“You smile the song begins, you speak and I hear violins… It’s magic.” Such will always be the case regarding Doris Day. A remarkable woman whose voice, smile, humor and beauty transcends time. What exactly did Day do? Not only was she one of the most-loved singers of the 20th Century, she had a definitive skill in acting to fill the motion picture and television screens with sunshine or sadness. Let’s just say, “She was a natural.”
With her death on May 13 of 2019, all of us lost a beacon of light, a dog’s best friend and her ultimate triumph as Founder of The Doris Day Animal Foundation. It must be noted that Doris Day was a strong person who triumphed over many personal and financial tragedies.
So to discover that Julien’s Auctions (juliensauctions.com) was having a “virtual” auction by the President/ CEO Darren Julien through Julien’s Auctions was a “DAY” dream for anyone who loved her. Darren Julien sent me a hardbound catalog that weighs more than five pounds. Much heftier than the weight was the memories and her personal property over the course of over 721 glossy and full-color pages of items. Doris Day died the month after her 97th birthday (April 3rd) and this extraordinary auction was held over the course of what-would-have been her 98th birthday weekend on April 4 and April 5.
Originally planned by Julien’s Auctions as a three-day celebration and auction in Beverly Hills, because of COVID-19… all plans changed to an online auction. Julien’s finely carried this out over the course of that weekend. Being stuck at home on a rainy April weekend, it was a great treat to watch. The resulting sales of over 1,100 items was a tremendous success. A figuratively field of daisies (Day’s favorite flower) and raised with the purchases overwhelmingly almost $3,000,000.00 dollars. All the money is going directly to The Doris Day Animal Foundation. Can I get a happy wag of a tail on that! Truly feel Day would have just loved that outpouring of love, care and “Happy Soap” for her four-legged critters.
As you can see and read on showbiss.net; I have a strong regard for new and classic performers who inspire the heart with their talents. Doris Day was one of those and I’ve been an admirer of her since I was old enough to tune-in and turn-on her recordings and films. Now, let me tell ya… I sure did want one item up for auction and that was Lot 467. Captioned “Doris Day Funny Dog Sculpture,” it was a piece made of bronze depicting a small scruffy terrier mix raising his back leg to do his business. It sold for $1,920.00 dollars. Oh well, I have a real dog who does that… but I think the piece and Doris Day are just priceless. “Que Sera Sera.” Oh and hurry, the hardbound catalog is still available though it’s a top seller. (juliensauctions.com) Bye now.
John Bell on his book Elaine Stritch: The End of Pretend
Sondheim brought them together. Think of Elaine Stritch forever. When John Bell came along to talk about songs. Now stop as John and Stritch became friends, a friendship that didn’t end until the end of pretend. Admiration kept them together… and what a pleasure. Everybody rise as John Bell shares his story as a “Sondhead” and how one interview led to a growing relationship of camaraderie, closeness and truth with the one and only Elaine Stritch in his book.
Bell, a Division Head of Performing Arts and Producing Artistic Director at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pennsylvania shares some of his rich experience knowing Elaine Stritch. His book is due for publication in September of 2019.
Showbiss: After knowing Elaine for the last six years of her life, what do you think was her most marked characteristic in the time you spent together?
John Bell: For me, what I found most interesting was watching her vacillate between her brash, “always onstage” person and the more vulnerable and gentle person she could be but rarely allowed people to see. Both made Elaine whole. As she faced her mortality, it was fascinating watching how her bossy and demanding self-represented her fight to hold on the reality she had shaped but then when her physical vulnerabilities began to overwhelm her and the fight began to wane. It was so revealing about how she built her life and survived in the business.
Showbiss: Please describe what “the end of pretend” meant to her as this expression is mentioned twice in your book on Stritch.
JB: Well it’s a phrase Elaine used a couple of times and it stuck with me. She used it to talk about the art of acting, how the act of pretending to be another was a driving force for her – creating the illusion for a couple of hours and the escape it provided. She also used it to talk about moving into the phase of her life where her career was ending and she was forced into facing the vagaries of aging and eventually dying.
Showbiss: When admirers of her talent look at her career, the song “Ladies Who Lunch” is most often than not thought of. Yet, “I Never Know When to Say When” from Goldilocks in 1958 is one that I love the most because as well as being brassy, cynical and smart… she could sing a ballad so well. Your thoughts on this?
JB: As an interpreter of song, Elaine was masterful. As I watched and studied her work, what I realized was that she was expert at digging into a lyric and conjuring subtext that was deeply personal. Therefore, when she delivered the lyric, it possessed the clear and full force of her intended meaning. I always felt as if the clarity of her intention is what drew me – and any listener – into her performance, resulting in a deep connection between artist and audience. I think Barbara Cook also did this very well in her work.
Showbiss: Let’s go back to when she lived at The Carlyle Hotel. How long did Elaine live there and didn’t that suit her just fine at that time?
JB: Elaine lived at the Carlyle for a number of years. The actual date has been reported with inconsistency, so I can’t say for certain. But you are right that it suited her just fine. She loved living in a fine hotel. It started when she spent nearly a decade in London and lived with her husband John in the Savoy Hotel. Then she eventually made her way to the Carlyle. Hotel living meant she had daily maid service, a front desk to field phone calls and take messages, bellmen to deliver the newspaper, room service, etc. In essence, hotel living mean she was paying for the staffing she needed and enjoyed.
Showbiss: The video footage of Elaine Stritch singing “Ladies Who Lunch” for the Broadway soundtrack of Company is quite a trip. Late night first with no notes and looking tired. Next day she’s got her hair done and nails it out of the park with her delivery. She was simply remarkable. Share some memories of talking with her about this.
JB: Well, we had a very frank conversation about what she learned during that experience. She had requested that she record the song last because he didn’t want everyone standing around watching her record it. As a result, she had sung multiple takes of the group number in full voice all day. By the time they got to “The Ladies Who Lunch” her voice was shot. Of course, any singer knows that when the voice is not able to operate to its potential, it’s extremely distracting, fighting the actor’s attempt at the storytelling. And that’s what was captured in the documentary – sheer self-induced frustration. The next day, after some rest, she was able to deliver both the vocal and interpretive forces as she had developed them for the stage production. She said it was the first time she really experienced the limitations of her voice and learned that one actually had to take care of the instrument.
Showbiss: For those who haven’t read your book yet, will you tell them why you wrote it and how this friendship came to be because of your admiration for Stephen Sondheim?
JB: Well, I wrote the book because I had experienced what I think was a rare relationship with Elaine and felt that people who knew of her might find it interesting. As far as the Sondheim connection, I have been a big “Sondhead” since my college days. In fact, I really only learned who Elaine was because of her role in COMPANY and her singing of “Anyone Can Whistle” from his ANYONE CAN WHISTLE on the Dick Cavett Show. I used my appreciation for Sondheim and my frequent contributions to THE SONDHEIM REVIEW to land my first interview with her. That was really that starting point of our relationship.
Showbiss: My favorite is still Elaine’s STRITCH album on Dolphin Records. Do you have it? I just ordered it on CD as my LP skips now. If you have heard of this… isn’t this the first recording she made of her own and what do you think of it?
JB: I do know this recording. The selections are fun, unexpected even for the time. But what I really enjoy is hearing her young singing voice. People who only know of her work from COMPANY onward would be surprised by the tone quality and vocal overtone she was able to produce. And her interpretations hint at the quirky freedom that would blossom in her cabaret shows at the Carlyle.
Showbiss: For me, her voice comes across so well in your book. From the swear words to the flirtatious nature she had… she didn’t suffer fools wisely if that’s a way to put it. Your thoughts on that?
