Escape To Happiness
WHAT HAS GONE BEFORE: In Part I of Doris Day’s complete personal story, the writer talks with Doris and together they begin to retrace the steps of the past.
Doris Day was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. From her mother Alma, she got the lighthearted, gregarious buoyancy that is her hallmark today and the yen and flair for show business that has led to stardom. Friends of the family recall that even before Doris was born, her mother was hoping for a girl, and that the girl would become an actress. She had her baby christened after Doris Kenyon, who starred with Rudolph Valentino in the famous 1924 version of “Monsieur Beaucaire.”
Doris’ inheritance from her father was definitely on the more serious side. William Kappelhoff was a dedicated musician of the old German school of Wagner, Bach and Beethoven. His greatest love was the organ, an instrument confined in Cincinnati to the great movie houses, which he scorned for their frivolity, or to the great churches, which could offer little in the way of remuneration to a man with a growing family. When Doris arrived there was a four-year-old son Paul who was already going through shoes and clothes at an alarming rate. To provide for his family, Mr. Kappelhoff tutored in German, taught piano, violin and voice, served as a music coach in the public schools, worked nights as choral director of the biggest Gesangverein in the city, and then on Sunday found his personal release in playing the Masses on the organ of St. Mark’s Church. It was an arduous program, and it did not make for a congenial home life. Here you find the first clue to Doris’ insistence today that she must have time to enjoy her family. There are to be more clues, all equally bitter.
Shortly after Doris’ fourth birthday, the Kappelhoffs moved from Grandmother Welz’s large downstairs apartment into a duplex of their own. It was a move of only a few blocks, but some of the happy musical bedlam was lost in the move. Life became more ordered, more disciplined. Doris was entered in the nearby St. Mark’s elementary school, and because of her exceptional aptitude for music her father started her out on a rigid program of piano instruction. He saw her as a gifted instrumentalist, with an uncanny ear for harmonics, and possibly he was right. Her mother saw her as a gifted dancer, with an uncanny sense of rhythm and remarkable physical coordination, and she, certainly, was right. Doris was too young to care.
For all her present shyness, at school Doris was a spirited youngster of whom her teachers still say, “If any excitement was being stirred up, you’d always find Doris in the middle of it.” When life turned bitter for Doris, after she had been twice divorced, she used to conceal her hurt with hard professional patter and smart cracks. Of her school days she once quipped, “I had more freckles than anybody, and more boy friends than freckles.”
The facts only partly support this statement. It is true that she easily rated as one of the most popular girls at St. Mark’s and later at Regina High School, but not for the usual reasons. Quite the reverse. Actually she was a very lonely girl, already making her first down payment on the price of stardom. When the other kids were racing home from school, Doris was sedately on her way to the only school that really meant anything to her, the Mount Adams Dancing School conducted by Harry Hessler. To a large extent, Doris’ popularity and exciting leadership in school can be explained as wish fulfillment. With her outside life so narrowly limited, school time became her playtime.
It is no secret that aiding and abetting Doris in her ambition was her mother. Many nights Mrs. Kappelhoff worked until dawn, designing and sewing costumes for her daughter, and many were the nights, too, that William and Alma Kappelhoff did not see eye-to-eye on the turn their daughter’s career was taking. Both were sensitive people and artists, the one serious and classical, and the other gayer and more theatrical, and the wide gap in temperament was proving impossible to bridge. When Doris was eleven, William quietly withdrew from the family circle, and the resulting divorce passed without notice outside the family. Some writers have tried to ascribe Doris Day’s success to the frustrated drive of a girl trying to compensate for a broken home, but the theory is hardly tenable. The drive and ambition had always been with her.
The difference between a great dancer and a dancing star is a subtle thing. It may be too much to say that Doris at twelve was a great dancer, but there can be no doubt that she had that subtle something that distinguishes a star. She was in demand all over Cincinnati, and at rates as high as five dollars for ten minutes’ work. Then one night she was booked to appear before a large businessman’s club, and ahead of her on the bill was a young tap dancer named Jerry Doherty.
