William Katz: Kathryn Grayson, RIP

William Katz is our occasional contributor and proprietor of Urgent Agenda. This morning he writes to comment on the death of Kathryn Grayson:

Kathryn Grayson died last week at 88. If Cyd Charisse was the “legs” of MGM, in its glorious heyday, Kathryn Grayson was the voice. Classically trained, and beautiful as well, she lit up the screen in the late forties and early fifties, with starring roles in “Show Boat,” “Kiss Me Kate,” and “Anchors Aweight.” She had a warmth and a charm. For young boys growing up at the time, we really thought Kathryn Grayson was what girls were made of. And we were pleased by the thought.
See her, on YouTube, introduce the great standard, “Time After Time,” in “It Happened in Brooklyn,” with Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford (1947). It’s here.
With Kathryn Grayson’s passing, the roster of the MGM musical stars is down to a precious few. Leslie Caron, who starred in “Gigi,” still lives, as do Tony Martin, Debbie Reynolds and Nanette Fabray. I don’t recall others. The next reunion might have to be held in a closet.
But there is something else, something very important about the passing of Kathryn Grayson. She represented, not simply an era, but an attitude, and, especially, an attitude toward the movie audience. She was a trained soprano at a time when MGM didn’t hesitate to put a trained soprano before the public. And the public loved every refined note. It was a time when Vincente Minnelli, in directing “An American in Paris,” did not hesitate to end the film with a long ballet sequence – not street dancing, ballet – and the audience loved every step.
The audience of the forties and fifties had far less “formal education” than the American public of today. The average American had gone through, maybe, the eighth grade, or a year of high school, and yet could appreciate, and love, the finest musical entertainment. Kathryn Grayson sang the songs of Kern and Rodgers, and Cole Porter, and Jule Styne.
The attitude extended to radio: Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center in New York, now housing “Saturday Night Live,” was actually built for Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Yes, NBC had a symphony orchestra, and a superb one. The audience did not send letters of protest. It listened.
The early days of television featured Leonard Bernstein explaining the elements of an orchestra to young people.
And in Hollywood, as early as 1936, David O. Selznick, who later made “Gone With the Wind,” premiered “A Tale of Two Cities” before an audience of U.S. Navy sailors, and they cheered.
The lesson: When you respect the audience, and maintain high standards, the audience rises to those standards. When you don’t respect the audience, when you refer to it as “the flyover people,” and let standards sink, the audience sinks with the standards.
Most young people today, through no fault of their own, never heard of Kathryn Grayson. It’s too bad. They missed something special. But at least we have the movies to remember her by, and to remember a time when we could go into a theater, and for eighty-five cents, get the best.

I would add as a footnote to Bill’s remembrance of Grayson that Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic extended over a 14-year period, from 1958-1972. During this period Bernstein led a total of 53 Young People’s Concerts. Amazon’s listing of the DVD collection reminds us that they were originally broadcast on Saturday mornings. Because the programs were considered so important by CBS brass, “for three glorious years CBS presented them at 7:30 p.m. (prime time for television viewing).” CBS subsequently moved them to Sunday afternoons.


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