John Bell: For me, it’s the crowning achievement of the memoir. Everyone who has read it who had any sense of Elaine mention that they can hear Elaine’s voice jumping off the page. That pleases me. I tried so hard to capture her words, rhythms, and cadences. When I read it, I hear Elaine so it’s my way of memorializing her.
The Little Book of
Marilyn is big on inspiration. Michelle Morgan has created a veritable
treasure trove of all things “Monroe.” The book encompasses the ideals that are
purely Marilyn’s. Running from style, beauty and what she continued to strive
for with her own life skills. The photos included are phenomenal and as
refreshing as Michelle Morgan’s passionate and informative writing. As Monroe
said in The S even Year Itch standing
over the subway grate…”Oh! Do you feel the breeze from the subway? Isn’t it delicious?”
Well, The Little Book of Marilyn surely
Showbiss: Congratulations as The Little Book of Marilyn is out!
What inspired you to write your latest book on Monroe?
Michelle Morgan: Running Press was in the process of
publishing a book called The Little Book
of Bettie Page, and looking to expand the Little Book series. It was my editor’s idea to do a Marilyn version
and she asked if I had any ideas for what I might put into it. Did I?!! I could
have filled an encyclopedia with ideas! I put together a little proposal for her
and we brainstormed back and forth and then the project was eventually
commissioned. I was ecstatic to be able to write the book because it is very
different to anything I’ve written about Marilyn before. My other books have
all been serious insights into Marilyn’s life and career, whereas this book
enabled me to be creative and do things I’d never done before – like think
about what Marilyn-related items we could create, for instance!
Showbiss: I was taken aback by the amount of photos in your
“little book.” They sure pack a wallop. Running Press did a beautiful job. Did
you have a photo editor there who matched what you were creating when you wrote
this book? Or how did this work?
MM: I was incredibly pleased with the amount of photos that
Running Press wanted to put into the book! I chose all of them myself, from
three sources that were provided to me by the publisher. I tried my hardest to
include some that were rarely seen and of course some fantastic, colorful
classics! In addition to the Marilyn photos, we also have fan pictures and then
photos to accompany the tutorials, too. I organized the shoots for the
tutorials and then fans sent me photos of their collections etc. It was a huge
amount of paperwork to keep everything organized and moving forward, but it was
so much fun, too. The designer did a fabulous job, I must say. I love
everything she did – from the background colors to the fonts, layouts and
Showbiss: The back of the book is geared towards, as it
says, “today’s woman.” Regardless of sex or identity I think Marilyn fans
across the board can enjoy it. What are your thoughts on this?
MM: Oh I completely agree! I’ve heard from several gentlemen
who say they have been very much inspired by the book – especially the life skills
section – and I’m terribly excited about that. I do believe there is something
for everyone in this book… For instance, my teenage daughter never reads my
books, but she read every word of the make-up and hair tutorial!
Showbiss: The “Life Skills” chapter is one I keep going back
to. Please share the process of writing this chapter. I think it’s some of your
most thoughtful and informative writing on her.
MM: Thank you so much! I really do appreciate your kind
words and I’m thrilled that you think so. When I first wrote that chapter, it
was much smaller because I had a word limit for the project and I needed to
think about distributing it all evenly. However, when my editor read the first
draft, she suggested we make much more of this particular chapter and add
different skills to the mix. I completely agreed and once I had permission to
add the extra words, I was happy to expand it. I took inspiration from
Marilyn’s life and also the things that people had told me about her. For
instance, in the Be Kind to Animals and Children section, I wrote that Marilyn
used to throw stranded fish back into the water and then about her determination
to scare a hawk away from a family of swallows. Both of those incidents were
told to me by people who witnessed them and I think it showed just how caring
and sympathetic she was to the lives of other living beings. I hope that the
Life Skills chapter can inspire others to care more about the world around them
and to take strength from Marilyn’s perspective on life.
Showbiss: Another aspect of your book is the Marilyn
Remembered Facebook Group who are mentioned. Was this a part of your plan for
the book initially?
MM: Oh yes, definitely. I wanted to show just how much
Marilyn is loved all around the world, by people just like me. I have known
Greg Schreiner since the early 1990s, when we used to exchange letters
occasionally. I was always so thrilled to hear from Greg – he’s a superstar in
the Marilyn community – so to be able to feature his words and photos in the
book was just wonderful. I loved being able to talk to people who have been
inspired by Marilyn either as a fan, a tribute artist or both. When I was 15
years old, it felt as though I was the only Marilyn fan in the world. Now of
course the Internet has brought people closer, but I wanted to highlight
specific fans so that maybe those young teenage fans who don’t have access to
Facebook yet, can see that they’re not alone and that there is actually a whole
world of people who feel the same way about Marilyn as they do. It was also
lovely to include the fans’ stories, thoughts and photos because I knew it
would mean a lot to them to be able to express themselves in print, just as it
means a lot to me as well.
Showbiss: Finally, please share your favorite Marilyn Monroe
quote. I know there are many but just pick one.
MM: Oh that’s a great question!! I do have a lot of favorite
quotes, but I’ll choose this one: “I’d like to be known as a real actress and
human being.” I think this expresses Marilyn perfectly and it is something that
is still relevant today, since some people still don’t see her as either a real
actress or a human being! I hope that by writing about Marilyn and continuing
to educate people, that attitude will change. If my books change the mind of
even one person, then I’m doing my job.
Showbiss: Congrats again Michelle. A really enjoyable read.
Michelle Morgan: Thanks so much Bill! I loved answering the questions!
It was very interesting to discover that in Olivia
Newton-John’s autobiography Don’t Stop Believin’… she is an admirer of Doris
Day. Olivia tried to portray Day in a film adaptation of the star’s life.
Hence, it was a matter of “Que Sera Sera” and wasn’t meant to be.
Yet, the similarities between these two women are striking.
Both are both extremely positive thinkers with a strong sense of strength, a
remarkable talent for singing and a sensitivity and concern for animals. These
two women are courageous in both their careers and personal lives.
In ONJ’s autobiography, Olivia keeps her grace and gratitude
intact. Her thoroughly enjoyable sense of humor and her honesty as a cancer-thriver
(her expression) at age 70 is a vivid look at her life so far. Her life story
is one that speaks from the heart and she presented exactly “the right moment”
to share it.
Showbiss: I really enjoyed your autobiography.
Olivia Newton-John: Oh, thank you!
Showbiss: Such life-affirming messages and a heck of a lot
of fun and humor. So thank you for sharing it.
ONJ: Sure. (laughter)
Showbiss: No doubt. I couldn’t put it down. When did you
start work on this? Not why but when?
ONJ: Oh gosh… let’s see, about a year and a half ago. I’m
not good with time; in the last year or so.
Showbiss: At the beginning of your book, it’s about you and
your singing partner and friend Pat Carroll. You use an expression… and I
wanted to ask you how you would describe it? “A jolly dolly bird?”
ONJ: A jolly dolly bird. Yes.
Showbiss: What does that mean?
ONJ: Jolly is happy, right? A dolly bird in England at that
time was with mini-skirts and boots and they were kind of glamourous. Kind of
like the glamourous girls now. They were called “dolly birds.” That was just an
English expression. So, “jolly dolly bird” was a happy, young person in cute
clothing, I guess. (Laughter)
Showbiss: One of the other aspects in your book that gave me
humor was when you were doing your animal awareness television show in Russia…
and it was cold! Everywhere you went people were drinking vodka. That made me
ONJ: Yes. That was really true and I wasn’t much of a
drinker. I was going through a divorce at that time. So vodka was a good idea. (Laughs)
Showbiss: Now when you talk about making Grease; there is
Sandy #1 and Sandy #2.