It so happened that the boy’s mother was standing next to Doris in the wings, watching her son onstage. Later Mrs. Doherty watched Doris dance, and the big idea was born. Before the evening was over, Mrs. Kappelhoff and Mrs. Doherty were watching the team of Doherty & Kappelhoff.
Jerry and Doris were good. After that they got together and practiced daily by the hour. Within a year the intense concentration on teamwork paid off. In a citywide contest, against scores of adult contestants, they won a $500 prize as the best team. On the strength of their youth, they received nationwide publicity, and on the strength of the publicity Hollywood held up a weak and wavering, but nevertheless beckoning, finger.
There was never any real question of what was to be done about it. The only question was, “How?” In the end it was decided that Mr. Doherty would continue to work at his job with a Cincinnati dairy and thus provide a sure income against the uncertainties of Hollywood. Mrs. Doherty and Mrs. Kappelhoff would take Jerry and Doris to the Coast.
Stories about Doris Day tend to discount her first assault upon Hollywood, probably because Doris herself seldom mentions the brief career so painfully lost, but its influence was vast.
The Hollywood trek of the two mothers and their gifted progeny was an exception to the rule for such wistful journeys. Famed Louis Da Pron, teacher of the best tap dancers in Hollywood, forgot his long waiting list and took them under his guidance at once. The great dance team of Fanchon & Marco, bookers of dancing acts for all the theatres and studios on the West Coast, snapped them up eagerly and booked them for a series of engagements in small clubs.
By the autumn of 1938, Doris and Jerry were seasoned professional dancers, and their schedule couldn’t have looked brighter. Along with their usual club dates—many of them return engagements at higher salaries—the pair knew the studios had several big musicals on schedule, and Fanchon & Marco were confident that the big break was just around the corner. Mrs. Kappelhoff and Mrs. Doherty decided to make a rush trip to Cincinnati, sell their property there and return to Hollywood for good.
On Friday, October 13, their affairs were settled. To celebrate that, and their departure for Hollywood the next day, a big family party and song fest was held at Aunt Em’s in Trenton, some thirty miles north of Cincinnati. It was a rainy, nasty day, and even though Aunt Em’s house was gay and full of song and good German food, Doris and a friend decided to go out for some hamburgers at their favorite stand in nearby Hamilton.
It was dark when they arrived in Hamilton, with the driving rain further decreasing visibility. At the railroad tracks bisecting the town, the car stopped. A string of empty freight cars stood silent on a siding, but no locomotive was in sight, no warning bells were ringing and no red lights were flashing. The youngsters drove cautiously past the last freight car and started across the second track. There are many versions of what happened next.
Doris recalled later in the hospital that she was frightened by the loud crash that folded in the side of the car, but except for a numbness in her leg, she felt all right. She tried to move her right foot, but it responded slowly, as though it had gone to sleep, so she helped lift it with her hands, out the door. She stepped out and her leg crumpled beneath her, throwing her on the tracks. She gave her leg an impatient shake and then, in the feeble light of a distant street lamp, she saw the white bones protruding through her blood-soaked stocking. “I guess I fainted.”
A yen for show business was always there, says Doris, looking back over her childhood and early teens
Since this was the accident that turned Doris Day from a dancer into the famous jazz and ballad singer she became, she has made a habit of saying, “It was a broken leg that gave me my start. With my leg in a cast, there was nothing else I could do but sing.” Now that her records sell in the millions, with her latest, “Julie,” a nationwide hit within a week of its release, she can well say that, and might even believe it. But at the time, her broken leg was not a start. It was the end.
In a daze, the Dohertys and the Kappelhoffs cancelled their Hollywood plans and did what they could about reorganizing their lives in terms of Cincinnati. Fortunately, they were all well-liked, so the affairs that had been settled were quickly unsettled and resettled again, and everything became as it was before the Hollywood dream. They were back where they started, except that Doris was in bed with a huge cast around her leg, and a steel pin through the middle of it. “Reinforced concrete,” she called it gamely.
