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Actress and soprano singer Kathryn Grayson dies at 88

By Bob Thomas
Friday, February 19, 2010; B06

Kathryn Grayson, 88, whose beauty and lilting soprano voice brightened such popular MGM musicals of the 1940s and '50s as "Anchors Aweigh," "Show Boat" and "Kiss Me Kate," died Feb. 17 at her home in Los Angeles. The cause of death was not reported.

While still a teenager, Ms. Grayson was placed under contract at MGM at a time when the studio was assembling a stable of musical talent that would dominate the era of great musicals.

Like Lana Turner, Esther Williams, Donna Reed and other MGM newcomers, Ms. Grayson was given a tryout as Mickey Rooney's sweetheart in the studio's popular Andy Hardy film series. She played the title role in "Andy Hardy's Private Secretary" and sang Johann Strauss's "Voices of Spring."

Ms. Grayson was cast in three minor films, including a musical with Abbott and Costello, then played Gene Kelly's girlfriend in "Thousands Cheer," a wartime revue that included major MGM stars.

"Anchors Aweigh," a 1945 hit with Kelly and Frank Sinatra, confirmed her star status. Her bell-like soprano made her the ideal co-star with Hollywood's full-voiced male singers in operettas and other musicals, including three films with Howard Keel, two with Mario Lanza and one with Gordon MacRae.

Normally Ms. Grayson was the most congenial of actresses during filming, but she did have one public flare-up with the temperamental Lanza. She told an interviewer she objected to Lanza's behavior on the set, especially his vulgar language.

Ms. Grayson's last film, "The Vagabond King" in 1956, soured her on movies. She was scheduled to be reunited with Lanza, but he pulled one of his characteristic no-shows. When a stand-in couldn't speak English, director Michael Curtiz asked Ms. Grayson to speak Lanza's lines, which were dubbed after the filming.

"It never should have been made," she said.

Zelma Kathryn Hedrick was born Feb. 9, 1922, in Winston-Salem, N.C. Her father was a building contractor and real estate agent who moved frequently, eventually settling in St. Louis and later Los Angeles, so Ms. Grayson could have more professional training. She came to the attention of MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who had been searching for a young soprano to rival Universal's Deanna Durbin.

After her movie career ended, Ms. Grayson finally realized her long-held ambition to sing opera and starred in stage productions of "The Merry Widow," "Rosalinda," "Naughty Marietta" and "Camelot." She and Howard Keel toured extensively in "Man of La Mancha" and appeared together in Las Vegas.

She married and divorced MGM contract players John Shelton and Johnny Johnston. The marriage to Johnston produced her only child, Patricia Towers, who survives, along with several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

-- Associated Press

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