by Ellis Nassour

    [In October, 2001, Ellis Nassour did the last interview with stage legend Dolores Gray. With Ms. Gray's death on June 26, 2002, we are reprinting it in tribute to this dazzling musical comedy star.]

    Once the one-time toast of Broadway and the West End, Dolores Gray is in retirement once again. This time, unlike previous ones, it is a forced retirement.

    Her name has suddenly popped back into the theatrical venues with the release on CD by Decca Broadway of the original cast album of her summer of 1951 smash Two on the Aisle, also starring the legendary Bert Lahr.

    Gray was the Broadway fast track and often compared to such Broadway super talent as Ethel Merman and Mary Martin.

    Veteran musical comedy star Helen Gallagher made her Broadway debut in the same show as Gray. A long-time friend and frequent co-worker of Gray's, Gallagher, said, "Dolores was a very special voice. It's one of the great theater voices. I still remember seeing her in Two On the Aisle. Her voice was so enormous that it came out and enveloped you in the audience. And this was before microphones! Dolores had an instrument capable of delivering not only a lush sound, but also power and emotion.

    "She was a contralto," Gallagher continued, "which most of us are not. We're sopranos. Dolores and Susan Johnson [The Most Happy Fella] are the only contraltos I've known. Dolores wasn't a great actress, but she was an extraordinarily fine performer. And in ëthose' days, that's exactly what they wanted. They didn't want actresses. They wanted beautiful women who could sing. We were performers, entertainers. Elaine [Stritch] was probably the only one who ever acted."

    Gray is making a splendid recovery after a debilitating stroke three years ago that almost took her life. She keeps an active schedule of physical therapy, outings to museums and frequently goes to openings of shows, such as the recent revivals of Annie Get Your Gun, which was a momentous career turn for her in the late 40s, and, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Anything Goes!, which starred Chita Rivera, and Victor/ Victoria, which co-starred Lee Roy Reams (he also directed), Gray's long-time friend and frequent visitor.

    She says she is always amazed when people ask her for her autograph and send her photographs. "The theater was really all I ever knew. It was my life. It's wonderful to be remembered."

    Dolores Gray was born in Chicago. There weren't a lot of thoughts about breaking into show business. In fact, Gray says, "I really didn't know I had this big voice until people made quite a commotion after I sang at a school dance."

    She never received professional training. "What I have is all natural," she said. "The only guidance I got was from my mother, who was one of the most intelligent human beings I've known."

    It was that voice that led her stage-struck mother to leave home behind and relocate to California when Gray was in her late teens. Her career began as a band vocalist, which helped her gravitate to radio, singing on shows hosted by Milton Berle and Rudy Vallee.

    In addition to that voice, Gray was blonde and statuesque. It didn't take long for Hollywood to notice. Her mother's pushing didn't hurt. At 17, Gray appeared uncredited in Lady for a Night (19421), but in 1944 she won a spot as a chanteuse in Mr. Skeffington, starring Bette Davis and Claude Rains.

    In 1944, producer Billy Rose heard Gray in an engagement at New York's Copacabana and offered her the ingenue role in his million dollar plus production of Cole Porter's revue Seven Lively Arts. Beatrice Lillie, Bert Lahr and Billie Worth starred. There were sketches by Moss Hart, Ben Hecht and George Kaufman. Helen Gallagher made her debut in the chorus and worked as Worth's understudy. "A month after we opened in New York," she recalls, "Dolores was unhappy because she wanted to sing ëEv'rytime We Say Goodbye,' one of our greatest songs and it came from that revue. Nan Wynn sang it in Act One and Dolores did a reprise in the second act. She was nineteen, but assertive, to say the least. And she had this mother who backed her up. When they wouldn't give it to her, she quit. Then, there were only six lively arts and I got my big break because they needed seven."

