Thursday, November 6, 2014

Ann Blyth's Concert Career


Where has Ann Blyth been all these years?

This was the lead to Stephen Holden’s New York Times review of Ann Blyth’s concert with Bill Hayes at the famed and elite Rainbow and Stars atop Rockefeller Center in November 1992.

…she seemed so physically unchanged from her 1950s self that it was possible to imagine she had been frozen for the last 30 years and had thawed herself out for the occasion.

Their act was called “An Elegant Evening of Beautiful Music,” a collection of theatre and movie songs.

The kind of show that rarely plays in Manhattan nowadays.  Suburban dinner-theater entertainment aimed at audiences over 60, it trades heavily in nostalgia toward these show-business veterans who have aged well and seek only to spread sugarcoated cheer….Miss Blyth’s lyric soprano is still in good condition.

Today we discuss Ann Blyth’s “third act” career as a singer.  I use the term “third act,” though the more common dictum “second act” refers to a career adopted, or revived, late in life.  It stems from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s hard luck observation, “There are no second acts in American life.”  Well, there weren’t for him, poor man, but for others…a second act, a second chance at life, a revival is sometimes possible.

Ann Blyth had more than a second act, she had a “third act,” her singing, which took her beyond both her screen and stage career, in her resilient soprano that is like a metaphor for her resilient career: surprisingly strong, stunning it its loveliness, and carefully controlled.  Her “third act” was not so much a new venture as a reprise.  She always was a singer—before she became a movie star, before she even became an actress, she was a singer.  At six years old, she auditioned for a children’s radio program in New York City, and stood upon a box to reach the microphone, and sang the late hit “Lazy Bones” by Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael.

Years later she would be required to stand on a box to kiss Gregory Peck.  Some of the best things in life are just out of reach.

Unless one perseveres.

She sang, and acted, on many radio programs as child, before her life-changing audition for Lillian Hellman’s Broadway play, Watch on the Rhine.  When her film career was launched in her early teens, she continued to perform as a singer for charity venues on her own time.  Donating her talent to needy causes had a secondary effect: it gave her experience singing live in front of an audience, even if it was just 50 people in a church hall. Gradually, those audiences became larger.  She traveled many miles to perform for them.

Syndicated columnist Sheilah Graham wrote of one such benefit: 

 Ann Blyth is one of the reasons why people like Hollywood.  She is just back from doing a swell show for the Loretto Heights College in Denver.  

Perhaps her largest audience in these years was the combined theater and radio audience who heard her at the 1949 Academy Awards, held March 23, 1950 at the RKO Pantages Theatre, where she sang one of the nominated songs, “My Foolish Heart” in a low-cut red gown.  In one respect, she was announcing her availability as a singer in the industry for those who had forgotten, or else never knew of, her talent, and throughout the 1950s took advantage of other opportunities to sing.  

She sang on Louella Parson’s radio show in September 1951.  After suffering the obligatory and heavily scripted “interview” on whom she was, or was not, dating, Ann soars in a song called “My Golden Harp” to the tune of “Danny Boy” or “The Londonderry Air.”  One imagines it was a payoff for the indignity.

Other radio shows gave her chances to sing, and television would give her a few more, including another Oscar® program in 1954, which we discussed in this previous post.  The fifties was a great era for musical variety on TV.  Among the shows on which she sang were The Perry Como Show, The Dinah Shore Show, The Fisher-Gobel Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, and The Jack Parr Show.  

It was also during this decade that Ann Blyth took an unusual (for a movie star) and brave plunge into nightclub performing.  In the late summer of 1954, still a new mother, her first baby only a few months old, she tested a new singing act for a few nights at the Tops Nightclub, a Streamline Moderne popular spot on the Pacific Coast Highway in San Diego.  

She wowed the crowd, and then brought the act up to Sacramento for a weekend at the state fair in September, all preparatory to opening at the Sahara in Las Vegas in late September for a month’s run.  The Los Angeles Times reported:

Ann Blyth proved that night-club entertainment can be something utterly new and different when she made her debut here tonight.  She received thunderous applause when she wound up her headline singing and intimate conversation with her audience at the Sahara.

Ann came down with laryngitis during that engagement, and though these comic press photos indicate her brother-in-law Dennis Day came to minister to her sore throat, he really helped out by filling in for her on stage.

There was to have been another appearance at the Sahara two years later in 1956, but MGM, her home studio at the time, called her back for the film Slander (1957), which we’ll discuss next week. 

But it was back to the nightclub circuit in 1958, when after The Helen Morgan Story (1957), which we’ll discuss in a future post, turned out to be her last film.  In September 1958 she opened a new act the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles.  Louella Parsons was in the audience.

