Considering Doris DayBeginnings
She lives in the belief that happiness has to be made--and can be made--by the individual. In her sunny exuberance, she seems to be living proof of it.
--Louella Parsons, 1954
Nothing seems to daunt the persistent image of me as the unsullied sunshine girl ... . So there must be something about me, about whatever it is that I give off, that accounts for this disparity between who I am and who I appear to be.
--Doris Day, 1976 H
OW, EXACTLY, DID DORIS DAY, NÉE DORIS MARY Anne von Kappelhoff, from Cincinnati, Ohio, end up in Hollywood? Day's own answer in 1991, disarming in its simplicity and total lack of ego, does not exactly tell the entire story: "I'm still Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff from Cincinnati, Ohio. All I ever wanted to do was to get married, have a nice husband, have two or three children, keep house and cook--a nice clean house--and live happily ever after--and I ended up in Hollywood. And if I can do it, you can do it. Anyone can do it." Uh, not quite, Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff (the "von" was dropped shortly after her birth on April 3, 1924). Not everyone has a seductive, velvet-smooth voice, great dancing ability, a beautiful face and a sexy body, and the ability to play everything from comedy to drama to farce and back again. But then again, Doris Day really does believe these self-effacing words, because she never coveted a show business career. That ambition resided in her mother, Alma Sophia.Alma Kappelhoff may have been a stage mother, but she never acted like the stereotypical frustrated parent living out her thwarted ambitions through her daughter. Alma would not have made a convincing Mama Rose in Gypsy,
because mother Alma and daughter Doris remained close throughout Alma's life, indeed, living together throughout much of Doris's adulthood and generally enjoying each other's company. In fact, the only public mention of Alma's ambitions was Day's own statement that she thinks her outgoing, personable mother (so opposite in personality from her conservative father) would have liked to perform. "When I mentioned this to her, she'd say 'Oh, no. I didn't want you to do it for that reason.' And I'd say, 'Oh, I don't know about that. I think so.' But she never admitted to that." What did remain clear is that Alma Kappelhoff never pushed Doris against her will--it would have been impossible, anyway, with such a strong-willed daughter. Alma never attempted to pull the focus from her daughter onto herself. Doris was the star, Alma the solid backup. Nonetheless, Alma did love the glamour and excitement ofshow business--loved it, in fact, far more than her daughter did. So when the music-loving Alma--country-western music was her favorite--divorced Doris's choirmaster father Frederick after discovering his infidelity when Doris was twelve, all of that energy and passion had to be directed elsewhere, and the target happened to be daughter Doris. It was Alma who encouraged Doris to take dancing lessons: Starting at age five, Doris studied acrobatic, tap, toe, and ballet, even thinking that one day she might become a ballerina.And how did Doris's public performing career begin? In her kindergarten minstrel show, where the long wait backstage caused her to wet her pants. An understandable childhood accident, but in the context of Day's extraordinary career, perhaps significant, as the first unhappy incident she would associate with performing live; even more significant to the shape of Day's career was the fact that any such live performance conflicted with her perfectionist instincts. However, this full-blown dislike of live performances lay well in the future, not surfacing completely until after she began making feature films in 1948. In her childhood, there was no avoiding performances before live audiences, and having teamed up with twelve-year-old tap dancer Jerry Dougherty, the team of Dougherty and Kappelhoff began entertaining in the Cincinnati area, eventually winning the top prize of $500 in a contest sponsored by a Cincinnati department store. The winning routine? A dance with comedy titled "The Funny Little Bird on Nellie's Hat." It's a laughable title, until one realizes that it's no worse than many of the novelty songs Doris would have to record for Columbia Records two decades later. In Hollywood parlance, it may have been the prequel to Day's recording of "The Purple Cow" ...Encouraged by this contest win, Alma and Jerry's parents agreed on a plan to send Doris and Jerry to Hollywood; chaperoned by the two mothers, the children would study tap dancing at the Fanchon and Marco dance school with Louis DePron. It was the summer of 1937; the Kappelhoffs and Doughertys shared