Welcome! Fridays are the day when we at the McElrath Cabaret Blog are going to present blog posts in our Cabaret Through Time series. We are going to present historical cabaret singers, venues, writers, and musicians, and will begin to compile a cabaret timeline. We hope that you find it informative, and that you enjoy it!
Kay Thompson—Performer, Writer, Composer, Amazing
Today’s focus is on the great Kay Thompson, a renaissance entertainer of the twentieth century. Again, as I pointed out in last week’s post, so much has already been written about today’s subject that a short blog post cannot do her justice; instead, I can only touch on a very few of the highlights, and my personal favorites have to do with her nightclub act that she performed with the Williams Brothers and others in the 1940s and 1950s.
She was flamboyant, she was an original, and she left her mark on the world of nightclub and cabaret performance.
Many of you will be familiar with Thompson’s work with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn in the film classic Funny Face, as well as her well-known children’s book, Eloise. But for those from different, later decades, her amazing time at the pinnacle of nightclub performance might be forgotton, and I want to bring attention to it. Her goddaughter, Liza Minelli, did a Tony award-winning show on Broadway that was in part a tribute to Kay Thompson, entitled Liza’s At The Palace, which I recommend you watch, because it is a delight (It also includes such cabaret luminaries as Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch (Jim Caruso’s Cast Party at Birdland), as well as fabulous backup from Johnny Rogers, Cortes Alexander and Tiger Martina. (Is it safe to admit I’ve watched it at least twenty times, and probably more? Even memorized choreography from it? I’m a bit of a fan, but I digress . . .I figure if anyone would understand, you will!)
If you want to learn more about Kay Thompson’s nightclub years, I highly recommend you read the detailed volume Kay Thompson: From Funny Face To Eloise by Sam Irvin. So much information has gone into this biography that Ivrin has a Kay Thompson website that includes endnotes for the book, which give even more information about Thompson. My information for the rest of this post comes from this volume. This is the most complete account of Thompson’s nightclub years that I have seen thus far.
A very brief timeline for Kay Thompson, with a focus on her nightclub years:
1909—birth of Catherine Louise Fink
1931–took the stage name of Kay Thompson
1933-34—was a regular on The Bing Crosby—Woodbury Radio Show
1937—married Jack Jenney
1942—married William Spier
1943—signed to work at MGM as their top vocal arranger, vocal coach and choral director; during this time, worked with Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra. Lena Horne, June Allyson, and worked on the films Ziegfeld Follies, The Harvey Girls, Till the Clouds Roll By, Good News, The Pirate and more.
1947-49—created and performed her nightclub act with the Williams Brothers, with Bob Alton. No wireless mics, so originated the idea of hanging mics from the ceiling.
August 1947—first booking of the nightclub act at El Rancho, a Las Vegas hotel-casino
October 1947—booked at Ciro’s, Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood—Walter Winchell gives her the nickname “Kay Thompsonsational.” They made nightclub history, with the biggest Hollywood stars in attendance every night.
Christmas Eve 1947—booked in Miami at the Copacabana
1948—booked at the Mayfair Room, Blackstone Hotel, Chicago, as well as at Le Directoire in New York City. Signs a “three year, million-dollar deal with the Kirkeby hotel chain . . . . Thompson was the million-dollar baby of cabaret” (Irvin 167).
1949—Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers broke up
1949—Staged a new nightclub act with George Martin, Buzz Miller and Lee Scott as her backup singer/dancers. A completely new act, with new material and staging.
1950—Makes her television performance debut on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town. Lee Scott leaves the show and is replaced by Jimmy Thompson. The act makes its Paris and London debuts (Irvin 180-181). Jimmy Thompson leaves, and is replaced by Jonathan Lucas.
1951—Thompson reunites with the Williams Brothers and they perform their nightclub act at The Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel, New York. Coached Judy Garland for her Tony-award winning performance at The Palace Theatre (Irvin 186-187).
1952—The act breaks up again, and reunites again.
1953—Act breaks up for the final time.
1954—Thompson does solo nightclub performances (Irvin 194). Teams with Paul Methuen and they perform a duo act (Irvin 196).
1955—Act breaks up. New act is formed with various backup singer/dancers, but act closes in December 1955 with their run at Ciro’s, and was her last nightclub performance (Irvin 202).
1957—played fashion editor Maggie Prescott in Funny Face with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn; “Think Pink!” comes from this
1962—creative consultant and vocal arranger for “Judy, Frank and Dean: Once In A Lifetime, “ The Judy Garland Show TV special
In a nod to yesterday’s post that mentions Leonard Sillman, he hired Kay Thompson in 1933 to be in “his first New Faces Stage Revue,” where she shared the stage with cast members Eve Arden, Lorenz Hart’s brother, Teddy, Charles Walters, and Tyrone Power, among others (Irvin 32).
A few quotes about the act with the Williams Brothers:
“‘Kay refused to do encores,’ Dick [Williams] remembered. ‘She’d say, ‘Leave ‘em wanting. Never give ‘em too much’” (Irvin 157). She would give a special bow at the end of her show, and Noel Coward remarked “ . . . ‘Dear girl, you were absolutely magnificent. And when you did that beautiful bow and left the stage, I screamed for you to come out again and have a second bow, and if you had, I would have killed you’” (163-164).
Irvin gives a quote by Rex Reed, who talked about Kay Thompson coaching Judy Garland before her premiere performance at the London Paladium: “’Judy just had a big voice . . . . Kay softened the tones and made her hold certain notes longer. She is the one who put the sob in her voice. Judy was always running out of steam on notes and she would have to catch her breath. She’d say, ‘Oh, God, I ruined it.’ And Kay would say, ‘You didn’t ruin it—use it!’” (185). Irvin also notes that Lorna Luft said that “’They stole from each other . . . . They were the presidents of eachother’s fan club” (185).
Irvin relates that The Producers music arranger Glen Kelly notes that in their show there is a moment called “’The Fuhrer Is Causing a Furor.’ It was Hitler doing Kay Thompson doing ‘I Love A Violin’ on [ The Milton] Berle [Show]‘” (195).
What I like about Kay Thompson is that she took setbacks to her career, which were many over its long course, and made them work for her. They did not slow her down so much, but at times changed her course of direction, and as it turned out most of the time, for the better. I also like that she was a style setter (what wonderful clothes, and pants no less!), who perhaps above all else believed in herself and in her talent, even when she was starting out in her career in entertainment. Althought she might not have been considered a classic beauty, she took what she had and packaged it in a unique way, and created a stage presence and show that was riveting to all who saw it. She took the incredible number of ideas in her mind, and with creativity, shared her talent through music, singing, dancing, acting, composing, coaching, writing and more, with the world.
Favorite Kay Thompson Videos:
Kay Thompson at the Hollywood Palace.
Kay Thompson on The Milton Berle Show
What is your favorite Kay Thompson moment? Leave us a note in the comments below—we always love to hear from our readers! If you liked this post, then Like us on Facebook and Follow us on Twitter!