    In spite of the Rose hype, the show was called outdated and closed after 183 performances. Next came Are You With It? (1945), a musical about carnival people. Gray recalls playing Bunny LeFleur. "I wore about four beads and three feathers!"
    In 1946, she did Vernon Duke-Ogden Nash's musical comedy Sweet Bye and Bye. "It wasn't a success," summarizes Gray. "We closed in Philadelphia and I returned to clubs." [Two of the songs were later used by the composers for their 1952 revue Two's Company starring Bette Davis.] She auditioned for the West End Annie Get Your Gun and producers Rodgers and Hammerstein thought her all wrong. Mary Martin, who was starring in the first national tour, urged Hammerstein to audition Gray again.

    "Oscar didn't remember my voice from Are You With It?, but he joked that people weren't listening, just looking at me. I sang twelve bars of ëHow Deep Is the Ocean' when he interrupted and said, ëThat's enough.' He gave me a script. I came back two days later, no make-up, hair pulled back, plainly dressed, and grabbed a broom to use as a rifle. I read and sang for an hour, then told them I was exhausted. Josh (Logan, the director), ran down the aisle and said, ëThat was some performance!'"

    Rodgers took Gray's hand and they went to the stage manager's office. He sent a cable to the London producers. It read: "We have just found Annie."

    [ The closest thing to a cast recording is Encore's Boxoffice: Americans in London (1947-1951), which contains selections from several West End hits, including Gray singing six songs from AGYG. ]

    During Gray's three sell-out years, she not only was the toast of London but also studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
    On her return home, she took a part she felt quite beneath her in the Comden and Green revue Two on the Aisle, which had been written for Bert Lahr and Lena Horne, which would have been ground-breaking casting. Horne turned the part down.

    Gray had two showstopping numbers, but was quite unhappy. She'd returned from a triumph and felt appearing in what she termed a step above burlesque was an insult. From the beginning there was friction between Gray and Lahr, whom she described as "a troubled man who never got any happiness from his work." Neither were happy with the other, sometimes even onstage.

    The show had a brief run. Fuel was added to the fire by, what several intimates termed, Gray's mother, Barbara, who some called the ultimate stage mother; even claiming she was Arthur Laurents inspiration for Rose, his determined stage mom, in Gypsy. There are legendary stories of Mrs. Gray doing battle royal with producers and directors and how, more than once, she was barred from theatres.

    There was a variety TV series in 1952, opposite Joe E. Brown and John Raitt done live from New York on NBC. She followed that with her first lead role in a book musical, 1953's Carnival of Flanders, which co-starred Raitt. The score was by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke and had a troubled book written by a number of theater veterans including Herbert and Dorothy Fields and film writer/director Preston Sturges. It's notable because of Gray's showstopping "Here's That Rainy Day," which went on to become a classic, and the fact that, for a show which folded after six performances, Gray won a Best Actress Tony. Next came a sell-out, critically acclaimed 1954 engagement at the Waldorf.

    A little trivia: In 1954, with Marilyn Monroe under an exclusive RCA Victor recording contract, Gray was brought in to sing MM's parts on the Decca Records soundtrack release of There's No Business Like Show Business. [Years later, a soundtrack with Monroe's vocals was released.]

    Arthur Freed wooed Gray to Hollywood with a four- picture M-G-M contract. It was thought to be the perfect marriage: one of musical theater's greatest stars and Hollywood's biggest booster of film musicals. In the lavish film adaptation of Kismet (1955), she was a standout Lalume opposite Howard Keel, Vic Damone and Ann Blyth, but the film was not a critical or boxoffice success. Much was expected of It's Always Fair Weather (1955) with a score by Comden and Green and Andre Previn. It was directed and choreographed by Gene Kelly [who co-starred with Cyd Charisse, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd] and Stanley Donnen. Problems arose even before production between one-time best friends Kelly and Donnen. To say Kelly and Gray clashed would be an understatment. Maybe one cause of friction was that as brilliant as his dancing was, Gray was just as brilliant. The musical is not the typical
    M-G-M "fluff and gloss" but had a dark edge. Kelly informed Gray that the film was running over-budget and that her one big number, "Thanks, But No Thanks," [with Gray and a huge male chorus] would have to be shot in one take. She was furious, but when she found out it was one way of Kelly getting back at her for giving him difficulty, she set out to out-dazzle him. She succeeded. Betty Comden says the musical was "way ahead of its time and not the type of musical the public had come to expect from M-G-M." The critics were wowed, but the public didn't respond.

