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There's Certainly No Business Like Show Business for Mitzi Gaynor

January 16, 2015

"I can't wait to hear what you're gonna write...I think I'm in a lot of trouble!"


If I could, I would simply list all the memorable quotes straight from the mouth of Mitzi Gaynor, who cheerfully took the stage at the Regent Theater for a vibrant Q&A with critic Stephen Farber to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of There's No Business Like Show Business in December 2014.


(Wait a second. This is my blog, so I can, in fact, do whatever I want. Since there are so many great quotes, they will be sprinkled throughout and listed at the end for your amusement).  


There's No Business Like Show Business opened 60 years ago, almost to the day of Gaynor's appearance, on December 16, 1954. With an all-star cast and score built around classic songs from Irving Berlin, the film follows a vaudeville couple, Molly and Terry Donahue (Ethel Merman and Dan Dailey), who raise their three children in the theater to varying results: Steve (Johnnie Ray) ends up leaving the act to pursue his dream on another stage: God's, joining the priesthood, much to his parent's initial chagrin; Katy (Mitzi Gaynor) follows in her parents footsteps all the way to Broadway and gets hitched along the way to Charles Gibbs (Hugh O'Brian); and perhaps the most dramatic of them all, Tim (Donald O'Connor), falls for hat check girl/rising starlet Vicky Parker (Marilyn Monroe), which puts a strain on their family act when she joins as an opener and eventually takes Katy and Tim to Broadway with her.

Originally, I thought I hadn't seen There’s No Business Like Show Business, but when the film began I remembered that I had watched it on the small screen. Though my first viewing didn't imprint itself in my mind, this one certainly did; lively musicals are much more fun to watch (not to mention memorable) projected 30 feet and with an audience.


The high energy of the musical numbers and comedy provided by most of the cast, especially Merman and Monroe, contrast with some of the more serious storylines, including Steve entering the priesthood and Tim’s alcohol abuse and eventual desertion of his family. The tonal changes can be a bit jarring, but the cast handles them well. Though the film runs a little less than two hours, I personally felt 15-20 minutes could have been easily cut; for instance, as noted by my companions, several of the musical numbers have nothing to do with the script or scene in question (albeit all are excellently performed). However, I don’t think the movie’s length and at times random performances bothered me as much as it did them. Though musicals generally aren’t my favorite, I am drawn to explosive performances, and this movie certainly provides enough of those – and in succession – to keep me occupied until the end. 


Though I enjoyed the movie, I must say that the discussion edged the film out in terms of sheer pleasure. Before the picture began, Gaynor took the stage slowly, not because she had trouble walking, but rather she took some time to gaze out into the audience. “So, what are you kids doing here?” she asked the crowd. Her voice had a youthful exuberance to it.


“We’re here to see you!” several people shouted.

She was beaming: “Oh, isn’t that nice!”

Moderator Stephen Farber with Mitzi Gaynor at the Regent Theater. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Gaynor joked that she had a bad back as she was helped into her chair. “Kids, don’t ever get a bad back!” she advised us. Note taken. Once comfortably seated, she directed the audience, dispersed throughout the theater, to come closer for the Q&A, and a good number did. I could tell we were about to be treated to an epic storytelling!


Farber’s first question for Gaynor focused on the movie’s background and how she was cast as Katy: “Well, I was born in Chicago to a poor but very wealthy family,” she began. It seemed she was going to start much further back than the movie, which was fine by us.


Though born in Chicago, Gaynor came from Detroit, or Detroite, as she liked to call it (however you correctly stress that). She entered her teens as WWII raged on - the big war, “not the First World War or the War Between the States,” she insisted, just in case we tried to age her.


“Can I just go on and on and on?” she asked Farber. He replied that he may stop her at points to expand upon something she says, but for now she could. “That’s what he thinks!” 


Gaynor went on to explain that when she was 12 – her family had moved to Los Angeles, I found out – she wanted to audition for the Civic Light Opera (“Anyone remember them?” she asked. Yes, people did), but she was too young. She became age eligible the next year, and after auditioning again, she was accepted and put under contract.  At that point, someone in the audience shouted (barely) the name Edwin Lester, who was the founder of the Civic Light Opera: “Who said Edwin Lester? You’re gorgeous. I love you so. I want to see you later!”  