Showbiss: The way you analyze that… I have to ask you how
you came upon this revelation. I think I know because of the difference but it
amazed me in your writing that you didn’t think you were pretty or sexy or
ONJ: Yeah, I was concerned that I could pull it off. I don’t
think I had a healthy lack of self-esteem. (Laughs) Which is probably a good
thing. It was really fun when I got dressed and went out of the trailer and got
that reaction. I was like “Whoa.” That’s interesting.
Showbiss: Yeah, what a trip! Yeah, really. I wanted to go
back to my first compliments on the book. There are several sentences which
gave me pause to stop reading and think about how positive your energy is in
some of the statements you make.
ONJ: Oh, thank you. This is great. This is my first book
that I’ve written about myself so these comments are the first; it’s only come
out a couple of days and I’ve only done a few interviews so it makes my heart
feel good to hear these things. Thank you.
Showbiss: You’re welcome. I want to go into a little bit
about your sister Rona. I lost my friend and roommate of six years, George to
brain cancer last August. I just wanted to ask you after losing her to brain
cancer, what’s the most joyful thing you can say about her being in your life?
ONJ: Oh, she was hilariously funny and very irreverent! And,
she had no filter. I always used to tease her and say, “We need to tack you an
edit button on your wrist that I can just tap when I need you to stop.” (Laughter)
She was a lot of fun and she was very straight-forward. She was a great person
to travel with… she was my chaperone for many years. Not much of a chaperone
because she probably got into more trouble than me!
Showbiss: I found the utmost pleasure in knowing you are so
blessed with your husband John. You married him in 2008. I married my husband
in October of 2008… we’ve been together 25 years and have been married for ten
years. It’s like “thank goodness.”
ONJ: Yeaah. We’re lucky, huh? Everybody is looking for love
and you have relationships and they don’t work. We’ve got to be grateful as
even if you had love for a short time; it proves you have spent it. Now I
really find, I really know I have the love of my life that is a “forever” one,
you know. So, that is such a blessing.
Showbiss: Yes, I agree. I’m enthused to know that you are so
healthy. I mean honestly with all the herbs and all your exercise. That 23-day
walk in China walking the Great Wall! Come on now.
ONJ: That was then. I couldn’t do it now. None the less,
that was an amazing experience that I treasure because I can’t even believe I
did it now. An amazing experience.
Showbiss: Just once again, thank you for all your positivity
and the ONJ Cancer and Wellness Center. That’s your pride and that’s your baby.
That’s your vision and a dream come true. You going in there “undercover!”
ONJ: (Laughs) An
Showbiss: There’s a song on your album Soul Kiss called “The
ONJ: Oh, yes. What a gorgeous song, huh?
Showbiss: Yes. For some reason in my mind, it corresponded
with the releasing of your autobiography.
ONJ: Yeah! You’re right. That’s a beautiful thought. That’s
a beautiful song… really a beautiful song. It really was incredible. As my 70th
birthday was coming up, I was really trying to figure out how I was going to
celebrate. The universe decided for me. Okay, this is where you are and now you
can really see and reap the benefits of all the hard work and see what you’ve
created. It was a big lesson in letting go and “Let go, let God.”
Showbiss: Thank God you’ve thrived.
ONJ: Yes, I know. I’m so very grateful for all the care I
had and from the treatments there and the wonderful staff. Also, my husband who
was there every step of the way and giving me herbs and cannabis and helping me
Showbiss: Yes. Well, I don’t know. I think you can still
play table tennis. I wasn’t so bad in the day.
ONJ: (Much laughter!) I actually played it. We had the table
tennis set up. I actually played it, holding my walker. I’m not on the walker
now but I have actually played it. It was great fun.
Showbiss: In my dreams, I’ll let you win at table tennis.
Now and for some time, Shannah Laumeister has been Mrs. Bert Stern. In 2013, I interviewed her for a very special reason. Laumeister had just released a documentary film and a brilliant one at that… on Bert Stern. Stern was a remarkable photographer of the first caliber and her partner in life at this time. You wouldn’t imagine how many famous people he’s had the pleasure of photographing… but to drop just one name; is Marilyn Monroe. Her documentary is titled Bert Stern: Original Madman. There are many incredible photos to discover through his skills and many indelible moments to discover from a realistic and loving portrait of Stern from Laumeister. (Bert Stern died a few months after this interview). Her love for him lives on.
The film not only captured and showcased his photographic brilliance but goes into the darkroom of Stern’s life. Laumeister creates an accurate exposure on a phenomenal life story, one that Bert Stern was proud of.
Showbiss: After watching ten minutes of your film, I wrote down this thought, “It’s easy to note that what was a simple idea to Stern was considered ingenious to others.”
Shannah Laumeister: Yeah…that’s a good line. I think that it’s accurate.
Showbiss: What ultimately led to him agreeing to do this documentary?
SL: Well. (Laughter). He didn’t want to do it at first. At first it was a progression and it started because we were so used to having a relationship through the camera because he did really creative shoots when he took pictures of me. So, when I showed up with a camera, he thought it was a joke (laughter). Then I think he completely realized it was real, when I was constantly showing up with a camera. He thought it was ridiculous.
Then, he started to see my views and he would turn it around and say, “I am gonna make a movie about you!” But, I kept going and he realized “I’m really serious” and he didn’t want to do it. But at some point, he seemed to really start to enjoy it. It was a bit of a transition and it was causing us to have a continuation of a relationship through a camera even though it was in reverse. I was really getting in to him and his life and all the things about him. It was a way to get to know each other even better than we already had. We’re forced to… you can know somebody really well, right?
SL: If you make a film about them, you really have to not just be an expert about that person and know everything but you have to embody them almost. You have to emotionally and psychologically understand them. You’re conceptualizing the story of their life, which obviously has all kinds of elements. But, there is one story that is always dominating in somebody’s life. There’s one thing that is always dominating that has to do a lot with their drive or their demise or their destruction. Whatever it is… wherever they end up, I really had to understand him so there is a way for us to get connected back.
Showbiss: It was definitely an amazing journey then for both of you.
SL: Now, that the film is coming out in theatres and has been to festivals all over the country and the world and so on… it was shocking to him. (Laughter) It was very shocking. I don’t think he ever thought that that would happen. I would say it was a slow progression from very much a non-reality for him into a way to take our relationship and connection to a whole other level. I was also obsessed and very, very driven and the realization that it’s a story worth telling and is now on the screen. It’s a progression.
Showbiss: Bert Stern so deserves this… warts and all. He’s deserving of this just for posterity and history alone.
SL: Yeah, that was one of the reasons I wanted to do it because I believed that. He didn’t think that. Even though, somewhere inside, he knows that. He didn’t think that he was worthy of history and interest in that way. Clearly, he is and maybe he does know deep inside.
Also, he is a lot of things because he has the “history” part and he also has this amazing life story. Everybody has a story but it’s not true. I’ve listened to a lot of stories and yeah, they’re great and you can’t believe it… but very few people have a story worthy of telling. He really does and he has all these really incredible iconic images that are so unique; that stand out and stand apart. There are a lot of elements to this and also a very good reason to do a movie about him.
Showbiss: The timeline for your documentary footage is quite extensive. It goes back to 2009, I think.
SL: It goes back to 2007, believe it or not (laughter). It’s now archival footage.
Showbiss: There is a moment at the beginning of Bert Stern: Original Madman, where he is at a gallery showing and he autographs Marilyn Monroe: The Complete Last Sitting, and the woman says about his book, “Isn’t there any writing in this? Or is this it?” I found that so wrong, as the photographs he took totally speak for themselves.
Showbiss: In interviewing Stern’s former wife, Allegra, and one of his previous loves, Dorothy, was there any precarious situation in regards to presenting their side of the relationship? There are so many candid observations from them.
SL: Right. So, when you say precarious, you mean?
Showbiss: Like, did she say that about me? Or did he say that? That’s when you were filming the documentary.
