Mitzi Gaynor (b. 1931) was born too late for vaudeville, but she portrayed numerous important vaudevillians on the screen, and certainly was a major player in television variety.
Gaynor is a second generation musical artist: her mother was a dancer; her father a musician. Her given name is Francesca Marlene de Czanyi von Gerber. Her early childhood was spent in Chicago and Detroit. The family moved to Los Angeles when she was eleven. Having taken ballet throughout her childhood, she got her first stage experience performing with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera as a teenager.
Gaynor’s film career stretched from 1949 through 1963, and was only truly halted by the decline of the Hollywood musical. We note her specially because she starred in three show biz bio pics: she played Lotta Crabtree in Golden Girl (1951), Eva Tanguay in The I Don’t Care Girl (1953), and Martha Stewart in The Joker is Wild (1957), none of which, it must be pointed out, are strictly (or even remotely) historical. As was the style at the time, the performances have more to do with Gaynor than the women she was portraying. Other notable pictures include There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), The Birds and the Bees (1956), Anything Goes (1956), and South Pacific (1958). Her last film was the 1963 sex comedy For Love or Money (1963).
Gaynor was only 32 when she left the movies, with many productive years ahead of her. She became a popular nightclub act in places like Las Vegas, and a fixture in tv variety. She appeared on the same bill with The Beatles on their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. She famously stopped the show with her performance of “Georgie Girl” at the 1967 Oscars. Then came a series of annual (or near annual) tv specials, three for NBC: The MItzi Gaynor Christmas Show (Kraft Music Hall, 1967), Mitzi (1968), and Mitzi’s 2nd Special (1969), and six for CBS: Mitzi…The First Time (1973), Mitzi…A Tribute to the American Housewife (1974), Mitzi…and a Hundred Guys (1975), Mitz…Roarin’ in the ’20s (1976), Mitzi…Zings Into Spring (1977), and Mitzi…What’s Hot and What’s Not (1978). As a kid I was of the distinct opinion that what was “hot” was definitely not Mitzi. This sort of throwback entertainment was definitely for the older crowd, and I found it pretty cringe inducing at the time. In retrospect, watching her campy old clips on Youtube, one thing does stand out — apart from her obvious talent and skills, Mitzi Gaynor was definitely pushing the envelope on sex. There is a burlesque quality to her revealing costumes and provocative performances, something older people would have noticed in the ’70s, even if my generation was more focused on The Bionic Woman and Charlie’s Angels.
In later years, Gaynor was a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter, and participated in many retrospective documentaries about her show biz years.
To learn more about vaudeville, including television variety, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,