one small apartment for a month, Doris and Jerry progressed nicely in their lessons with DePron, and it was decided that a permanent move to Hollywood was in order. It's not known how strongly Mrs. Dougherty (or Mr. Dougherty, who was left behind in Cincinnati with his dairy business) felt about the move, but Alma Kappelhoff strongly believed that her daughter could make it. And big. (In the mid-1950s Alma stated that a Paramount Pictures scout had seen Doris on this first trip and felt she had the potential to be in films; the studio was not, however, interested in Jerry Dougherty, and Doris refused to leave her partner behind. End of Paramount's interest. Whether or not the story is apocryphal, it does sound exactlylike what Doris Day would say. On the other hand, one can't be so sure that Alma really would have let her thirteen-year-old daughter turn down a chance to work at Paramount Pictures.)So it was that the Dougherty and Kappelhoff foursome returned to Cincinnati to prepare for a permanent move to Hollywood. At which point Doris Day's life changed forever. It's as if a Hollywood scriptwriter had arrived at the point in the story where he needed to produce a plot twist, because the ensuing turn of events seems right out of an overstuffed Hollywood melodrama. On the night of Friday the 13th, October 1937, Doris Day left a farewell party in her honor, only to have the car she was traveling in with three friends smashed by a train. With her leg shattered--a double compound fracture coupled with bone fragments lodged throughout her right leg--her dancing career seemed to be over. Instantly. After surgery and the placement of a large cast covering her entire right leg, Doris returned home to recuperate, only to slip on a rug, break her leg again, and spend another year recovering from her severe injuries.The solution? That arrived in a roundabout way. This fifteen-year-old girl, immobilized in a cast, her dreams of becoming the next Ginger Rogers or Betty Grable shattered, began to pass her time listening to the radio. Singing along with her favorite vocalist, Ella Fitzgerald, Doris tried to model her voice on the smooth Fitzgerald style so memorably characterized by Lena Horne as that of "a golden typewriter." Doris's natural gift for singing quickly became apparent, and Alma, happy to see her daughter's interest in show business reignited, began to take in extra sewing in order to pay for Doris's voice lessons with vocal coach Grace Raine. It was Raine who imparted the lesson that would prove to be the key to Day's extraordinary success and artistic accomplishment as a singer: "Sing each song as if directly to one person, not a large audience. You're acting." In Day's own words, "Grace Raine couldn't sing a note but she was a great coach."Raine quickly realized that Day possessed unusual talent and gave Doris three lessons a week for the price of one. Day soon landed a job singing at a Chinese restaurant, where she earned all of $5 per night; with the help of Grace Raine, she began appearing as a (nonpaid) vocalist on Carlin's Carnival
on WLW radio. This was no small achievement; WLW-AM was at that time the most powerful station in the United States. Broadcasting on a half million watts, WLW could literally be heard around much of the nation and was nicknamed "The Nation's Station." It was at this point in the A Star Is Born-type
rise that characterized Day's beginnings that bandleader Barney Rapp heard her sing on WLW, liked her sound, and had her audition--an auditionshe won over two hundred other singers. Even at this earliest stage of her professional career, the driving forces that characterized her approach to work throughout her professional life were already in place. She may have felt nervous about auditioning for Barney Rapp, but it wasn't nervousness about not measuring up. In Day's own words: "I have never had any doubts about my ability in anything I have ever undertaken ... ."Whew. No wonder she appeared so confident and self-sufficient throughout no fewer than thirty-nine feature films. This is an attitude for which most performers would give their eyeteeth. Doris Day simply didn't even think about it. The natural sense of security is there--end of story. No, the nervousness with Barney Rapp came about because of the mere fact of having to perform in public--to be judged in a live situation where there was only one chance to get it right. Given this perfectionist attitude, it should come as no surprise that Day, like Barbra Streisand after her, eventually eliminated nearly all live performances in favor of the controlled environs of the recording studio and film set.Doris Day, still a young teenager, signed on to sing with Barney Rapp, and in the process she also