Considering Doris Day: A Biography

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9780312382148: Considering Doris Day: A Biography

A revealing look at a star who was much more than just our favorite girl next door.

The biggest female box office attraction in Hollywood history, Doris Day remains unequaled as the only entertainer who has ever triumphed in movies, radio, recordings, and television. But while on screen Day may have projected a wholesome image, her acting and singing range made her the role model for independent American career women for four decades.

In Considering Doris Day, Tom Santopietro reveals why Day's work continues to resonate today, both in ever-increasing record sales and Hollywood lifetime achievement awards. Placing Day's work within the social context of America in the second half of the twentieth century, Considering Doris Day is smart, funny, and grants Doris Day her rightful place as a singular American artist.

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About the Author:

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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Considering Doris Day
BeginningsShe 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 
HOW, 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 im...

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