Friday, June 7, 2013

Remembering Esther Williams

Courtesy: Harlan Boll
We just made it up as we went along. I ad-libbed all my own underwater movements. . . It appeared as if I had invited the audience into the water with me, and it conveyed the sensation that being in there was absolutely delicious.
-Esther Williams

It is a very rainy day in New York as I sit down to write this blog. On the radio, Rod Stewart is singing Cole Porter's Everytime We Say Goodbye.The rain and the song are both appropriate because another ICON, Esther Williams, a swimming champion who became "America's mermaid" when she starred in a series of Hollywood "aqua musicals" in the 1940s and '50s, has died.. I happen to be a huge fan of Esther Williams.

She was an Olympic hopeful turned leading lady, who utilized her aquatic skills in Technicolor romances such as Bathing Beauty and Neptune's Daughter.

A champion swimmer as a teen growing up in Los Angeles, Williams was headed for the 1940 Summer
Esther Williams with Billy Stritch (Courtesy: Billy Stritch)
Olympics in Tokyo when the outbreak of World War II prompted the Games' cancellation. But it turned out the brunette beauty was destined for stardom in other arenas.
 Diane Sawyer said last night, "Esther Williams, a certified movie legend, and you can still see her splashing in those old movies on the cable channel." Thank God we will ALWAYS have that!
 A champion swimmer as a teen growing up in Los Angeles, Williams was headed for the 1940 Summer Olympics in Tokyo when the outbreak of World War II prompted the Games' cancellation. But it turned out the brunette beauty was destined for stardom in other arenas.
When I received her obituary yesterday from her publicist and FRIEND Harlan Boll, immense sadness engulfed me.
However, the more I think of her, that sadness is replaced by the sheer joy and happiness that she has given me and so many others. The bulk of her career all happened before I was born. I've written about Esther Williams in a previous blog, but I will recap here that I was thirteen when That's Entertainment came out.
Seeing Williams on a large screen made me desire to stay up to catch her films on the late show. Having easy access to so many of these classic films is a double edged sword.
 On the one hand, we can watch them anytime we desire. On the other hand, that anticipation and excitement when they were rarely shown, is for the most part gone. Thank God for Turner Classic Movies! They are responsible for creating new generations of fans for these stars.
For that reason alone, Esther Williams will never die. Today I celebrate her life and legacy. I hope you enjoy this celebration!

 Esther Williams (1921-2013)

Born - Esther Jane Williams on August 8, 1921 Los Angeles, CA, USA Deceased on Thursday, June 6, 2013 in Beverly Hills, CA USA, peacefully in her sleep

Born in Los Angeles, the fifth child of Lou and Bula Williams.

Esther Williams grew up swimming in playground pools and surfing at local beaches. Young Esther got her first job at eight years old counting towels at an Inglewood pool, that her mother campaigned to have built for the neighborhood, earning an hour of swimming for each one hundred towels counted.  By age fourteen, she won a municipal swimming championship and was recruited by Aileen Allen, the city's leading women's coach at Los Angeles Athletic Club, who helped Esther develop her style.  She won the Women's Outdoor Nationals in the 100 meter free-style, added further crowns in the 100 and 50 meter breaststroke events, and swam the anchor lap for the team that cut nine seconds for the world medley relay record.  By age 16, she represented the powerful Los Angeles Athletic Club swim team while earning three national championships in both the breaststroke and freestyle.
Esther was not only fast, but she was beautiful!  The sportswriters' favorite aqua belle won three berths on the US Olympic team headed for Helsinki, Finland in May 1940.  However, due to the escalating war in Europe, the games were cancelled - along with her hopes for the gold and international fame.  Williams decided to go pro and soon switched from breaking pool records to breaking records at the box office.

In 1940 newspaper sports reportage, swimmers were frequently lined up for cheesecake photos, flashing big smiles and lots of leg.
With her stunning good looks and tall, muscular frame, Esther was a standout!  It didn't take long for legendary showman Billy Rose to also noticed the photogenic champion. Rose needed a female lead to star opposite Olympian and screen star Johnny Weismuller in his “San Francisco Aquacade Review.”  Following an audition at the Los Angeles world famous Ambassador Hotel, Esther was chosen from a casting call of 100 hopefuls. Billy Rose had found his Star and her career took off in the 1940s when she starred in a series of "aquamusicals," romantic dramedies with lavish sequences of synchronized swimming

The studio liked her, and she was signed to a contract with Louis B. Mayer in October 1941.  She made her screen debut alongside Mickey Rooney in “Andy Hardy's Double Life,” in which she gave the popular hero his first kiss - underwater.
As Williams explains, "The popular Andy Hardy series movies were MGM's tests for its promising stars such as Judy Garland, Lana Turner and Donna Reed. If you didn't make it in those pictures, you were never heard from again."

Possessing the quintessential combination of glamour and athleticism, Esther Williams swam her way to stardom in such timeless motion pictures as Bathing Beauty, Neptune's Daughter, and Million Dollar Mermaid.

The audience response to the athletic All-American girl was phenomenal, and the studio put Williams' career into high gear.  For over a decade, Esther reigned in a new Hollywood genre created just for her: The Aqua-musical.
A special 90-foot square, 20-foot deep pool was built at Stage 30 on the MGM lot, complete with hydraulic lifts, hidden air hoses and special camera cranes for overhead shots.

Over the years, MGM concocted dozens of pretenses for getting her in water, calling on the great Busby Berkley to design some of the more lavish production numbers to show off Esther's assets.

