Karolyn Grimes today


Essays: Sharing from Friends


B ing Crosby Fan Manazine Editor Interviews Karolyn on another 1946 Classic, Blue Skies

by Greg Van Beek

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Karolyn for Bing Crosby's fan club magazine, BINGANG. I'm one of their contributing editors, and Karolyn was very kind in sharing her memories of working with Bing in Paramount's Blue Skies for the benefit of our readers. She liked the article I wrote and asked if I would put together something for her fan club, which I was more than willing to do.

Greg Van Beek with Karolyn

We "met" on the Bing Crosby web site, where she has been trying to locate a copy of the sheet music for "Getting Nowhere," the song she performed with Bing in the film. In one of her first e-mails to me, she said, "I may be somewhat biased, but I feel that the music written by Irving Berlin and performed by Bing Crosby is TIMELESS. I consider Bing Crosby one of my most famous fathers - we had a very special chemistry and I would consider it an honor to share my stories with his fans."

I asked her how it was that she landed the part of Bing's daughter in one of his most lavish and expensive films. "Well, I actually think that I got cast for the part because they were really desperate to find someone that looked like him, I think they were having a real problem with that. They were getting to the point where they were going to have one of Bing's sons play the role - in a blond wig! Fortunately, I guess they thought I looked like him and I got the part. They tested a lot of others for it, so I was lucky."

Blue Skies was filmed between August and November 1945 (making Karolyn 5 years old at the time). She thinks her part was filmed during the summer "because I have some pictures that are of Bing with Jerry Colonna - he and Jerry were really good friends - and he came over on the set to hash and talk with Bing. They played practical jokes all the time." I said that if Jerry Colonna was around, Bob Hope couldn't have been too far behind, as they were inseparable with the Pepsodent show on radio and all the USO shows they did. She said, "I never met Bob, but Jerry was there almost every day."

I asked if she recalled any "flubs" that may have taken place during the filming of her scene, which amounts to about seven minutes of screen time. "I have to think that after I got older I made more flubs than when I was younger because it just went well when I was younger. You do the same shots over and over, but I don't have a clue how many. For me, it was just everyday life. I didn't know any different." I marveled at how trained and schooled in acting she appeared at such a young age. "Well, I imagine that I had a good director," she said, "because he directed me very well! I didn't have much of a problem getting along with grown-ups - I thought it was fun to be in the grown-up world, probably because I grew up not having any siblings."

Knowing how some stars are "strictly business" when it comes to movie making, I asked if Bing took a personal interest in her or if it was more of a professional relationship. "It really wasn't that professional at all. He was just really very personable. He never forgot who I was, and even later, if I'd be on an interview or something and wind up back at Paramount, I'd see him and he'd always remember and say 'Hi, Mary Elizabeth,' my name in the film. One time, he was across the street (at Paramount) and saw me and called me over to chat with him. I didn't know it at the time, but there was a reporter from Variety magazine with him, and of course I was a 'chatty Cathy' and very precocious, said anything that came out of my mouth, which sometimes got me in trouble! I said to Bing that I just got a new dog the night before, and he howled all night long, so I named him Bing! It was in Variety the next day. They ate that story up.

"When the movie was over - it's really kind've a tradition that the star gives other people in the movie a present - and Bing sent me the wardrobe I wore in the film (the gown and little robe). I don't have them anymore, though."

Karolyn's closeup with Bing Crosby in Blue Skies

When you watch the scene in which Bing performs "Getting Nowhere" with little Karolyn seated next to him, you get the feeling that something was going on behind the scenes that we're missing. All through the number, Karolyn is making lithe "monkey shines" that threaten to break Bing up. I asked her what was happening. "I don't know if Bing caused it or the director encouraged it, but we had a little chemistry, and that was very much a plus for the whole segment because we just interacted greatly. I think the director, if I remember, was sort've standing on the sidelines, telling me what he wanted me to do, and I just followed through. With Bing there, he guided me, and it was just a really pleasant scene to do - there wasn't any pressure or tension, and that was due to him. It's all up to the main star. If they want to be a smart aleck and look down on you, they can and totally intimidate you and not make you feel good about yourself so you don't do a good job. Bing didn't do that. He made me feel great - he just really made me feel comfortable, and I was only 5 years old, so if you think about it, that's not very old!"

