Monday, August 8, 2011

Happy Birthday, Esther Williams! Boy, Do we need her now!!

By the time I got home at night, my eyes were so chlorinated I saw rings around every light.
Esther Williams

Happy Birthday, Esther Williams!

When I was a little boy, from time to time, I would find an Esther Williams film on a Sunday afternoon on The Sunday afternoon movie. They were few and far between. Then in 1974, THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT opened. There was a lot of publicity leading up to the film and surrounding it. The sands were shifting through the old Hollywood hourglass faster than you could shake a stick at. Corporations started taking over the movie industry. When you start replacing those who are in love with the art form with those who are interested ONLY in the bottom line, you will lose everything.Look at what has happened to Broadway and television. It has reached the point on Broadway where the average person can no longer afford to go to the theatre!
At curtain time, sell 25 tickets at $25.00 for those who could not afford the regularly priced tickets for any empty seats in the theatre. Audiences are mostly being made up of people with corporate accounts taking their colleagues out to impress them. They end up tweeting and texting during a show because they would rather be some place else. In the meantime, people dying to see a show have lost out. Don't get me started.

I remember coming home one Monday night in 1974 from The Boy Scouts. Yes, I was a Boy Scout! My sister met me at the door and told me that The Ruby Slippers had been sold. I told her she had no idea what she was talking about. She said there had been a special about the auction on TV that night.

For many years, movie studios were careless with old props, costumes, scripts, and other materials, unaware of their increasing value as memorabilia.

Often, workers would just take souvenirs without permission, aware that their employers did not particularly care.
(The original curled-toe "Arabian" ruby slippers used in costume tests[1] on display at the auction of the collection of Debbie Reynolds in Beverly Hills on June 18, 2011.)

One of the more notorious of these was costumer Kent Warner, who amassed a large private collection and supplemented his income with sales.
It was he who found the slippers in February or March 1970 while helping to set up a mammoth auction of props and wardrobe.

They had been stored away and forgotten in the basement of MGM's wardrobe department. One pair became the centerpiece of the auction. Warner kept the best pair for himself, size 5B,
and apparently sold the rest.

An entire special covering this auction! Recently, Debbie Reynolds, who has been collecting movie memorabilia, since the beginning of her career with the hopes and dreams of having a Hollywood museum, recently had an auction to auction off her collection. She has given up on that dream. It got very little news coverage. I have noticed that as I get older that many in our industry today have very little reverence for the past. If it didn't happen in the past 25 years, they feel it is not important to the next generation. When a Lifetime Achievement Award is given at The Academy Awards and/or The Tony Awards, and it doesn't even warrant air play, it is a slap in the face of the recipient. An entire body of work is negated. These ARTISTS paved the way for all of us. This year, Lauren Bacall received a Lifetime Achievement Award at The Academy Awards.
No special presentation at all. More time was spent on trying to attract the next generation to watch The Academy Awards by bringing in two hosts that had absolutely no experience in that arena, James Franco and Anne Hathaway and it backfired.

Jerry Herman was given a Lifetime Achievement Award last year. NOT ONE OF HIS SONGS was performed live on the telecast. Instead they did a much too long promo/tribute to GLEE. This year, we lost one of the giants of Broadway, Arthur Laurents...very little time was given to his body of work and his legacy.

When Alexander Cohen and his wife Hildy Parks produced and wrote The Tony Awards broadcasts for years, they managed to get in all the awards and in each of those broadcasts, they honored The past, present, and future. They also had a LOVE for the theatre. They weren't concerned about ratings...and yet they had them. I think the problem with the executives who make these choices spend so much time trying to gain a new demographic instead of trying to expand the demographic they have.

I have seen more theatres fold because new artistic directors feel a need to re educate their audiences.
Those that make these executive decisions, listen to me, PLEASE. Make your goal to entertain and your audiences will come. Those that are making these decisions are more concerned about themselves than they are about their audiences! THAT is what has destroyed the ENTERTAINMENT part of Show Business. The emphasis has shifted from SHOW to BUSINESS.

Boy, did I digress! Perhaps not! It's ALL related. In 1974, there was a huge nostalgia craze and even though I was 13, I was caught up in it.

Clark Gable was the first to have called me a mermaid.
Esther Williams

In his State of the Union Address, U.S. President Richard Nixon declared, "One year of Watergate is enough." Perhaps we ALL needed to go back to a "simpler" time.