"No one had ever done a swimming movie before," she explains, "so we just made it up as we went along. I ad-libbed all my own underwater movements." It worked. As a matter of fact, the picture “Bathing Beauty” was the most successful film of 1944.
Especially notable are the spectacular sequences in “Million Dollar Mermaid” - complete with fountains, flames, and smoke and the Annette Kellerman story and “Easy to Love,” for which she learned to water-ski. Throughout her illustrious film career, she swam more than 1250 miles in 25 aqua-musicals for MGM and continually proved that she was a champion in the pool and at the box office.
A champion, an American dream, her name is synonymous with swimming.

During the mid-40s, the MGM musicals were the most popular form of entertainment in the world. By the tail end of World War II, Williams was a pin-up favorite with returning Gl's.
Meanwhile, MGM's publicity mill kept churning out headlines and photo opportunities - she once counted 14 magazines on a local newsstand featuring her picture on the cover. Esther Williams was America's sweetheart for more than 18 years, appearing in 26 movies from the early 1940's to the end of the 195Os, all but the last few for MGM.  By 1953, the foreign press voted Esther the most popular actress in fifty countries.
Along with international stardom, she must be credited for part of the U.S. boom in swim athletics and the sales of swimming pools and swimsuits.

Although she had a few dry-land roles in such films as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” it was the lavish water spectaculars that made her a top box-office draw and that became her cinematic trademark.
Like ice skater Sonja Henie before her, Williams was one of the few female athletes to successfully cross over to widespread entertainment success. Her movie career played a major role in the promotion of competitive and synchronized swimming, which she is credited with popularizing.  To millions of fledgling water ballerinas, she is the personification of synchronized swimming, a sport that reached world-class status in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

Williams proved to have a head for enterprise between those broad swimmers shoulders. "I got into business because I knew those musicals couldn't go on forever. In fact, I was doing some department store modeling at the time, and I told my bosses to hold my job. This movie-making thing wouldn't last. I mean, how many swimming movies could they make?" When someone came to her about putting her name on a line of backyard swimming pools, she agreed. Years later, Esther 'Williams is the most well known name in both the above and in ground pool business today.

Although officially unaccredited for doing so, Esther revolutionized the swimsuit industry. During WWII, the availability of fabrics was greatly limited. The bathing suit industry was limping along with suits made of shirred cotton and lingerie satin, which was very fragile when stretched, and other equally unswimable and unflattering fabric. Working with her noted costume designer, Irene, on the wardrobe for “Bathing Beauty,” Esther decided swimsuits needed to stretch in order to be beautiful. Determined to get what they needed
they located and convinced a textile firm to incorporate latex into fabric (pre- Lycra/Spandex). The result was a hot pink satin latex used to fashion the now legendary suit from the movie.  Esther continued her involvement with designing swimwear in all 25 of her subsequent films. Women everywhere no longer settle for traditional clumsy suits and demanded suits like those they saw on Esther Williams. They wanted glamour and refinement. The industry had to respond, changing the look of swimwear forever. Esther continued to design beautiful swimwear with her Esther Williams Swimsuit Collection reflecting the glamour and styles so uniquely a part of Hollywood's legendary swim star and based on the retrospective look of her full-cut movie swimsuit designs.

Williams had a full life, as an athlete, movie star, mother, businesswoman, spokesperson and an inspiration to millions. But the one thing that binds it all together- the one thing that kept her going-is her connection to water and to swimming. "I think the joy that showed through in my swimming movies comes from my lifelong love of the water," she explained. "No matter what I was doing, the best I felt all day was when I was swimming." Asked if she still swam, she would laugh, "Yes, everyday. It's the only sport you can do from your first bath to your last without hurting yourself.”

In 2009, Esther was one of nine Legendary Ladies of Stage and Screen whose career's were chosen by The
Esther Williams in Ziegfeld Follies 1944. (AP)
Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. to inaugurate the newly opened Entertainment Division.

Esther Williams was married four times - Leonard Kovner (1940 - 1944), Ben Gage (1945 - 1959), Fernando Lamas (1969 - 1982) and Edward Bell (1994 to present). She is survived by her beloved family including her husband (Edward), her children (Benjamin Gage and Susan Beardslee), three grandchildren, three step-children and eight step-grandchildren.  Services have yet to be announced, but the family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to The International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale FL.  For more information about Esther Williams, visit her website at

Williams/Bell Family Contact:
B. Harlan Boll/BHBPR
626-296-3757 *
Courtesy: Harlan Boll

Check out the following: Laura's Miscellaneous Musings: Farewell to Esther Williams 

Thank you Esther Williams for the gifts you have given to the world and will continue to give!

With grateful XOXOXs ,


Check out my site celebrating my forthcoming book on Hello, Dolly!

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Check out my blog tomorrow: Leslie Alexander on Hello, Dolly!

When it comes to the history of Jerry Herman’s brilliant production, beyond the 5000 plus performances of my own, even I turn to Richard Skipper when I have questions about the remarkable ladies who followed me in the role that the world fell in love with over 50 years ago.-Carol Channing


Thank you, to all the mentioned in this blog!

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 Jackie Joseph is an American character actress, voice artist, and writer known for portraying Alan Brady's niece Jackie on the Dick van Dyke Show, as well as the film characters of: Audrey Fulquard in the original The Little Shop of Horrors, Sheila Futterman in both Gremlins films, and the voice of Melody in the animated television series Josie and the Pussycats and Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space
She was a regular on The Doris Day Show portraying Doris' friend, Jackie Parker and also famously played the love interest of Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show as well as Imogene Harris, the eccentric love-interest of Mario (Jaime Farr) in Who's Minding The Mint…THAT’S JUST FOR STARTERS!
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1 comment:

  1. Fantastic! I never knew she was responsible for stretch fabrics in swimwear! She was one of Ann Miller's favorite people, and I guess they had much in common since Ann was of course responsible for pantyhose! (Not to mention their common batting average for marriages)