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by Michael Portantiere

So in Love With Patricia Morison

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    As Patricia Morison herself remarks, "I really had two careers, one in film and one in the theater. I was lucky." The lady made her Broadway debut in 1933 and logged appearances in two shows before heading off on a Hollywood sojourn that included major roles in such films as The Song of Bernadette, Dressed to Kill, Queen of the Amazons, and The Song of the Thin Man. She returned to Broadway in a flop musical called Allah Be Praised, but her next show was nothing less than the smash hit Kiss Me, Kate. Morison reprised the role of Lili/Kate in London, then headed back to New York to play Mrs. Anna for the final stretch of The King and I's long run.

    Throughout the 1960s and '70s, she starred in touring and stock productions of Kismet, Milk and Honey, The Merry Widow, Do I Hear a Waltz?, The Fourposter, Private Lives, and other shows, as well as major revivals of both Kate and King and I. She also shone in two TV versions of Kate, one for American television, the other for the BBC. Now 96 years of age, and with total recall of her astonishing life, Morison resides in Los Angeles and hasn't performed in years -- except for treasured guest appearances in two recent editions of the annual S.T.A.G.E. benefit concert. I recently had the privilege of interviewing her via telephone. Here's what she had to say:


    BROADWAYSTARS: It's a great pleasure to speak with you, Ms. Morison. We've just gone through the awards season here in New York, and I realized that when Kiss Me, Kate was up for Tonys, it was only the third year of the awards' existence. There were far fewer categories then, but Kate won for Best Musical; Cole Porter was honored as composer and lyricist; Bella and Samuel Spewack won for their book; and Lemuel Ayers won for his costume designs.

    PATRICIA MORISON: My goodness, what a memory you have.

    STARS: Oh no, m'am, I'm looking it up. What's the first thing that comes to mind when you look back at Kiss Me, Kate?

    PATRICIA: I think of Cole Porter. He was a very good friend, and he really was the one that got me to play the role. The producers didn't want me; they didn't know that I was a singer, because I had been making movies. So I sang for Cole, and he called them and told them they were crazy. I was with the first U.S.O. group during World War II, with Merle Oberon and Al Jolson. We were entertaining the troops in England, and then Bob Hope said, "We're flying everyone to New York to do a big show at Madison Square Garden." I told him I couldn't go because I had signed to do one of the first television series they were making, which was called The Cases of Eddie Drake. It was supposed to start filming in L.A. in a week. But my agent said, "You get on that plane to New York!" So I went and did the concert, then I went to the Century Theater [where Kiss Me, Kate was slated to open] to sing for Bella Spewack and all of the other people who didn't want me. I got the part, but I was committed to the TV series.

    STARS: I guess you got out of it somehow.

    PATRICIA: No, as it happened. The show was about a detective who was having psychological problems, and I played his psychiatrist. The producers told me, "All of your scenes are in the psychiatrist's office. If we can shoot them all in two weeks, will you still do it?" I said, "Yes!" So we shot my scenes, and then I went into rehearsals for Kiss Me, Kate. The producers of the series said, "Please promise us that if your show is a success, you'll publicize our series."

    STARS: You played a female psychologist in the '40s? Very progressive!

    PATRICIA: That's right. It was the infancy of television. I remember doing The Milton Berle Show, which was the big show at the time.


    STARS: I see that you made your Broadway debut in 1933, in something called Growing Pains.

    PATRICIA: Yes, it was a play about teenagers.

    STARS: And then, in 1938, you were in an operetta called The Two Bouquets.

    PATRICIA: That was directed by Marc Connelly, who was one of the greats. He had directed The Green Pastures and lots of other shows. The Two Bouquets was a British spoof of a Victorian operetta, and Alfred Drake was my leading man! He played a character called Albert Porter, who was too shy to tell me that he was in love with me. Leo G. Carroll was also in the show. I earned the magnificent sum of $80 a week. Alfred loved to sit up all night with the cast and discuss Shakespeare, but we couldn't afford Sardi's, so we would go to Child's.

    STARS: How wonderful. I didn't realize that you two knew and worked with each other 10 years before Kiss Me, Kate.

    PATRICIA: Yes. When I was offered a contract by Paramount, Alfred told me, "Don't go out there. They won't know what to do with you." Many years later, we did a tribute to Alfred at The Players' Club. He introduced me with this long speech, and he said, "I told her she should never have gone to Hollywood!" Alfred's first love was the theater.

    STARS: I've always detected a bit of a British accent in your speech.

    PATRICIA: My mother was born in the west of Ireland, and my father was born in England. But I was born in Manhattan in 1915, while my father was fighting with the British in France. When I was a couple of months old, my mother decided to take me to England so we could be closer to my father. We went over on a tramp steamer. There was a mad Irishman on board, posing as a priest, who was planning to blow up the ship. But they got him drunk and they caught him, or I wouldn't be here today. After the war, my father was suffering from -- what do they call it now, when they can't get over the experience?

    STARS: Post-traumatic stress syndrome?

    PATRICIA: I think that's it. They used to call it "shell shocked." So he took us back to New York.

    STARS: I have so many questions about Kiss Me, Kate. It sounds like you really had to prove yourself to get the role.

    PATRICIA: At first, only Cole Porter wanted me. They had a lovely opera singer in mind for the part: Jarmila Novotna. I was a trained singer, and I had sung on Broadway in the operetta. But when I went to Paramount and told them I was a singer, they said: "We're not M-G-M."

    STARS: You were at the wrong studio! But what an opportunity to show your vocal stuff in Kiss Me, Kate. It's great that the 1958 TV version with you and Alfred Drake is now on DVD, though I'm told you're not completely happy with it for various reasons.