    In The Opposite Sex (1956), a musical adaptation of The Women, Gray played sharp-tongued Sylvia Fowler in an all-star cast that included June Allyson, Ann Sheridan, Ann Miller, Joan Blondell, Charlotte Greenwood and Joan Collins. Gray and Miller became fast friends while rehearsing their very realist cat fight for the film. "Dolores was such a joy to work with," says Miss Miller. "She was statuesque and brassy on and off screen and had this delicious sense of humor."

    After her only non-musical in the deal, Designing Woman (1957), directed by Vincent Minnelli and co-starring Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall, Freed dropped Gray. "It was sad," says Miss Miller, "that Arthur didn't have more faith in Dolores. She really would have been a great asset to M-G-M." As far as her being a trouble maker, Miss Miller said, "Well, she certainly wasn't alone in that category."

    Gray returned to clubs, recorded for Capitol Records, guested in TV variety shows but was soon to go back on the legit stage. In late 1985, she was announced for Goldilocks, a musical by Walter and Jean Kerr, music by Leroy Anderson and lyrics by the Kerrs and Joan Ford. But, before out-of-town tryouts, Gray was out of the show. It's said did battle with none other than David Merrick, a co-producer, and that led to Gray's withdrawal on account of artistic differences. The troubled show, starring Elaine Stritch, folded after 161 performances.

    In 1959, Gray won the much sought-after role of Frenchy in Destry Rides Again, based on the classic Jimmy Stewart/Marlene Deitrich Western. It marked Andy Griffith's return to the stage and boasted a score by Harold Rome. Tales abound about friction between the stars. She'd only say he was difficult, but to this day, when she sees him on TV, she comments that "he was not a nice man." For her performance, Gray was nominated for a Tony. "It was a lovely show," states Gray, "and has one of Harold's most unappreciated scores."

    The show ran 473 performances. Decca Broadway released the original cast album on CD for the first time last May. Gray's numbers included, "I Know Your Kind," which she continued to perform in her club act for years, "I Say Hello," and a poignant duet with Griffith, "Anyone Would Love You."

    By 1966, Gray felt she had done all she wanted to do. "I'd been working since I was a youngster," she recalls. "I loved show business, but it became everything to me. I wanted to have a normal life, to get married, and I waited a long time to choose the man."

    That year, she married Andrew Crevolin, but she didn't give up theatre. She was already contracted to do Sherry! (1967), the musical adaptation of the Kaufman and Hart classic The Man Who Came To Dinner. Gray was Hollywood bombshell Lorraine Sheldon opposite George Sanders and Elizabeth Allen. The show had a troubled beginning. The director, choreographer and, finally, the leading man went. It opened with Clive Revill as Sheridan Whiteside.

    In his book Not Since Carrie, 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops, Ken Mandelbaum wrote, "If ever a performer woke up a sleeping show, it was Gray." How right he was. The score wasn't bad, it just wasn't memorable or fun - except for the title tune.

    Gray entered very late into Act One singing James Lipton and Laurence Rosenthal's title song in one of Broadway's most memorable moments and entrances. She was dressed to the nines and, amid countless steamer trunks, arrived on one of them belting from the stage of the Alvin [now the Neil Simon] beyond the balcony to neighborhoods far away. This was one performer who didn't need to be miked.

    [The show wasn't recorded, but to get a small appreciation of how exciting the moment was, listen to Christine Baranski and Jonathan Friedman sing "Sherry!" on Unsung Musicals, Volume One (Varese Sarabande Records)]

    Certainly, many actors in memorable roles, even in hits, don't get Tony recognized; but Gray's omission was a crime.

    The show lasted 65 performances. Gray packed her steamer trunks and headed for California and a new life on, of all things, Crevolin's horse farm. "I've had a wonderful career," she said at the time, "and it's been a long career. Now I'm going to devote myself to marriage."

