News Column

Mitzi Gaynor, a leg or two up on showbiz to this day, dances into Ojai

August 22, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 22--Mitzi Gaynor still kicks it up on the dance floor after all these years and is a cinch to chase a few dust bunnies into the corners when she performs Saturday night in Ojai.

She's one of the last links to Hollywood's Golden Age, and still knows how to make an entrance.

"Boy, do I love a man who's on time," Gaynor purred in her unmistakable voice at the onset of an interview from her Beverly Hills home a couple weeks back.

Her high-spirited, electric performances are the stuff of legend. She landed highly sought-after roles in the film musicals that were all the rage in 1950s Hollywood -- crowned, of course, by her signature turn as Ensign Nellie Forbush in 1958's "South Pacific," now rumored to be on the remake trail more than a half-century later. Gaynor fell into the arms of the era's leading men -- Gene Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Donald O'Connor -- and also counted Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Ethel Merman among her co-stars.

She stopped them jaw-drop dead at the Oscars one year. She was on "The Ed Sullivan Show" with The Beatles that memorable month of February 1964 and to hear her tell it, it was her sweat and wiggle that made news the next day.

Much of this will flavor her show at the Ojai Art Center's annual benefit Saturday night. That comes on the heels of Gaynor receiving a lifetime achievement award at the 2011 Ojai Film Festival, an honor she called "just marvelous."

She will sing, dance and talk about her epic career in theater, film and TV. She said she will talk about Sinatra, Kelly, O'Connor and crew -- as well as the time she almost married billionaire tycoon-filmmaker Howard Hughes.

"I'm gonna tell some stories, get away with murder -- I hope -- and I'll change my costume six times," Gaynor said cheerily.

Singin' and dancin' on celluloid

"South Pacific" remains her calling card. Gaynor said people still recognize her as the Forbush character and ask her to sing "I'm gonna wash that man right outta my hair and send him on his way" and such.

"I'm so grateful for it," she said. "Listen, if I hadn't done 'South Pacific,' you and I would not be talking today."

Director Josh Logan, she recalled, wisely had the cast rehearse for three weeks before they ever took it on the road to shoot, in this case Kaua'i in the Hawaiian Islands.

There, Gaynor learned it was hard for a woman to go on location, especially when she was playing a girl clad in Navy duds with a girdle on "and you need to go to the bathroom and there's no place to go. That was tough."

Though it was a lighter musical that typified this stage of her career, Gaynor said they were on set six days a week, leaving little time to frolic in paradise.

"I never did get a chance to sit down on the beach with a towel and get a tan," she said.

The Forbush character was one of several plum film roles -- "Mary Martin didn't speak to me because she wanted the part so badly" -- that Gaynor landed in the 1950s. (Martin had played Forbush in the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical on Broadway.)

Gaynor's other films included "Anything Goes" (1956, with O'Connor and Bing Crosby), "Les Girls" (1957, with Kelly) and "The Joker Is Wild" (1957, with Sinatra). Gaynor also was in "There's No Business Like Show Business" (1954, with Monroe, Merman and O'Connor).

Kelly, she said, was adorable and fun, "and a pain-in-the-ass Virgo, just like me." He was the best dance partner, in part because he could do lifts better than anyone. But, Gaynor added, he was not the best pure dancer; that honor went to O'Connor, whom she called "the best solo dancer I ever saw."

Sinatra, she said, was likely the reason she got the more downbeat "The Joker Is Wild."

"I don't know why they chose me for it, but Frank wanted me in it, and I liked that," she said. "Boy, he was nice -- a sweet, sweet man. He always wanted to be a comic, you know?"

A 'company girl'

Gaynor said she's fortunate she never worked with a stinker, or what she also called "an ick," adding, "I don't think I could do a good job if I had to work with an ick."

She landed some of this lofty work based on her talent, but Gaynor also noted that she was a "company girl" -- first at 20th Century Fox and later at Paramount -- in the old studio system days, where actors were under contract, often traded like baseball cards or given out on loan.

At times, she recalled, she was working on three films at once in the crank-it-out system. On the 1953 film "Down Among the Sheltering Palms," she played an island girl.

"Can you believe that?" she remarked. "I remember my wig was sliding up and down, and they had to keep putting more dark makeup on my forehead."

Though a studio contract could mean steady work, the system could also be harsh. Soon after completing 1954's "There's No Business Like Show Business," Gaynor was canned from Fox, via a letter.

Kelly found out before they did "Les Girls" that it would be his last film at MGM, she said, adding, "He practically created the musical department at Metro, he did all this amazing work, and they just let him go."

