Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Underrated Performer of the Month: Versatile Kay Thompson

Kay Thompson, born in St. Louis early in the 20th Century (in 1903, 1905 or 1908, take your pick), might best be described as a phenomenon.

On film she is known for her role as chic, ebullient Maggie Prescott in Funny Face (1957), but Thompson was a woman of many, many talents. She is probably remembered most today for the best-selling 'Eloise' books she began writing in the mid-'50s about a precocious little girl who lived at New York's Plaza Hotel.

Thompson was born Katherine Fink, the daughter of a St. Louis jeweler...more to the point, she was always musical. After college she began singing and by the time she was in her mid-20s she was working in radio as a singer and choral director. She toured with Fred Waring as a singer and arranger, and her group, The Kay Thompson Swing Choir, appeared in Manhattan Merry-Go-Round (1937).

Through two songwriter friends, Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, Thompson became a vocal arranger at MGM in the early '40s. Her projects included Week-End at the Waldorf (1945), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), The Harvey Girls (1946) and Good News (1947). She had a small part in another of her assignments, The Kid From Brooklyn (1946). Thompson was also vocal coach to the stars: Sinatra, Garland (who named her Liza's godmother), Lena Horne (who termed her "the best vocal coach in the world"), Ann Sothern, June Allyson and others. Watch and listen to these performers before and after Thompson worked with them and you'll see and hear a difference. Critic Rex Reed has commented, "Kay did things with June Allyson, who didn't have much range, to make her sound great in Good News."

In 1948, when her MGM contract was up, Thompson left the studio and formed a sophisticated smash-hit nightclub act, Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers (Andy was one of the brothers).

Singer Julie Wilson recalled Kay's show, "Her act at the Persian Room was electric. Kay and the Williams Brothers moved so well, with one terrific pose after another. It was an absolute knockout. Kay's energy took your breath away. She wore those wonderful white pantsuits, which no one wore at the time. The show was very stark and modern, and the rhythm never stopped." A critic from Variety reported, "Her act is paced like a North Atlantic gale," and concluded, "Miss Thompson is more than an act. She's an experience."

Andy Williams remembered, "It's hard to imagine there wasn't an act like us before, because there have been so many since. Up to that time everyone just sang around a microphone, and when the song was over, the singers would raise their arms...[Kay] wrote wonderful songs, she could arrange, she could play the piano beautifully, she could stage numbers. And she could sing! She taught me more about singing and show business than anyone else in the world."

Her show-stopping turn in Funny Face was Kay Thompson's only major film role. Her next and final outing was a small (but memorable) part in Otto Preminger's Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970) starring goddaughter Liza Minnelli. During her final years, Thompson lived in Liza's Upper East Side penthouse; she passed away there in 1998.

In 2003 Disney produced two movies for TV based on the first two Eloise books, "Eloise at the Plaza" and "Eloise at Christmastime" featuring Julie Andrews as Nanny (the first Eloise book was originally adapted for TV in 1956). In 2006 an animated TV series based on the book's characters debuted on Starz! Kids & Family with Lynn Redgrave as Nanny. A film production of Eloise in Paris starring Uma Thurman and Pierce Brosnan was slated to go into production this year but was suspended due to a contract dispute.

"Liza's at the Palace" was a limited engagement at New York's Palace Theater that ran from December 3, 2008 - January 4, 2009. Included in the concert was a recreation of Kay Thompson's nightclub act. The NY Times critic wrote, "From the moment Ms. Minnelli joins forces with a male singing and dancing quartet to resurrect part of a famous nightclub act Thompson created in the late '40s and early '50s with the Williams Brothers, the Palace Theater blasts off into orbit." The show was a popular and critical success that won several awards including a Tony for Best Special Theatrical Event.

The influence of multi-talented Kay Thompson continues; in December 2009, New York's Plaza Hotel opened an "Eloise Shop" and has plans for an Eloise-themed suite designed by Betsey Johnson.


  1. I never knew a lot of this stuff, Eve. She must have been a real dynamo on stage! Nice profile.

  2. Eve, dynamite profile about this amazing woman! I'm like Kim, I didn't know that much about her. What a fabulous show business life she had. And I had no idea it was she who wrote the Eloise books! Very, very interesting article.

  3. Eve, What an amazing post on an amazing woman! Thank you for sharing..

  4. Very interesting, Eve! Like Becky, I didn't connect the dots on Kay Thompson the actress from FUNNY FACE and Kay Thompson the author of the ELOISE books.

  5. I knew bits and pieces about Kay Thompson, but as I was putting this blog together, I learned much more. For example, I knew she had a hit club act, but didn't know Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers was as groundbreaking as it was. "Dynamo" is another word that describes her well. She seems to have been in perpetual motion, with projects going all the time. Another interesting tidbit is that she released a record in 1956 titled "Eloise." It sold 100,000 copies and reached #39 (top 40!) nationally. On the record a chorus sings questions and Thompson answers in the voice of Eloise (she also supplied the voice of Nanny toward the end of the ditty). Must've been one of those '50s novelty records.

  6. Eve, I received an Eloise book years ago, so your post made me smile! I learned a lot about Kay Thompson today and thank you for your very informative and interesting tribute to her. Excellent work, as always!