Teenage Gaynor during her days with the LA Civic Light Opera.

That was the kind of rapport Gaynor shared with the audience. With remarks like that, she had us laughing up a storm, but on the other hand, oftentimes the room was in complete silence and in total awe of her; she was incredibly bubbly, animated, energetic, warm, personable, and absolutely hilarious. Also, I’m pretty sure she ended up inviting the entire audience out multiple times that evening. And I'm equally as sure we all would have accepted those invites.


Anyways, getting back to the actress' teen years and her first experience in the field, Gaynor gushed that she adored working at the Civic Light Operas. “Edwin Lester fell in love with me, and I fell in love with him. I was 13 going on 30!” While dancing and performing in Lester’s shows, Gaynor caught the eye of Sol Siegel, a producer of "wonderful movies," but “right now I can’t think of any of them,” she admitted. Humorously, Gaynor turned to her “boss”/manager Rene, who she told to stand up, to help her out. When he struggled with an answer, she remarked: “He knows everything except that!” He whipped out his phone to look up some of Siegel’s credits, to which Gaynor replied, “OK - don’t interrupt!” Her comedic timing was just as sharp as it was 60 years ago! (Note: Siegel produced 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives, 1950’s My Blue Heaven, and 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, among many others).


Gaynor’s first picture in Hollywood was 1950’s My Blue Heaven, starring Betty Grable. Apparently, Grable hated her. Why? The 18 year old Gaynor followed Grable around everywhere, even the restroom! She was about to go on when she interjected: “You don’t want to hear all of this….as I said I could cook you dinner, or make you breakfast.” Um, yes to both, please, slight innuendo aside.


Gaynor then ventured into personal territory, or, more accurately, her romantic life, which proved ripe for the (story) picking! Apparently, she was dating someone when she was 18 but broke it off because she “fell in lust” with Howard Hughes. The legendary Hughes wanted to “marry me in the worst way.” One can only imagine. “I was 18, and I was so hot!” Well, no one could ever accuse Gaynor of being bashful! She pointed to an audience member in the front row: “You were hot when you were 18 too, weren’t you? You’re never going to be that hot again!” Though this could sound like an insult, it wasn’t intended as such; that comment was playfully aimed at everyone in the audience, Gaynor included. 


The actress turned Hughes' proposal down because he was too old - she was 18 and he was 47. “Now that’s nothing!” she exclaimed. Though she didn’t accept his offer of marriage, Hughes gave her something else that she did take: advice. He advised her to buy some “dirt” in Vegas, and she ended up purchasing five acres on the Las Vegas Strip. “I’m a widow, you know, and I’m very rich! That’s why I’m here!” she joked. 


Gaynor then shared a story that made her a bit teary-eyed. “You’re going to love this by the time I get to it,” she prefaced. Apparently, she was dating an agent at MCA right after she broke up with Hughes. Gaynor was set to meet a friend for dinner, but her friend wanted to take her to an opening at the Coconut Grove instead. Gaynor dramatically recalled that she couldn’t leave the house, because she had just broken up with Hughes, and “the paparazzi would eat me alive…It was amazing how many people were dying to be with Mitzi Gaynor!”


Amidst the proud comments Gaynor scattered around, the story got a bit cloudy. I believe one of Gaynor’s male friends offered to accompany her to the opening, but she turned him down and asked someone else to find her a date (though I thought she was dating an agent...).


Anyway, getting to the point of her story, a man showed up at her door that evening to escort her to the opening. Where he came from or who sent him, I have no idea, but Gaynor lovingly described him for the audience and recalled their meeting: “I’m here to pick up Mitzi Gaynor,” he told her. “I’m Mitzi Gaynor! I’m a movie star, don’t you know me?” she dramatically pouted. “I’m sorry, Ms. Gaynor. I only see foreign films,” he replied, to which she made a droll face.


You’d think she would have discarded that man so fast – Jack Bean was his name - but that wasn’t the case. In fact, she stuck with him for 52 years, until his death in 2006. 

Gaynor with her husband, Jack Bean, in later years, still looking quite happy!

