Classics in the Carolinas: Kathryn Grayson

Actress, singer Kathryn Grayson

With her soprano voice and sweet, heart-shaped face, Kathryn Grayson was one of the many stars in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s constellation.

But before the singer and actress was one of the studio’s top stars, Grayson was born Zelma Kathryn Elisabeth Hedrick in Winston-Salem, N.C. Zelma was one of four children born to Charles and Lillian Hedrick. The other siblings – Bud, Hal and the youngest Millie, who were also born in North Carolina. Though Zelma was born in Winston-Salem, she spent most of her childhood in Kirkwood, Mo., near St. Louis, when her family moved due to her father’s work as a real estate contractor. Zelma aspired to be an opera singer and studied voice while she was growing up.

The family moved from Kirkwood to Texas to California. Grayson continued studying and improving her singing and was discovered in California, according to a July 1, 1944, issue of “The State,” a monthly North Carolina-focused magazine that has been published from 1933 to present, which is now titled “Our State.”

The story goes that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio head, Louis B. Mayer, heard Grayson sing and signed her to an MGM contract without a screen test, according to The State magazine. Mayer liked culture and art in his films and frequently featured classically trained musicians and singers, like pianist José Iturbi and Danish opera singer Lauritz Melchior. Grayson’s coloratura soprano voice fit into that.

Grayson’s goal was to become an opera singer, but MGM convinced her to pursue a film career.

At age 19, Grayson’s first film role was in “Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary” (1941), part of the popular film series starring Mickey Rooney, where Grayson had the opportunity to sing a few songs.

By 1942, Kathryn Grayson was in starring roles in the musicals like “Seven Sweethearts.”

Two of Grayson’s siblings, Hal (Mike) and Millie (Frances) also tried their hand at Hollywood and signed contracts with MGM. One Feb. 1941, headline touted “Hedrick family taking over town:”

“You probably have never heard of the Hedrick family, you probably never will. Hollywood’s changing their names, but you’ll know ‘em. They’re taking over the town.”

Millie Hedrick took the screen name Frances Raeburn, and plays one of Grayson’s six sisters in “Seven Sweethearts.” Her brother Hal, took the name Michael Butler and plays the beau of one of the sisters in “Seven Sweethearts,” which was his only film. Raeburn was only in five films from 1942 to 1945 and married director David Miller.

The article also says that Bud Hedrick signed a contract with 20th Century Fox and kept his own name, but I can’t find record that he was in any films.

I think it’s interesting that it was reported that Kathryn Grayson, Frances Raeburn and Michael Butler were related, but the studio didn’t capitalize on their relations by giving them similar screen names.

Kathryn Grayson in “Seven Sweethearts.” Her sister Frances Raeburn is pictured as well (I believe she’s on the far left).

Of the family, however, Grayson was the star.

Her first Technicolor musical was “Thousands Cheer” (1943). She co-starred with Gene Kelly and the film was a World War II story, featuring many of MGM’s players performing in a USO show.

“Of all the actresses who hailed from North Carolina, Kathryn Grayson has attained the highest recognition and success,” wrote Hoyt McAfee in the July 1, 1944 issue of “The State.” (Remember, Ava Gardner was not yet a leading lady).

The subhead to the article reads “Winston-Salem girl has gone far as actress and singer. Indications are that still greater triumphs await in her future.”

And the magazine’s prediction was correct.

Grayson continued to star in some of MGM’s top musicals of the 1940s and 1950s and was in a total of 21 films, including her most well-known roles in “Anchors Aweigh” (1945), “Show Boat” (1951) and “Kiss Me Kate” (1953).

Throughout her career, Grayson co-starred with some of MGM’s top stars, like Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Van Johnson, Mario Lanza and Howard Keel.

Grayson left films in 1956, which is when the studio system began to decline and musicals were slowly losing ground. She occasionally appeared on television shows from 1956 through 1989.

While Grayson spent most of her childhood in Missouri, she did return to her birthplace.

In 1949, Winston-Salem in Forsyth County, NC, celebrated 100 years with Forsythorama, a multi-day outdoor historic event which featured 500 performers and officials. After returning back to the states from a European tour, Grayson and her then-husband Johnny Johnston performed at the event, according to a May 12, 1949, article in the Asheville Citizen-Times. Grayson sang “Home, Sweet, Home” and Johnston performed “Beautiful Dreamer.”

Forsyth County Centennial Parade on North Main Street for Forsythorama in 1949. Photograph shows the parade reviewing stand: Joe King, Leslie Ames, Charlie Justice, Johnnie Johnston, Kathryn Grayson, Gov. W. Kerr Scott, L. G. Pritchard, and Robert Voss. (Source: Digital Forsyth)

In their obituary for Grayson, the Winston-Salem Journal said she referenced her childhood home on Apple Street after she married Johnnie Johnston, saying she wanted to live there and raise 12 children.

After her film career, Grayson was able to perform opera on stage like she originally wanted; performing in operas like “Madame Butterfly” and “La Boheme,” and replacing Julie Andrews in the Broadway show, “Camelot.”

In her final years, Grayson gave private voice lessons in Los Angeles.

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1 thought on “Classics in the Carolinas: Kathryn Grayson

  1. Thanks for this, Jessica. I didn’t really know much about Kathryn at all. I thought she was never better than she was in “Kiss Me, Kate” – I thought she really gave it her all in that movie. But can you imagine taking voice lessons from her?!?!?


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