Ann Blyth, so refreshingly sweet and beautiful at the Coconut Grove joined us after her show.  She said every night she sings a song about her husband, Dr. Jim McNulty, and that night he was sitting ringside when suddenly she looked and he was gone.  You guessed it—a call from the hospital sent him scurrying there to deliver a baby.

She had broken in the act the previous weekend in Phoenix, Arizona, where again, her obstetrician husband couldn’t make it to opening night because the stork interfered.  The entertainment press at this time conjectured how a two-career marriage and a growing family would work.  

The Los Angeles Times ran a brief blurb to announce the debut of the act that read more like a dossier than a feature story:

Subject: Ann Blyth, singer-film star, female.
Makes local nightclub debut at Coconut Grove, Ambassador Hotel on Wednesday.  Only other such appearance at Sahara in Las Vegas three years ago.  Plans to make club dates another facet of her career.

Sounds like Sgt. Joe Friday wrote that one.

Her planning to make club dates another facet of her career stemmed, in the wake of no upcoming films after The Helen Morgan Story, from practicality as well as her desire to sing.  From a syndicated column in September by James Bacon, which teases Ann as Hollywood’s “little lady” becoming a “saloon singer,” he quotes Ann:

“All the movie scripts offered wanted me to go to Europe and for such long times.  I just felt that I couldn’t be separated from my family that long.”

After the Coconut Grove, Ann would take this act to the Sahara in Las Vegas, and then to New York and Miami Beach, Florida.

In the early sixties, Ann re-joined the theatre world in what would be three decades of touring musical theatre performances, which we covered in this previous post.  Her re-emergence on the concert scene came in the mid-1980s.

In 1985 she teamed up with her brother-in-law, Dennis Day, for a show in Downey, California, that was so well received, they did an encore performance at El Camino College in Torrance, California.  Perhaps there might have been more concerts with Dennis Day, beloved longtime radio sidekick of Jack Benny, but sadly, Mr. Day became ill and was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  He died in 1988.

Ann called upon Bill Hayes to be her singing partner in a series of concerts that would continue for another decade.  Mr. Hayes had appeared with her in Brigadoon on stage in the late 1960s, and most recently had starred opposite Ann in Song of Norway in March 1985.  Many will remember Bill Hayes from his long run on the daytime drama Days of Our Lives.

Together, they joined Ann’s first screen partner, Donald O’Connor, for a two-week stint at The Dunes in Las Vegas in June 1992, then Hayes and Ann continued to take their show to several spots across the country, culminated by a four-week engagement at the exclusive Rainbow and Stars in New York City in late October through November 1992.  At the time she was 64 years old.  For a really stunning publicity photo of Bill Hayes and Ann Blyth together, have a look at Mr. Hayes’ website here.

And here:

Courtesy Bill Hayes, used by permission.

To promote their concert, Ann and Bill Hayes appeared as guests on Casper Citron’s radio talk show on New York’s WOR on November 14, 1992.  The studio was in the same building where Ann started in radio as a six-year-old child singer.  The poignancy of her bringing her career full circle in this very place seemed lost on Mr. Citron, who was a former politician, former theatre critic, and longtime radio host in New York.  He had interviewed many famous people, and yet one is struck by his lack of preparation and frank ignorance in this interview.  One is also struck by Bill Hayes’ gallant explanations to their host on Ann’s accomplishments, when she would not toot her own horn.  Both Bill and Ann were quite patient with their host who wandered off track many times.  Below are a few brief excerpts of a transcript of the interview:

AB:     We do a variety of music from Broadway and Hollywood.  I think a lovely potpourri, songs that everyone can certainly remember, songs that everyone has hummed or sung or whistled.
CC:      Your career in films was not as a singer?
AB:     Well, it didn’t start out that way, that’s correct.  And really, when I did my test, they said, “What else do you do?” and, of course, I said, “Well, I also sing.”  But it wasn’t until…
CC:      Did you sing in The Helen Morgan Story?
AB:     No, they used someone else’s voice, Gogi Grant, who has a completely different sound, a marvelous voice, to be sure, but a very pop sound and for some reason the studio at that time felt that that would be an added, an added dimension for some reason to that movie.
BH:     But Casper, Ann really did sing in a lot films.  It was just The Helen Morgan Story that…
CC:      What was your biggest singing role?
AB:     Well, I…
CC:      Pardon my stupidity on this.
AB:     I think I would have to say The Student Prince, and…
CC:      Oh, that’s a big singing role.
CC:      Do any of these people that you have worked with through the years come up to Rainbow and Stars?
AB:     Oh, indeed, and that’s half of the pleasure of what we do, is, of course, seeing people that perhaps you haven’t had a chance to see in many, many years—the nature of our business being such that you find yourself on one coast and so many of your friends are someplace else.
BH:     We do two different shows.  We do a dinner show and an after-theatre show.  The dinner show is at 9:00.  People come at 7:00 or 7:30 and have dinner, and we work from 9:00 to 10:00.  And then they come after the theatre, we do an 11:00, excuse me, 11:15 show.
CC:      How many times a week?
BH:     We do that five nights a week, so we’re off Sundays and Mondays, and we play Tuesday through Saturday.  And it’s a thrill.  It’s a breathtaking view.
CC:      That’s 10 times a week.  That’s even more than Broadway.
AB:     But it’s such lovely music.  We really do have a good time.  It is a lot of singing, but we do have a good time.  And the view is spectacular.
CC:      It always has been.
AB:     Here I am back in the very same building that I started in.
CC:      A number of years later.  We don’t ask…
AB:     Yes.
CC:      …how many.
AB:     Well, I’m just glad that I’m here.