signed up for nothing less than a new name. In another scene right out of a Hollywood movie, Rapp asked Day, "What's your name? Doris Kapps? That'll never work. I liked the way you sang 'Day After Day'--your name should be Doris Day." It's a name Doris Day has never particularly liked--to this day she states, "It sounds phony." But ever the agreeable girl, perhaps still searching for a father figure (all contact with her own father having virtually ceased at this point), she agreed. Good-bye Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff. Hello Doris Day.Day's first gigs with Rapp took place at his own nightclub, the Sign of the Drum; this Cincinnati-based location enabled Doris to live at home with her mother and commute to the club every night. Or rather, commute to the club with Rapp's trombonist Al Jorden. Nodding acquaintances at first, the daily commute deepened their friendship and they soon began dating. When Rapp's nightclub began to fail, the band went on the road for a series of grueling one-nighters, often as many as four per week. Traveling in crowded conditions on a bus, the only female among all the men, Doris accepted such discomfort as a necessity, but the grind seemed to plant the seeds for her lifelong aversion to travel.Learning that the popular bandleader Bob Crosby was looking for a female vocalist, Day auditioned for him and landed the job at a salary of $75 per week--a threefold increase over her salary with Rapp. Bob Crosby was a much bigger name than Barney Rapp, a true star in the world of big bands,but that didn't faze the very young Doris Day. In her own words, "It never occurred to me that I wouldn't get the job." This consistent pattern of total self-belief coupled with little or no ambition puts the hilariously successful film audition for Michael Curtiz in even sharper relief: "I really had no ambition about my singing." Even though Doris Day shares many career similarities with Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand--the extraordinary singing voice, the very real acting ability, the larger-than-life star persona--here is one area in which she differs markedly from them. No one, including Streisand and Garland, would ever have said that they had no ambition about their singing. For Streisand in particular, the naked quality of her ambition was nearly overwhelming in the early stages of her career. She had to be a star--and she was. Big time. Doris Day didn't have to be a star, but she was. Her sort of talent couldn't stay hidden.Day's tenure with Crosby proved to be quite short-lived, however, because after only three months, he announced that he could keep only one singer, and that would have to be previous vocalist Bonnie King, who was returning to the band. Day's solution? Out with Crosby--in with Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians. Doris Day continually landed on her feet for one simple reason : She was already a very good singer and every musician on the circuit knew that. Couple this talent with Day's total self-confidence and it's no surprise that after only a few weeks, Day moved on from Fred Waring to Les Brown and his band, courtesy of Bob Crosby's recommendation. By 1940, Doris Day, exactly seventeen years old, was singing with one of the biggestname bands in the entire country.And how did Doris Day capitalize on this opportunity? By leaving Les Brown to marry Al Jorden (who was now playing with Jimmy Dorsey's band in New York). Les Brown, Alma, even Al's own mother (albeit for different reasons) all told Doris that marrying Jorden was a big mistake. Doris didn't listen. Always pliable in professional matters, this was one stubborn girl when it came to matters of the heart. Driving to New York with the ever-loyal Alma, she married Al Jorden at City Hall between shows. Settling down in New York City, due to the Dorsey band's lengthy gig there, Doris Day then made an unpleasant discovery: Her husband was obsessively jealous, accusing her of affairs when she merely said hello to a male acquaintance, heaping emotional abuse on her, even beating her. At which point Doris Day became pregnant.Passionate reconciliations between Doris and Al were followed by horrifying incidents of abuse, with Al not only threatening Doris but also beating her while she was pregnant (an incident that found its way into Martin Scorcese's New York, New York,
