- 25 May 1914
- Corydon, Iowa, USA
Kathryn Isabelle Rea was born in Corydon, Iowa. Parents: Fred Albertson Rea and Lenore Gertrude Wilson. Growing up on a farm in Missouri gave her an unusual assortment of playmates, there being no other children within miles. Cats; a dog; a calf who would play tag and let her ride; a pig; the runt of the litter who was hand raised by Kay's mother, and which soon learned to play tag; a huge mother sow who always rushed to the fence to greet Kay, and who enjoyed giving her a ride around the hog pen; and a patient horse, who when Kay fell off, walked to the nearest fence and waited for her to climb on again. In good weather, Kay often rode the old horse over the several miles to a one room schoolhouse. Three items of note. Kay refused to use the outhouse when she learned there might be spiders lurking within. One family each school day would bring a big pot of some kind of soup or stew to feed everyone for the day, and provide the teacher with meals. And, because there were too few students for the teacher to be able to teach every subject, Kay got "promoted" a grade, and skipped decimals and fractions, something she rues even today. Farm life was very hard, but still, the family owned a piano, so Kay was taught to play by her accomplished mother. When the family moved to the small town of Centerville, Iowa, Kay continued studying music. Musical talent filled Kay's mother's family. All her maternal relatives played piano, many sang, and one had a dance band. Family get-togethers often featured hours of everyone taking turns at the piano where all the standards and many light classical pieces were played. When she was thirteen, she entered the statewide music performance contest, and won second place for piano, beating out the high school entrants. She was on the path toward show business. Kay was gregarious. Because many of her friends were on the girls tennis team or basketball team, she joined both. Kay didn't show a great amount of athletic prowess. She was immediately "fired" from the tennis team because she had no idea about tennis, and couldn't hit the ball. She preferred dodging it. Likewise, her career as a basketball player was cut short when she ducked the first time a ball was passed to her. "What did I know?" she says. However, she did play golf, and enjoyed doing so. Graduating from high school when she was fifteen, she won scholarships to Stephens College for women, and those, plus working, especially as an accompanist for other students, and performing in Columbia, Missouri as a singer/pianist with dance bands, made college affordable. Remember this was 1929 during the Great Depression. Many of the students were wealthy enough to be able to easily afford college, and some of them purposely made life difficult for Kay. While she was working serving tables in the dining hall, some of them tried to trip her, or poked and pinched her when she was carrying trays. It's truly the type of material that makes for movie scripts. Once, she had had enough with a particularly spiteful student who was demeaning Kay's homemade clothes. While walking by her, Kay "accidentally" dumped the loaded tray on the girl. That seemed to have ended the more blatant abuse. It was also at Stephens where Kay, in the role of Juliette, nearly gave her director a heart attack. Being an enthusiastic person, during the "Romeo, Romeo. Wherefore art thou Romeo?" bit, Kay fell off the balcony, landing on her face. The director screamed and panicked. His utterances were many, and expressed a dozen concerns for her health, his health, what would happen, is she dead, call the doctor, I can't breathe, on and on. They both recovered. Two years later, Kay transferred to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. When she got there, her cousin, Cele (SEAL-ee) Mann, a Kappa Kappa Gamma sister, made sure Kay entered the sorority. That was a great benefit for Kay. She was accepted without judgment, and from that time she has always loved the sisterhood. While studying at Drake, again, to supplement her scholarships, Kay performed widely in Des Moines and Chicago. She also earned money as a model, and by doing radio commercials. While doing commercials and modeling, she was sometimes partnered with the then-unknown Ronald Reagan. At twenty years old, after Drake, not being able to afford graduate school or studying opera in Europe as her professors urged, Kay moved to Chicago to earn a living. She was already well known, especially for having an unusually wide full-voice vocal expression covering the entire soprano range, plus an extra ½ octave, and a reach up to high E, quite a rarity since most sopranos struggle to reach high C. Kay soon became a headliner at the Drake Hotel, did a nightly broadcast from the Morrison Hotel, and was an actor on radio, most notably in the forgotten Omar the Mystic. She was soon asked to move the New York City to work the hotel circuit and in night clubs. She won roles in Broadway musicals such as By Jupiter with Ray Bolger, Nice Goin' with Mary Martin, Kismet, and several other shows. After performances, many of the actors would go to the great swing clubs in Harlem, and enjoy the music of greats like Count Basie. While she was working in New York, she received a call from Hollywood that one of her fans, a dancer in the posh nightclub circuit in New York, was going to make a series of movies, and had asked that she be his partner. A studio executive tested her in New York, and immediately sent her by luxury railroad coach to Hollywood. Kay says that she was all alone and had no idea what to do in this large coach. It was rather a mystery to