The day before the screening was the 8th anniversary of her husband’s passing. Given the occasion, Gaynor wasn’t sure she would have the strength to attend the event that night, though she was reassured by her friends that she could do it. The audience reaction to her mere presence that evening should have been another stirring indicator.


Personal and romantic life aside, Gaynor finally turned her attention to Farber’s original question on There’s No Business Like Show Business: how she landed her role in the movie, which featured a first rate cast I’ve already mentioned, including Ethel Merman (she called Merman “mom” and Merman called her “Mitzola”), Donald O’Connor (“who I’m in love with, naturally”), and “some big mousy blonde” (“I have better legs!”). Probably speaking of the latter, Gaynor claimed she could “tell you things that would curl your hair, but I won’t!”


Gaynor was under contract to Fox at the time, which is how she was considered for the part. She had a wonderful time rehearsing for the picture, partly because she said it never felt like work and partly because “I was in love and I was getting schtucked!” I don't know exactly how to spell that, but you can guess what she was referring to. You can also bet that we all burst out laughing at that one.

The cast of There's No Business Like Show Business: Johnnie Ray, Gaynor, Dan Dailey, Ethel Merman, Donald O'Connor, and Marilyn Monroe.

Gaynor's life was “paradise” while making the movie, so when she came home one day during filming to find a letter from Fox, she thought nothing of it and assumed it was from Mrs. Zanuck, whose parties she would frequently sing at. However, upon reading the message, she quickly found out that it was definitely not from Mrs. Zanuck: the note informed her that upon completion of There's No Business Like Show Business, her contract would be terminated.  


Gaynor played out her reaction six decades ago like she was on the stage, which I guess she technically was. She had been earning a living and taking care of her parents since she was 13, and now she was being dropped?! After calling Jack ("my whole life is ruined! I'll never work again!"), he calmed her down. She jokingly recalled his advice: "You've got to kill this part! You be you. Pay attention, learn from Ethel, learn from Dan, learn from Donald, stay away from that blonde lady, and we'll see what happens."


Well, we basically know what happened - Gaynor worked hard, and the effort paid off. When she finished the picture, Sol Siegel wanted to put her up for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, but since her name was above the title, he apparently wasn't able to do so. Regardless, the story underlines Gaynor’s talent and pure determination; despite what she thought would be a set-back, she overcame it, put in the work, and has been involved in the entertainment business for over seven decades. "Seventy years in four inch heels is a lot of work, kids!" One day is hard for me, so I can't even begin to feel her pain.

How can she wear those heels AND have a smile on her face?!

The conversation then shifted to "that blonde." Gaynor professed that "I wish I knew her now...She fell into a vicious viper pit." (That's a bit of an understatement). Naturally, this topic was going to come up since Marilyn Monroe is such an infamous figure – there was even a woman dressed as Monroe sitting next to me. Monroe was in the middle of sealing her iconic image around the time they made this film, and Gaynor confirmed evidence of this: Monroe's nude calendar, which created a huge scandal, hit the market at that time, but Gaynor said that Monroe was more than happy to sign copies for the fans.


Farber asked Gaynor if she had any stories she wanted to share about Monroe. Personally, Gaynor admitted that Monroe "did not like me, because I hated her!" Gaynor claimed one reason for this was the fact that apparently Monroe loved Gaynor's husband, Jack. 


Professionally, according to many accounts over the years, Monroe frequently showed up late on set, couldn’t remember her lines, etc. In this vein, Gaynor touched upon one moment in particular from filming the "Lazy" sequence on Western Avenue in LA ("You know where that is? I'm so glad!"). While Monroe barely mumbled the lyrics, Gaynor and O'Connor worked up a sweat dancing and jumping around her (for those who hadn't seen the film, Gaynor supplied a hilarious imitation of the scene from her seat). Finally, O'Connor had enough and exclaimed, "Until the lady knows what she's doing, I'll be in my dressing room!" 


O'Connor wasn't the only one agitated by Monroe's actions. Merman often chastised Monroe for being late on set: "What do you mean she's not ready, for Christ's sake!" That was Merman's favorite line, according to Gaynor: "Excuse me God - for Christ's sake! - Excuse me God!" Merman had a good mouth on her, obviously: Gaynor shared another story that involved fellow cast member Johnnie Ray, who was deaf in one ear at the time (and would become deaf in both ears a few years later). Merman yelled: "Where the f*ck is Marilyn?" so loud that Ray could hear crystal clear. The young Gaynor was taken aback at the time because she had never heard that word shouted out loud!