a film that appears to have utilized "The Doris DayStory" as the template for its screenplay: Nice-girl big-band singer marries big-band musician who is both physically and emotionally abusive; they divorce and the woman goes to Hollywood where she becomes the biggest musical film star in the land while raising her young son--sound familiar?). Faced with the reality of a husband who not only told Day that she should have an abortion but also tried to induce the abortion himself, Doris Day told her mother that she would leave Jorden when her baby was born. After giving birth to her son, Terry, on February 8, 1942, in New York City, Doris returned to Cincinnati, where further spousal abuse caused her literally to lock her husband out of the house and obtain a divorce. Looking back on this harrowing time from the vantage point of 1991, Day, in characteristic fashion, emphasized the one positive feature in the entire awful experience: "One beautiful thing came out of the marriage. If I hadn't married this bird I wouldn't have my terrific son Terry. So out of this awful experience came something wonderful."Not quite eighteen, Doris Day was now a divorcée, the mother of an infant son, and possessed no visible means of support. Only one thing to do--go back to work. In this context, there are two salient factors to consider, and both revolve around Day's infinite capacity for hard work. For all of Day's genuine belief that que sera, sera,
for all of her statements that she never pursued stardom, it must be noted that in some way she was driven to perform. She went right back to work singing after this breakup with Jorden, she screen-tested at Warners immediately upon the dissolution of her second marriage, to George Weidler, and she began filming her television series almost immediately upon the death of third husband, Marty Melcher. Work was Day's salvation in each case, but on some level, she not only needed to work but also wanted to work. (She herself relates that the psychiatrist she saw after her midfifties's breakdown termed her "self-demanding.")It is also worth remembering that Doris Day, born in 1924, came of age in the Depression, a fact that fostered a mentality in her--and in other similarly hardworking Golden Age Hollywood female movie stars like Barbara Stanwyck, Susan Hayward, and Rita Hayworth--that it was crucial to work as hard as possible, earn money, and keep afloat. For a woman raised in a household without a great deal of money, during the depths of the Great Depression, this was the one and only solution. Like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Betty Grable, and unlike many of the stars of today, Doris Day did not attend college. Higher education wasn't even discussed as an option. Doris Day had to earn a living, support her mother and son, and make her way in the world. It is no surprise then to hear Terry Melcher state that his mother "denies herself luxuries and pleasures--there's something almost religious about her self-denial."Doris Day relied on no one. She'd make her own way, and it was this philosophy of self-reliance that was to inform so many of her screen portrayals. This girl didn't just preach the importance of fending for yourself--she lived that life for all of her adult years.Self-sufficient in the extreme, refusing to lean on a man for emotional or financial support, but with an infant son to care for, Day refused to go back on the road with any of the bands. Instead, she once again accepted a job atWLW, singing on the midnight show five times a week. As fate would have it, during one of her performances, Les Brown happened to be listening and, in Day's own words, "Les heard me and called; he said to my mother, 'You've got to get her to come back.' I did and all the good things happened."Day once again left Terry with her mother. (She later commented that nursing Terry after his severe motorcycle accident in the 1970s was really the first time she'd ever "taken care of him.") Back on the road, Day still disliked the travel, but the money was good and she, Brown, and the musicians all genuinely liked one another: "All the boys in the band were like brothers to me." Les Brown's band was highly popular, and Day was certainly appreciated by the general public as a very good singer, but everything was to change--everything was to become bigger, faster, and more public--with the late 1944 arrival of the song "Sentimental Journey."Day and the band members felt certain from the very first rehearsal that the song would be an enormous hit. What no one could have predicted, however, was exactly how
big the song would become. In an odd way, the song's rise to number one on the charts for an astonishing nine weeks after its release in January 1945 was almost incidental. This song became iconic because of what it represented; it quickly turned into the