The happy part, which is the only part Doris will mention in interviews, concerns the hours she spent in bed with her radio. She began singing with her favorite stars, and because the house was quiet while her brother was in school, she let go with some loud and raucous jazz that had the same bounce and rhythm to it that she had once expressed with her dancing feet. And she had some good bandleaders to sing with; Benny Goodman, the Dorseys, Fred Waring, Paul Whiteman, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and a new one named Glenn Miller. “But I never dreamed that someday I would know them all, and sing with some of them,” she says now. “My voice didn’t mean a thing to me. I was just singing for kicks.”
In the midst of her jazz interlude, she was suddenly fascinated by the rich, soul-squeezing voice of Ella Fitzgerald. Doris began to pick it up, and with the voice came a soft touch of Southern accent that still can be detected in her sentimental ballads today. She didn’t drop jazz entirely, but more and more she began twisting the dial to bring in the warm ballads that today are known as the Doris Day type songs.
The tragic part of those days in bed Doris recently brought herself to touch upon, and then but briefly. She related how for months she had looked forward to the day she could return to Regina High School, where she had spent some of the happiest hours of her life. She did return, on crutches. The girl who had once merrily tapped her way through the polished corridors now inched her way along, fearing her crutches would slip and send her crashing to the floor.
“I was in the way,” she says. “There was no place for my crutches under my desk, so someone was always tripping over them. They made a clatter when I put them down, and they made a clatter when I picked them up, and everyone was looking at me. Outside in the corridor between classes, everyone was rushing, and I could barely hobble. More than anything else, I was afraid someone would knock my crutches out from under me. I just couldn’t take it.”
More than anything else, she could not stand being pitied. She quit school in her junior year, never to resume her formal education again, and that, too, she feels deeply. It will be the full college course for her son Terry, even if his undeniable acting talent brings him movie offers before that time.
Under normal circumstances, Doris might well have returned to school once she had discarded her crutches, but by that time she was already launching her second career. And being one who always gives credit where credit is deserved, she has often told interviewers how the late Grace Raine, a gifted teacher of singing and voice coach for most of the talent at Cincinnati’s radio station WLW, launched her on that career.
There were two things about Doris’ voice that struck Miss Raine at once. It was true as a Swiss bell, and Doris had no confidence in it. For a time Doris even believed that her singing lessons were merely part of a plot to take her mind off her lost dancing career. Actually, no lessons were needed to improve the tonal quality of the voice. Miss Raine cannily set about giving Doris lessons, not so much in singing as in self-confidence.
Doris had been a professional dancer and would work her heart out for an audience. She had acquired the professional performer’s slogan, “Never let the audience down.” With this thought uppermost in mind, Miss Raine set about getting Doris before an audience.
Thus one night the chop suey connoisseurs of smiling Charlie Yee’s Shanghai Inn on East Fifth Street in Cincinnati were astonished to see before them a frightened girl on crutches who was trying to quaver her way into “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which she obviously wasn’t. But in another ten minutes she was belting out the blatant “Murder, He Says,” and jiving into “The Joint Is Jumpin’ at Carnegie Hall.” She was standing on both feet and beating out the time with her crutches. In the background Charlie Yee and a whole tong of little Yees were kicking the gong around, and in the foreground a responsive audience went mad with enthusiasm. Seldom has an aspiring vocalist had a more auspicious debut, and in a less likely place.
Doris continued to sing for Yee on Saturday nights, rapidly gaining confidence. Then, too, the five dollars she got for an evening’s work was very real money. Miss Raine kept her busy. To give Doris experience working with bands. she booked her for all sorts of charity dances, lodge parties, sauerkraut festivals and business-men’s conventions.
Today Miss Day cannot bring herself to sing in public, even for a fascinating offer of $50,000 a week from a Las Vegas casino, and on the set her directors find only one complaint—she speaks and sings too softly. Both inhibitions date back to the days when she sang her heart out, anywhere and everywhere, for the experience.
By the time she was sixteen she had progressed to the point where she was hired by Art Dahlman to sing with his Topper Club Band for the annual ball of the Street Railway Men. Art was so impressed with her ability to build a song that he put her with Don Dunham’s band, a small combo that was being given a chance to make good on WLW. But for all WLW’s prestige and power, the combo and its juvenile vocalist vanished after sixteen weeks. “it was a good band, and popular,” explains Art, “but we didn’t have the cash to promote it.”