Some of those old friends mentioned above who turned up in the audience were Claire Trevor; Arlene Dahl; Imogene Coca, with whom Bill Hayes appeared on the wonderful classic TV Your Show of Shows; Ruth Warrick, with whom Ann appeared in Swell Guy (1946); which we discussed here, and her old pal, Roddy McDowall.

Syndicated columnist Liz Smith was also in the audience:

Ann Blyth, who was a movie star when the words really meant something, looks incredible.  Time seems literally to have stood still for her—and not only physically.  The star’s soprano is as lilting and steady as when she was knocking out those MGM musicals…

Blyth, expertly partnered with Bill Hayes, even perched on a piano a la Helen Morgan and belted out “Why Was I Born?”

The room was awash with nostalgia.

Ann and Bill Hayes continued sporadic touring with their show, popping up Florida, Illinois, and a cruise ship from Acapulco to San Francisco.

More gigs in the mid-1990s partnered her with John Raitt, with whom she performed in Los Angeles.  In October 1994, they appeared at the Academy Plaza Theatre for two hour-long concerts, along with Ann’s longtime music director and accompanist, Harper MacKay, on piano.  They performed solos and duets from many musicals, including teaming up on “If I Loved You” from Carousel.

What has become known as The Great American Songbook has achieved a certain degree of “cool” these days, but twenty and thirty years ago was still in a nadir patch of being termed “old people music.”  Some of the articles about their performances have a slightly condescending tone to them. 

Ann Blyth, as on many occasions and in many circumstances of her life, seemed above it all, and serenely took the path, and musical form, that was right for her.

From the Los Angeles Times article by Libby Slate promoting her concert with Mr. Raitt in October, 2004:

Although they have sung many of Sunday’s selections numerous times, both say the songs remain fresh.  “In almost every phrase, there’s such emotion that it would be difficult not to feel it when you sing it, and hopefully, pass it on to the audience,” Blyth says.  “It’s the best way to communicate to those who are perfect strangers; suddenly, they’re not strangers any more.”

Ann Blyth continued into the twenty-first century with an act she performed with her accompanist, singing and telling stories of her film career on the woman’s club circuit in support of charities, once again bringing a facet of her career full circle.  In May 2000 she performed for an audience of 500 at a Holiday Inn in Hanover Township, Pennsylvania, to raise funds for the Visiting Nurse Service of Sacred Heart Hospital, opening with “With a Song in My Heart.”

From the Express-Times of Easton, Pennsylvania: 

Her voice, after nearly six decades of professional activity, was a little rough around the edges, but pleasant, warm and surprisingly powerful for such a tiny person; she wears a size four.  Her upper range is clear and easy, and she holds each phrase for its full value.

She was 71 at the time, and mimicked herself as a small child singing “Lazy Bones” for her very first audition, and playfully following the trajectory of her early career, sang “Peg O’ My Heart,” which was the song she sang for her audition prior to being signed by Universal.

We’ve noted previously that Ann sang at the 2009 Thalians Ball, along with other Hollywood stars, in Los Angeles in support of that charitable organization’s raising funds for children with mental health issues.  These types of charitable venues not only serve the community, but they seem to be, these days, the most receptive to aging singers.  It’s one thing for The Great American Songbook to be accepted by a young person in the form of a young entertainer, like Michael Bublé, or even someone older but tolerated as sufficiently hip, like Tony Bennett, but a roster of old tunes sung by old singers for more than a good cause is still more than the apparently hipper-than-thou can take.  In October 2005, Stephen Holden of the New York Times panned a concert of songs from the movies at Lincoln Center, an over-long event (some three-and-a-half hours)…

which featured mostly second-and-third-tier performers along with reminiscences by semi-and-semi-semi legends like Ann Blyth, Arlene Dahl, Sally Ann Howes, Jane Powell and Margaret Whiting, strove to connect old-time Hollywood glamor with the New York cabaret world.  

