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by Michael Portantiere

Mad for Mitzi!

  • Mitzi Gaynor

    Mad for Mitzi!

    One of the most gorgeous and talented women in the history of show business, Mitzi Gaynor has had a major career resurgence in recent years, capped by a 2010 Emmy Award for the PBS documentary special about her TV variety shows of the 1960s and '70s. (That program is now available on DVD, and you have got to get a hold of it.)

    Although she's best known for those amazing specials and for her performance as Nellie Forbush in the film version of South Pacific, as well as for such films as There's No Business Like Show Business and Les Girls, Mitzi has conquered just about every medium of entertainment from splashy Las Vegas extravaganzas to solo recordings -- except for Broadway (see below). Now she's bringing her one-woman career retrospective show to Feinstein's at Loews Regency, an appearance that will mark her first time on a New York stage in more than half a century. I recently spoke with her about this momentous occasion.


    STARS: New York is mad for Mitzi! The folks at Feinstein's anticipated that your show would be hugely popular, so they booked you into the hotel's ballroom rather than the more intimate space where the shows are usually held. And, even before the opening, your run was extended from one week to two. Isn't that exciting?

    MITZI: I'm over the moon about it. I'm also a little trepidatious, of course. But Michael [Feinstein] wanted it. They're building a stage for me, and a dressing room, so I'll have a place for costume changes.

    STARS: After all, what would a Mitzi Gaynor show be without costume changes?

    MITZI: I know! One time, I played a theater in Columbus, Ohio, and right on the marquee it said: "Mitzi Gaynor and Her Bob Mackie Costumes!"

    STARS: Tell me about the new show.

    MITZI: It's got some old songs, some new ones. When I'm offstage, we show film clips to sort of progress the story of my life and career. I can't wait to do this show in New York! The last time I worked in New York was when I was a kid in the ballet of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, and we played at City Center as part of a tour.

    STARS: That must have been about 60 years ago!

    MITZI: Yes. Thank you, darling. Can I have a cigarette, please? [Laughs]

    STARS: You never did a Broadway musical. Was that on purpose, or did things just work out that way?

    MITZI: Well, anytime something came up that I would have liked to do, I couldn't because I was busy with my own show. One day, Irving Berlin called me up after he had seen one of my TV specials. He said, "Hello, Mitzileh!" I said, "Hello, Mr. Berlin." He said, "How'd you know it was me?" I said, "I can tell by your voice." Anyway, he told me he wanted me to do Annie Get Your Gun on stage, but I said I couldn't because I was doing my show. He said, "What's it called?" I told him, "The Mitzi Gaynor Show." He said, "That's a very clever title." I guess you get spoiled when you do your own shows; it's hard work, but it's very fulfilling.

    STARS: You would have been an amazing Mame. That's a very tricky role to cast, but you have all the necessary qualities in terms of looks, talent, glamour, warmth, and humor.

    MITZI: I would have loved to have done Mame. But I couldn't do it now, because the entire world has done the part, including your Aunt Ethel -- probably better than I.

    STARS: I know you did a tour of Anything Goes. Did you enjoy that experience?

    MITZI: Oh, yes. I had a ball. We went all over the U.S. and Canada, for about eight months. I played the part that Ethel Merman created. She and I were very close friends until she died; we really bonded on the set of There's No Business Like Show Business.

    STARS: I didn't get to see you in Anything Goes, but a friend showed me the souvenir program, and I still remember your bio. It started with a line that went something like, "Mitzi Gaynor is to Virgo as Virgo is to Mitzi Gaynor."

    MITZI: It's true. We Virgos are such pains in the asses. It's "Do it my way and we only have to do it once. Then we can go have dinner!"

    STARS: I know your late husband, Jack Bean, was a great force in your life and career.

    MITZI: We were like one person. He was my husband, my manager, my producer, my everything. When he passed away, I didn't want to do anything anymore, but then I realized I had to go back to work. It would be a sin not to.

    STARS: In your early career, you were known primarily as a dancer. I've always thought it ironic that your most famous film role was Nellie in South Pacific, which requires almost no dancing. But you sang the songs so beautifully.

    MITZI: Thank you so much for saying that. [Director and co-author] Josh Logan really wanted me for the part, and Oscar Hammerstein wanted me, and Richard Rodgers. The whole triumvirate. I didn't have much contact with Dick Rodgers, because he wasn't very well at the time, but I did meet him. I think he could tell that I'm a real person -- as real as a phony bitch Virgo actress can possibly be! Oscar was on set for some of the filming; he came to the island. Josh would say to him, "Why don't you direct this scene." It was thrilling. You know, I'm so lucky, because I've never worked with a stinker -- someone who made me think, "Oh God, do I have to go to work again today?" Never. Isn't that great?

    STARS: Definitely. I should say congratulations on your Emmy Award. The clips in that documentary are so wonderful; I'm loving the DVD. Do you think there's a place for variety shows on TV today?

    MITZI: Yes. I think because of the popularity of shows like Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance?, more and more kids are studying dance and realizing that you have to know what you're doing in order to get a job. And I think American Idol has a lot to do with so many people wanting to learn how to sing. There should be a place for variety shows on TV -- but in the meantime, people who love that kind of thing are just going to have to come to Feinstein's and see Mitzileh!

    [For more information about Mitzi Gaynor's show at Feinstein's, or to order tickets, click here]

    Published on Friday, May 14, 2010

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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