SL: Oh, you mean like when Bert watched the film?
Showbiss: Did he know you were going to go there?
SL: Bert never saw the film until it premiered at The Telluride Film Festival. So, he didn’t know what they said. And, they didn’t know what he said. When he did see it, he loved it! Bert is a guy who has been around beautiful women his whole life. He was in love with Dorothy, he was madly, madly in love with Allegra. He doesn’t know the difference between a woman who is crazy and a woman who isn’t (laughter) He just loved all these beautiful women. So, he can’t see that they’re saying all these things about him that could be conceived as flaws. All he could see was their gutsiness or their edge or whatever. He never even mentioned it.
I was worried about what he would think. With Allegra, he said all these things about her… but his comment was, “Isn’t she great.” But, it’s funny. There was a scene with Laurence Schiller where he said some things about him that isn’t nice. He noticed that! That he noticed.
Showbiss: Wow, Allegra didn’t pull any punches and was extremely candid, I thought.
SL: (Laughter) But he wouldn’t notice Dorothy and Allegra, you know. I was worried when I went and shot Allegra that I would deal with some precarious stuff possibly. I was there alone. A lot of this I ended up shooting alone. It was just me and her in the apartment. I don’t know what she felt really but she did a very candid interview with me. I had a lot of questions and she just… I don’t know, I feel lucky I guess. They would tell me when I was going to be shooting Allegra to watch out and all these things.
Showbiss: Oh, no.
SL: There’s more drama between all the women and Bert doesn’t notice and he doesn’t badmouth them. He’ll say things but it comes from love. He won’t talk bad about anybody ever.
Showbiss: That is so commendable. You also cover his groundbreaking independent documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day. That’s just another incredible aspect of his talent, directing this film. Having Judith Crist talking about the film is an awesome touch. Then for Bert to say, “I don’t think about it. I just do it.”
SL: She wrote a review for Jazz on a Summer’s Day. It’s just a love letter… truly a love letter and she really believed that and loved that movie.
For Bert Stern and his “I don’t think about it. I just do it” mantra. It’s really true. He told me this story from the 1960s about the George Eastman house, which by the way, he loved. He has a lot of respect for The George Eastman House Museum. They asked him to do a speech in front of all these students. There were thousands of students there and he basically got up and said, “You’re all learning wrong. You’re all going to school to learn to be a photographer. You’re learning to be bad photographers. Just get the camera and do it. Just get out there and start shooting.”(Laughter)
Apparently, it was a big hit by the kids… by the students. It was very controversial to say that. He honestly believed it. He believed that it’s an instinct. He’s also very visual and terrific. He was just trained in his own way.
Showbiss: So the film is in theaters on April 5?
SL: Yes, knock on wood… we just got in to four more theatres today. It’s an amazing accomplishment. Initially, we had no distributors that were interested, then we had eight distributors that were interested and then we had a couple. Now, we are in thirteen or fourteen theaters. We’re in Boston, Washington, Minneapolis, Chicago, San Diego and L.A so far… it’s always nice to know that you’ve exceeded expectations. I fought very, very hard to keep this movie the way it is. Initially, every distributor who saw it wanted to change it.
Showbiss: Oh really.
SL: Every single one. They told me to change it in a way that would have ruined it. I couldn’t for the life of me
figure out how these people could tell me to make a movie that was never gonna work and that it would be a better movie. Because I was a first-time director, I should listen to them. Okay, this seems impossible… but I actually know more than you. How? I don’t know.
Showbiss: Such bullshit.
Shannah Laumeister: If I would have made those changes, we wouldn’t be where we are now. I confidently know that. If anything, let that be an inspiration for people out there who are up to things… film, art, whatever they do. It’s really, really true. There was a point I was The Lone Ranger, I stood alone fighting every single person in my camp for my vision. For me, it’s just moving to me because I got to the point where I was like I could be wrong but I just have to stick to my guns. If I make your movie and I fail, I can’t live with myself. I could never forgive myself. But, if I make my movie and fail, then I could. I’m incredibly moved I got my film made. I’m humbled and at this point, whatever happens, happens. I was the biggest believer in this vision I made. It totally exceeded everybody else’s expectations. I think there’s a good story in that… that’s a good story.
Showbiss: The film is beautifully done and fascinating and you do realize, why didn’t someone do this earlier? Then, you find out in the film and in his life course and his relationship with you. It’s quite magical. Like you said, it’s your vision. I didn’t find one thing wrong with it.
Shannah Laumeister: Ahhh, thank you. That’s so cool. Thank you.
There are moments in time when you realize that you are talking with someone who has filled your life with musical joy. This was the case talking with the lovely Cyd Charisse. She was truly a major motion picture star who created so many wonderful musical numbers in such films as The Harvey Girls, Singin’ in the Rain, The Bandwagon,Brigadoon, It’s Always Fair Weather, Silk Stockings and many more. Interviewing her in 2003 was such a memorable experience. At the time of this interview, the editor of the publication I was working for only felt that a small portion of our interview was needed. Now, here is the complete interview with a legendary lady of dance. As Fred Astaire once said, she is truly “Beautiful dynamite.”
Showbiss: It’s a really fantastic honor to speak with you.
Cyd Charisse: Oh, thank you.
Showbiss: The first film I ever saw you in was The Harvey Girls.
CC: That was my first film (laughs).
Showbiss: I have the soundtrack to that and I really enjoy “It’s a Great Big World.” It’s really a beautiful number.
CC: As I recall, we all had red shoes.
Showbiss: What was that first year like? The experience of working at one of the biggest and the best studios in Hollywood?
CC: Well, I came out of a ballet company that had been traveling. You know, when the war came, of course they were all broken up. I came back to MGM. I first walked on that set… it was like a fairytale land. The commissary was full of stars, the writers, the directors; everybody who worked there was at lunch. It was just a very glamourous studio at that time.
Showbiss: Before I go any further, I must ask you to give Mr. Martin my best. I have the soundtrack to Ziegfeld Girl and he is really awesome in that film. [Cyd Charisse died in June of 2008 and Tony Martin, her husband in July of 2012]
CC: Yeah, that was a good film for him.
Showbiss: I consider Silk Stockings one of your best films; even though you are part of so many wonderful musical films filled with so many wonderful musical numbers… “Dancin’ in the Dark,” “The Girl Hunt Ballet,” “Broadway Ballet,” “Baby, You Knock Me Out.”
CC: You know them all.
Showbiss: Yes. I’ve been watching musicals since I was about 10-years-old.
CC: Good. Silk Stockings was a lovely film and Rouben Mamoulian was the director. The Russian fit right in there.
Showbiss: Yes. The instrumental to the title track “Silk Stockings.” That’s one of the prettiest instrumentals I’ve ever; just for the beauty of it.
CC: Cole Porter, you know.
Showbiss: Yes. I know this might be hard but if you had to pick one sample of your dancing to show someone who had never seen any of your work, which musical number would you pick and why?
CC: Well I would say, just for myself, “Dancing in the Dark.” [From The Bandwagon] It’s a very expressive kind of number. It’s lovely. The music is wonderful and it tells a little story right there.
Showbiss: Speaking of “Dancing in the Dark” Fred Astaire described you as “beautiful dynamite.” What words would you use to describe Mr. Astaire?
CC: There was only one. (Laughter) He was really wonderful. He was a gentleman. He was elegant. He was a thrill to work with and he was a gentleman. That’s the main thing I would say about Fred Astaire.
Showbiss: I’m blown away by the opportunity to talk with you. It’s something I never thought would happen in my lifetime.
CC: Oh, that’s very sweet.
Showbiss: I got a copy of The Two of Us [Autobiography of Tony Martin and Cyd Charisse] I enjoyed the fact that each of you had consecutive chapters to tell your life story.