The master of ceremonies was Turner Classic Movies’ own Robert Osborne.  

With the exception of Ms. Powell’s, and to a lesser extent, Ms. Blyth’s, the reminisces of the semi-legends consisted of dull, over long mixtures of trivia, sentimentality, and self-glorification. 

Bad reviews come and go, and so do bad reviewers, as much as bad performances.  The music lingers, at least for those who like it, and for one lady who has sung it all her life.

“I’ve always enjoyed the joy, the excitement, the pure pleasure of singing this music.  It’s so easy to listen to, it stays with you.  Isn’t any art supposed to do that—to climb inside you and give you a wonderful feeling?”

Come back next Thursday when we return to Ann Blyth’s movie career and discuss the power of the press to do more than critique in Slander (1957).

PASS THE WORD!!!!!   Looking for photos and shared memories of the recent TCM Cruise regarding Ann Blyth's talks.  This material will be used for my upcoming book on Ann Blyth's career.  Please contact me at:

Bill and Susan -

Chicago Tribune, October 28, 1990, special article to the Tribune by Bill Hayes.

Daily Breeze, (Torrance, California), March 1, 1985, article by Sandra Kreiswirth; October 19, 1922, article by Sandra Kreiswirth, p. C1.

Daily News of Los Angeles, June 21, 1992, “Hayes of ‘Days’ Fame Hits the Road in Song-Filled Gala, by Lynda Hirsch, p. L25.

The Express-Times (Easton, Pennsylvania), May 4, 2000, “Actress Ann Blyth captures memorable career in songs – She is most known for ‘Mildred Pierce’ by Cynthia Gordon, p. B4.

The Los Angeles Times, September 22, 1954, “Ann Blyth Wins Ovation at Sahara in Las Vegas” by Edwin Schallert, p. B6; August 31, 1958, p. D1; June 23, 1988, article by Edward J. Boyner; October 14, 1994, “Playing Their Songs: Concert by John Raitt and Ann Blyth will target a crowd that craves ‘hummable’ music,” by Libby Slate.

Milwaukee Sentinel, September 10, 1958, syndicated article by Louella Parson, p. 6, part 3.

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania), May 4, 2000, “Ann Blyth Appears at an Annual Benefit That Raises Money for Children’s Causes in the Lehigh Valley,” by Christian D. Berg, p. B02.

New York Times, November 3, 1992, review by Stephen Holden; October 22, 2005, by Stephen Holden.  

Ocala Star-Banner (Florida), September 2, 1958, syndicated article by James Bacon, p. 3.

The Spokesman Review (Spokane, WA), syndicated article by Sheilah Graham.

St. Petersburg Times (Florida), September 18, 1994, “Onetime Oscar Nominee Picks Stage Over Screen” by Jay Horning, p. 12A.

Toldeo Blade, November 13, 1992, syndicated column by Liz Smith, p. P-1.

 THANK the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  And thanks to all those who signed on as backers to my recent Kickstarter campaign.  The effort failed to raise the funding needed, but I'll always remember your kind support.
TRIVIA QUESTION:  I've recently been contacted by someone who wants to know if the piano player in Dillinger (1945-see post here) is the boogie-woogie artist Albert Ammons. Please leave comment or drop me a line if you know.

mel said...

I consulted David Meeker's authoritative and exhaustive book "Jazz On The Screen - a Jazz And Blues Filmography" (2008) and Albert Ammons is not mentioned as performing in Dillinger (1945).

So my educated guess is a negative.
November 7, 2014

Thanks, Mel.
UPDATE:  This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -
The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.

 "Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.

A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.


Anonymous said...

Another great post. Oh to have seen Ann singing with John Raitt . Two beautiful voices.
Must check out YouTube for anything on Ann singing in concert or TV

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Vienna. It would be fun to see some of her concert appearances, wouldn't it? I don't know if any have been preserved. Maybe some other reader can tell us.

Caftan Woman said...

That Stephen Holden review caused raised eyebrows and fists from this quarter.

Back when I was heavily involved in Community Theatre reviewers from local papers would start their look at our latest musical offerings with "I'm not really a fan of musicals"! It's all the same no matter the level.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

CW, I would have loved to have seen you trod the boards. Former community theatre techie, director, and producer, meself.

Your remark, "It's all the same no matter the level," is a good observation. When there is a lack of appreciation for the music or art form, perhaps even by some critics an ignorance about what it is they're reviewing, then the review inevitably comes off as a trite dismissal, rather than an interesting essay telling us what happened at the event.

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