Dolores Gray, statuesque star of classic Broadway and MGM musicals, died June 26 of a heart attack at her Manhattan apartment. She was 78.
Born to an impoverished couple in Chicago, glamorous Dolores Gray bore many marks of her rough early years, including a bullet lodged in her left lung from the crossfire of a gang fight.
From the age of 14, she honed her talent in clubs, on radio and Broadway, until her big break came when Ethel Merman decided not to reprise her lead role in “Annie Get Your Gun” on the London stage. Gray, her understudy, stepped in for the venerable singer, and charmed the Blighty crowd throughout “Annie’s” record-setting run at the Coliseum Theater.
“Dolores Gray brought a welcome touch of Hollywood glamour to drab postwar London,” wrote The London Daily Telegraph in her obituary. The paper also remembered Gray’s delicious eccentricities: “the newspapers chronicled with relish her colorful outfits, her hats, her crocodile skin handbags and her extravagance … She had her gray Persian cat, Scheherzade, brought over in it’s own cabin on the liner Queen Elizabeth.”
Back on Broadway, Gray earned a Tony for her performance in “Carnival in Flanders” in 1954.
Soon after her film debut in “Mr. Skeffington,” she signed a contract with MGM and appeared in four of their classic musicals from 1955 to 1957, including “Kismet” with Ann Blyth and Sebastian Cabot, “It’s Always Fair Weather” with Gene Kelly, “The Opposite Sex” with Joan Collins and Ann Sheridan and “Designing Woman,” with Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall.
Gray appeared on several variety shows throughout the ’50s, such as “The Milton Berle Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” She also recorded singles for Capitol Records and became a popular performer on the concert circuit, singing everywhere from New York’s Copacabana to the Hollywood Bowl.
But Gray’s greatest legacy remains in musical theater. She led touring companies of “Pygmalion,” “The Pajama Game,” “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “Gypsy” and “42nd Street,” among others.
Known for her flamboyance and joie de vivre, Gray stands among the great Broadway belters of her day. “It’s not a very happy life unless you make it big,” she often remembered her mother telling her.
She is survived by a stepdaughter, Joanne Kildare, of Alamo, California.