    Gray loved California, but didn't renew her celebrity acquaintances. Instead, she became quite the celebrated society hostess. "Andrew was the owner of the Kentucky Derby champion Determine (1954)," Gray recalls. "He taught me all about horses. I was fascinated, especially by their bloodlines. We traveled the world, going to yearling sales. I totally retired from show business. I didn't sing a note for nine years."

    Gray was not forgotten. In 1973, when Angela Lansbury was set to leave the West End production of Gypsy, she was asked to take over. "I had reservations, and, initially said no. It wasn't London. I had fabulous memories. I had retired, and didn't want to go back to the stage." She confides that her reluctance to play Rose was tied to her mother's death nine years earlier. "We were terribly close. When she died, I lost heart. I didn't appear in public for eight months. It was something I'd never gotten over. I was holding all my sorrow in and I knew playing such a strong woman as Rose would awaken painful memories."

    Producers Barry Brown and Fritz Holt wouldn't take no for an answer. They sent Gray the cast recording. "I was listening to Angela," recalls Gray, "and something hit me. I started to cry. Andrew couldn't comfort me. Finally, I dried my eyes and said, ëI think I've got a beat on Rose!' Then and there, I decided the next time Barry or Fritz called, I'd say yes." Brown called the next day, and Gray said yes. She was welcomed back to London as if she'd never left, and once again there was thunderous applause and standing ovations.

    In the late 70s, she did the workshop of Ballroom for Michael Bennett, only to drop out because she made the puzzling claim that she wasn't a dancer. Stories of their clashes are legendary. Then Gray retired again. But not for long. In November 1983 Gray was back onstage for two years in the second national company of 42nd Street, as Dorothy Brock, the spoiled Broadway star who breaks a leg - the role originated by Tammy Grimes. In 1985, she returned to Broadway for a run in the show. At the end of her contract, she returned to California to be with Crevolin, who wasn't well. Less than a year later, the marriage ended in divorce. [Crevolin is deceased.]

    March, 1987, Gray returned to New York to sing "Rose's Turn" in a star-studded tribute to Jule Styne. It also turned out to be Gray's turn. Stephen Sondheim was at the dress rehearsal and asked Larry Kert [West Side Story, Company] how Gray was singing. Kert gave him a glowing report, which got Sondheim thinking. A production of a much-revised Follies, directed by [the late] Mike Ockrent, who had made a splash in the West End and on Broadway with Me and My Girl, was set for the summer in the West End. Kert took Gray aside and told her to expect a call from Sondheim.

    "I looked at Larry," said Gray, "more than a bit puzzled, and asked, ëWhy on earth would he be calling me?' He laughed with great mischief and replied, ëYou'll see!'" The phone rang the next day, but it wasn't Sondheim. It was Cameron Mackintosh, who invited Gray to meet with him. When he made the proposal of her playing Carlotta in London. Gray was stunned. "I said no, that I wouldn't do a cameo. That I couldn't live with that."

    She'd never seen the show, but knew Carlotta said nothing and had one big moment, albeit a show-stopping one. The next day, a script arrived. Mackintosh called again. Gray's answer was still no. "I said no for weeks," she smiles, "but he was persistent. He wore me down. He was a producer of top musicals and I was flattered. When he called the next time, I surprised him. I asked for a short-term contract. That way, if I wasn't happy, I could come home. He agreed."

    When Gray returned to London, though she thought of it as "my second home," she says she didn't know if anyone would remember her. That thought had also made her vacillate about accepting. There was huge publicity in her return to the West End. If there were any remaining doubts about Follies, they were erased on the opening night. Her reviews were all accolades.

    "It was absolutely amazing," she says, "It was like being wrapped in a warm embrace. I loved the production. I'd heard how downbeat the original production was. Of course, life can't always be lollipops and roses, but, with the revisions, our production showed there was hope for the marriages."

