Fittest loser
Article updated: 3/19/2013 4:04 PM

Mitzi Gaynor: Superstar, one-time Elgin girl

Mitzi Gaynor starred in the 1958 film musical “South Pacific.” For a short time, Gaynor lived with her grandmother in Elgin.

Mitzi Gaynor starred in the 1958 film musical "South Pacific." For a short time, Gaynor lived with her grandmother in Elgin.

 
Movie and theater superstar Mitzi Gaynor lived in Elgin as a child and says that her Midwest upbringing gave her “manners and mores.”

Movie and theater superstar Mitzi Gaynor lived in Elgin as a child and says that her Midwest upbringing gave her "manners and mores."

 
Rossano Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor sing a duet in the 1958 movie "South Pacific," based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

Rossano Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor sing a duet in the 1958 movie "South Pacific," based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

 
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"Oh, honey," Mitzi Gaynor told us, "it's hard to be Mitzi Gaynor. I drive myself crazy worrying and hoping all the time, and I never want to disappoint anyone."

Count us definitely not disappointed.

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See Mitzi Gaynor

See former Elgin resident Mitzi Gaynor in person as she joins revered film critic and historian Leonard Maltin at a free screening of "South Pacific" at 7:30 p.m. today at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. The event is part of Turner Classic Movies' 10-city "Road to Hollywood" tour leading up to the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. Tickets are required even though they're free. Go to tcm.com/roadtohollywood to reserve tickets.

Especially when we found out that the legendary dancer/singer/actress, star of screen and stage, lived in Elgin as a little girl.

It's true. Decades before she washed that man right out of her hair as Nellie Forbush in the 1958 movie "South Pacific," Mitzi (she gets really miffed if you call her "Ms. Gaynor") lived at her grandmother's house in Elgin.

"I was born on the Near North Side of Chicago, darling," Mitzi said. "I lived there until I was 3 and then we moved to Elgin. I was born during the Depression, so Grandma opened up her home to us."

From there, the future entertainer moved to Detroit before landing in Los Angeles at the age of 11.

Even so, Mitzi credits Chicago, Elgin and Detroit for forming her personality.

"My manners and my mores come from the Midwest," she said.

Seriously?

"Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah!" she said. "I mean, I was married to the same man for 50 years. He was from Minneapolis, or as he would say, 'Minneapolis, Minnesota.' Jack, come on! How many Minneapolises are there in the United States? And he would say, 'Shut up!' That's why we were married for 50 years."

"Jack" would be the late Jack Bean, a talent agent and MCA public relations executive she married in 1954. What was the secret to their long-lasting marriage?

"I'm a Virgo and he's a Capricorn. I'm a pain in the (posterior), picky, picky, picky! He saw the big picture and I saw the hole in the stocking, know what I mean?"

Ah, yes. The old opposites attract scenario. But there had to be more to this relationship to survive the pressures of showbiz.

"In Jack, I had everything. I had a lover. I had a best friend. A husband. A provider. A business manager. He was perfect in every way. He was Catholic. I was Catholic. Perfect."

Obviously, she was in love with a wonderful guy. So we asked, how did they meet?

"I was going with Howard Hughes at the time," she said. "I found out that he wanted to marry me. I told him, 'No, dahling, I cawn't do that. I'm going to be an actress and a movie star!' He kept saying 'Please, please, please, please!' I told him I would think about it.

"Then I found out that he'd asked 400 other girls to marry him, too. I said no. He was lovely. Very lovely man. He was a Capricorn, too."

A friend called Mitzi to invite her to the Coconut Grove to hear a new entertainer named Harry Belafonte.

"I asked if he was Italian. He said no," she recalled. "The paparazzi were after me following my breakup with Howard. I didn't know what to do!"

Her friend couldn't go with her, so he offered to have a pal, Jack Bean, pick her up.

"I stayed in the hotel penthouse and I looked so hot," Mitzi said. "I had long, dark hair before it grew in blonde. Beautiful black velvet dress on with lots of boobs and hips and tiny waist and black stockings and all that good stuff!

"I opened the door and there's this guy standing there. Very handsome. He says, 'I'm here to pick up Mitzi Gaynor.' I said, 'I'm Mitzi Gaynor. Don't you recognize me? I'm a big movie star!'

"Are you ready for this? He said, 'I'm so sorry, Miss Gaynor. I only go to foreign films.' I was in love!"

(We should point out that soon after this encounter, it crossed Mitzi's mind that Jack Bean's professed preference for foreign films might have been exaggerated for his own purposes.)

Bean's decidedly un-Hollywood pretense continued working its magic. He didn't have time to wash his Plymouth. Then, as they arrived in front of the paparazzi, Bean's soiled laundry fell out of the car.

"I'm in a ballgown!" Mitzi shrieked. "So laundry falls out of the back seat and his car was dirty, and I loved every moment of it! That's how we met!"

Wait. There's still one important part of the story left. A dog hit by a car.

Mitzi spotted it lying in the street on their way home.

"A taxicab drives by," she recalled. "I couldn't make this up. The cabdriver says there's a vet about six blocks away, so Jack gives the driver $20 -- and that was a lot of money then -- and puts the poor little dog in the back seat to be taken to the vet.

"Jack took me home and that was it. I didn't want to see anybody else after that."

Jack Bean, 84, died in 2006 after 52 years of marriage to Mitzi.

For the record, Mitzi comes from a lineage of performers. Her mother was a professional dancer, her father a professional musician. Performing was in her DNA.

"My mother said I was born with 4-inch heels," Mitzi said, "and it was a very difficult birth!"

We asked her to name her most challenging director.

"I would say George Cukor. We did 'Les Girls' together."

You mean the so-called "woman's director"?

"Yes, but he was pain in the (posterior). He used to say, "Dahling, I can't get anything out of you until at least the 20th take!' Do you know how many takes that is? While you're dancing? On cement? He didn't understand anything about dancing."

Nicest guy she ever worked with?

"David Niven! And Rossano Brazzi. Honest to God, I have never worked with a stinker. Isn't that lucky?"

Mitzi is now 81 and insists that the drive to perform still motivates her.

"I want to make you happy. I really do," she told us. "I've worked with sprained ankles, my back out. I've worked with knee operations. Every toe on my feet has been broken. You have no idea how I've worked under such terrible circumstances.

"It's like being an athlete ... but in high heels."

• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are interested in suburbanites working in professional showbiz. If you know someone who would make a good column, contact them at dgire@dailyherald.com or jsotonoff@dailyherald.com.

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