Mitzi Gaynor: A leading lady of light musicals
“Dancing is still the hardest profession. Gene Kelly said dancing is a man’s game. Women have to do the same thing in heels, and have to sing and smile at the same time. Professional athletes don’t even have to do that… and they get to wear sneakers.” ~ Mitzi Gaynor
Mitzi Gaynor is an American actress, singer and dancer. A leading lady of light musicals, the beautiful bright-eyed Gaynor is best remembered for “South Pacific” (1958) for which she recieved a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress.
Mitzi Gaynor was born as Francesca Marlene de Czanyi von Gerber on September 4, 1931 in Chicago, Illinois to Pauline Fisher, a dancer, and Henry von Gerber, a violinist, cellist, and music director. When Gaynor was eleven her family moved to Hollywood. She trained as a ballerina as a child and began her career as a chorus dancer. At age thirteen she was singing and dancing with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera company and signed a seven year contract with Twentieth Century-Fox at age seventeen. It was there she changed her stage name from Mitzi Gerber to Mitzi Gaynor. She sang, acted and danced in a number of film musicals, often paired with some of the biggest male musical stars of the day. Gaynor made her film debut in “My Blue Heaven”, a 1950 Technicolor musical film directed by Henry Koster and starring Betty Grable and Dan Dailey. Her most notable roles include: “We’re Not Married” (1952) in which Gaynor co-starred alongside Ginger Rogers, Fred Allen, Victor Moore, Marilyn Monroe, David Wayne, Eve Arden, Paul Douglas, and Eddie Bracken; “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (1954) which featured Irving Berlin’s music and also starred Ethel Merman, Dan Dailey, Marilyn Monroe, Donald O’Connor, and Johnnie Ray; “Les Girls” (1957) with Gene Kelly and Kay Kendall and directed by George Cukor; the remake of “Anything Goes” (1956), co-starring Bing Crosby, Donald O’Connor, and Zizi Jeanmaire; and “Surprise Package” (1960), a musical comedy with Yul Brynner and Noël Coward.
Mitzi Gaynor’s biggest international fame came from her starring role as Ensign Nellie Forbush in the 1958 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” . For her performance, she was nominated for a Best Actress Golden Globe Award.
Mitzi Gaynor’s last film was “For Love or Money”, a 1963 romantic comedy film also starring Kirk Douglas and Thelma Ritter. Following her film work, Mitzi Gaynor remained a popular favorite. On October 14, 1968, Gaynor starred in her first television special, “Mitzi”. Throughout the 1960s/70s she starred in nine acclaimed television specials that garnered sixteen Emmy nominations. Gaynor appeared between two sets by The Beatles when they made their second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show of February 16, 1964. She performed for an unprecedented nine-minute segment from the stage of the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, separated with one commercial break. She sang “Too Darn Hot” and a blues medley.
Mitzi Gaynor often performed songs at Academy Awards ceremonies. In what many consider to be Gaynor’s best live performance was her show-stopping appearance at the 39th Academy Awards in 1967 where her singing and dancing “Georgy Girl” literally stopped the show. The Academy had a hard time getting the audience to sit down and stop applauding.
Mitzi Gaynor recorded two albums for the Verve label, one called Mitzi and the second called Mitzi Gaynor Sings the Lyrics of Ira Gershwin. It is estimated that she earned more from the record royalties on the South Pacific soundtrack album than her salary for the movie. She also recorded the title song from her film, Happy Anniversary for the Top Rank label. For several decades, Gaynor appeared regularly in Las Vegas and at nightclub and concert venues throughout the United States and Canada. During the 1990s, Gaynor also became a featured columnist for the influential newsmagazine The Hollywood Reporter.
On July 30, 2008, Gaynor, along with Kenny Ortega, Elizabeth Berkley, Shirley MacLaine and cast members from High School Musical, So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars, and a host of others, participated in the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences TV Moves Live, a celebration of 60 years of dance on television. Gaynor appeared performing the final few bars of “Poor Papa”, a song-and-dance number from her 1969 TV spectacular, Mitzi’s 2nd Special. Four months later, on November 18, 2008, City Lights Pictures released “Mitzi Gaynor Razzle Dazzle: The Special Years”, a new documentary celebrating Gaynor’s annual television specials of the 1960s/70s. The film, which was broadcast on public television and released on DVD, includes showstopping moments from the original specials along with newly-taped interviews with Gaynor colleagues, friends, and admirers. Gaynor’s one-woman show, “Razzle Dazzle: My Life Behind the Sequins”, toured the United States throughout 2009 and 2010, including an acclaimed 2 week engagement in New York City. The tour resumed in 2011. (for info on upcoming shows and appearances, go to missmitzigaynor.com )
On November 18, 1954, Mitzi Gaynor married Jack Bean, a talent agent and public relations executive for MCA. After their marriage Bean quit MCA and started his own real estate business and managed Gaynor’s career. Mitzi and Jack remained married until his death on December 4, 2006. They had no children.