    Evan Pappas [My Favorite Year, Parade], was young Buddy. "Dolores and I were the only two Americans, so we bonded right away. I was twenty-nine and in London for the first time. I was a fish out of water, but Dolores knew it like the back of her hand and really took me under her wing. She had had two great successes there, so her return garnered huge publicity. Audiences were very warm and welcoming. In addition, Diana and Julia took great care of us. It was one of the best year's I ever had."

    Pappas explained that for Dolores to have her own dressing room, she was on the fourth floor. "I was across the hall. She'd arrive early to do make-up and get into her gown. I could see how much she loved performing by the fact that she couldn't wait to get onstage. That gown was so heavy with beads, I don't know how she got up and down the stairs. She was a trouper. I never heard anyone sing ëI'm Still Here' as Dolores did."

    [Pappas relayed a personal story: "In the early nineties, I was having a low period. Dolores found out and sent me a check. It was an unbelievable act of generosity, but my pride got in the way. I told Dolores I couldn't accept it. She said, ëOf course, you can. You have to! This is my chance to help someone I respect.'"]

    Gray suffered a terrible injury two months after the show opened and for nine weeks her understudy was onstage until it was time for Carlotta's big number. Gray, seated on a stool, revolved out of the shadows to sing and still managed to stop the show.

    One afternoon, someone in London, told her, "You're a survivor, so how do you relate to singing ëI'm Still Here?" Gray's voice rose a bit. "I don't think of myself as a survivor. There are no ironies in it. I did what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it, and, when I quit, it was my choice."

    Dolores Gray did do a lot, with many career highs and lows.

    Gray's last stage role, Money Talks (1990). Audience members recall sitting in the Promenade Theatre, long after the curtain was due to go up, and hearing Gray's piercing screams emanating from backstage. They were more entertaining than the play.

    Also in the cast was Helen Gallagher. "Dolores and I worked together a lot on the TV variety shows that used to tape or be broadcast live from here. It was great to be working together again - we thought! Money Talks was written by one of the backers of my Tallulah, and when he decided to write this thing he wanted me to be a part of it. I read the script and knew I didn't want to do it. But I felt obligated to audition Ö and got the part. I've had my share of catastrophes, but nothing like this! You couldn't do what was written. It was like meandering your way through a mine field."

    There were so many changes that, during previews, Gray read lines off of newspapers and books she held, even from the back of a lampshade. Realizing the show was a mistake, she wanted out. Producer Arthur Cantor said no way. "Dolores was looking for a graceful way to leave," says Gallagher. "We should have just walked, quit!"

    Speaking of quitting, Gray says that was her biggest mistake. "When I came out of retirement to do Gypsy, I realized I had been given a rare gift and that it was a shame not to use it."

    Looking back, Gray recalled other mistakes and disappointments. "There were always disappointments. Things happened and, to this day, I wake up saying, ëMy God, I'll never get over that.'" One huge regret, she says, was that one of the "best shows ever written" [Mame] was written for her and, for some mystifying reason, she didn't get it. And Gray wishes she'd done more movies. "What a gift that would be to have more of a permanent record. A stage performance is just that, then it's lost. When I see movies on TV, I think, ëHow great to have that.' But why look back? The decisions I made, I made. I can't change that."


    Friday, June 28, 2002 at 10:00 AM | Item Link

    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

    The last five columns written by Ellis Nassour:

    07/02/2010: Summer in the City: Fireworks on the Hudson Launch a Season with Plenty to Do and See

    06/13/2010: The 64th Annual Tony Awards Celebrating Broadway Achievement

    06/10/2010: Tony Honoree Marian Seldes: Grand Duse of the American Theater

    06/08/2010: Starry, Starry Nights [Hopefully] with the Bard; Broadway by the Year Celebrates 10th Anniversary; Old Flames Reignite [Onstage]; Summer in and Out of the City; Stars Rally for Dancers; Cast CDs and Re-releases; New to DVD

    05/21/2010: Patti LuPone Hosts Sunday's Drama Desk Awards; A Starry, Starry Season; Tovah Feldshuh, Sherman Brothers Honored; Broadway By the Year Season Finale

    For a listing of all features written by Ellis, click here.