CC: It was nice to do that for a change, so people don’t get tired of reading it (chuckles)
Showbiss: You mentioned in the book, your good friend Esther Williams. Do you two still keep in touch?
CC: I keep in touch as far as this town. I see her sometimes or other. I don’t see her that often. She’s having a lot of trouble with her knees and legs and everything. So I do see her around and she’s doing fine.
Showbiss: Good. Martin Scorsese is doing a big-budget film that starts production next month or so. It’s based on Howard Hughes’s life.
CC: Oh really. Uh-huh.
Showbiss: He chose Leonardo DiCaprio to portray Howard Hughes. I don’t see that at all.
CC: Not at all. He was Texan you know. A shy Texan… he really was.
Showbiss: He was tall.
CC: Pretty tall and not very chic. Kind of flopped around every place. I didn’t have a romance with Howard Hughes. He just kind of bellowed around there for a while. I had broken my knee and he sent a car; a limousine to get me out of the hospital and did things like that… there was never a romance with Howard Hughes. My husband was friendly with him as well.
Showbiss: Got it. What do you consider the hardest production number you’ve ever worked on?
CC: The hardest? Well, a long time ago we were doing a film called Meet Me in Las Vegas and we were doing “Frankie and Johnny.” And someone had just taken over the studio [MGM]. What was his name? He knew nothing about dancing at all. He arrived on the set and he looked around and he said, “I must see this number.” Well, you know, you don’t dance that hard from beginning to end when you’re shooting a number. You break it up and you’ll do a shot here and a shot here and a shot there. But, he wanted to see it all at once.
Well. It was a difficult number to do and I said, “Okay.” Away we went and we did a terribly difficult number with lifts and slides and all those things to do. When I got home… I was sick for two days. Really, I was ill for overdoing it. So, I think that was the most difficult thing that I ran into.
Showbiss: Has it ever occurred to you that out of all Vincente Minnelli’s films, that you and Judy Garland worked the most with Mr. Minnelli? You both made four films directed by him.
CC: He was a great director.
Showbiss: What was the experience like of working with him? He had such an intricate eye for design.
CC: He really had a wonderful eye. When he thought the set is right, it’s right. When we got ready to do Brigadoon he was so precise with everything that he did with Brigadoon. We couldn’t go overseas to do it. He wanted to do it in Ireland but they wouldn’t let us do it. They had to build a huge two-stage area that had to look like we were in Ireland. He was such a great designer that when you walked in on that stage… it was fantastic. He would take hours and hours in the morning just dressing the set. Make it look right. He wanted it to look right.
So my goodness, we worked so hard and so late on that picture. Van Johnson finally said he was going to leave at 6 o’clock every night and he did. Most of us hung in there until about 8 p.m. or so with that film. It took us a long time to do it. I saw him sectioning the way he wanted it to look, which always paid off, you know.
Showbiss: “Waitin’ for My Dearie” popped into my head.
CC: Yes. That was a lovely little song.
Showbiss: I wanted to ask you about when you had just completed Two Weeks in Another Town and you got your next role as “Bianca.” Marilyn Monroe wanted you for that role. I believe the only times you filmed with her was when she played the Swedish maid incognito in the uncompleted Something’s Got To Give.
CC: Marilyn Monroe.
CC: She was such a nice fine person. I really liked Marilyn. Everybody did. But it was very tough to get her down on the set you know. Unfortunately, you know. But, it would have been a charming picture with her. I was just disappointed it never did come off.
Showbiss: Most definitely. Congratulations on your “Spirit of Dance” award and I look very forward to meeting you. As you said in your book The Two of Us; your only drink of choice is a vodka martini… I’d love to buy you one.
Cyd Charisse: I’ll let you do just that. (Laughter) Darling, see you later. Bye.
“You never forget your first time.” In this instance, it was my first interview with a legendary lady of jazz. I distinctly remember thinking, “This woman has seen more good times and bad times and is a survivor of it all.” Anita O’Day was 85-years-old at the time of this interview. Her legacy sings for itself and it was a distinct privilege to talk with her. At the time, she was still performing in New York and still as original and feisty as ever.
Anita O’Day is one of the first ladies of jazz. She had been singing for more than seven decades and is a rare breed of singer in so many ways. O’Day worked with the finest jazz musicians and has an incredible array of recordings that make up her legacy. Her singing style has all the power of the wind with a lyrical skill that is able to stir up a gentle breeze or whip a jazz riff into a tornado of fast phrasing and intuitive whirlwind.
Showbiss: Is your singing talent a natural ability or did you have any training?
Anita O’Day: I always had it. In school, they had music lessons and that’s where it began. I was 10-years-old.
Showbiss: You just continued to create your own style?
Showbiss: You’ve been associated with some of the best musicians ever in the world of music. Who are some of your favorite musicians?
Anita: I sang with a lot of bands. I would say Gene Krupa (drums) and Oscar Peterson (piano). Especially Roy Eldridge (trumpet). We’d do these songs in the band with a part here and a part there. That was what I liked to do.
Showbiss: [At the time of this interview, Anita O’Day was performing in New York] Where will you be singing in New York?
Anita: We have about five places. Iridium is one. I’ll be doing about 12 songs. There are solos and some of the songs last a long time with round robins around the players.
owbiss: Your singing is really in a class all its own. Where did you get this passion for music and singing?
Anita: I think I took a swig of whiskey and somebody said, “Somebody says you sing. Get up there and sing!” I got up there and I liked it on stage and that was it. (Laughter)
Showbiss: You’ve had the best songwriters ever during your career. Is there one song that is your favorite to sing?
Anita: Well, I like working with the horn… with Roy Eldridge. So, I’d say “Let Me Off Uptown.”
Showbiss: You still sound the same as you ever did.
Anita O’Day: Well, thank you. I just get out there. I don’t overdo it or not do it enough. If you can get it on the road “correct” you’ll have something.
When it comes to the stars of the film and entertainment world, there are very few whose name still rings out with an almost instant recognition like that of Judy Garland. Whether it’s through the eyes of a child watching The Wizard of Oz or the adults who have always had a consistent and never-ending love affair with her legendary talent, there is just no forgetting her truly iconic stature. With each new generation since Garland’s death in 1969, the glow of her unique gift is one worth experiencing again and appreciating anew.
This is what Judy’s third child, Joey Luft set out to accomplish with Judy Garland in Concert with Joey Luft. To bring the performer to the masses once more, in what many consider her finest hours of entertaining on The Judy Garland Show. Painstakingly colorized under the guidance of Sid Luft, the television show now captures an even more colorful Garland at her peak, showcasing her legendary persona.
Her only son, Joey Luft shared his vivid memories of perhaps the world’s greatest entertainer… who was first and foremost, a loving mother when I met with him in October of 2014.
Showbiss: Was it all your dad’s work on restoring and colorizing your mom’s television show that was the impetus for doing this production?
Joey Luft: Yes, most of it was his idea. He worked with a company that did the colorization. We worked on it for years and years. It took us a very long time. But most of it was his creativity, I should say.
Showbiss: When did he start colorizing the episodes of The Judy Garland Show?
JL: Probably around 1995.
Showbiss: Did it take some convincing for you to do this production or did you feel this was the time?
JL: I just thought this was the right time to do it. We had the colorization done and when I heard about it, I thought it was a really good idea. I wanted to get it out there to teach this generation about my mom. That’s really why it came up.
Showbiss: So, you have a few generations of people who more than likely haven’t experienced this aspect of her career.
JL: Right. Exactly. Once you see her… you get, hooked. (Laughs) She’s so amazing.