her. After the studio approved her screen tests, she was told that, sadly, she wouldn't be that dancer's partner because the head of the studio's wardrobe department demanded that her daughter, Ginger Rodgers, must become Fred Astair's partner, or else. So, Samuel Goldwyn signed her to do movies under his "personal" contract. His studio only made two movies a year, and he made his fortune hiring out his actors to other studios. Kay made twenty movies, each one using a different stage name because, "Nobody knows how to pronounce your last name, REA." Some of her fellow actors were Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, John Payne, Walter Huston, Jack Benny, Ida Lupino, Richard Arlen, Ben Blue, Hedda Hopper, Martha Raye, Anne Canova, Preston Foster, Gordon Jones, Victor McLaglen, Louis Armstrong, and others who were often themselves new to the movies. One, veteran actor, Maria Ouspenskya, was famous for recruiting starlets to join her acting school. For a stiff fee, of course. Kay was quickly warned off. Kay had quite a few amusing anecdotes about the movies, particularly the old roués! The only movie that Kay made that is still available, and often shown on AMC, is Dodsworth, a 1936 movie made from a novel, both of which were quite racy for the times. They dealt with a woman becoming independent of her husband, wanting her own goals, refusing to "grow old", and-one of the bad words then-divorce. Kay played the daughter under one of her many stage names "Kathryn Marlowe". The movie won an Academy Award. Unfortunately, her longest bit was cut when the movie went to TV and VCR recording. Because Goldwyn didn't use her much, and because she had become well known to the Hollywood music community, a producer asked her to take a lead in a new musical revue in New York, Two for the Show. The composer, Morgan Lewis, and lyricist, Nancy Hamilton, wrote a "serious song" for the revue to showcase Kay's voice. Unexpectedly, the song became a pop standard, How High the Moon. Who else was in the revue? Betty Hutton, Alfred Drake, Keenan Wynn, Eve Arden, and others. One task Kay was asked to undertake was to control Betty Hutton, whose only desire, it seemed, was to go out carousing whenever possible. On shipboard, traveling on one of her tours of the British Isles, she met and became the daily dance partner of Henry Ford, Jr. "The poor man wasn't allowed out of the constant gaze of his body guard, and had no privacy." Kay married Roy Fox, a successful dance band leader. Their two children, Fredrick Rea and Amanda Kathryn, were born during the war. At war's end, he took the family to Great Britain, where he had enjoyed his greatest popularity. Kay was busy as a pianist and singer, sometimes as a guest with Roy's orchestra. Kay was asked to take the lead role of Mama in the first London production of High Button Shoes. As the only American in the show, she was resented, but was professional enough to earn respect. Noticing a young chorus girl whose face was striking, Kay asked her studio photographer to see if the girl was photogenic. She was, and so Kay had "discovered" Audrey Hepburn. In 1950, Roy Fox told Kay to take the children to Iowa to visit her parents and have a vacation. That was the last she heard from Roy. It turns out that he had been married and had a child before marrying Kay, had a breakdown due to going broke because of gambling (he owned race horses), abandoned his band, and formed another, starting over again. For the same reason Roy abandoned Kay and kids. Years later, she learned that he had married again, and had another son. Because the demand for dance bands died away, he became an agent. After several years of radio work, pioneering in television long before there were any American TV networks, did dramas and commercials on Dumont and the other new TV networks, being spokesperson for General Electric, making commercials, etc., Kay was invited, in 1954, to help set up new television station KTVO in Ottumwa, Iowa. She quit New York to do so, simply so she could spend time raising her two children, with the plus of being near her parents. Kay managed to hire the staff of the station, produce the news, write commercials, pioneer a 90 minute daily show with singing, interviewing guests, cooking, and doing most of what modern shows like Today do, while she raised her family. When her second husband, an FBI Special Agent was transferred to New York in 1957, Kay retired from show business. She devoted full time to being a wife and mother. There were still numerous restaurants with live music on weekends, and after dining, she was always asked to sing and play piano. James died of cancer at age 65. Not long after, Kay suffered a major stroke, and that began a long, steady decline. Although by the end at age 96, she was blind, nearly deaf, had developed heart failure, and suffered from TNA, she fought to enjoy as much of life as she could. Old age took away all of her pleasures. She couldn't sing, play piano, paint or cook. Her remaining interests were an infrequent visit from a friend, listening to the news, and riding in the car so she could "get out of here." When in the company of lively and engaging people, she remained alert, humorous, and enjoyed current events, science, and good conversation. She said that the only reason she wanted to stay around is that she "hasn't been on a rocket into space yet." Shortly before her death, she stated that she could only conclude that there is no god and no afterlife, and that didn't bother her. At the end, she said that she did the best she could, and loved her family and friends.
|Χαμένα νιάτα – Dodsworth (1936)
|September 23, 1936