It was in 1974, that THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT came to the Holiday Theatre in Conway, South Carolina. The Holiday Movie Theatre was the only movie theatre in Conway. A SINGLE movie theatre. It seemed as if we had to wait forever for films to make their way to Conway and when they did, they only played for three days! I had been anticipating this movie for the longest! I devoured every newspaper clipping, every magazine article, and every television special about this amazing film!

That's Entertainment! was a 1974 compilation film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to celebrate its 50th anniversary. It was followed by two sequels and a related film called That's Dancing!.

The day finally arrived. I was dropped off at the theatre. I think it was a Monday night. NO ONE WAS THERE! It was almost as if I had a private screening. I was in the front row. I really wanted to drink this in.

The movie started and for the next four hours I had an out of body experience!
The movie began with The Hollywood Revue of 1929.
Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards and company singing "Singin' In The Rain" Frank Sinatra informed us that this song had become somewhat of a theme song at MGM, starting of course with Hollywood Review of 1929.

Singin’ in the Rain (m. Nacio Herb Brown, w. Arthur Freed) was published in 1929. However, it is unclear exactly when the song was written with some claiming that the song was written and performed as early as 1927. It became a hit and was recorded by a number of artists, notably Cliff Edwards, who also performed the number in the early musical sound film The Hollywood Revue of 1929. It was also performed on film by Jimmy Durante (in 1932′s Speak Easily) and Judy Garland (in 1940′s Little Nellie Kelly).
Singin' in the Rain - LITTLE NELLIE KELLY by ActnTheatre

The song is probably best known today as the centerpiece of the 1952 musical film Singin’ in the Rain, in which Gene Kelly memorably danced to the song while splashing through puddles during a rainstorm.
The song is also performed during the opening credits of the film, as well as in a scene toward the end of the movie, in which Debbie Reynolds’ character sings it while Jean Hagen’s character lip-syncs (although, ironically enough, Jean Hagen dubbed her own character’s dialogue instead of Debbie Reynolds).

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. (MGM) is an American media company, involved primarily in the production and distribution of films and television programs. MGM was founded in 1924 when the entertainment entrepreneur Marcus Loew gained control of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation and Louis B. Mayer Pictures.

On November 3, 2010, MGM filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT, compiled by its writer-producer-director, Jack Haley, Jr., under the supervision of executive producer Daniel Melnick, turned the spotlight on MGM's legacy of musical film from the 1920s through the 1950s, featuring performances culled from dozens of the studio's famous films. Archive footage of Judy Garland, Eleanor Powell, Lena Horne, Esther Williams, Ann Miller, Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Jeanette MacDonald, Cyd Charisse, June Allyson, Mickey Rooney, Mario Lanza, and many others was featured.

Released during the height of the Watergate scandal and just after the Vietnam War, That's Entertainment! was marketed with a tagline of "Boy, do we need it now!" The idea of celebrating the happy-go-lucky musicals of an earlier era hit a nerve with a nostalgic public; That's Entertainment! was hailed by critics and would become one of the top twenty highest-grossing films of 1974.

The film was compiled in various segments hosted by a succession of the studio's legendary stars: Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Peter Lawford, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Bing Crosby, James Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, and Liza Minnelli (representing her mother, Judy Garland).
(Eleanor Powell)

Eleanor Powell was a onetime Broadway hoofer whose dazzling tap dances made her a major film star during the 1930s and 1940s.

She worked steadily on stage and in movies from the time she was 13 until she married actor Glenn Ford in 1943. Then she made a brief, although successful, nightclub comeback in Las Vegas and New York two years after their divorce in 1959.

Most of the hosts were filmed on MGM's famous backlot, which looks disturbingly ramshackle and rundown in this film, because MGM had sold the property to developers and the sets were about to be demolished (several of the stars, including Bing Crosby, remark on this during their segments).

The most notable degradation can be seen when Fred Astaire revisits the ruins of a train station set that had been used in the opening of The Band Wagon two decades earlier, and when Peter Lawford revisits exteriors used in his late-40s musical, Good News.

That's Entertainment! was the last major project to be filmed on the backlot.