Showbiss: One of the remarkable things I think about the television show is the fact that she connected with the camera so well, her eyes…
JL: Her eyes are like, amazing. I know. I know… I went to all the tapings of the shows. We’d go [Joey and Lorna Luft] in Friday and do it on Friday and it would air on Sunday. So, that’s what we’d do every week. We’d go to the show, watch it being taped on Friday and on Sundays, we’d watch it on TV. All the shows…
Showbiss: Oh, wow. Nice.
JL: It was really special.
Showbiss: Oh yes, definitely. I had the pleasure of interviewing Judy Garland historian and author Scott Schechter about his book, The Day by Day Chronicle of a Legend and we talked about Judy’s time doing the television show. He’s since passed on.
JL: There are a lot of people who were involved. It’s hard to think about all the Munchkins being gone. The only one now who is left is Jerry Maren [a member of The Lollipop Guild]. I knew them all and they’re gone now. It just rips your heart out. But, Margaret O’Brien [Meet Me in St. Louis] is still around.
Showbiss: Yes, and Gloria DeHaven in their MGM musical, Summer Stock. [Gloria DeHaven died in 2016]
JL: Yeah, everybody knew my mom. Everybody in Hollywood just about. (Joey does the “bow down” motion with his hands and laughs).
Showbiss: You have been such a private person and have stayed for the most part, out of the limelight. How has it been being on stage, talking about your life with Judy?
JL: Each show is getting better. It’s getting more comfortable. As time goes by, we’ll perfect it more and add to it to make it a better show. Right now, it’s really nice. By the time we’re through, I’ve seen the whole audience enjoy it. Basically, for the most part…they were pretty happy about it. So, that makes me happy.
Showbiss: Excellent. What are the traits you feel you definitely inherited from her?
JL: I think some of her looks, some of her emotions… a lot of her emotions, I should say (laughs) Characteristics and sense of humor.
Showbiss: What about from your dad, Sid Luft?
JL: Just about the same thing. I learned to always do things right, always try to be cordial and nice to people and just do what’s right.
Showbiss: Please tell me about your friendship with John Kimble (Sid Luft Living Trust) and how he ended up working with your father for twenty years.
JL: Well, John and I met a long, long time ago. It was on Santa Monica beach and we became friends and we grew up together. Then, later in life, I was driving in a car with my dad and he goes, “Isn’t that John Kimble over there?” I said, “Yeah, it is.” So, we waved to John, he got in the car and my dad was talking to him. Next thing I know, my dad was asking him if he wanted a job (laughter). That was 1989. So, John’s been around a long time and we’ve been friends a long time.
Showbiss: [I talked with John Kimble at this point] Did you start off as a “majordomo,” or man of all tasks for Sid?
John Kimble: It was my technical background. Sid had a flair for all the brand new gadgets that were coming out. He loved audio. He had an artistic eye and he loved music. He loved songwriters and stuff like that. Anything that came out new technically, he’d call me up and want me to put it in. So, I did all that work for him. When he asked me if I wanted to work for him and I did, too…I asked him if there were things that people had never heard before [of Judy’s]. Sid had all the original audio reels of Judy performing at The Palace Theatre and her tour in the 1950s. He had them all on reel. Since I got him a [Digital Audio Tape] DAT machine, we transferred all the ten-inch reels to DAT. Over a period of time, since technology evolved, we kept cleaning it up, cleaning it up and cleaning it up.
Then, Joey started hanging out because Sid had a bad knee and started slowing down. So, Joey, Sid and I would work together and we would test the audio all the time on different people we would invite up, until we got it to a place where it was just pristine. Then, towards the end, Joe and I made a deal to keep working because Sid was slowing down. Thank God, he had the foresight to take those things out of the shows and now, they are completely restored and cleaned-up.
Showbiss: Yeah, it’s a huge responsibility to have all that.
JK: Right. Nobody knew Judy better than Sid. How to preserve it and what he thought was special and unique. Sid had a very unique perception of where he was, when Judy would sing. That’s why we took these particular performances and did them.
(Then… it was back to Joey Luft.)
Showbiss: You’ve had a number of performances of Judy Garland in Concert so far. What has been the most challenging aspect and the most enjoyable for you?
Joey Luft: I think the most challenging is answering the questions when we have a question and answer after the show. It’s fun yet it’s challenging to answer the questions creatively and carefully. You don’t want to say the wrong thing and sometimes, it’s hard to remember things. I think that part is very challenging. Emotionally, it’s hard. Emotionally, it’s very hard sometimes to look at it…it’s an emotional pull on your heart. I remember it so well and that part of it is also difficult to deal with.
Showbiss: Describe the thrill that you get.
JL: Just watching how it came out colorized. It’s just amazing and it makes it like you’re almost there again. There’s a part of the show where we have a montage of pictures of my mom, my family…about 120 pictures and “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe” is playing in the background. It’s really beautiful. It goes through my whole life and all the pictures with my mom. I really enjoyed doing that.
Showbiss: This might tug at your emotions, but it’s not a hard question I don’t think. As you were always at her concerts as a kid, when did you start to explore her films?
JL: The earliest was The Wizard of Oz. That was when I was really young… really young. Growing up, the first time I saw it, I was alone with a babysitter. My mom was on tour in Europe. When the monkeys came to kidnap my mom to take her to the castle, I thought it was for real. (Laughs) And I freaked out. I started crying. My mom had to call me from Europe and get on the phone with me and go, “Joe, this is just make-believe.” I’m going, “No, mom. I just watched it on TV…it’s got to be real.” That was the earliest.
Through the years, sometimes we’d go to screenings and watch The Wizard of Oz and The Clock or A Star is Born. Sometimes, we’d go see two a day. That kind of led me into it. Then, I started watching every movie… every time it came on, I’d watch.
Showbiss: Yeah, and you were in I Could Go on Singing. (Judy’s final motion picture)
JL: I Could Go On Singing, yeah. I was there on the boat and thought, “I gotta get myself on camera.” (Laughter)
Showbiss: Exactly. One of my favorites is Girl Crazy and one of the reasons is Judy’s laughter. I never saw her laugh so much on film and she’s just beautiful.
JL: I know.
Showbiss: And her attitude in that she doesn’t like Mickey’s character in the film at the beginning. So unique in comparison to the rest of their films together. In Girl Crazy it’s like “no.”
JL: (laughs) It’s funny. It’s like, we’ll have none of that. Yeah.
Showbiss: This has been marvelous. I’m proud of you and glad you choose to do this at this part of your life.
Joey Luft: I am too. It’s very important in that it teaches people and gets the word out there, so that’s basically what I’m doing and it keeps me busy. You really want to get the point across that she was really “human.” Really, a human being who was trying to raise kids and work. She wasn’t this tragic figure. She was a happy figure. She was a happy person and she just kept going. It’s like, “Joey, come on. Get in the limousine. Let’s go!” Always with a sense of humor. You’d ask her a question and she’d just like, fire something back real quick. It’d put you on the floor. She was so funny. She had a beautiful sense of humor.
In the Hollywood heyday of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, MGM Studios was the crown jewel of Culver City. The publicity department created the slogan “More stars than there are in the Heavens.” One of those brilliant stars was Debbie Reynolds. The Academy Award-nominated actress and Emmy-winning TV star of Will and Grace took the time to talk with me in 2006.
There was always an optimism and strength in Debbie Reynolds. She had an overwhelming career in Hollywood and had an overwhelming personal life at times. Debbie Reynolds described her philosophy in getting through life, “Day by day…and I wonder what’s coming at me the next day. I always go by a five-year plan. I get through today and I’m not going to get upset for five years. I always picture a long tunnel and at the end of the tunnel, there’s a light. I know I can make it to that light and I’ll take five years to get there. Now…I’ve gone through many tunnels (laughter). So, I just keep trying. I never give up. That’s the philosophy of my family and that’s how my daddy and mother raised me to never give up.”