    PATRICIA: Well, they left out "Too Darn Hot," because in those days it was considered too risqué for television. And I couldn't say my first line in the show: "You bastard!" They changed it to "You louse!" There was so much censorship in those days, in television and in movies. When I did the film Dressed to Kill, somebody sent me the notes from the censor about a scene I had with Nigel Bruce. I was the villain, and I was trying to vamp him; the notes said, "He must not put his hand on her knee, he must not do this, he must not do that." There's another movie where I'm billed, but I'm not in it at all: Kiss of Death, with Victor Mature. He played a gangster, and I played his wife. He's sent up to prison, then I'm raped by one of his henchmen, and I commit suicide. I got a wire from Darryl Zanuck saying, "Thank God, this is such a different role for you, and you may get an Academy Award for it." Well, the censors had the whole thing cut out. You couldn't show rape on the screen, and you couldn't show suicide.

    STARS: Aside from the cutting of "Too Darn Hot," most of the risqué lyrics from the Broadway score of Kiss Me, Kate made it into the TV version, but there had been a lot of watering-down for the film with Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson, which was made about five years earlier.

    PATRICIA: I didn't like the film. You know, the TV version was in color originally. We shot it at the Astoria Studios, I think. The orchestra was in another studio, and the sound was piped through. I remember that there was going to be a strike at midnight -- though I don't remember what union was striking -- so we had to be done by then. We had shot the whole sequence leading up to where I say goodbye to Fred, and then a stagehand walked across the set, on camera. That was all right, because the scene was set backstage, but the man looked right at the camera and said, "Oh, my God!" So we had to re-shoot the entire last act, and we finished just before midnight. I'm sorry [the surviving film] is in black and white, because it was beautiful in color.


    STARS: Well, it's still a treat to have it available on home video. You and Drake have such great chemistry.

    PATRICIA: I think we worked well together. You know, before M-G-M [secured the film rights], Alex Korda was going to do a movie of Kate in London with Alfred and me, and photograph it like a play. But M-G-M made the producers an offer they couldn't refuse.

    STARS: Cole Porter had already had his terrible horseback riding accident by the time he began work on Kate, but I like to think that he felt rejuvenated because he knew he was writing a masterpiece.

    PATRICIA: He was wonderful. He used to come to rehearsals at the New Amsterdam Roof on the arm of a young man. He'd sit there and watch us. When they would say, "Cole, we need something here," he'd get up and go to the piano with the help of his friend.

    STARS: Have you been back to the New Amsterdam Theater since Disney renovated it?

    PATRICIA: No, I haven't.

    STARS: They did a beautiful job, but they didn't restore the "roof" as a theater. They use it for office space now.

    PATRICIA: When we rehearsed there, it looked like the set for Follies. I believe they were talking about renovating it, but they didn't.

    STARS: Well, you can't have everything.

    PATRICIA: No, you can't, honey.

    STARS: I've seen a clip of you in The King and I. You didn't immediately succeed Gertrude Lawrence in the Broadway production...

    PATRICIA: No, I was in London doing Kiss Me, Kate when she died. They called me to replace her then, but I was committed to Kate for almost another year. When I came back to New York, I went into the show, and after it closed on Broadway, we toured the country for more than a year. It was "the grand tour." We had our own train, but Yul Brynner and I flew. In the big cities, we would play for two or three months. It was really something.

    STARS: There's another amazing clip of you and Brynner performing at the 1971 Tony Awards.

    PATRICIA: Yes. I was supposed to do "Wunderbar" with Alfred, but when they called Yul to be in it, he was in Paris, and he said, "I will not come unless Pat does 'Shall We Dance?' with me." So Alfred did "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?" instead, and I did "Shall We Dance?" with Yul. It was wonderful to be a part of that 25th anniversary Tony show -- a very exciting night at the Palace Theatre.

    STARS: You sound so great. Life is good, and you're well?

    PATRICIA: Honey, from the hips up, I'm fine. The rest is problematic. I use a walker, and now lately when I go out, they have to take me in a wheelchair. But otherwise, I'm fine.

    STARS: I hear that you created quite a stir when you appeared in two of the S.T.A.G.E benefits in L.A.

    PATRICIA: Yes. This year, I sang "Hello, Young Lovers," and I stopped the show. So, tell me, how is Broadway these days? The Book of Mormon is supposed to be very good.

    STARS: Yes, but they really push the envelope. I'm not sure if Cole Porter would love the show or be horrified by it. His lyrics were mildly naughty by way of double entendres and innuendo. Now, they come right out and say far worse.

    PATRICIA: I don't think he would like that. Elegance and subtlety were always important to him. He got away with some pretty raunchy things by being elegant.


    STARS: As I'm sure you've heard, there's an excellent revival of his Anything Goes on Broadway right now.

    PATRICIA: Yes, everyone I know who's seen it has just loved it. When something is really good, it doesn't date.

    STARS: Especially that show. You watch it and you think, "This can't be that old."

    PATRICIA: But it is! God love the theater. I just hope it keeps going, but I can't understand these enormous prices. When I was going to drama school a hundred years ago, for 25 cents you could stand in the back of any theater. I got to see the Lunts, I got to see Tonight at 8:30 with Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. If young people today can't afford to go to the theater, they're going to take the easiest way and watch videos or whatever.

    STARS: Heaven forbid. Well, it's been a thrill to speak with you. I'd love you to see this interview after I write it up. Do you do the Internet?

    PATRICIA: No, I don't have a computer. I've been looking at the iPad -- but I've just been looking at it.

    STARS: Then I'll print out a copy of the interview and mail it to you.

    PATRICIA: Oh, I'd love that! Thank you so much.

    Published on Wednesday, July 6, 2011

    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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