In 1924, movie theater magnate Marcus Loew had a problem. He had bought Metro Pictures Corporation (founded in 1916) and Goldwyn Pictures (founded in 1917) to provide a steady supply of films for his large theater chain, Loew's Theatres. However, these purchases created a need for someone to oversee his new Hollywood operations, since longtime assistant Nicholas Schenck was needed in New York to oversee the theaters. Loew addressed the situation by buying Louis B. Mayer Pictures on April 16, 1924. Because of his decade-long success as a producer, Mayer was made a vice-president of Loew's and head of studio operations in California, with Harry Rapf and Irving Thalberg as heads of production. For decades MGM was listed on movie title cards as "Controlled by Loew's, Inc."

Originally, the new studio's films were presented in the following manner: "Louis B. Mayer presents a Metro-Goldwyn picture", but Mayer soon added his name to the studio with Loew's blessing. Though Loew's Metro was the dominant partner, the new studio inherited Goldwyn's studios in Culver City, California, the former Goldwyn mascot Leo the Lion (which replaced Metro's parrot symbol), and the Goldwyn corporate motto Ars Gratia Artis ("Art for art's sake").
(Vincente Minnilli and Judy Garland)

Judy Garland was one of MGM's biggest stars. Through a career that spanned 45 of her 47 years and for her renowned contralto vocal range,Garland attained international stardom as an actress in musical and dramatic roles, as a recording artist and on the concert stage.

Respected for her versatility, she received a Juvenile Academy Award, won a Golden Globe Award, as well as Grammy Awards and a Special Tony Award. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in A Star is Born and for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the 1961 film, Judgment at Nuremberg.

So was Debbie Reynolds!

When I started this blog this AM, I started out to write about one of my favorite movie stars! Esther Williams is 90 today! Warner Home Video has released Esther Williams: Volume 1, an extras-heavy collection of five of her M-G-M "Aqua-Musicals" (Bathing Beauty, Easy to Wed, On an Island With You, Neptune's Daughter, and Dangerous When Wet). Esther Williams was really rather unique among other Hollywood stars; she could rightfully lay claim to sole ownership of her own sub-genre: the water musical.
While certainly a very few iconic actors can be thought of as leaders in their genres - such as John Wayne in westerns, or Bette Davis in melodramas - they certainly weren't the only performers working in those types of films. Esther Williams, on the other hand, had no competition; she was unique and solitary unto herself. And lest you think the water musical was some kind of fluke or minor success with the public, Esther Williams' films made millions and millions at the box office (far more than the so-called "prestige" films that critics championed, and that everybody remembers today), with Esther routinely ranked as a Top Ten box office draw for years during the 1940s and 1950s.

Critics established a snobbery toward me.
Esther Williams

Even though I had a lucrative contract with MGM, I had a husband who was drinking and gambling our money away faster than I could make it.
Esther Williams

What these films provide is escapism, a Technicolor-soaked journey through improbable comedic, romantic and dramatic situations, as well as elaborate water production numbers that transferred the intricacy of Busby Berkeley's stage choreography, underwater.

To a war-weary world movie audience (Bathing Beauty premiered in 1944), an Esther Williams film must have looked like something from Mars. M-G-M, hoping to recreate the box-office that 20th Century-Fox had with the Sonja Henie films, melted the ice, threw in Esther, and shot it all in a riot of Technicolor primary color. The world's problems don't intrude in on these films; social unease and political unrest were banished from these fantasy-laden films.

Born in Los Angeles, the fifth child of Lou and Bula Williams, "This one's for laughs," her mother said. 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, the one her mother campaigned to have built for the neighborhood, earning an hour of swimming for each 100 towels counted. By age fourteen, she won a municipal swimming championship and was taken on at Los Angeles Athletic Club by the city's leading women's coach, Aileen Allen, 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 and had earned three national championships in both the breaststroke and freestyle. Esther was not only fast, but she was beautiful! The sportswriters' favorite aquabelle won three berths on the US Olympic team headed for Helsinki, Finland in May 1940 when World War II intervened, canceling the games – along with her hopes for the gold and international fame. Williams decided to go pro and switched from breaking pool records to breaking records at the box office.