Continuing she added, “Each crisis seems to happen to me at the end of every unfortunate marriage. I have very poor taste in men. My first marriage [to Eddie Fisher] was a mistake but I have my two wonderful children [Carrie and Todd Fisher]. My second marriage was a mistake, you know. No one knew he was a complete alcoholic and crazy. That was very hurtful and harmful to all the children…then I made a third mistake. So you see…I have no taste in men! I have sworn off dating or going out.”
At this point, I interject that I bet she still gets asked. Her reply? “Oh. I get asked and I just laugh and thank them very much and say, ‘How much money do you want?’” The prestigious MGM Studios signed Reynolds in 1949. Head of the studio, Louis B. Mayer made sure that she was the female lead in one of her most famous films called Singin’ in the Rain opposite Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. The studio known for its remarkable roster of stars was going through a shift in power as three days after Singin’ in the Rain began filming, Louis B. Mayer was ousted and Dory Schary took his place as head of MGM Studios.
Reynolds remembered quite well and says, “It was shocking that they made that decision at that time. Mayer was so big and so great, so in charge of production and in charge of all of our lives. He made all of our careers. He chose all of us…Judy Garland, Donna Reed, myself, Janet Leigh, Lana Turner and Janie Powell. Politically, there was a big change then with the people in New York and the board of directors wanted him out of there.”
As Dory Schary took control, it has been noted that none of the stars were very happy with his role in the studio day-to-day operations. Laughing, Debbie says, “That’s to say the least! Nobody liked Mr. Schary. In respect to his family…he had a very nice family. But he was a cold potato. He took over that position. I don’t know how it happened…but it happened monetarily I’m sure. Certainly no one wanted Mr. Mayer gone in lieu of Mr. Schary.”
Reynolds learned tap and dance in three months preparing for Singin’ in the Rain. This is amazing for someone with no previous experience whatsoever. She elaborated on just how tough this was and how a special gentlemen offered her words of advice when she was at an emotional breaking point of trying to learn the difficult routines used in the film.
“Well. We all rehearsed close together in A, B and C rehearsal halls. On a break, I was crying under a piano while out of everybody’s sight, because it was so hard for me. I’d never danced before. I was 17 and it was all very overwhelming. I didn’t know anybody. My mother didn’t come on the lot. She felt that that was my job and I could handle it. She had more courage in believing in me than I did. So, I heard a voice say, ‘Who is that under the piano crying?’ I said, ‘It’s just Debbie. Who is that?’ He said, ‘Well. Give me your hand.’ This hand pulled me out and it was Fred Astaire.
He said, ‘Why are you crying?’ I said, ‘It’s so hard. This is so difficult. I have to learn everything so fast. They’re so great and I’m just beginning.’ He said, ‘Well…now Debbie. Dancing is hard to learn. I’m going to do something I never do. I’m gonna break a rule and I’m gonna let you come in and watch me rehearse. “You know who I am?’ I said, ‘Yes sir. I know who you are.’ He had a security guard always on the door.”
“No one was ever allowed in to watch Fred Astaire rehearse. He had a drummer and that’s what he used and a cane. That’s how he created his dance steps. So he said, ‘You sit there by the door and don’t bother me now. Just watch. You’ll see it’s not easy and if I get too upset…you just crawl on back and go to work.’ I sat on the floor and watched him work. He threw his cane and was red in the face. He’d look over at me and say, ‘This is what it takes. No sweat, no gain. It’s really hard. This is the only way you can do it. You get back in there and stop crying!’”
Debbie Reynolds is such a joy to watch on Will and Grace. Re-runs of the hit comedy are still in syndication on television. Reynolds explains how the role of Grace’s mom came to her on the show. “The producers. The producers are just adorable. Max and David. Max is gay and David is not. Their school friends and they produced Will and Grace. They are so funny and they’re great writers. They asked me, ‘Would I do it?’ And I said, ‘Sure. I’d love to.’ They wanted a funny mother. I said, ‘As long as you write her funny, I’d love to do her. I just don’t want to do a boring mother. Because I’m not a boring mother and I don’t want to do a boring mother.’ So, they wrote her kind of like me…you know.”
Debbie Reynolds shared a few memories of her friendship with Judy Garland and how difficult it could be working in the studio system during that time. “We were great friends. We met at MGM and she was making The Pirate. She was going to do Annie Get Your Gun but she got sick. She was not feeling well. She was very thin. Unfortunately, she was taking too many pills. The studio had put her on a lot of these anti-depressant pills because they had their own doctors there. They’d give her vitamin shots, which we know now was probably speed. They offered that to everybody. It wasn’t new. She wasn’t the only one who took the pills or shots. I didn’t take them because I was afraid of needles. I didn’t want them because I didn’t like them, so I never went on them.”
“They worked many hours [the stars] from six in the morning until twelve at night sometimes and no days off…except Sunday to fall apart. Then, shoot again on a very tight schedule.
If you are a big star like Judy and Mickey Rooney…the musical people were pushed very hard. So, Judy was taken off the strict production schedule,
which really broke her heart and made her very depressed. It’s just like they did from Fox with Marilyn Monroe. They fired them and just throw them out and let them stay home and be depressed. They’re very cruel. They use them up and throw them out. ‘Cruel’ is the word. But, we all loved Judy. She was just the funniest lady. Judy and I were on the road. We worked nightclubs together. After work, we’d hang out together. Judy was having her cocktails then. I didn’t dri
nk then yet so then I learned how to drink white wine…I rather enjoyed that so…I still enjoy that.”
Debbie Reynolds was a classic entertainer with a history of remarkable achievements in film, television and theatre.
Dancing in the chorus of classic musicals to dancing as a star in West Side Story.
It was simply amazing to speak to a gentleman of the arts in dance. George Chakiris appeared as a dancer in motion picture musicals such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, There’s No Business Like Show Business, White Christmas and one of the most phenomenal explorations in choreography, the Academy Award-winning West Side Story released in 1961. A banner year for this musical, Mr. Chakiris and one for me as well… the film premiered in New York on October 18, 1961. I was born the next day that year.
If memory serves me right, Mr. Chakiris was receiving a “Spirit of the Dance” award the year I spoke with him. Here, he talks about his career in Hollywood and his life as a dancer. Along the way, there are memories of Marilyn Monroe, memories of the movies and his remarkable achievement of winning the Academy Award for best supporting actor in West Side Story.
Showbiss: I believe you were 18-years old at the time and you were in a film adapted from a Dr. Seuss book called The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.
George Chakiris: Yeah, that was my first job.
Showbiss: How did you get chosen for this film?
GC: I had been taking classes at The American School of Dance on Hollywood Boulevard. It’s not there anymore. The man who ran the school was Eugene Loring. He was a famous choreographer and he did Billy the Kid and others for American Ballet Theatre. He choreographed The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. He needed 60 male dancers for that particular “dungeon” sequence, you might call it. It’s a nightmare sequence that the kid is having.
There weren’t 60 male dancers actually in the Screen Extras Guild as it was called at the time. So, they allowed guys who were not in the union to come and audition. I got to audition and I got the job. I made enough money doing it because we worked on it a few weeks; to be able to join the union and go on from there to audition for other jobs to working in musicals and dancing in the chorus.
Showbiss: At this time, you weren’t contracted under a specific studio?
GC: No, not then.
Showbiss: I don’t think there is any other dancer I could talk with who was a chorus man and made two films with Marilyn Monroe.
GC: Oh god, yeah right! That was great. I was in There’s No Business Like Show Business and in that particular film I wasn’t involved in any of the numbers that she was in. But, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and in her famous number “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” I was one of the guys around her.
Showbiss: Just to go back briefly to There’s No Business Like Show Business you were in the French version of Mitzi Gaynor’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
GC: I was and I was also in “A Sailor’s Not a Sailor (‘Til a Sailor’s Been Tattooed).