Undaunted, Miss Raine crossed station lines to put Doris on a sustaining program over WCPO. The microphone was a hard taskmaster to please, and it had to be wooed assiduously. Miss Raine would listen to each broadcast at her home receiver, and then make such comments as, “Don’t crowd the microphone. You’re working too hard. Remember, an audience might not hear you gasp for air, but a microphone does.”
The public appearances coupled with the radio experience, plus the hours of vocal exercises at home, paid off. At that time bandleader Barney Rapp opened a nightclub called the Sign of the Drum. As Barney now tells it: “I needed a vocalist. We held auditions in the Hotel Sinton. Ruby, my wife, kept the score, but we must have heard about 200 singers to my way of thinking. Doris was among the first, and no matter who we heard after that, she was our girl. We hired her at twenty-five dollars a week.”
Thus before Doris reached her seventeenth birthday, she was successfully launched on her second career. Within the year it would carry her to the heights, and back to the depths again. The first crash had only broken her leg; the second would be much harder to take.
From Doris herself comes this account of her first night at the Sign of the Drum. “My mother drove me there in the old family car. It was about eight miles out from town, and all the way out there I sat holding the evening gown my mother had made for me. I was so nervous my hands were sweating, and I was afraid I would wrinkle the gown. When we got there the place was already crowded, and I asked Mr. Rapp where I would find the dressing room. That stunned him. ‘A dressing room?’ he sort of gasped. ‘We all dress before we get here.’ I think I was ready to cry, but my mother just took me by the arm and pushed me into the powder room. It wasn’t even finished yet. There were paint cans and loose plaster on the floor. But my mother held the door so no one could get in, and I changed as fast as I could. Now when the studio fixes me up with an elegant dressing room, I always remember the powder room at the Sign of the Drum.”
Barney Rapp remembers she came on stage for her first number looking elegant and scared to death. “She had a voice of her own, mind you, but she was too young to have developed her own style. I started her out with an easy one. ‘A Foggy Night in London Town’ it may have been. I didn’t know if she was holding up the microphone or if the mike was holding her up, but she was a real professional. By the end of the first number, I could at least hear her. And by the end of the evening she was really giving out with the lyrics. ‘Old Black Magic,’ ‘St. Louis Blues,’ ‘Beale Street Mama.’ Doesn’t sound much like the Doris Day we know now, but I want you to know that kid was a real hot singer.”
Doris worked for Barney all that winter, learning just about every popular song ever written. For the first few months, Mrs. Kappelhoff drove her daughter to the club for her opening number and then returned for her at closing time. For her it was an exhausting ordeal. Finally she made a deal with a trombone player in the band. He lived not far from the Kappelhoff home and, in return for a few gallons of gas, he reluctantly agreed to pick Doris up on his way to work and bring her home on the way back. Being an excellent musician, he would have much preferred sitting in on a few jam sessions with the boys after hours instead of driving home a juvenile singer, but having made the deal, he was stuck with it. His name was Al Jorden.
The next important deal was made when Barney began broadcasting from his club several times a week.
“We’ve got to shorten your name,” said Barney firmly.
“How about my namesake?” suggested Doris. “Doris Kenyon?”
Barney liked it. “But even if it was her own name we couldn’t use it,” he says now. “People would think we were featuring the movie queen, Doris Kenyon. Then my wife thought Doris ought to have a ‘D’ to start her last name. That gave me an idea. We used to get about a thousand cards a week asking Doris to sing ‘Day After Day,’ and the number did kind of fit her, so I said, ‘Doris Day.’ A lot of people think she was named after ‘Night and Day,’ another number she got a lot of requests for, but it was ‘Day After Day’ that did it. Ask Doris.”
That’s the story, all right—I asked.
When the club closed for the summer, Al Jorden no longer had to drive Doris back and forth every night, but the habit was still there. He began dropping around as usual, but not reluctantly. When at last he got a wire offering him a job with a band Gene Krupa was getting together in New York, he had a long talk with Doris. It was too good an offer to turn down, but still—He went to Ne w York, but this time with real reluctance.
