With her swimming career in doubt, she took a job as a clerk at the I. Magnin store in Los Angeles, where she also modeled clothing and swimwear.

While working at I. Magnin, Esther got a call to audition for Billy Rose, the flashy producer of the Aquacade, a new venue that offered "swimming as entertainment." Esther was hired to star in Rose's new Aquacade show in San Francisco, and her career as a "professional mermaid" began.

The Aquacade gave Williams her first real taste of show business as she teamed up with Johnny Weissmuller, former Olympic gold medal swimmer, and star of the popular Tarzan movies.

While working in San Francisco, Esther married her first husband, Leonard Kovner, a premed student she had met earlier in Los Angeles. The Aquacade closed in September of 1940, and Esther came back to Los Angeles and her old job back at I. Magnin.

In 1940, MGM Studios was looking for a new twist to compete with 20th Century Fox's lucrative ice skating musicals, starring former Olympic skating star Sonja Henie. Rather than create an original format, MGM's boss Louis B. Mayer said; "Melt the ice, get a swimmer, make it pretty."

MGM repeatedly approached Williams to star in a new "aqua musical," but she was content with her job and her new marriage, and refused their offers.

In 1941, Esther was asked to model swimwear for I. Magnin at the recently opened Arrowhead Springs Hotel. I. Magnin had a new shop in the hotel, and all of the store's executives including chairman Grover Magnin were seated at the beautiful scallop-edged pool for the fashion show.

Finally, in October of 1941, Louis B. Mayer personally convinced Esther to sign a contract with MGM to make aqua musical movies. Her first starring role in a feature-length film was "Andy Hardy's Double Life," co-starring Mickey Rooney, in 1942.

Most of Esther's films were an interesting musical hybrid that substituted some kind of spontaneous synchronized swimming routine for the standard dance numbers. The studio built elaborate sets, and pools designed especially for underwater filming to launch the new genre of aqua musicals.

In October of 1943, Esther did a swimming exhibition at the Arrowhead Springs Hotel pool with her former Aquacade co-star Johnny Weissmuller. The hotel had been converted into a Naval convalescent hospital, and Williams was making regular tours to entertain the servicemen.

Esther returned to Arrowhead Springs in November of 1943, for a celebrity golf benefit where she acted as an "official scorekeeper."

In 1945, Esther starred in another aqua-spectacular, "Thrill of a Romance," with Van Johnson. The film featured a beautiful scallop- edged studio pool that closely resembled the pool at Arrowhead Springs. The set even had a backdrop that looked very much like the Arrowhead Springs Hotel.

In the aqua-musical era, any hotel would have been flattered to have their pool copied for a movie set. It's likely that this film prompted people to start calling the pool at Arrowhead Springs "The Esther Williams Pool." The name fittingly stuck, and it's still referred to by that name today.

In July of 1947, Modern Screen Magazine did a full photo spread on Williams and her second husband, TV-star Ben Gage, vacationing and relaxing at Arrowhead Springs. The spread covered the usual frolicking in the pool, a game of tennis, and of course, a trip to the resort's famous mineral baths.

Esther's career skyrocketed, but she was almost always typecast in a swimming role. She went on to become one of Hollywood's most bankable and popular stars, with more than 30 major films to her credit. Esther acted, swam and even sang. She recorded the Christmas classic "Baby it's Cold Outside," with co-star Ricardo Montalban in "Neptune's Daughter," in 1949.

Her personal life was filled with struggles, and far from glamorous, but her talent and tenacity took her beyond the challenges of a lifetime in the spotlight. By the late 1950s, Esther's career began to wind down, and she retired from films in the early 1960s. At the height of her aquatic film career, she started her own line of swimming pools and swimwear, and they continue to be popular today.

In addition to her stunning good looks, and amazing athleticism, Esther Williams was truly the godmother of synchronized swimming. And for all of her Southern California fans, a small reminder of her legacy, known as the Esther Williams Pool, lives on at Arrowhead Springs.

Contact Mark Landis at historyinca@yahoo.com

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