Thesp was star of 'Anchors Aweigh,' 'Show Boat'

Kathryn Grayson, whose beauty and lilting soprano voice brightened such popular MGM musicals of the 1940s and ’50s as “Anchors Aweigh,” “Show Boat” and “Kiss Me Kate,” died in her sleep Wednesday in Los Angeles. She was 88.

Grayson’s youthful ambition was to sing opera, but she wasn’t able to accomplish that dream until after her movie career ended. While still a teenager, she was placed under contract at MGM.

Like Lana Turner, Esther Williams, Donna Reed and other MGM newcomers, Grayson was given a tryout as Mickey Rooney’s sweetheart in the studio’s popular Andy Hardy film series. She played the title role in “Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary” and sang Strauss’ “Voices of Spring.” She was cast in three minor films, including a musical with Abbot and Costello, then played Gene Kelly’s girlfriend in a wartime revue that included major MGM stars, “Thousands Cheer.”

“Anchors Aweigh,” a 1945 hit with Kelly and Frank Sinatra, confirmed her star status. Her bell-like soprano made her the ideal co-star with Hollywood’s full-voiced male singers in operettas and other musicals. She made three films with Howard Keel, two with Mario Lanza, one with Gordon MacRae.

Other musicals included “Two Sisters From Boston,” “Ziegfeld Follies,” “Till the Clouds Roll By,” “That Midnight Kiss,” “The Toast of New Orleans,” “Lovely to Look At,” “The Desert Song” and “So This Is Love.”

Her last film, “The Vagabond King” in 1956, soured her on movies. She was scheduled to be reunited with Lanza, but he pulled one of his characteristic no-shows, only to be replaced with an unknown actor who couldn’t speak English, resulting in an unsatisfactory production.

Born Zelma Kathryn Hedrick, in Winston-Salem, N.C., Grayson was raised in St. Louis, where her parents encouraged her to take singing lessons.

The family then moved to Los Angeles so Kathryn could have more professional training. She came to the attention of Louis B. Mayer, who had been searching for a lovely young soprano to rival Universal’s sensational Deanna Durbin.

After her movie career ended with “The Vagabond King,” Grayson remained active, finally realizing her long-held ambition to sing opera. She also starred in stage productions of “The Merry Widow,” “Rosalinda,” Naughty Marietta” and “Camelot.” She and Keel toured extensively in “Man of La Mancha” and appeared together in Las Vegas.

She married and divorced MGM contract players John Shelton and Johnny Johnston, with whom she had a daughter, Patricia Towers. She is survived by her daughter, two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Donations may be made to the American Diabetes Assn.

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