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‘South Pacific’ shower memory still stings for Mitzi Gaynor

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When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport

Info: Free tickets (required) available at

Updated: April 18, 2013 6:24AM

As romantics have known for ages, it’s not that easy to wash a man right out of your hair.

Go to the source, actress Mitzi Gaynor, who famously sang that line in the shower in the screen classic “South Pacific” as the invincible Nellie Forbush.

“I’ll never forget the day we filmed that scene,” says the 81-year-old actress. “I heard the music come up. I’m in the shower singing, ‘I’m gonna wash that man …’ Water comes down. And this super-harsh, horrible shampoo gets in my eyes.”

It’s not easy singing while temporarily blinded. “I ducked out of the shower and said, ‘It hurts so bad. Cut, cut, cut, please!’ We had to drive into this little town in Hawaii. In the window was a tiny bottle of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, and we were saved.”

The 1958 film returns to the big screen in Chicago next Tuesday for a Turner Classic Movies event hosted by Gaynor and film historian Leonard Maltin.

“The film never seems to age,” she says. “It still just transports you. I find myself tearing up at the end at the sheer emotion and scope of it.”

Getting the part wasn’t easy. Originally, she wanted to play Ado Annie in 1955’s “Oklahoma.” The part went to Gloria Grahame.

“I was crushed when I heard it had been cast. But a rep for Rodgers & Hammerstein was at my audition. They said, ‘Maybe you would be interested in the [1957] film ‘Sayonara.’

“The good news was Marlon Brando was cast,” she says. “The bad news is he said he wouldn’t do the pictures unless they cast Asian actors.”

Again, Gaynor was out.

She was filming “The Joker Is Wild” with Frank Sinatra. Out of the blue, she was asked to do a singing audition for Oscar Hammerstein. “We were on the Vegas set and I needed to get a Thursday off. It didn’t look good for me getting the time.

All of a sudden, Frank walked by and said, ‘What’s going on, honey?’ I said, ‘I have the chance to sing for Oscar and it’s for “South Pacific.” ’ Frank said, ‘When is it?’ Then he told the director, ‘We can shoot around Mitzi.’ ”

She sang her heart out, and the rest is movie history.

Ask her about her dashing “South Pacific” male Rossano Brazzi, and she recalls, “He was the most gorgeous, handsome man. His wife was named Lydia, and she would wake him up because we had to be in hair and makeup at 6 in the morning. When he wife would nudge him, he would say in that thick accent, ‘Shudda uppa your mouth. It’s not morning.’ ”

Gaynor was born in Chicago to Pauline Fisher, a dancer, and Henry von Gerber, a violinist and music director. “To this day, I’m glad to be a Chicagoan,” she says. “The only reason I left was the weather.”

She fondly remembers performing when she was younger at the Shubert. “We had the day off and I walked down Michigan boulevard on a January day. I remember the wind was blowing so hard, I had to hang on to a rope to stay in place.

“It was so much fun.”

She’s taking her aging in stride.

“It pains me to hear people complain about turning 50,” she says. “I’d kill to be 50.

“The secret to aging gracefully is simple. Just have a good attitude. Enjoy who you are. Remember that life is a wonderful thing. Think about the alternative.”

She was very happily married to Jack Bean from 1954 until his death in 2006.

“We were like one person,” she recalls. “We’d go out on the road together. He treated me so beautifully.

“When I was on the road, I was Mitzi Gaynor. At home, I was Mrs. Bean in the kitchen, chopping onions and making dinner.”

Gaynor isn’t interested in future film roles but still plays stage dates, saying, “The role I want to play most of all is Mitzi Gaynor.”

There’s a place on TV where she could play that role: “Dancing With the Stars.” Gaynor just laughs.

“It wouldn’t be fair,” she says. “I’m a professional dancer!”

Big Picture News Inc.

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