Blaine, Vivian

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Blaine, Vivian

(b. 21 November 1921 in Newark, New Jersey; d. 9 December 1995 in Century City, California), actress and singer in films and plays, best remembered for her role as the long-suffering, perpetually engaged Miss Adelaide in the musical Guys and Dolls.

Born Vivian Stapleton, Blaine was the only child of a hairdresser and a theatrical agent. When she was only three years old, her father recognized the early signs of her talent and booked her into a vaudeville act. While still in elementary school, Blaine was playing dollar-a-night singing dates at nightclubs, company parties, and police benefits. At fourteen, she began singing with the Halsey Miller Orchestra, and after graduating from Southside High School in Newark, she went on the road as a singer with little-known bands. Each band gave her a different name.

In 1941, while she was singing at the Governor Clinton hotel in New York City, Blaine’s photograph appeared in a newspaper, and a talent scout for Twentieth Century-Fox invited her to take a screen test. The studio’s head, Darryl F. Zanuck, was impressed by the test and signed her to a contract. At first she was given small roles in minor films such as Girl Trouble (1942) and He Hired the Boss (1943), and she played the female lead in the Laurel and Hardy comedy Jitterbugs (1943). During World War II she spent much of her time touring the USO circuit, entertaining the troops.

Unhappy about her film career, Blaine stormed into Zanuck’s office, insisting on better roles and threatening to quit. She won a leading role in the musical Greenwich Village (1944) opposite Don Ameche. Her subsequent roles in lightweight musicals, including Something for the Boys (1944), Doll Face (1945), and Three Little Girls in Blue (1946), gave her scant opportunities to make a lasting impression. She fared somewhat better as a band singer who has a romance with farm boy Dick Haymes in the diverting Rodgers and Hammerstein musical State Fair (1945). To bolster her box office appeal, the studio’s publicity department labeled her the “Cherry Blonde” because of the unusual color of her hair. Still, Blaine sensed that her film career was waning, especially when the studio cast her in a minor black-and-white musical entitled If I’m Lucky (1946).

Blaine’s big career break came with the casting of Guys and Dolls, the Frank Loesser-Abe Burrows stage musical based on Damon Runyon’s stories of life among New York’s endearing lowlife characters. At first Blaine auditioned for the role of Sarah Brown, but she was told that her personality was too strong to play the demure Salvation Army girl. Several months later she met the musical’s producers, Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, who were having casting problems, and auditioned successfully for the role of Miss Adelaide. Speaking in a squeaky, nasal New York voice, Blaine was delightful as the nightclub chanteuse who was long engaged to Nathan Detroit, operator of “the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York.” Her rendition of “Adelaide’s Lament,” in which she mournfully proclaimed that “a person could develop a cold” if she remained unmarried for too long, brought her acclaim at every performance. She was equally engaging singing “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Take Back Your Mink” in the Hot Box nightclub. The musical, which opened on 24 November 1950, ran for 1,200 performances, and Blaine received a Donaldson Award as best newcomer of the year. Although many actresses, including Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe, were considered for the 1955 film version, Blaine was chosen to repeat the role opposite Frank Sinatra. She played Miss Adelaide again in a 1966 stage revival.

Although she cherished the role of Miss Adelaide, Blaine found that it was so closely identified with her that it hindered other opportunities for employment. Nevertheless, she continued her stage career after leaving Guys and Dolls, starring opposite David Wayne in the 1958 musical play Say Darling. She also replaced Shelley Winters as the desperate wife of a drug addict in A Hatful of Rain (1956), played an actress in the comedy Enter Laughing (1963), and took over Elaine Stritch’s role as the caustic wife who sings “The Ladies Who Lunch” in the musical Company in 1971. In 1984, she played the aging courtesan in a short-lived revival of Zorba.

After the 1950s her roles in films were sporadic. She played a WAVE in the musical Skirts Ahoy (1952) and starred opposite comedian Red Skelton in Public Pigeon No. One (1957). In later years she appeared in a few low-budget films such as Parasite (1981). On television, she costarred in 1951 and 1952 with comedian Pinky Lee in a situation comedy with music called Those Two. Over the years she had guest roles in television series such as Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fantasy Island and also appeared in television plays including Katie: Portrait of a Centerfold (1978), The Cracker Factory (1979), and I’m Going to Be Famous (1981). Blaine was married three times: to talent agent Manuel George Frank in 1945 (divorced in 1956); to film executive Milton Rackmil in 1959 (divorced in 1961); and to theatrical manager Stuart Clark in 1973. She had no children. She died in New York City of congestive heart failure.

Few actresses are fortunate enough to be identified for all time with even a single role. Although her “cherry blonde” hair, broad, winning smile, and exuberant style brightened many films and plays, Vivian Blaine achieved theatrical immortality by playing the perennially hopeful, endearing Miss Adelaide in the classic musical Guys and Dolls. With her sneezes, her wheezes, and “a sinus that’s really a pip,” that Hot Box chanteuse, and Blaine herself, remain lodged in our collective memory.

A clippings file on Vivian Blaine can be found in the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center in New York City. References to Blaine can be found in Susan Loesser, A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life (1993). Two interviews with Blaine are Stuart Oderman, Film Fan Monthly, no. 130 (Apr. 1972) and Rex Reed, New York Sunday News (16 Mar. 1980). Obituaries are in the New York Times (14 Dec. 1995) and Variety (1 Jan. 1996).

Ted Sennett