Mitzi Gaynor brings razzle-dazzle (and sequins) to Feinstein’s

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday May 17, 2010

Mitzi Gaynor, star of screen, stage, television and nightclubs, brings her show Razzle Dazzle: My Life Behind the Sequins to Feinstein's at the Regency for two weeks beginning May 18.

The daughter of a dancer and a cellist, her mother and aunt took her to Hollywood from Detroit when she was eleven.

Once called "the number one female song and dance star" by the Los Angeles Times, Gaynor is best known for playing Nellie Forbush in Joshua Logan's 1958 film version of South Pacific, one of the top-grossing movies of that decade, for which she received a Golden Globe nomination. She also starred in There's No Business Like Show Business with Ethel Merman, The Joker is Wild with Frank Sinatra, Les Girls with Gene Kelly, and Anything Goes with Donald O'Connor.

Gaynor later became a sellout at the Flamingo Club in Las Vegas, toured with her nightclub act and stage shows, and presented eight Emmy-winning variety specials during the '60s and '70s. In the 1990s, she was also a highly regarded chronicler for the Hollywood Reporter.

EDGE spoke with Gaynor, 78, about her upcoming show and her celebrated life... with and without the sequins.

14 costume changes

EDGE: I saw you last month at the Bistro Awards. We in the audience couldn't believe how wonderful you looked.

Mitzi Gaynor: The talent in that room was amazing, wasn't it? And the audience was so marvelous, I could have eaten them up with a spoon! The New York audience gets it right away.

EDGE: Do you still have the discipline of a dancer when it comes to a health regimen?

MG: I've always been a good eater but I'm very careful with what I eat. I don't eat junk. In addition to being a musician, my father was a great chef. When the other kids were going to school with baloney and Miracle Whip between two slices of Wonderbread, I had veal cutlets and eggplant in my brown bag. It was so embarrassing, but my father would say, in his Hungarian accent, "Darling, this food is very good for you."

EDGE: I think we were also surprised and delighted by your bawdy sense of humor. Can we expect more of that from your show?

MG: [Laughing] I've always been like that, but I wouldn't say I'm bawdy; I'm "today." As dancers, our bodies are like old shoes. We'd think nothing of standing in the hallway talking to our boyfriends with nothing but a towel draped around us. As for the show, there are so many things to tell, so many songs to sing, and six costume changes.

EDGE: Are you serious?

MG: Of course I'm serious! I once had fourteen costume changes!

Story continues on following page:

Watch this interview with Mitzi Gaynor promoting her DVD Razzle Dazzle from TimeOut New York:

Watch Mitzi Gaynor perform "Let Go" from Mitzi's Second TV Special in 1969.

Dressed by Bob Mackie

EDGE: Many of our readers might be surprised to learn that you were the first star to be dressed by Bob Mackie.

MG: It was around 1966 and I had been working with another designer. I was working on a new show but he couldn't do it, so he sent his assistant over. I was rehearsing in my 4-inch heels-my mother said I was born in them-and this blond kid sticks his head in the door and introduces himself. He was so young his voice hadn't even changed! Bob discovered me that day and we fell madly in love!

EDGE: You are perhaps most famous for South Pacific, but you have worked with the best of the best: Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Donald O'Connor, Gene Kelly, Cole Porter... the list goes on. How do you put all of that into a one-hour show?

MG: Very fast! I can combine Ethel Merman with a movie and my honeymoon. Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor and I were all Virgos, so we were all a pain in the ass! I do wait for the laughs, but I have to make sure I get them!

EDGE: Was it a conscious choice to leave films at such a young age?

MG: After South Pacific there were really no big musicals to do except Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and My Fair Lady and I wasn't going to get those. Jack [Jack Bean, her husband and manager for 52 years; he died in 2006] and I had a long talk about it and we decided that I would go back to the stage, which is where I started and what I loved. We were offered a chance to do a show in Las Vegas at the Flamingo Hotel. It was an enormous amount of money, plus points in the hotel. I couldn't turn it down. Jack negotiated; he was my everything. He created whatever Mitzi Gaynor is.

EDGE: The stereotype is that marriages don't last in Hollywood, and yet you two were married for over fifty years and Jack was also your manager. What was the secret to your success?

MG: We could work together. When I went on the road, he went on the road with me. We were both from the Midwest and Catholic-when we were married, we were married! But I loved being a Mrs., cooking a great meal and taking care of the house. I was a great wife and he was a wonderful husband.

EDGE: When you see all these talent shows on television today, do you think the young people coming up have any idea how much work is involved in a showbiz career?

MG: You have to have a background and you have to have a technique. You can't sing your guts out with one song and be done. A young person today makes a lot of money and then is left to her own devices. There is no guidance. From the time I started working in the Civic Light Opera at thirteen and then 20th Century Fox at eighteen, I worked for companies. I was groomed. People don't have that anymore. Back then, you had to work all day with your back out-that's why some people got hooked on stuff. But you developed a stamina and a work ethic. There was no "forget about it, I'll do it tomorrow."

I was once on stage in Las Vegas when a man in the audience died of a heart attack. I just moved to the other side of the stage and kept performing while the staff carried him out.

You sing and dance and do whatever you can, whenever you can. No stage is too small.

EDGE: You've done so much in your career. What gave you the most fulfillment?

MG: To tell you the truth, I didn't think I was all that good in the movies. I always felt the camera was in my way. TV was different because I talked to you and we could reach so many people in one night. I feel more comfortable on the stage than anywhere else. It's like having a party and inviting all your friends over.

EDGE: Here's some trivia. You were on the same episode of "The Ed Sullivan Show" when the Beatles were introduced to America.

MG: [Laughing] No! They were on the same episode that I was on! I had top billing; Ed had been trying to get me for years. It was October 1963 and I had no idea who they were. By February, they had exploded all over the world. Later, I ended up singing some of their songs.

EDGE: And what about singing "Georgy Girl" on the 1968 Academy Awards?

MG: I was in Puerto Rico when I got the call. I didn't even know what "Georgy Girl" was but once I decided to do it, I wanted my own choreographer, Ernie Flatt, and my own trio, which was unheard of! Of course, we stopped the show cold!

EDGE: I take it, the word "retirement" is not in your vocabulary.

MG: I wouldn't know what to do with myself. I'm so excited! The last time I played New York, I was with the Civic Light Opera and I was still a brunette! My God, it's marvelous! It's party time!

EDGE: I can't wait to see you on Tuesday night, Mitzi.

Mitzi Gaynor appears at Feinstein's ( Tuesday through Saturday, May 18-29, 8:30 p.m. Tue.-Thu. and 8:00 p.m. on Fri./Sat.

Story continues on following page:

Watch this tribute to Mitzi Gaynor at the Castro Theatre July 25, 2008:

Watch this tribute to Mitzi Gaynor and guest stars perform "The Little Things You Do Together" from Company:

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).