song for war-weary servicemen and their loved ones, all desperate for the end of World War II. "Sentimental Journey" raised Doris Day's public profile in a way no mere best-selling record could have, because through this one song, Doris Day became an official voice--and a very beautiful face--of the World War II generation. Couple the iconic nature of "Sentimental Journey" with the follow-up single "My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time," which also rose to number one, and Doris Day was becoming a valuable and very famous show business property.And what did she do with this newfound prominence? Married Les Brown's saxophonist George Weidler on March 30, 1946. And when Weidler quit the band, Doris left the band as well. The couple moved to Los Angeles, where Weidler found band work and Doris began singing on CBS radio. Dropped by CBS because she was deemed to be without promise (what, one wonders, did those executives think just a few short years later when she became the biggest recording and movie star in the land?), Day signed a recording contract with Columbia Records. It was a propitious moment to sign; the very identity of the big bands was changing because the success of songs like "Sentimental Journey" had provided a new focus on the featured vocalists, and record companies were eager to capitalize on the new trend.Beginning her solo recordings in February of 1947, Doris also now took onAl Levy from Century Artists as her agent. Levy was a partner with Dick Dorso in Century Artists, and a third partner came on board in the person of Marty Melcher. It was Al Levy who landed Doris a job singing at the prestigious Billy Reed's Little Club in New York, an engagement that proved so successful--at a salary of $150 per week--that a four-week extension was offered. She did not accept the offer, because it was at this time that she received a letter from husband George Weidler announcing that he wanted a divorce. Weidler felt that she was going to become a very big star, and he did not want to be known as "Mr. Doris Day." With no warning at all, Doris found herself with a second marriage on the rocks. She returned to California to try and repair the marriage, but the couple separated in April 1947 (although Day did not file for divorce until June of 1948).A thoroughly miserable Doris Day, realizing that her marriage had broken down irrevocably, planned to leave Los Angeles and return to Cincinnati for a permanent reunion with her mother and son. It was at this low point in Day's life that Al Levy asked her to go to a party at well-known composer Jule Styne's home. Levy had developed personal feelings for Doris that she did not return, and with a second failed marriage, she was in no mood for a party: Never a big partygoer to begin with, she particularly disliked the then prevalent Hollywood custom of entertainers having to perform at such gatherings. Nevertheless, she went to the party and sang the Gershwins' "Embraceable You" to the assembled crowd of industry bigwigs.And that's when it all really did begin to resemble a scene out of A Star Is Born.
Al Levy, of course, knew that Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn were desperate to find a leading lady for their upcoming Warner Bros. musical Romance on the High Seas.
The deal for first-choice leading lady Judy Garland had fallen through, and when second choice Betty Hutton turned out to be pregnant, everyone concerned with the film was frantically searching for a new leading lady. Jule Styne, a particularly savvy connoisseur of female singers (Ethel Merman and Streisand lay in his future), was duly impressed by Day, as was Cahn. In fact, this A-list songwriting team was more than merely impressed: A meeting with the film's director, Michael Curtiz, was immediately scheduled. And while Al Levy was jubilant about this very big break, the vocalist in question, Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff--make that Day--from Cincinnati, Ohio, just didn't care. She didn't care when she met with Sammy Cahn for rehearsal before meeting Michael Curtiz himself, and she did not care one way or the other what happened when she went into her meeting with Curtiz. All of Al Levy's wheeling and dealing on behalf of this client for whom he cared a great deal was about to come to nothing becausethis beautiful, sexy, extraordinarily talented young woman had only one thing on her mind: Cincinnati, Ohio. She wanted to get out of records, out of radio, and now she wanted out of the crazy world of Hollywood movie studios. She wanted to go home. Only one thing stood in the way of Doris Day's heart's desire: Michael Curtiz. He had other ideas. Big ones.CONSIDERING DORIS DAY. Copyright @ 2007 by Tom Santopietro. All rights reserved.
Tom Santopietro has worked for the past twenty years in the New York theater as a manager of over two dozen Broadway shows. He is the author of The Importance of Being Barbra and the forthcoming Sinatra in Hollywood. He lives in New York.