Lily Pons: From the Met to the Movies

We use the occasion of today’s tribute to Lily Pons (1898-1976) to inaugurate the new opera section of Travalanche (having done nearly 3 dozens posts about opera singers, composers and impresarios). Naturally, those posts, like this one, concentrate on the show biz side of that art form, how opera folk have intersected with pop culture. (Haha, like it or not! I happen to like).

When I first heard someone mention Lily Pons, I thought they were talking about Lily PONDS. Don’t know what a Lily Pond is? You don’t need to be from Hobbiton, just go to MOMA and look at the Monets. I’ll wait. The singer, as opposed to the flower-filled body of water, was born and raised in the south of France and trained at the Paris Conservatory and with private teachers, launching her professional career in the late 1920s. From 1931 to 1960 was a principal soprano with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

When not starring in operas at the Met, or cutting record albums or appearing on radio, Pons toured the concert circuit. By the mid 1930s, her popularity was sufficiently established that she was briefly tried as a star of light comedies at RKO, a kind of cross between Kitty Carlisle and Lili Damita, if you will. Look at the photo above again. She was gorgeous, right? That dark beauty no doubt came from her Italian mother. (Another interesting fact: Pons was tiny: about five feet tall, weighing less than a hundred pounds). The films Pons starred in (and she got top billing) were I Dream Too Much (1935) with Henry Fonda and Eric Blore, That Girl From Paris (1936) with Gene Raymond and Jack Oakie, and Hitting a New High (1937) with Oakie and Blore. Later, she played herself in a cameo in Carnegie Hall (1947). During World War Two, she also toured with the U.S.O.

In the ’50s Lily Pons performed on variety television, on such programs as The Bob Hope Show, The Colgate Comedy Hour, The All Star Revue, The Ed Sullivan Show, Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium (she headlined that show’s premiere!), and The Ford Show with Tennessee Ernie Ford. Her last TV appearance was on The Merv Griffin Show in 1974.

For more on show business history, including radio and TV variety shows, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy film, read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.