She’s made nearly two dozen movies, including the beloved musical South Pacific, but Mitzi Gaynor has always loved performing before a live audience best. “I truly love an audience,” Mitzi, 92, tells Closer. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, she recorded nine television specials that allowed her to share her love of singing, dancing and fabulous costumes — most by renowned designer Bob Mackie — with viewers. Her annual residencies in Las Vegas packed the house. “I’m proudest of the fact I’ve had the opportunity to entertain audiences for so many years,” Mitzi says. “It’s an honor and a privilege to stand in front of an audience, whether it’s on stage or on screen. I hope I brought some joy because I love what I do.”
When did you know that you wanted to become a performer?
“When I was 9 years old, my mother and auntie took me to see Carmen Miranda in the stage revue The Streets of Paris. I was mesmerized! I remember telling my mother, ‘I can do that. I want to do that.’ From that moment on, everything became about making ‘Tootie’ — my childhood nickname — a star. I began to study dance, ballet to be specific, and by age 11, I was performing in shows in the Los Angeles area.”
Was your family supportive?
“My family was very supportive. My mother and my auntie especially. They were both dancers. My father was a musician, and he helped kindle a love of music in me. He was also very practical, which was especially helpful given mother, auntie and their little Tootie were driven to flights of fancy. My family gave me every opportunity to experience theater, music and art. What a gift that was! We weren’t wealthy in monetary terms, but we were certainly wealthy in love.”
Was acting among your goals?
“I was mainly a dancer. I tried every kind of dance possible — and often all at once! I also did impressions of Carmen Miranda and Danny Kaye in over 100 USO shows until I was 13.”
What do you consider your big break?
“It’s hard to narrow down to just one. I’ve been so fortunate along the way. I got my start on the stage in the Los Angeles and San Francisco civic light operas. That really shaped who I am and everything I love about being a performer. It was my performance in the CLO production of The Great Waltz in 1949 that garnered the attention of George Jessel, who was then producing movies at 20th Century Fox. After a screen test, the studio put me under contract.”
You made your feature film debut in 1950 in My Blue Heaven with Betty Grable.
“It was life-changing — right from the beginning. I mean, can you imagine my thrill in having the chance to make my first movie with Betty Grable? The Betty Grable! My idol! It was amazing!”
Of course, South Pacific made you an international star.
“I wouldn’t have the opportunity to be doing this interview if I hadn’t made South Pacific. That’s how important it was for me. It was the be-all and end-all in my career. Filming the movie itself on location was hard work but thrilling just the same. I adored working with Rossano Brazzi and singing the incredible Rodgers and Hammerstein score. Oscar Hammerstein was with us on location on the island of Kauai [Hawaii] during some of the shoot, and he even directed me in a scene. It was such fun.”
What do you remember about filming There’s No Business Like Show Business?
“My costars Ethel Merman and Donald O’Connor became lifelong friends. Donald and I worked so well together. He could do anything and do it well. I wish we’d made more films together. Paramount Studios wanted to remake their Preston Sturges comedies as musicals for us. That would have been so much fun. But at the time, Donald really wanted to branch out into dramatic roles, so it didn’t come together. But he was my great friend, and I loved him.”
Who were some of your other favorite costars?
“I’ve been so lucky. I never worked with a stinker. I mean, my leading men included Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Bing Crosby, Donald O’Connor, Yul Brynner, David Niven and Kirk Douglas … wow! What’s a girl to do? Rossano Brazzi was heaven, though. He and his wife, Lydia, remained great and cherished friends of Jack and mine. I miss them both. I miss it all.”
Designer Bob Mackie created some of your most memorable costumes and gowns. What do you enjoy about working with him?
“I love Bob. We’re just in sync. Bob knows every facet of me and makes all of it better. He’s so very talented. Bob can make me look gorgeous, he can make me Shirley Temple, he can make me a kid, he can make me Dr. Ruth, a gypsy, or a clown with a rubber chicken. He can do anything, and we just have fun. I never felt more glamorous than when I wore his first beaded nude illusion gown, which he designed for my 1969 TV special.”
You and Jack Bean were married more than 50 years. What was your secret?
“I think it’s hard to say there’s one secret recipe for a happy marriage. Every marriage is different and has its ups and downs. We were married for 52 years. I knew Jack was in my corner, and he knew that I was in his. He was my champion. We were ‘the Beans,’ really one unit, in work and in life, for so many years. There was a great comfort in that. I loved him. I loved being Mrs. Bean and I miss him.”
What do you like to do for fun?
“I really love to cook and to try new recipes. I have loads of cookbooks and binders full of recipes I’ve collected through the years. I love to make special meals for friends. I love to read, I love to laugh and enjoy great company. I love to watch TCM.”
Is there anything left on your bucket list?
“Everything is on my bucket list! I want to do it all again, and then do it some more. Every day is a gift and a surprise. I’d love to be in front of an audience once more. I’d love to finish my book. There’s so much left to do, and I’m grateful for all of it.”