Still, she was attracting attention in other ways. 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! MGM executives spotted her as Johnny Weismuller’s co-star in Billy Rose’s San Francisco Aquacade.
It didn't take long for legendary showman Billy Rose to notice the photogenic champion. Rose needed a female lead to star opposite Olympian and screen star Johnny Weismuller in his “San Francisco Aquacade” review. He invited Williams up for an audition and, so the story goes Weismuller himself picked her out of a casting call of 75 hopefuls. Her performing career had begun. 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." 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. Her biography reads like a treatment for a film in which only someone like Esther Williams could star.

“The Aquacade” was a true spectacle - a Broadway musical in swimsuits complete with hundreds of swimmers, divers, singing, and special effects. Williams starred as Aquabelle #1, performing choreographed duet swims with Aquadonis #1 (Weismuller). In a memo to his publicity department, Rose explained that, "I want to pivot everything around Williams. It is up to us to make this girl known up and down the coast.

MGM executives who saw her in the Aquacade agreed. After a year of being hounded by the studio, they offered Williams a screen test - paired with none other than Clark Gable. Gable liked her, 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." By her third film, “Bathing Beauty,” Esther was a full-fledged star.

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. Midway through filming “Mr. Coed” with Red Skelton, they changed the name of the movie to “Bathing Beauty” and made Esther Williams the star, demoting Skelton to supporting lead.

“Bathing Beauty” was Hollywood's first swimming movie, and it created a new genre that was perfectly suited to Esther’s beauty and athletic skills. 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.

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.

Movie making was exhausting work, (Williams estimates that she swam more than 1,000 collective miles while making her movies and was in the water so many hours each day that she took naps with her legs on the pool deck, and her head floating in the water), yet Esther found time to marry three times during her movie career (last to Fernando Lamas). Esther has three children (Benjamin, Kimball and Susan) from her second marriage to radio singer Ben Gage. She is presently married to Edward Bell, a former actor and producer. “I don't know to this day how I managed to fit into those bathing suits when I was pregnant," she says, "but I did." She still refers to each child by the movie she was making before they were born. "There I was, diving off platforms with Ben in Neptune's Daughter, going underwater in silver lame' with Kim in Pagan Love Song and learning how to water ski with Susie in Easy to Love...and somehow I stayed a size 10 through it all."

Williams has proven 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 with the idea of putting her name on a line of backyard swimming pools, she agreed. Twenty-five years later, Esther 'Williams is the most well known name in both the above and in ground pool business today. Her affordable Esther Williams’s backyard swimming pools and spas keep millions of Americans cool and healthy during the hot summer months.

Although officially uncredited for doing so, Esther revolutionized the swimsuit industry. During the time she was rapidly becoming the most famous swimmer in the world and the star of the only aquatic themed musicals, the effects of WWII had greatly limited the availability of fabrics. 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. Lycra/Spandex had not yet been invented and the only stretchable material was lastix thread, which was not available due to the war. 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. 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 continues 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. There's also a line of fitness swimsuits in the works, "I'm reading my mail carefully," she says. "Somebody has to give a little thought to the woman who has nursed a baby and I want to apply my knowledge of what feels good in the water for that woman. I think there's a void in the market right now for that kind of swimsuit." In addition, her instructional videotapes teach parents how to keep their babies safe, and her aqua-aerobic equipment keeps us all fit and healthy year-round.

Her appearances at openings and benefits usually cause a sensation. "When I go to business conventions for my products, it sometimes takes me over four hours to sign all the autographs and pose for pictures," she says. "Everyone wants a photo for their store, and I never turn anyone down, no matter how long it takes."

“Williams has 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 keeps 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 explains. "No matter what I was doing, the best I felt all day was when I was swimming."

Then there's her relationship with her children, all three of whom she taught to swim soon after birth. That's part of her philosophy about the magic of water. "One of the reasons I gave them this gift of swimming so early in their lives was because I loved having them with me in the water. And when I saw them take to it, it was a shared joy that we had in common.”

Esther Williams remains America’s favorite swimming star. Her fans continue to honor her work. Asked if she still swam, she laughed, "You know, I always get asked that,” and yes, she still swims – everyday. As Esther says, “It’s the only sport you can do from your first bath to your last without hurting yourself.”

For more information about Esther Williams or to view or purchase items in her swimwear collection, visit her website at

Currently her husband, Ed Bell and producer, Daniel Flannery, are planning an event for Nov (Date TBA).

A search for the right venue with a pool for an aquatic tribute is underway.
Happy Birthday, Esther!

(Source: Harlan Boll)

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