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Actress Patricia Morison reminisces as 100th birthday nears

Susan King
Los Angeles Times
Though she never became a true movie star, 'Kiss Me, Kate' made Patricia Morison a Broadway luminary

Patricia Morison, who is celebrating her 100th birthday on March 19, appeared in movies with such legends as Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, originated the role of the ultimate diva in the 1948 Cole Porter Broadway musical "Kiss Me, Kate" and had a memorable encounter with Yul Brynner when she starred with him on stage in "The King and I."

"I have been so fortunate in my life, honey," she said, breaking into a sunny smile at the comfortable, antique-laden Park LaBrea Tower apartment she's called home since 1960. "I am grateful to be here."

The start, though, was a bit shaky. At 18 she was cast in the 1933 Broadway comedy "Growing Pains," which lasted 29 performances.

"I was so bad in it, they fired me in rehearsals," said Morison, a warm, witty woman with an amazing recollection of her storied life. "I cried so hard they gave me a walk-on. I have forgotten what it was about, honey."

Friends and the theatrical community are pulling out all the stops for the Broadway legend's centennial. There's a private party on Monday at the Pantages, and the Pasadena Playhouse is presenting a conversation with Morison on March 15 at the University Club of Pasadena. Her good friend director-producer John Bowab will join Morison for the Q&A.

"She'll do a couple of numbers [from 'Kiss Me, Kate']: 'Brush Up Your Shakespeare' and 'So in Love,'" said Bowab.

Bowab, who directed Morison several decades ago in "Pal Joey," said he initially was amazed the actress had a caustic sense of humor. "You look at her and you think she's so poised and then something wicked comes out of her mouth."

Like when she described her experience with a particularly untalented leading man in a summer theater production of "Kiss Me, Kate."

"I remember I was doing it in Chicago and they had this leading man who thought he knew everything," said Morison. "My dressing room had the only full-length mirror and he was constantly in my dressing room looking at himself in the mirror."

Morison paused for dramatic effect.

"Once we got on stage, I hate to say it, I destroyed him," she said, laughing. "I remember there is this scene where I was supposed to slap his face and one night I slapped him and he said, 'Gee, honey, you hit me kind of hard.' I said, 'I'm sorry."'

She wasn't.

Hollywood took notice of the lithe actress with the near-Rapunzel-length hair and light blue eyes when she appeared in the 1938 operetta "The Two Bouquets" with Alfred Drake, with whom she would star in "Kiss Me, Kate" on stage and also in a 1958 TV version.

"Everybody said, 'What are you doing? You are a stage actress,'" she recalled. "But Paramount came through and we all went out [to California] — my mother, father — on the Super Chief. They took me to the publicity department to decide how they were going to publicize me. All of the publicity people were looking me over and they came up with 'The Fire and Ice Girl.' Figure that out!"

Morison made her film debut in 1939's "Persons in Hiding" and worked in mostly forgettable roles at the studio. She eventually left Paramount and freelanced, appearing as Empress Eugenie in 1943's "The Song of Bernadette," opposite John Garfield in the 1943 thriller "The Fallen Sparrow" and in the 1945 Tracy-Hepburn romantic comedy "Without Love."

Hollywood mostly cast her in femme fatale and villainess roles, most notably as a dangerous criminal mastermind in 1946's "Dressed to Kill," the final installment of Universal's "Sherlock Holmes" franchise starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

"They used to bring us tea every afternoon," she recalled. "I don't remember half of the movies. I had more fun making the movies than I had seeing them."

She bought a house in Beverly Hills and "brought my own family out and my two cousins out from England because their house had been bombed," said Morison. She performed at the Hollywood Canteen, which catered to servicemen, during World War II and did a USO tour of England with Merle Oberon and Al Jolson.

"I have nothing bad to say about anybody in my business," said Morison. "But I really didn't like Jolson, I have to tell you."

Though she never became a movie star, "Kiss Me, Kate" made her a Broadway luminary. But Morison acknowledged no one thought it would become a hit.

"Before opening night in Philadelphia, we all got together and said, 'If we get good personal reviews out of this show we are lucky,'" she noted. "And then opening night [in Philadelphia] happened. We couldn't believe it. I was stunned. You never know what an audience is going to do."

A few years later, Morison appeared on Broadway and then on tour as Anna with Brynner in "The King and I." She began rehearsing for the part while Brynner was on a break and knew of his reputation as a womanizer.

"When he finally showed up I was rehearsing and he was watching and doing all kinds of acrobatics," Morison recalled with a smile. "He said, 'Would you have lunch with me?' I said, 'sorry.' He said, 'Will you stop by my dressing room on your way out?'"

This time Morison agreed.

"I knock on the door of the dressing room and he says, 'Come in.' He's sitting in front of the mirror naked! I looked him in the eyes and said, 'Mr. Brynner, you wish to see me?' He said, 'I have to stain my body [for the role].' I said, 'I understand.' We ended up the best of friends."

Twitter: @mymackie

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"A Conversation With Patricia Morison"

Where: University Club of Pasadena

175 N. Oakland Ave., Pasadena

When: 1 p.m. March 15

Price: Tickets are $100

Info: http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

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