BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — What does a movie star do when she's no longer a movie star? In Mitzi Gaynor's case, she hit the road.
She and Jack Bean — her mentor, manager and husband — created a Vegas-like show that has played in nightclubs and theaters throughout the United States, with some stints abroad.
"We go back to the same places, and it's like visiting friends," remarks the bright-eyed, vivacious dancer-actress, who played Nellie Forbush in the 1958 film "South Pacific." "After the show, people come backstage to the dressing room, and we renew friendships. We send out almost 3,000 Christmas cards every year."
Bean, 84, has been ailing with sciatica and arthritis, so 2002 was the first year Gaynor didn't play the circuit, but she's hoping they can travel again. She'll be ready anytime; she vocalizes every day and works out three times a week.
Getting ready to go is much easier than it was in their earlier years. "We used to travel with 15 dancers and an 18-piece orchestra," Gaynor says. "Now we take five musicians, a hairdresser and wardrobe lady. And a screen."
The screen is for her to duck behind so she can continue talking to the audience as she changes costumes. Her latest act, which she successfully debuted in Florida in 2000 and used on the road through 2001, is autobiographical, combining anecdotes and impersonations with musical numbers. And, yes, she shampoos onstage at every show, Forbush-style, as she washes that man right out of her hair.
Since 1960, the Beans have lived in a Spanish-style house with white stucco and red tile roof in Beverly Hills. Over the years they have added on to the spacious interior with gracefully curving doorways and intimate nooks. (They have no children. "Jack is my child," she says with a degree of whimsy.)
Despite her 71 years, Gaynor seems little changed from her movie heyday — the 1950s and early '60s when her co-stars included Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly.
She has a slim waist and apple cheeks sans wrinkles. "And I've had no facial lifts," she brags.
On a recent sunny afternoon, she traced her varied career, which began at age 4. She was born Franceska Marlene von Gerber (Mitzi is short for Marlene) in Chicago and at 3 moved to Detroit. A musical upbringing was inevitable: Her Hungarian father was a classical cellist; her part-Austrian mother was a dancer.
Gaynor has a clear memory of her stage debut. She had been taking tap lessons as well as ballet, and at 7 she was scheduled for a tap routine at the dance school recital. She had neglected to use the bathroom, and when she faced the audience, a puddle formed on the stage.
"I ran kicking and screaming off the stage," she recalls. "But I got huge applause. So I dried off and put some lipstick on. After the next girl did a hula with batons and slipped on the wet floor, I went out and said, 'I'm OK now. Can I do it?' And I got cheers!"
Her ballet teacher, Madame Ettienne Charisse, was moving to Los Angeles to join her brother Nico Charisse, a dance teacher and husband of Cyd. Madame Ettienne told Mitzi's mother that the girl was talented enough to succeed in Hollywood and offered to take her there. Reluctantly, Gerber allowed her to go.
By 12, Mitzi was dancing with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, which presented operettas in Los Angeles and San Francisco. By her midteens, she was a featured dancer.
"I was a pain," she says, "because I was younger and cuter and smarter and brighter, and I could work a room. If I were somebody else, I would have slapped me. None of the other dancers would talk to me. I lost any attitude that I had, right then and there."
Gaynor eventually received offers for a Fox contract and a Cole Porter stage musical. She chose the contract, since it paid $1,000 a week.
The studio gave her the glamor treatment and a new last name — "Gerber sounded too much like baby food" — borrowed from Janet Gaynor, the studio's biggest female star in an earlier era and first winner of the best-actress Oscar.
From 1950 to '54, Gaynor played second leads in a few films at Fox and starred in "Golden Girl," "The I Don't Care Girl" and "Bloodhounds of Broadway," which fared poorly at the box office. Her biggest movie: "There's No Business Like Show Business." But she was overshadowed by another cast member — Marilyn Monroe, who Gaynor figures was the inadvertent cause for her being dropped by Fox.
"Darryl Zanuck, who ran Fox, saw the musical comedy department looking like Alice Faye," said Gaynor, explaining that each Fox musical had to star a shapely blonde. "Betty Grable was the '40s version of Alice Faye. And Marilyn Monroe was Betty Grable in the '50s. There wasn't any place for this Hungarian girl from Chicago and Detroit."
Bean quit his job at the big MCA talent agency and took over Gaynor's career after their marriage in 1954. He landed her a contract at Paramount to appear opposite Frank Sinatra in "The Joker Is Wild."
Meanwhile, she had been talking to composer Richard Rodgers and director Josh Logan about starring in a film version of "South Pacific."
"Oscar Hammerstein will be in town for one day; he wants to audition you," Logan told her.
That day happened to be when she was scheduled for her most important scene with Sinatra. "Don't worry, I'll change the schedule," he told her.
"South Pacific" could have been a turning point for Gaynor, but it wasn't. The critical and public reaction was disappointing, and it presaged the eclipse of the movie musical.
After three lightweight comedies, her movie career ended.
Gaynor then became a television star. CBS signed her to a series of glittering musical specials that spotlighted her singing and dancing. "Mitzi and a Hundred Guys" in 1975 featured a chorus line that included Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Jack Lemmon and Donald O'Connor.
Like Nellie Forbush, Gaynor is a cockeyed optimist, and her memories of the studio days remain rosy. Her co-stars were all "darling" and "wonderful."
"There weren't many stinkers in the business," she claims.
About actors, she adds, "We're all shy, vulnerable, insecure — shy in social occasions. Many times you say of an actress, 'Boy, is she stuck-up!' She's not at all. She's just afraid you're not going to say hello to her.
"I remember once I was at a party and I saw Cary Grant. I kept right on talking to somebody. He came over and tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Dear darling Mitzi Gaynor, aren't you going to say hello to me?' I nearly died."