charlie-oscar2A weekly feature in which my four-year-old son is let loose on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Los Angeles, and chooses a star from among the more than 2,500 honorees. His “random” picks sometimes reveal unexplained connections such as the summer day in 2012 when he sat down on the star of actress Celeste Holm and refused to budge. We later learned that the Oscar-winning actress had died only hours earlier.

andyhardy-graysonCharlie’s sixth sense on the Walk of Fame may be a little rusty. We were there just before the death of screen legend Mickey Rooney was announced yesterday and yet I specifically remember him stepping right over one of Rooney’s four stars. On the other hand, he passed it by to get to the star of Kathryn Grayson, an actress whose career was certainly tied to Mickey’s. The walls of Charlie’s room are lined with my collection of original Andy Hardy posters from the 1930s and 40s — MGM’s series of homespun family films starring Lewis Stone as wise Judge James Hardy, Fay Holden as perfect mom Emily Hardy, Sara Haden as beloved spinster Aunt Millie, Cecilia Parker as sarcastic older sis Marian, and Mickey Rooney as the irrepressible Andy. Living in small-town Carvel, aka MGM’s backlot in Culver City, Andy went through the series stealing kisses from main squeeze Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford) while dodging the amorous intentions of young Betsy Booth (Judy Garland) and carrying on with a series of young starlets including Lana Turner, Esther Williams, Donna Reed and, yes, Kathryn Grayson. Kathryn is lovely in Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary, made in 1941, and this poster of Kathryn and Mickey hangs directly over Charlie’s bed.

Kathryn Grayson was born on February 9, 1922, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was initially sought out by Louis B. Mayer as MGM’s answer to the operatic warblings of Deanna Durbin (whom MGM had dropped before she became a superstar for Universal). Grayson’s screen test, at age 18, was the longest and most expensive test shot at the studio, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Grayson hated it, but Mayer was sure he had the next Durbin on his hands.

kathryngrayson1Following her romp with Mickey Rooney and company, Kathryn made a series of very popular musicals. They weren’t always heavy on plot, but I loved them all—from Anchors Aweigh and Thousands Cheer to Two Sisters from Boston and Till the Clouds Roll By. I have to admit that I was less a fan of her films with temperamental opera star Mario Lanza. The good-natured Grayson later admitted that she couldn’t stand Lanza whose ego was apparently as big as his ever-widening girth.

kathryngrayson2Grayson starred as Magnolia in MGM’s wonderful 1951 version of Show Boat with Howard Keel and Ava Gardner (aka the first Mrs. Mickey Rooney), and her biggest success was probably the dazzling Kiss Me, Kate in 1953 in which she really got to show her sassy side! Again starring opposite Howard Keel (what a great pair they were), Kathryn played difficult actress Lilli Vanessi in the modern sequences, and feisty Katherine in the musical version of “The Taming of the Shrew” that the actors are putting on. Grayson was at her peak in this film. How sad, then, that a bad experience making her next film (the abysmal Vagabond King) made her walk away from the movies for good. The film was supposed to team her up again with Mario Lanza but when he failed to show up, the studio brought in opera singer Oreste Kirkop (“Who?” I can hear you all saying) who couldn’t speak a word of English. Kirkop’s speaking voice had to be dubbed. He never made another film.

Kathryn Grayson’s amazing soprano was an acquired taste for some but I can’t get enough of her beautiful singing. I also think she was one of the most beautiful women at MGM even if her delicate features seemed to pale next to drop-dead beauties like Ava Gardner. Here are Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel singing one of Jerome Kern’s most beautiful songs, “Make Believe,” from Show Boat. Now that’s singing!

After leaving films, Grayson’s career continued in theatre, and she often appeared in productions with Keel. I saw her around town a few times, the last time on August  31, 1997 when she was being honored at a film festival. I remember the date because it happened to be the day that Princess Diana was killed in Paris. Grayson’s death on February 17, 2010 was very peaceful. “She just went to bed and didn’t wake up,” said her longtime secretary. Not a bad way to go. I hope Kathryn and Howard Keel are up there somewhere singing up a storm and welcoming their pal Mickey Rooney to the fold.