Kathryn Grayson dies at 88; MGM singing star in 1940s, ‘50s


Kathryn Grayson, an MGM singing star in the 1940s and early ‘50s in musicals such as “Anchors Aweigh,” “Kiss Me Kate” and “Show Boat,” has died. She was 88.

Grayson died Wednesday of natural causes at her home in Los Angeles, said publicist Dale Olson.

A dark-haired beauty with a heart-shaped face and a brilliant coloratura voice, Grayson signed with MGM as a teenager and made her screen debut in “Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary,” starring Mickey Rooney, in 1941.

She went on to appear opposite Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly in “Anchors Aweigh,” Kelly in “Thousands Cheer,” Sinatra in “The Kissing Bandit,” Mario Lanza in “The Toast of New Orleans,” Howard Keel in “Show Boat,” “Lovely to Look At” and “Kiss Me Kate,” and Gordon MacRae in “The Desert Song,” among other musicals.

“Kathryn Grayson was an attempt to continue the Jeanette MacDonald tradition at MGM,” said Drew Casper, a professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, referring to half of the studio’s popular operetta team of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy who came to fame in the 1930s.

“In all her films, Grayson was always doing an opera aria as a specialty number,” Casper said.

But MGM didn’t revive operetta until the late 1940s when it signed Mario Lanza, and could have someone play opposite Grayson, a la Nelson and MacDonald, he said.

Grayson and Lanza made only “That Midnight Kiss” and “The Toast of New Orleans” together. She then was teamed with Keel.

Grayson’s favorite leading man, it turns out, was Lanza.

“He was great,” she told the Toronto Star in 1994, “but I could have murdered him for scene stealing.”

Grayson had no fond memories of “The Vagabond King,” her final big-screen musical, for Paramount, in 1956.

“I didn’t like it,” she told the Toronto Star. “So I called it a day: no more movies.”

At the conclusion of her film career, Grayson began performing in nightclubs and concerts and did some acting on television, including appearances on “General Electric Theater” and “Playhouse 90.”

In 1960, she made her opera debut, in “Madama Butterfly.”

She replaced Julie Andrews as Guenevere in the original Broadway production of “Camelot” in 1962 and toured in the musical for more than a year -- as well as touring in “Naughty Marietta,” “Showboat,” “Kiss Me Kate” and other productions.

In 1988, she began touring in a one-woman show, “An Evening with Kathryn Grayson.”

She was born Zelma Hedrick in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Feb. 9, 1922, and later moved with her family to St. Louis, where she was discovered singing on the empty stage of the St. Louis Municipal Opera House at age 12 and introduced to a vocal teacher.

She was training for a career in opera when she was signed by MGM.

Grayson, who was married and divorced twice -- to actor John Shelton and to singer Johnny Johnston -- is survived by her daughter, Patricia Towers; two grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

A funeral service will be private; a memorial is pending.