The famous Krupa jazz beat did something for Al. Within a matter of weeks he became one of the best trombone players in the country, and Jimmy Dorsey snapped him up for his bigger and better-paying orchestra. Al’s letters to Doris became more urgent.
It was then that Danny Engel returned from a swing that had taken him through Chicago. Danny is a rotund, amiable man who calls himself a song-plugger for the Chappell Music Co., Inc., but as one of the deans of music in the Ohio Valley, his influence goes far beyond the modest limitations of his office. Quite by chance Doris happened to be in the music store where he hangs his hat, and when he saw her he was struck by one of his many inspirations. He walked up to Doris and said, “How would you like to sing for Bob Crosby at the Blackhawk in Chicago?”
Said Doris, “Huh?”
“Yep. I just left Crosby, and he’s looking for a girl vocalist. Now I know what Barney Rapp says about you, and I’ve heard you on the air, and I think you’re ready for the job. First the Blackhawk, then the Chicago Theatre, and then New York for the fail radio season with ‘Your Hit Parade.’ How does that sound?”
“You think I can get a job like that?” gasped Doris.
“Come on, let’s go!” Danny said. “Sing for the man.”
Thus impetuously was Doris launched into the big time. And everything worked out just as Danny had predicted. She tackled the huge Chicago Theatre and learned how to sing to huge audiences. By the time she reached New York, the millions she sang to over a vast network held no terrors. She won them over with the same ease that she had won over the patrons at the Sign of the Drum. all except one man.
The truth was, Doris had been a little absent-minded about such minor details as birthdays, and one of the network vice-presidents started to fret about the child labor law enforcement officers. To spare “Your Hit Parade” this staggering embarrassment, Doris was ordered dropped at the end of the first thirteen-week contract.
But Al Jorden was in New York, they were two hometown folks in the big city together, and Jimmy Dorsey’s band looked set for the winter. The logical, if not the sensible, thing to do was get married, so they did.
Almost at once the band business was engulfed in the black clouds of World War II. Big bands gave way to small combos, and the combos fought it out over jazz, swing and bop. Long-term engagements gave way to countless one-night stands in the sticks, and Al was off on the road. Fortunately—and this is what Doris means when she says things just happen to her while she does nothing—the very night she finished her last show with Bob Crosby, Les Brown offered her a job.
Then began a strange kind of married life. Doris went one way with her band and Al another with his. They crossed trails frequently but seldom met. On those rare occasions when she could join Al for a week or two between engagements, she spent her time riding with him in buses from one stand to the next. For family life she sat in impersonal hotel rooms waiting until 5 a.m. when her husband, after riding all day and blaring out a high tempo all night, would come “home” too exhausted to speak.
Two months after Pearl Harbor Doris gave birth to Terry in the vast Medical Arts Center of New York. For the first time in years she was radiantly happy. Though she showed every promise of reaching the top in her career, she renounced the whole works in favor of her family. Al, too, was happy, but now, as the sole breadwinner in the family, he found the going tough.
They talked it over and decided to return to Cincinnati. With the last of their savings they made a small down payment on a house and Al went into war work, a task for which he was eminently unsuited. He felt trapped. When he was offered a chance to join a small band playing at Army camps around the country, he was off. The marriage, doomed by circumstances from the start, began to crumble.
The road was no place for Terry. For a time Doris tried leaving him with her mother while she joined Al on the road, but her heart wasn’t in it. This period, in which she was a hotel-room wife and absentee-mother, is particularly painful in Doris’ life. She was neither singer nor homemaker—nor mother. The marriage disintegrated completely. Three years after it began, it ended in divorce, one of the countless thousands produced by the times.
Back in Cincinnati, she found happiness in Terry, but the hurt of the divorce was deep. Complicating matters was the fact that she had to earn some money, and real fast, to keep milk in Terry’s bottle. The only trade she knew was singing.
Her first solid offer came from Milt Weiner, general manager of music at WLW, a man who has introduced more singing talent to the radio audience than almost any other manager in the land.
“Oh, the fan mail she used to get,” he reminisced recently.
