Thoroughly Modern Mitzi
As a DVD of her famed NBC-TV specials gets released, Mitzi Gaynor looks back at her remarkable career.
But the big event in her life right now is the November 18 release of the DVD, Mitzi Gaynor: Razzle Dazzle! The Special Years (City Lights Home Entertainment/Green Isle Productions). It's a compilation of segments from her famous NBC specials -- including such fondly remembered numbers as "Pretty," "Let's Go," and "Limehouse Blues" -- along with clips from the film version of South Pacific (in which she played Nellie Forbush) and interviews with people such as Kelli O'Hara, Kristin Chenoweth, Carl Reiner, and Rex Reed.
While Gaynor, a true triple-threat, was the star of those Emmy Award-winning specials -- which ran from 1968 to 1978 -- she gives full credit for their success to her husband Jack Bean, a former agent. "He was the real genius behind the specials, because he let me focus on performing while he put together the shows," says Gaynor. "I was also blessed to have the best dancers, choreographers Peter Gennaro and Danny Daniels, and two unheralded dance geniuses, Bob Sidney, and Tony Charmoli, who worked behind the scenes to make stars look good when they danced."
Indeed, TV audiences had rarely seen anything like the Gaynor specials, which were shot big-screen-style with huge production values and beautiful, often outrageous costumes by Bob Mackie. "When we brought Bob aboard to costume the specials, he took one look at me and said, 'Has there ever been a waist that small? I can do good stuff for you,'" she recalls. "And he certainly did."
The specials came about after one unusual television appearance. "The thing that cinched me doing the first special was singing 'Georgy Girl' on the 1967 Academy Awards, even though I hadn't seen the film and didn't know the song," she says. For the number, Bob Sidney first dressed Gaynor as a schoolgirl in a frock with a huge bow and larger-than-Carol-Channing glasses -- which got stripped away to reveal a skimpy, quite revealing Mackie sparkler. "The applause was deafening. They had a hard time getting the audience to sit down so the show could go on," she recalls. "So, Jack being no fool said to me, 'Would you do more TV? They seem to like you.' And I replied, 'Maybe that's a good idea.'"
Millions would tune in to watch her sing and dance. And Gaynor says she was truly born to dance. "I've danced all my life. My aunt was a dancing teacher and that started it. I studied ballet when I was 11 with Kathryn Etienne, who urged my parents to move from Chicago to California," notes Gaynor. She started there as a dancer in light opera. "I got my first paycheck at 13 and worked my way up in roles in Los Angeles and San Francisco. I played one tour in New York, but I had a job making good money, so I didn't think about Broadway and ended up back in California. When I came out of light opera and started in films, I thought I was the youngest, the cutest, and the smartest. Decent roles came my way, but not the stardom I hoped for."
In 1950, she considered Broadway quite seriously and wrangled an audition for Out of This World with Cole Porter at his Hollywood mansion. It didn't start so well. "I was in awe of his home and the hundreds of pictures all over the place with him with royalty and movie stars. I didn't know he was in the room observing me," she says. "Then when I sang some of his songs, he didn't know my key. I was a bit of a smartie and blurted, 'You should, you wrote them.' That sort of broke the ice. He offered me a role." But, as had happened before, a movie offer intervened. "I had to make a living. It was a tough decision, but the money was the deciding factor."
She continued to work in Hollywood throughout the 1950s, making such films as The I Don't Care Girl, There's No Business Like Show Business, Anything Goes, and Les Girls. "But I wouldn't be here talking to you if it hadn't been for South Pacific," she says of the 1958 film version of the Broadway megahit. "I felt the pressure when I auditioned, but I was the right age and sang in the right keys. I have to admit that Jack got me the part by getting Joshua Logan to invite me over. We talked for hours and he saw that I was a professional."
She expected the film's success to completely change her career -- and maybe even earn her an Oscar. (All she got was a Golden Globe nomination.) "I thought I'd have plays and musicals written for me, be offered film musicals, and that I'd be Miss Hollywood and Miss Broadway, but it didn't happen," she says. "Instead, I got Surprise Package, starring Yul Brynner and Noel Coward, and that was it."
In 1961, with her film career on the downswing, she was offered the opportunity to play Las Vegas. "I wasn't that enthusiastic. I didn't know how to do nightclub acts,"she says. "So Jack and I spoke to Bob Sidney. He was a great confidence builder and had a unique style. He put his heart and soul into creating an act, and we soon became the toast of the Strip!"
As generous as she is with crediting others for her success, Gaynor also knows that her work ethic played a large part in her stardom. "I never came to anything unprepared," she notes. "On the specials, Jack drummed it into my head that time was money. He'd say, 'If we know what we're doing, we can get it done fast. If we get it right the first time, we won't have to do it again."