Family & Companions
Some sources give Ms. Grayson's birth year as 1923.
One of the favorite stars of screen musicals during their heyday in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Kathryn Grayson was a visually and vocally striking singer and actress who graced some of the most popular films of the postwar era, including "Anchors Aweigh" (1947) and "Kiss Me Kate" (1953). Blessed with a coloratura soprano from an early age, she caught the attention of MGM chief Louis B. Mayer while a teenager, and was signed to a contract without the benefit of a screen test or drama lessons. Her lack of formal training left her somewhat wanting as a screen actress, but her combination of looks and voice made her an ideal leading lady opposite some of the biggest male musical performers of the day, including Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Mario Lanza, Gordon MacRae, and her personal favorite, Howard Keel, with whom she co-starred in several hit films. The demise of the Hollywood musical, however, brought her screen career to an end, though she remained active on stage in plays, musicals and opera for the next five decades, while the best of her film efforts earned classic status, ensuring her screen immortality.
Born Zelma Kathryn Elizabeth Hedrick in Winston-Salem, NC on Feb. 9, 1922, she moved to St. Louis, MO with her family in 1927, where she later studied voice training with singer Frances Marshall of the Chicago Civic Opera. Grayson's vocal talents were evident at an early age. After moving to Los Angeles with her family for more professional training, she was signed to a contract with RCA Redseal Records at the age of 15 after a label executive heard her performing in church. Her goal during this period was the operatic stage, but it was soon squashed by MGM executive Sam Katz, who sought a rival for Universal's singing ingénue Deanna Durbin, and signed Grayson to a contract with the studio. At the time, Grayson was prepared to make her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House, but MGM chief Louis B. Mayer convinced her to direct her attention towards her burgeoning film career, reportedly by faking a heart attack.
As Kathryn Grayson - a stage name built from her middle name and her mother's maiden name - she made her film debut in the low-budget comedy programmer "Andy Hardy's Private Secretary" (1941), which allowed moviegoers to hear her singing voice for the first time. More films of that ilk soon followed, including "Rio Rita" (1942), which teamed her with Abbott & Costello, but by the mid-1940s, she was firmly ensconced as a musical star, thanks to pictures like the World War II morale booster "Thousands Cheer" (1943) and the Oscar-winning "Anchors Aweigh" (1945). In both films, Grayson held her own with Gene Kelly, as well as newly minted movie actor Frank Sinatra, which signified to audiences and studio execs alike that she was a bonafide star.
More musicals followed, including "Till the Clouds Roll By" (1946), the fictionalized biopic of composer Jerome Kern - which served as a preview of her turn in "Show Boat" six years later - and two additional teamings with Sinatra - "It Happened in Brooklyn" (1947) and the campy "Kissing Bandit" (1947). The 1950s proved to be Grayson's most popular and successful decade on film ; she earned top billing in "That Midnight Kiss" (1949), which marked the debut of opera talent Mario Lanza, and the pair reunited for "The Toast of New Orleans" (1950), which proved an even bigger hit. Off-screen, their partnership was marred by a public feud. Grayson, who had a reputation for being one of the most charming and pleasant actresses in Hollywood, lashed out at Lanza after he was quoted in the press as saying that he had a soft spot in his heart for the actress for starring in "his" first pictures. Grayson, the established studio star of the pair, fired back with complaints about Lanza's ego and propensity for foul language.
Stage musical star Howard Keel was her ideal screen partner - the duo first joined forces on the 1951 Technicolor remake of "Show Boat," and its success led to additional screen collaborations in "Lovely to Look At" (1952) and their most enduring film musical, "Kiss Me Kate" (1953), which gave her not only some of her best musical numbers, but a chance to flex an acting muscle as the hot-headed theater diva Lili Vanessi, who matches wits and words with her ex-husband (Keel) while co-starring in a musical version of "The Taming of the Shrew." Grayson was also leading lady and musical partner to such top male musical stars of the period as Gordon MacRae in "The Desert Song" (1953) and Van Johnson in "Grounds for Marriage" (1951).
The decline in popularity of film musicals also contributed to the eclipse of Grayson's film career; her final screen acting role came in "The Vagabond King" (1956), opposite Maltese opera star Oreste Kirkop, who was a last minute replacement for the temperamental Lanza. She segued briefly into television, where she earned an Emmy nomination for a 1955 episode of "General Electric Theatre" (CBS, 1953-1962), but by the following decade, she was appearing exclusively on stage. In 1960, she finally achieved her earliest goal by making her operatic debut in some of the medium's most iconic productions, including "Madame Butterfly" and "La Boheme." Grayson also replaced Julie Andrews in the Broadway production of "Camelot," and later crisscrossed the United States for over a year with the wildly successful national tour. Grayson also reunited with Keel for a popular nightclub and Las Vegas act, as well as a tour of Australia.
Grayson remained active on stage throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including turns in drama with "Night Watch" in 1982 and farce with "Noises Off" in 1987. She also returned to television during this period with a recurring role on "Murder, She Wrote" (CBS, 1984-1996), and toured the country with a one-woman show, "An Evening with Kathryn Grayson" into the late 1990s. In her final years, Grayson gave private singing lessons in her Los Angeles home, and served as supervisor for a Voice and Choral Studies Program at Idaho State University that bore her name. Grayson died in her sleep at the age of 88 on Feb. 17, 2010.
Cast (Feature Film)
Signed to a recording contract by RCA at age 15
First film appearance was in "Andy Hardy's Private Secretary" as Andy Hardy's secretary Kathryn Land
First romantic lead, "Seven Sweethearts"
Starred in the film adaptation of the musical, "Show Boat," opposite Ava Gardner and Howard Keel
Last film for MGM, "Kiss Me, Kate"
First TV appearance, "General Electric Theater" (CBS), received an Emmy nomination for her performance in the episode "Shadow on the Heart"
Co-starred in the musical film remake of "The Vagabond King"
Made operatic debut in "Madame Butterfly"
Replaced Julie Andrews as Guinevere in the Broadway production of "Camelot"
Appeared on TV in "Gene Kelly... An American in Pasadena"
Played first dramatic stage role in "Night Watch"
Starred in a stage production of the British farce, "Noises Off"
Had recurring role of Ideal Malloy on "Murder, She Wrote" (CBS)
Made TV appearance on "America's All-Star Tribute to Elizabeth Taylor"
Featured in "A Celebration of the Glorious MGM Musicals" at NYC's Carnegie Hall
Some sources give Ms. Grayson's birth year as 1923.