“I must be the oldest living child soprano.” –Kathryn Grayson
The Golden Age of the Hollywood musical allowed many vocalists and dancers to shine. Along with many other fabulous talents, Kathryn Grayson made her mark upon the genre as a charming American actress and coloratura soprano.
Born Zelma Kathryn Elisabeth Hedrick in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Hedrick was the third of four children born to building contractor and realtor Charles E. Hedrick and his wife, Lillian Grayson Hedrick. In addition to Zelma, the Hedrick children included Frances Raeburn (born Mildred Hedrick), Clarence “Bud” E. Hedrick, and Harold Hedrick. By 1927, the Hedrick family would soon move to Kirkwood, Missouri, just outside of St. Louis. It was here that young Zelma’s panache for vocal performance was first evidenced, though the whole family enjoyed singing.
Zelma was discovered singing on the empty stage of the St. Louis Municipal Opera House by a janitor, who introduced her to instructor Frances Marshall of the Chicago Civic Opera. Marhsall gave 12-year-old Zelma voice lessons and trained her to become an opera singer. By the time Zelma turned 15, the Hedrick family moved to California and Zelma combined her middle name and mother’s maiden name to create her stage name—Kathryn Grayson.
Grayson pursued a career in opera throughout her teen years. She attended school at Manual Arts High in Los Angeles, while her solo performances at school and church attracted the attention of talent scouts at RCA Redseal Records. She was quickly signed to a contract and began her career in the entertainment industry.
In 1939, Sam Katz, the executive in charge of musicals at MGM, heard her performing as part of a music festival. Looking for a rival to Universal’s Deanna Durbin, he encouraged Grayson to work for MGM. However, Grayson repeatedly turned him down because she wanted an opera career, not a film career.
Grayson finally relented and went through 18 months of voice lessons, drama coaching and diction coaching, in addition to new diet and exercise routines. Within a year, she had her first screen test. Despite undergoing months of coaching and maintaining her image as a pretty brunette with a heart-shaped face, the studio executives were not satisfied with her progress. As a result, she continued with six more months of lessons until finally making her film debut in Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary (1941), taking part in three musical numbers.
Shortly after signing her contract with MGM, Grayson was invited to make her operatic debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. However, Louis B. Mayer persuaded to turn down the offer, believing it would damage her image as a film star.
Grayson continued her work in films with a succession of musicals, allowing her to work alongside other talents of the day. Among her many film roles, she co-starred in Rio Rita (1942) with Abbott and Costello, appeared in Seven Sweethearts (1942) with Van Heflin, and worked with Gene Kelly in the morale-boosting Thousands Cheer (1943). Both Grayson’s younger sister, Frances Raeburn, and older brother, Michael Butler, appeared in Seven Sweethearts.
As her career continued to progress, Grayson eloped to Las Vegas with actor John Shelton in 1941. They divorced in 1946. Her next marriage was to singer Johnnie Johnston from 1948 to 1950. Her marriage with Johnston produced her sole daughter, Patricia “Patty Kate” Kathryn Johnston.
Grayson briefly stepped away from films in order to to entertain the troops serving in World War II and perform on the radio. Interestingly, she insisted on performing for integrated audiences only, as the troops were segregated at that time.
After the war, Grayson returned to films with the rousing musical comedy, Anchors Aweigh (1945), starring with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. This key musical role was followed by Two Sisters from Boston (1946), as well as guest appearances in Ziegfeld Follies (1945) and Till the Clouds Roll By (1946). Grayson sang “Make Believe” in Till the Clouds Roll By to depict Jerome Kern’s success with his musical, Show Boat. Five years later, she would find herself in the starring role of MGM’s remake of Show Boat (1951).
Grayson would work with Sinatra twice more in It Happened in Brooklyn (1947) and The Kissing Bandit (1949). Afterwards, Grayson was partnered with Mario Lanza in films like That Midnight Kiss (1949), The Toast of New Orleans (1950). Though her on-screen pairings with Lanza were meant to rival those of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, the duo did not achieve as much success as the MacDonald-Eddy partnership. However, Grayson did become close friends with MacDonald and saw her as a mentor.
Grayson also worked alongside Van Johnson in Grounds for Marriage (1951). Upon completion of Show Boat with Howard Keel, she worked with Keel once again in Lovely to Look At (1952), a remake of Roberta (1935), and in Kiss Me Kate (1953). When MGM released Grayson to Warner Brothers, the studio stipulated that she return for one more film. The film in question was Kiss Me Kate.
Her first musical film under Warner Brothers was The Desert Song (1953), which was then followed by So This is Love (1953).
Aside from her work in films, Grayson occasionally appeared on television. She carried out roles on General Electric Theater, Playhouse 90, and in Murder, She Wrote. She also appeared on stage in many different productions, including Show Boat; Kiss Me, Kate; Naughty Marietta; and The Merry Widow. She later replaced Julie Andrews in the role of Queen Guinevere in the 1962 production of Camelot, continuing the role for over a year as part of the national United States tour. Grayson also realized her dream of appearing in operas throughout the 1960s. Her opera credits include La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, Orpheus in the Underworld, and La Traviata, in addition to a wide range of dramatic and comedic roles.
Grayson remained active in the performing arts throughout her life, supervising the Voice and Choral Studies Program at Idaho State University, offering Master Classes to students. Idaho State University also rewarded students with the Kathryn Grayson Vocal Excellence Award, in honor of Grayson. In her finals years, she also gave private singing lessons in her Los Angeles home.
Grayson died in her sleep at the age of 88 on February 17, 2010.
Today, Grayson can be remembered in one particular St. Louis, Missouri, site. The St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre, where she was discovered singing, is known as “The Muny” and continues functioning as a theater. It is located at 1 Theatre Dr. in St. Louis.
Grayson’s family resided at 2301 Manning Ave. in St. Louis; however, the home no longer stands. This is the property today.
In 1952, Grayson lived at 2009 La Mesa Dr. in Santa Monica, California, which is a private residence today.
Grayson’s legacy of performing lives on with her granddaughter, Kristin Towers-Rowles, who was given the opportunity to play the title role in a 2011 San Pedro, California, production of Kiss Me, Kate.
While few many physical tributes to Grayson exist, she is best remembered through her many recordings and musical film roles.