Each month I take a look at Funny Women from throughout the 20th Century – stating their case so that you may decide which to vote your favourite Vintage Funny Woman. So far we have looked at Fanny Brice, Lucille Ball, Yorkshire’s Marti Caine, Music Hall star Vesta Tilley, the great Judy Garland, Carry On star Hattie Jacques, the ‘Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat’ Carmen Miranda, the dazzling Ginger Rogers and for December we have the versatile Kay Thompson.
Sadly when I say the name Kay Thompson not many readers will know who she was, but she was one of the most talented, creative ladies of the 20th Century. I first saw her in the Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn movie ‘Funny Face’ in which Kay co-stars and sings the fabulous ‘Think Pink’.
Thompson was not just a singer and actress she was: a musical arranger, composer, author, fashion designer, pianist, dancer, choreographer and vocal coach to stars such as Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Lena Horne.
Kay Thompson was born Catherine Louise Fink 9th November 1909 in St Louis, Missouri (as in ‘Meet me in St Louis’ which I like considering she was best friends with Judy Garland; Thompson was Liza Minnelli’s Godmother). Her father was an Austrian born jeweller and pawnbroker and she was the second of four children. Nicknamed Kitty which later became Kay, she started playing the piano at four years old and was regarded a child prodigy resulting in playing in the St Louis Symphony by the age of 16. She also sang with local dance bands, which led to a short lived marriage to the trombonist Jack Jenny. Here she is playing with his band…
In the early 1930s she began singing and working as a choral director on the radio and sang alongside the close harmony group ‘The Mills Brothers’. CBS gave Thompson her own show ‘Kay Thomson and Company’ and she appeared in her first movie with a plot set around radio: ‘Manhattan Music Box’. In 1939 she was appearing as a regular on the show ‘Tune Up in Time’ which is when she met guest artist, then 16 year old Judy Garland, for the first time.
Radio work led Thompson to record a string of songs and have a brief spell in a political stage show ‘Hooray for What!’ but she was fired before it reached Broadway. This did not affect her career progression however as in 1943 Arthur Freed hired her as a composer, coach and arranger at MGM Studios – the film studios that produced ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’. She worked on films such as Danny Kaye’s ‘The Kid from Brooklyn’ and Judy Garland’s ‘The Harvey Girls’.
Thompson’s final movie for MGM was ‘The Pirate’ starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, as she wanted to move on and create her own cabaret show ‘Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers’ – an interesting fact is that one of the ‘Williams Brothers’ was a young Andy Williams of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ and ‘Music to watch Girls By’ fame.
Thompson wrote the songs and famous movie choreographer Robert Alton set the numbers. It opened at Ciro’s Nightclub in 1947 and was a mix of sketches and song, IMBD says: “The singer/comedienne was a sensation with her Coward-esque brand of stylish eccentricity. Her unique, full-throttled blend of sophisticated music, outrageous satire and clever banter made her act a virtual 'must see' among the industry's 'who's who'”
The show ran for six years until 1953 when she took time out to design for her fashion line ‘Kay Thompson Fancy Pants’. It was in 1957 that she appeared in ‘Funny Face’ and here she being fabulous singing ‘Clap Yo’ Hands’ with Fred Astaire:
She only ever made one more film as an actress – the Liza Minnelli vehicle ‘Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon’. Movies did not interest her as she found the process too slow; she was a hands-on creative lady.
In 1958 she started a new career as a children’s author by writing the ‘Eloise’ series. The books were about a little girl’s crazy antics whilst living at The Plaza Hotel, New York City – the place that Kay had called home herself for many years. She wrote four books in the series and even wrote, sang and released a Top 40 song entitled ‘Eloise’ in 1956. Disney made two of the books, ‘Eloise at the Plaza’ and ‘Eloise at Christmastime’, into movies which starred Julie Andrews and featured Gavin Creel who was recently in the West End as the lead in ‘Book of Mormon’:
In 1962 Thompson acted as a creative consultant and vocal arranger for Judy Garland’s Christmas Special which co-starred Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin:
Thompson continued to make guest appearances in cabarets, nightclubs and television shows until she decided to retire in the mid-1960s. She was only briefly brought out of retirement to stage the designer Halston’s runway shows. She also arranged this famous version of ‘Jingle Bells’ for Andy Williams.
Kay Thompson had been married and divorced twice but had no children to care for her so she lived out her final years in Liza Minnelli’s New York Penthouse as a near recluse. She died aged 88 in 1998.
Her contribution to the movie musical was vast and her credits, musically and otherwise, are listed here. It is such a shame there is not more footage available of this vibrant, talented, funny woman. Her best work was arguably her live shows and Liza Minnelli recreated Thompson’s nightclub act in her 2009 show ‘Liza’s at the Palace.'
I think Thompson is definitely an excellent Vintage Funny Woman but if you have other ideas please contact me with suggestions of future nominees on twitter @MirandaDawe
Miranda Dawe is an actress, singer and stand up comedienne, as well as being one of the semi-finalists in the Funny Women Awards 2013. www.MirandaDawe.com