It also happened to Clark Gable, she noted.

Oh that Howard Hughes

These were heady, whirlwind times for Gaynor. She was born Francesca Marlene de Czanyi von Gerber in Chicago in September 1931 to a ballerina mom -- "she was a great dancer" -- and a professional musician father, another of those "pain-in-the-ass Virgos" like her.

After a short stint in Detroit, the family moved to Hollywood when she was 11. By 13, she was dancing ballet and performing in chorus lines for the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. At 17, she signed with 20th Century Fox and made her feature film debut in the 1950 musical comedy "My Blue Heaven," for which she changed her name to Mitzi Gaynor.

In the early 1950s, Howard Hughes tried to woo her away from Fox over to RKO Studios -- and romantically. She and her mother went to his place.

"He was very sweet, so nice and on time," Gaynor recalled. "I felt a spark. He felt a spark. And we fell in love. I left the boyfriend I'd had since I was 16, thank you very much."

Gaynor called the brief relationship "tumultuous" and experienced some of the legendary Hughes persistence. He had a special phone installed that only rang when it was him on the line -- and, she said, he "kept asking me to marry him every hour on the hour."

"Then I found out he was saying the same thing to 140 girls at the same time," Gaynor recalled of the guy who's said to have dated Ava Gardner and Katharine Hepburn, among many others.

In 1954, after she got fired from her Fox contract, Gaynor married agent-publicist Jack Bean (who once managed the jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald). Bean quickly became Gaynor's manager.

After her run of film musicals in the 1950s, Gaynor quit cinema in the early 1960s; her last credit was 1963's "For Love or Money" with Kirk Douglas.

Gaynor said there wasn't anything more for her to do there; her type of film musical had run its course.

Around the same time, Gaynor was approached about doing what evolved into her Las Vegas headliner shows.

Lightning on Ed Sullivan and the Oscars

In February 1964, Gaynor appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" along with The Beatles, a week after their famed Feb. 9, 1964, appearance that's now considered a seminal moment in pop music history.

Gaynor said they really were "fabulous" and that "The Boys" all asked for her autograph.

The theater where they taped Sullivan that night was "all bloody hot and humid," Gaynor said, adding that the place was "so jammed you couldn't believe it."

"I was wearing a very low cut dress, and I gave this little wiggle and the water was dripping off me," she said. "And the next day, the Catholic Church was all over the papers saying, 'Mitzi Gaynor was so lascivious.' But they didn't see The Boys sweat, because their hair was all over their faces."

She also left mouths agape at the Academy Awards in 1967, when Gaynor sang and danced to the title track from the film "Georgy Girl," which was up for four Oscars, including best original song (a hit for The Seekers).

It was a dazzling performance -- aided immensely, Gaynor said, by her getting to use her own orchestra, including her guitar player, piano player and drummer.

"We kind of stopped the show cold," Gaynor said. "We didn't know what to do -- they just kept applauding and applauding and applauding. We're sitting there up on stage going, 'OK, what do we do next?' Bob Hope (the show's host) was wondering about that. Finally, I think they cut away to a commercial break."

The appearance helped Gaynor land a series of popular TV variety specials that ran from the late 1960s to the late 1970s.

Almost all those shows were produced by her husband, Bean. He passed away in 2006; they'd been married and worked together for more than 50 years.

"When he died, it almost killed me," Gaynor said in the one moment where her voice dropped a few octaves in enthusiasm. "I don't want to say much more about it, because it's still almost like it happened yesterday. Anyone who tells you they get over it is wrong; you don't get over it when it was a true love match. You don't. You don't."

Gaynor said she resumed performing "because that's what Jack would have wanted."

At 81, Gaynor still dances -- which she has called the hardest entertainment profession. She said she studies performances and moves. She has her own gym and dance studio and works out but added, "I gotta tell you, I never did like doing that."

But that's show business. After all these years, she's still got spirit. Said Gaynor: "I love that feeling you sense in the audience when the show lights are about to come up. And then you realize all these people paid money and came to see you."

Mitzi Gaynor

The veteran entertainer will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Ojai Art Center, 113 S. Montgomery St. The show is a benefit for the nonprofit center. Tickets are $85 for general admission and $125 for VIP seating. A preshow reception -- with drinks, appetizers and a silent auction -- will start at 7 p.m. Gaynor will attend a dessert reception after the show. For tickets, call 640-8797 or 646-0117. For more information, visit www.ojaiartcenter.org.

On the Net

To watch Gaynor's showstopping performance of "Georgy Girl" on the 1967 Academy Awards, visit http://tinyurl.com/lba7r2q.

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