Unfortunately for Mr. Weiner, one of the listeners one night happened to be Les Brown. He was making a long, late haul from one one-night stand to the next, and que sera, sera. He tuned the car radio to WLW and recognized Doris’ voice.
Les stopped at the next all-night filling station and began dropping coins in the phone. When at last Doris was free to answer, he blurted: “I heard you! You’re better than ever! Why didn’t you let me know you had started work again?”
“Oh, Mr. Brown,” wailed Doris. “I can’t leave Terry.”
“The band needs you, Doris. Look, don’t give me your answer now. Think it over, and let me know.” He named his next few stops. “I won’t do a thing about a singer until I hear from you.”
Doris was in a turmoil. Les was in a position to pay four times what she could earn in Cincinnati, and the clincher came when her friends pointed out that the big job would not only aid the war effort, but make Terry’s future more secure financially.
After the war the glamour and romance returned to big-time show business. Doris sang in the biggest hotels, met the most famous people, was dined in the most fabulous restaurants and entertained at parties at the richest estates. And she was miserable. She missed Terry. To conceal it, she affected a gay brittleness, gave out with the fast wisecracks, and sprinkled her conversation with jive talk. She was to all appearances a real hep kid. But her defense was not as iron clad as she thought. When she met George Weidler, a top saxophone player with Stan Kenton’s hot aggregation, her lonesomeness showed through her glib patter. She married him in Mt. Vernon, New York, in 1946. Now, she thought, she could make a home for Terry.
There was no home. For the second time, she found herself taking her voice in one direction while her husband took his saxophone in another. This time it was even tougher.
She had left Les Brown and was working in the famous Little Club in New York, a top spot, but for her the end of the road. The bouncy vivacity that had made her was all but gone. When she sang a love song, she thought of George off in the sticks somewhere, and her eyes filled with tears.
The owner, who knew what she could really do when in the mood, was properly sympathetic, but he also had to face such sordid realities as the rent money. “You’re all mixed up,” he said kindly but with finality. “You can’t sing in New York when your heart is somewhere else. You had better take some time off to get with your family.”
At this low ebb, Hollywood held up a false and glittering promise. Not the movie Hollywood, but the radio and television Hollywood, which was booming. George, whose sister Virginia had achieved some success as a movie actress, agreed that there might be a point in rushing out West to get in on the ground floor. Once more Doris had visions of a small cottage for her family, with maybe a small palm tree and a geranium in the front yard.
They arrived just in time to get in on the ground floor of one of the greatest housing shortages in America. They ended up in a trailer.
But they had a roof over their heads. Now that they were in Hollywood, job offers came through from New York and Chicago that Hollywood couldn’t meet. “It’s too confusing,” said George dolefully. “We’ll never get organized.”
The confusion worsened. If Doris got an engagement in some distant club, George was out of work. If George was on the road, Doris would be sweating out a period of “at liberty” in the trailer. Married life became a series of letters and postcards, with the sender writing in haste and the receiver reading at leisure, with hours to pick out “hidden meanings” in the hurried phrases. They broke up once and were reconciled. With renewed hope, Doris signed up with Century Artists, Ltd., a Hollywood agency that might be able to get her bookings closer to home. It was run by three partners, Al Levy, Richard Dorso, and Martin Melcher. Melcher handled most of the music bookings, but he was married to Patti Andrews, who was also a top draw. So as a matter of diplomacy, Al Levy took over the handling of Doris’ bookings to avoid any hint of family partiality.
It worked for Doris, who could sing with any band, but George, talented and high-strung, could work only with bands that required his particular brand of highly skilled musicianship. For him things became more exasperatingly confused than ever. On April 10, 1947, he announced that marriage was just another complication. This time he walked out for good.
An hour later Al Levy, excited about the possibility of a movie role for Doris, was on the phone to her.
In the third part of Doris Day s life story she begins at last to see the light of her future happiness, in singing, in Hollywood, in her marriage with Marty Melcher. Read the third installment of this heartwarming story in June Photoplay. (Doris is in M-G-M’s “Julie” and Warners’ “The Pajama Game.”)
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE MAY 1957