No, this is not our most recent Mystery Guest (we promise the reveal tomorrow, darlings!), but today, we just had to recognize one of our very favorite performers on their birthday: Miss Dolores Gray!
Extravagant, opulent, campy, vampy, glamorous: all of these adjectives could accurately describe Dolores Gray's outsized persona. She was singing in nightclubs by the age of 14, encouraged by a formidable stage mother who, as Gray later recalled, "...once said to me, 'It's not a very happy life unless you make it very big.'"
Gray's first major triumph was being chosen to star in the London production of Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun in 1947, after the Broadway star, Ethel Merman, declined to reprise the role. Gray made her West End debut on her 21st birthday, and was an immediate smash, staying with the production for two years and 1,304 performances.
With this triumph under her belt, Gray was wooed back to Broadway, where she had previously co-starred in two ill-fated shows: the Cole Porter flop Seven Lively Arts, and Are You with It? -- the answer to which was "no." This time, Gray was co-starred with Bert "the Cowardly Lion" Lahr in a slick musical revue, Two on the Aisle.
The show opened on July 19, 1951, and was a modest hit, running for 276 performances. However, it marked the beginning of a series of contretemps between Gray and her leading men: she and Lahr detested each other, and each would pull all the stops out to upstage the other during the performance. Given the showy nature of the songs by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, one can easily imagine that this one-upmanship merely served to entertain the audience; Gray's showstopper was the deliciously wordy "If You Hadn't (But You Did)," which further crystallized her wink-and-nod maneater image.
It was inevitable that such an explosive performer, described as being "a sexy Ethel Merman" and "the Esther Williams of the stage when it comes to shapliness," with "more sudden curves than Niagara Falls," would eventually turn her attention to films. Gray caught the eye of Arthur Freed, head of production for MGM's fabled musicals, when she performed out-of-town previews of the Broadway-bound Carnival in Flanders in Hollywood and San Francisco. When the show finally opened in New York on September 8, 1953, it lasted a mere six performances; but Gray, as had become custom, won rave reviews, introducing the standard "Here's That Rainy Day," and even won a Tony as Best Actress in a Musical -- going down in the history books as having performed the briefest run in a production to still win a Tony.
Gray signed her contract with MGM in 1955; had she arrived at Metro even just five years earlier, lightning might have struck, but the timing was all off. Musicals in general were on the wane, and the new, no-nonsense head of MGM, Dore Schary, had little interest in maintaining the glamorous images of MGM's veteran superstars or creating any new ones. Gray's first film, It's Always Fair Weather (1955), could have been a hit, pedigreed as it was with star/director Gene Kelly, co-director Stanley Donen, and writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who had worked so well with Gray on Two on the Aisle. The film itself had a darker, more cynical edge than audiences expected of a glossy Metro product; but even if the movie may have caught 1955 audiences off guard with its satirical bite, what really sank it at the box office was MGM's complete lack of promotional support: it was quietly released on a double bill with the bleak noir-Western, Bad Day at Black Rock, of all things.
In 1956, Gray was also strongly in the running for the Diana Vreeland-inspired role of magazine editor Maggie Prescott in Funny Face, starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. She turned the role down, feeling that it was yet another "sexless caricature" -- but it would have been a showcased role in a wildly successful, ultimately classic film. Instead, Gray wound up her all-too-brief MGM tenure as "the other woman" in the stylish, non-musical comedy, Designing Woman (1957). She looked splendid in her Helen Rose costumes, and sparred nicely with Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall, but it was too little, too late to save her floundering film career.
Gray kept busy for the first half of the 1960's with numerous television appearances, her celebrated nightclub act, and regional theater performances. In 1966, the 42-year-old married for the first time, to Andrew Crevolin, described in newspaper reports as a multimillionaire horsebreeder and landowner. Although their marriage legally lasted until his death in 1992, and they remained lifelong friends, Gray and Crevolin's actual union only lasted a few years. In 1967, she made another splashy return to Broadway in Sherry!, a musical version of The Man Who Came to Dinner. Despite high hopes, the show was a failure.
The 1970's saw Gray perform more frequently in her beloved London, both in her cabaret act, and succeeding Angela Lansbury in the 1973 revival of Gypsy. Throughout the years, she remained an outrageous, glamorous, larger-than-life personality, delighting the press with her penchant for carrying no less than 36 pieces of luggage (packed with 120 pairs of shoes and 25 evening gowns); booking a private cabin on the Queen Elizabeth solely for her Persian cat; and, on one trip to England, traveling with a dozen full-length mink coats -- and two full-time bodyguards to protect them.
Gray enjoyed one last major London hurrah when Stephen Sondheim personally asked her to come out of retirement to appear in the 1987 revival of Follies. She agreed, and once again, brought down the house as Carlotta, putting her own stamp on the done-to-death "I'm Still Here."
Flamboyant and outspoken to the end, Gray continued to be a glamorous addition to Manhattan nightlife, squired about town by friends and fans like John Epperson, a.k.a. Lypsinka, and holding court in her plush Upper East Side apartment (described by Epperson as being decorated in gold, purple and leopard skin!). Dolores Gray passed away in 2002 of a heart attack at the age of 78; but, here at SSUWAT, she is still a living, breathing icon -- no gray area there.
June 7, 1924 - June 20, 2002