Filled Under: Virginia O’Brien
“If you study your dancing like I did, you’ll end up just like I did…a deadpan singer.” ~ Virginia O’Brien
Virginia Lee O’Brien (April 18, 1919 – January 16, 2001) was a popular American actress, singer, and radio personality known for her comedic roles and her deadpan delivery singing style in MGM musicals of the 1940s.
Virginia O’Brien was born on April 18, 1919 in Los Angeles, California. The daughter of the captain of detectives of the Los Angeles Police Department, O’Brien became interested in music and dance at an early age and it didn’t hurt her career chances that her uncle was noted film director Lloyd Bacon. Her big show-business break came in 1939 after she secured a singing role in the L.A. production of the musical comedy “Meet the People”. On opening night, when time came for her solo number, O’Brien became so paralyzed with fright that she sang her song with a wide-eyed motionless stare that sent the audience, which thought her performance a gag, into convulsions. She left the stage demoralized, only to soon find out that she was a sensation. Signed by MGM in 1940, Virginia O’Brien deadpanned her way to acclaim and immense popularity with appearances in some of the studio’s most memorable musicals including “The Big Store” (1941) with the Marx Brothers, “Lady Be Good” (1941) and “Ship Ahoy” (1942) with Eleanor Powell and Red Skelton, “Thousands Cheer” (1943) with Gene Kelly and Kathryn Grayson, “Du Barry Was a Lady” (1943) with Skelton and Lucille Ball, the film version of “Meet the People” (1944) with Dick Powell, “The Harvey Girls” (1946) with Judy Garland and the star studded “Ziegfeld Follies” in 1945.
After appearing once again with Red Skelton in “Merton of the Movies” in 1947 and a guest appearance the following year in the short Musical “Merry-Go-Round”, O’Brien was suddenly dropped from her MGM film contract. She returned to films only twice more after her termination from MGM, in Universal’s “Francis in the Navy” (1955) and Disney’s “Gus” (1976). Instead O’Brien moved into television and back to live performances. The tall and still beautiful O’Brien was among the stars in a 1972 nostalgia revue entitled “The Big Show of 1928” with Allan Jones, Cass Daley, Beatrice Kay and Sally Rand, which toured the country and played New York’s Madison Square Garden. In 1984 she created a cabaret act, touring the country and recorded a live album from the show at the famed Masquers Club entitled “Virginia O’Brien Salutes the Great MGM Musicals”. She performed several times at such clubs as Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel Cinegrill, the Vine St. Bar and Grill and the Gardenia, as well as the Plush Room in San Francisco. O’Brien continued to perform well into the 1990s with both her one-woman show and a production of “Show Boat” co-starring Alan Young and also headlined “The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies”.
Virginia O’Brien was married three times. The first marriage to Kirk Alyn in 1942. They had three children together and divorced in 1955. Her second marriage was to Vern Evans from 1958 to 1966. The couple had one child together. Her third marriage was to contractor Harry B. White from 1968 to 1996.
Virginia O’Brien remained in semi-retirement in a large home in Wrightwood, California for most of her later years. She died on January 16, 2001 aged 81, in Woodland Hills, California from natural causes. She is buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Glendale, California.