Despite what she said that evening about Monroe, Gaynor did bestow a large compliment on her, though she slyly prefaced it with, “I’m a Catholic girl. I don’t lie…much.” So, take from that what you may, but according to her, Monroe stole the picture with her performance in the “Heat Wave” number. “Ours were good and cute and ordinary,” but Monroe put in hours upon hours of work rehearsing that song and dance, which was choreographed by Jack Cole, who Monroe loved. “She was a really good worker,” Gaynor admitted. 

Monroe in the "Heat Wave" number.

Farber also touched upon some of the other notable personalities and stars Gaynor worked with throughout her career. Gaynor recalled a humorous incident that took place while she discussed South Pacific (1958) with Richard Rodgers. Over tea, the conversation turned to Gaynor's recent marriage, and Rodgers asked her if she'd like to be mother. Gaynor was taken aback by the remark; she told Rodgers that she had South Pacific to complete and also Les Girls (1957), among other jobs, and simply didn't have time to be a mother! To Gaynor's surprise, Rodgers asked the (very English) question in terms of teatime - Gaynor didn't know that "being mother" also referred to pouring tea! (To be honest, I didn’t know that either).


Gaynor also shared a beautiful story involving Frank Sinatra, who she worked with on The Joker is Wild (1957). During production, Gaynor's husband called to tell her that Oscar Hammerstein was coming to Los Angeles from Australia, and he wanted to hear her sing on a certain day for consideration for South Pacific. Knee deep in production, Gaynor went to director Charles Vidor to ask if she could meet Hammerstein on that particular day – of course, a big, pivotal scene just so happened to be scheduled then. At that moment, Sinatra walked by and asked Gaynor what was going on. She explained the situation to him, and Sinatra asked Vidor what scene they were filming. Once Vidor told him, Sinatra asked if the director could shoot around Gaynor. Vidor replied that it was up to Sinatra. "We'll shoot around you, baby. Go get the job!" Sinatra exclaimed.


Being Mitzi Gaynor, you know she got the job…and many more after that!

Gaynor with Frank Sinatra during The Joker is Wild.

Random, taken-out-of-context quotes from the evening that I found amusing:


“You look at me like I’m not human. I am, honest to God!” - I think we were just in awe.


“40D, hello operator!” - describing her, um, assets, when she met her husband for the first time. (Also, 40D, really? Have measurements changed?!)


“Where were you?" She gestured to a woman on the far end of the front row. The woman says she moved up for the Q&A. "Oh gosh, honey, I love it!” – adorably getting excited about an audience member she just happened to notice.


“I love you. Forget about this, let’s go eat!” – her response to our roaring laughter after she casually made a sex joke.  I also love how she referenced food so much.


"I'm going to tell you something so fast you won't believe it!" – prefacing a story that probably wasn't fast...but that's ok.


"Why is there such a thing as best writing credit when it's all four letter words?...Remember when dialogue was dialogue?" – bemoaning the use of curse words in modern films.


“He called me Yummy, and I called him Daddy.” – no, not referring to Howard Hughes, but rather her husband.


“I’m a Virgo. We’re a pain in the ass, and we’re cheap!” – she seemed to know the astrological sign of everyone she worked with!


“Where was I? I’m having such a great time!...Do you know each other?" She pointed to two people seats apart in the front row. "You look alike!” – after she went off on a tangent during one of her many stories.


“He [James Dean] couldn’t be as old as he would be…people go when they’re supposed to go and come when they come…That’s why I’m 83. I’m still trying to get it right!” – after she asked the audience how old Marilyn Monroe would be if she were still alive (88).


"Hey Mitzi, Marlon Brando is at the Essex House!" - not a quote of hers, but a remark made by three girls who walked by as she exited her hotel in NY. She thought they wanted her autograph and was poised to sign when they brushed past her!

Gaynor was totally open to taking pictures and speaking with anyone who wanted to chat with her afterwards. Adorable. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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