I mentioned the name Wally Westmore, and how he had been in charge of makeup at Paramount for almost the entire time Bing was under contract there. I asked how such a young child reacted to the pancake makeup used at the time. "I do remember Wally Westmore, and the makeup on Blue Skies was all right. With all the films I did locally, it wasn't a big issue. The Westerns I made and those on location were rough. Getting up real early and leaving it on until late at night made my face sore." I said Bing absolutely hated the pancake makeup and was always trying to get by with as little as possible. "Oh, it was horrid!" she said. "It was SO heavy, and you'd take it off using Kleenex, and that would make your face raw. They did this day after day, and your face got more raw each day - that part I didn't like!"

Knowing that her scene didn't involve Fred Astaire, I asked if she was at least able to meet him. "Never met him," she said. "If you don't interact with them, it's not economically feasible, so you just don't."

One of Karolyn's first films was Sister Kenny in 1946. I told her how Bing was very involved with that organization and did radio spots for them. When Blue Skies premiered at Radio City Music Hall on Oct. 16, 1946, (the same day Bing's new radio series for Philco premiered), all the proceeds from the film premiere were donated to the Sister Kenny Foundation. "I had no idea," she said. "I was really happy to learn that, because I know Bing supported a lot of Catholic charities, just as Jimmy Stewart did, but Sister Kenny was an exceptionally good one to support. It was a different way of life back then. That generation seemed to be tuned into other people's needs. Morals were higher, and things had more value and meaning than they have now. We have sort've a shallow existence today.

"I look at that movie today (Blue Skies) and I see Fred Astaire dancing. and the talent that he had as a dancer was just incredible - you just don't have that kind of talent today - it's just not there, that dedication - the REAL talent. Mr. Astaire was just a wonderful talent. I was so impressed with what he did there. I just thought it was fabulous! I've certainly kept that one in my heart because I think it was one of the most special ones I've seen." I said it always ranks right up there on the list of favorite Crosby films with his fans. "Well, Going My Way was another good one, I think," she said.

Since she worked with Bing as a child star, and at the same time that Bing's own four boys were still children themselves, I asked her perspective on the book Gary Crosby wrote about his dad and the bad image he's gotten as a father. "I can only say that I never saw that side of him. I know that his home situation was one that was less than to be desired. I think when he went home at night, he had his hands full with the boys and a wife who was an alcoholic, which is no secret. I just think it was almost more than he could handle, and that might have made him a little bitter, as it would anybody else. But I never saw that side of him - and to my knowledge he was a genuine, sincere and loving human being. I think Gary kind of wanted the money, and that's the only way he knew how to go about getting it. I've seen this before, unfortunately. It really doesn't help anyone."

Particularly when the person is no longer here to defend himself, I added. "I just think it was a really bad move on his kids' part to do that - it made them look bad, too, if you want to look at it that way. When I worked with Bing, I remember there were a lot of practical jokes on the set - he was always encouraging me to tell him secrets. I think he really liked kids. I can't say that he didn't, because he was very, very fun and great to be with "

another closeup with Bing in Blue Skies

While Blue Skies was a big break for her, it was her next role in It's a Wonderful Life (released in December, 1946, two months after Blue Skies) that has endeared her to millions with her famous line, "Teacher says, 'Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.' " She only had six minutes of screen time in this film, yet with that immortal line, she stole the show. "I was just lucky to have been granted the privilege of saying that line - the Gods were surrounding me then, I tell you! It was a moment that I don't think can be repeated - you just can't do it again. I don't think anyone can do a remake of that movie, it's just impossible without Jimmy Stewart." I told her some years back Bob Hope was planning to make a "Road" film with George Burns subbing for Bing. That, too, wouldn't have worked. "No, they don't realize that. Maybe someday they'll catch on that they can't change something that is already a classic.

"But the others are starting to become more popular too," she said. "You know, The Bishop's Wife is getting to be really a kind of big movie now - I was really surprised it wasn't on the (AFI's) list of the top 100 films because I get an awful lot of fan mail from that one. I think they forget what classic means - it can't be a film that was made last year!"

In closing, upon telling me of the fine work she does with speaking engagements on surviving the loss of loved ones, Karolyn had this to say; "I find it very rewarding to have the opportunity to touch other people's lives like Bing Crosby did because he left us a legacy with his music. Certainly everyone listens to 'White Christmas' at Christmastime - those things you can't take away from us."

If members of the Zuzu Society would like more information on Bing Crosby (a fella who had a couple of good Christmas movies in his own right!) or would like to join his fan club (active since 1936), feel free to contact me.

by Greg Van Beek

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