Thursday, January 10, 2008

Gilda Gray

Gilda Gray (October 24, 1901 – December 22, 1959) was born Marianna Winchalaska in Kraków, Poland. Her birth parents were killed in a revolution and she was adopted from an orphanage. She escaped from Poland with her foster parents just before Krakow was taken over by Russia prior to World War I. They settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Gilda began her career singing and dancing at local pubs.

She became famous in the US for popularizing a dance called the "shimmy" which became fashionable in 1920s films and theater productions. Although the shimmy is said to have been introduced to American audiences by Gray in New York in 1919, other sources say that her shimmy was born one night when she was singing the Star Spangled Banner and forgot some of the lyrics. She covered up her embarrassment by shaking her shoulders and hips. Although the shimmy was already a well-known dance move, Marianna appropriated it as her own when she was asked about her dancing style, she replied in a heavy Polish accent; "I'm shaking my chemise," which sounded to the English-speaking audience like shimmy. This account stands somewhere between truth and urban myth.

Her desire to continue her foot light career prompted Gray to move to Chicago where she was noticed by talent agent Frank Westphal who introduced her to his wife, singer Sophie Tucker. It was Tucker who prompted her to change her name to Gilda Gray. After being seen by Florenz Ziegfeld, she appeared in the 1922 Ziegfeld Follies where she was enormously popular with the public.

In 1923 she took her successful act and persona to Hollywood and between 1919 and 1936 she made several movies, shimmying on the screen in each one. Her first appearance was uncredited, but her second role was a small part in Girl with the Jazz Heart. Gilda then made Aloma of the South Seas, which grossed $3,000,000 in its first three months. The success of this film was enhanced by Gilda's personal appearances doing the shimmy as a promotion. In 1927, she made two more films, Cabaret and The Devil Dancer (co-starring Anna May Wong, with whom she would appear in 1929's recently restored and released Piccadilly).

When the stock market crashed in 1929, Gilda Gray lost most of her financial assets, but she managed to get a job dancing at the Palace Theater in New York for $3,500 a week - not bad in those depression years.

In 1936 she was signed to play herself in the movie, The Great Ziegfeld, but unfortunately her scenes were cut from the picture. She left Hollywood and continued her stage act well into the fifties, but was basically penniless at the time of her death from a heart attack at age 58.

Picture Play Magazine, January 1926 - A beautiful illustration by Hal Phyfe and the image that has been adorning this blog's banner for the past couple of months.

This illustration accompanied the text below. It appeared in the January, 1926 Picture Play

The Shimmy in Celluloid.

Don Ryan (Who i believe became a screenwriter)

It is a keen disappointment to Hollywood that "Aloma of the South Seas" is being filmed in the East. For Hollywood remembers the merry times we had when Gilda Gray was among us on her stage tour.

It was during that time that I held my one and only salon, which was a howling success. The crowning glory of the evening-as the society reporter might have said-was the $769.74 worth of shimmy generously donated by Gilda.

Miss Gray was getting $15.000 a week for her shimmy. That is what her percentage in Los Angeles amounted to. For this amount she was doing three fifteen-minute shows, in which her actual shimmying time was two minutes each. At this rate she received $178.51 a minute. For us she performed exactly 4.2 minutes. I held the watch myself.

Which figures down to $769.74 worth of shimmy that we received free, gratis, without let, hindrance, or encumbrance-$769.74 worth of glittering motion, which Cecil De Mille would have given his right eye to have incorporated in an ancient Egyptian sequence.

The later years.

Gilda Gray - What do you think - Allure?

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