Showbiss: Please share what sticks out most of doing the “Diamonds” number with Marilyn?
GC: Two things… first of all, working for the choreographer Jack Cole who was one of the great choreographers. His influence still goes on today. Gwen Verdon was his assistant before she went on to become a Broadway star. And of course as you know, Gwen Verdon married Bob Fosse. So, the influence was carried on because Gwen was a Jack Cole dancer and one of the amazing ones. She was just so extraordinary.
The two choreographers that all the dancers were nuts to work with were Jack Cole and a man whose name was Robert Alton. Their styles were very, very different but they were the two fabulous guys who did Broadway shows and of course, movie musicals.
In fact, it was Robert Alton who choreographed There’s No Business Like Show Business. The only musical number in that movie that he did not choreograph was the “Heat Wave” number because Marilyn Monroe; and she did it so beautifully… she really wanted Jack Cole. With all due respect to Robert Alton, she was right. Jack Cole gave her a great number, “Heat Wave.”
The thing I remember about working on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number was Jack Cole’s choreography and he was hard to work for. It was really exciting and a lot of knee work; he liked dancers staying close to the ground. I remember Marilyn in rehearsal, of course. She’d come in very comfortable and easy in rehearsal clothes. She was always perfect without make-up… she was so gorgeous. She was very, very dedicated and concentrated on her work.
Then, when we were on the set, and we were all filming and everybody was in costume and all that kind of stuff and there’s that gorgeous set. It’s like when you dream as a kid and you see the floor and it really is that shiny. You hear the playback and the great music and everything but she and we were part of it and directly behind her. It took three days to shoot that number. The third day it went until 9 o’clock in the evening and it was just her amazing dedication and she was very serious. She cared so deeply about her work. That was the impression I got about her.
Showbiss: Then, I see you again in White Christmas, which is such a classic. Robert Alton did the dance numbers for the film. And you’re in the musical number with Rosemary Clooney “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me.”
GC: He choreographed everything for White Christmas.
Showbiss: The men dancing around Rosemary Clooney in “Love.” It’s the arms up and moving away with the palms that you did, circling around her like airplanes.
GC: Oh, that one! Yes.
Showbiss: Some of the dance movements are so similar to Madonna’s “Vogue” number.
GC: You know. What is interesting when you stop to think about it is she did her version of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” on the stairs and that same kind of dress. And also, when you think of Michael Jackson and some of his videos… “Beat It” is West Side Story. I mean, he took from that. He took stuff from Fred Astaire. Good stuff and he did it beautifully. I think that they had examples to go by that was stuff that they probably loved. Whoever was choreographing would emulate the influence by things they had seen.
Showbiss: You were also in the “Mandy” number with Vera-Ellen in White Christmas.
Showbiss: If it’s true that the camera adds ten pounds, I have never seen anyone with a waist as small as she had. The way the dancers throw her down the steps in the finale of that number. Vera-Ellen is an amazing and under-rated dancer.
GC: I couldn’t agree with you more. One of my favorite numbers in White Christmas that she does is the one she does with Danny Kaye called “The Best Things Happen While You Dance.” That is so beautifully created by the choreographer. But, my gosh, she’s incredible in it. She was a really trained dancer and she also was a terrific hoofer and tap dancer. She did everything.
Showbiss: So, you have made motion pictures for 20th Century Fox, MGM and Paramount. It’s 1958 and you decide to head to New York and you end up playing in the London production of West Side Story as “Riff.”
GC: That’s right and that was in 1958. We opened in London in December of 1958. It was in the presence of Princess Margaret. She loved that show. She came back a few times.
Showbiss: What was it like for you being in this production in London and how it did come about that United Artists wants you not for Riff but Bernardo?
GC: None of us had ever dreamed that we would be in the movie. One day, five of us got letters from United Artists asking us to do a film test in London. I could pick a scene as Riff and they also asked me to do a scene as Bernardo. So, the five of us were driven out and we had a really exciting day for all of us. Then we went back to the theatre. A week went by and nobody heard anything. We thought, “Well, that’s that.” Then, one night before the performance, there was a phone call for me at the stage door. It was Jerome Robbins. He said, “We like your test and we’d like to test you further. Could you get a leave of absence of a week?” Which of course, they gave me and I flew to L.A. I did a test as Bernardo with Barbara Luna; who came very close to having the role. Eventually, of course, my “Chirita” (Rita Moreno) who was just wonderful in it. She’s terrific.
I think it made more sense. In the theatre for casting, there is more latitude in the way you cast people. You don’t necessarily always have to cast them to “quote unquote” physical type. Since I wasn’t fair and I had dark hair. It made more sense in terms of film for those who considered me for Bernardo. I looked more like I could be a Puerto Rican probably movie-wise than a “Jet” in that typical kind of thinking.
I’m not saying their thinking was typical because Jerry Robbins was one of the most imaginative people on the planet. He was such an amazing guy and Robert Wise who produced and co-directed was wonderful too. They saw me as Bernardo and you know, I lucked out because Bernardo in the film was a better role than Bernardo in the stage production.
Showbiss: The dance in the gym in West Side Story hits me immediately as one of the hottest and best numbers in motion picture musical history.
GC: Oh wow. Jerome Robbins; I mean and of course, the Leonard Bernstein score… the combination. These two men were genius. They were above and beyond what we normally would get to see.
Showbiss: The whole film is truly excellent. I’m a huge film buff and primarily musicals. I have over a
hundred musical soundtracks.
GC: That’s great. They are the best, aren’t they?
Showbiss: Yes, for fun and escapism. Now in West Side Story, you played Maria’s brother. What do you remember best about the great talent that is Natalie Wood?
GC: Oh my god. Natalie. First of all, she was darling, she was sweet and when she came on the set… we had already been working before she was finally cast. When she came on and it had nothing to do with the way she behaved; she was just there and very sweet. Suddenly, there was the movie star on the set. I’m not saying that she behaved that way, I’m just saying that we knew that. The other thing is that she worked hard and she was a wonderful professional. She was so beautiful. She was one of those people who when you see them in life; she was gorgeous on the screen but she was perfect. She had the most absolutely gorgeous face! She didn’t need any make-up. Beautifully proportioned and wonderful body, she was just breathtaking. She invited me to her home and the few times I did, I spent some personal time with her… the same thing. She was only twenty-three. She was pretty young. Although, she had been in movies since she was a kid so that obviously gave her the benefit of knowing something about the business and her instincts. She wanted to do more; she had just finished Splendor in the Grass before she went into West Side Story.
This was someone that even at a young age had some knowledge and background in film. I just was crazy about her. I just loved who she was as a person. One of the things that always gives me such a kick when I think about her… is “Oh my god, I got to play Natalie Wood’s brother. Really, that just gives me such pleasure to know that. She made many films after West Side Story and I know I saw all of them. She was such a wonderful actress and she was so gifted but she also was knowledgeable. What’s that film she made with Robert Redford?
Showbiss: This Property is Condemned?
GC: Yes! Thank you. So wonderful. She was meant to be photographed because she was so beautiful.
Showbiss: West Side Story won 10 Academy Awards and an honorary Oscar for Jerome Robbins. This was just a phenomenal achievement for a musical film. I bet this experience was just a mind-blower for you.
GC: I’ve got to tell you what… for all of us. We all keep in touch with each other and we get together now and then over the years. We call ourselves a family really… Russ (Tamblyn) just all of us. We had such a wonderful time working on it. We loved what we were doing because we knew we were working on something terrific. At the time, the movie went over-budget and someone at the front office said that they weren’t sure we had a “commercial” piece but something of great artistic quality. That’s basically what everybody felt. When it was released… wow! Everybody all over the world enjoyed the film. It was great.