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Doris Day, Cincinnati's girl next door, dead at 97

Day overcame pain, heartbreak on way to stardom
Posted at 9:06 AM, May 13, 2019

Though her career turned her into a famed band singer and screen actress as Doris Day, the girl next door named Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff never forgot her Tri-State roots. She died Monday at the age of 97, her foundation said.

Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff dreamed of a normal life — someday to be happily married, raising children, cooking for her family and cleaning a big Victorian house not far from her family's home near the corner of Greenlawn and Jonathan streets in Evanston.

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Instead, life gave her fame, riches and admiration she could not have imagined as a little girl that helped her immigrant grandparents make pretzels in their neighborhood bakery. It also gave her a new name — Doris Day.

“My roots in Cincinnati go very deep,” she wrote in her 1975 autobiography. “I didn't leave there wanting to escape to someplace better. I only left because the tide of events washed me away."

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Life also brought her pain and heartbreak. She witnessed her father cheating on her mother. A terrible train-car accident destroyed her plans to dance professionally. Her first husband beat her, her second marriage ended in disappointment, and her third husband left her financially ruined. Her older brother and her only child died too soon.

In spite of it all, her sunny public persona remained unblemished, said veteran Cincinnati broadcaster Nick Clooney: “She had the ability to continue to project that all-American girl when her own house was falling down around her.”

Despite her personal life’s hardships, her fans were eternally enthralled by her buoyant energy, her movie-star looks, her ease before cameras and her voice — a dulcet instrument that could sound as intimate as a kiss.

Doris Day with Frank Sinatra and Lauren Bacall (Getty Images)

‘A natural beauty’

Local musicians credit Day with influence far beyond her technique.

“She was a natural singer, completely authentic,” said Pamela Myers, a Broadway veteran and Tri-State native. “She is one of my favorites on every level.”

Nancy James, who started her career singing on “The Bob Braun Show,” grew up looking at Day as a role model. “She was what you aspired to be: the girl next door, natural, not affected. She had such a natural beauty.”

Clooney said his sister Rosemary, another '50s singing star, disapproved when Day gave up music in the mid-1960s: “She said Doris was cheating her profession and her audience.”

Years later, he said, Day told him, “I just don't want to be where I'm not doing my best.”

Doris was an energetic kid, by her own description a tomboy. She took acrobatics and dance classes and by 13 was good enough to win a scholarship to a Hollywood dance academy. Just before she left, an accident caused leg injuries that left her on crutches for a year and a half. Her devotion to animal welfare was ignited during that recuperation, when her unleashed dog was hit by a car.

While convalescing, she started to sing, absorbing lessons from such radio stars as Ella Fitzgerald. Vocal coach Gloria Raine, who worked with WLW-AM, taught her professional skills. A brief stint singing at a Chinese restaurant downtown eventually led to a job with local band leader Barney Rapp after his wife, Ruby Wright, retired to raise their children. (Their daughters, Susie and Patty, still live in Cincinnati with their families.)

Rapp's son-in-law Herb Reisenfeld said Rapp, who had also discovered the Clooney sisters, suggested she rename herself “Doris Day” because Doris Kappelhoff would not look good on a marquee.

WATCH: Herb Reisenfeld talks about his family's connections with Doris Day:

She left to work for Bob Crosby's band, then Les Brown's, before she quit to return to Cincinnati to marry trombonist Al Jorden, whom she met while working for Rapp. They had a son, Terry, but the marriage ended quickly because of Jorden's violent abuse.

She resumed singing, which entailed long stretches on the road and out of town, while her mother cared for her little boy. He told A.E. Hotchner, the writer who collaborated on “Doris Day: Her Own Story,” that he had no real memory of his mother until he went to live with her in Los Angeles when he was 7.

Beer and brats with fans

Her movie career began unexpectedly when Warner Bros. signed her to star in a musical, “Romance on the High Seas.” After auditioning for the role, she was so sure she would not be hired that she bought a ticket back to Cincinnati to see Terry. The ticket went unused.

For two decades she worked nonstop, making nearly two movies every year. By 1951, Photoplay Magazine named her the most popular female star in the country.

She made one memorable visit back home in 1956, to celebrate what the governor had declared as “Doris Day Week” and to promote a new movie. Her estranged father — whom she remembered as a cold, judgmental and bigoted figure — showed up and invited her to visit a German bar and grill he had opened in a black neighborhood. There, she learned he was engaged to marry his black bar manager, Luwenia Williams Bennett.

The neighborhood turned out in force, and the star spent the evening eating bratwurst and drinking beer with the fans. “It was as if the man I knew had died and been reincarnated.” she wrote in her autobiography. “It was by far the best time I had had in that city and the best time I ever had with my father."

Her years on the road left her with a dread of live performances and of flying. Combined with her sad marital history, those fears made it easy for her to withdraw from show business some 40 years ago and devote herself to animal charities.

She remained in occasional touch with the Rapp family and other old Tri-State friends. Herb Reisenfeld said she was especially grateful for a special local treat he added to a package of mementos he sent her — a box of Esther Price chocolates.

Doris Day's film career

Movie critic Molly Haskell once declared Doris Day “the most under-rated, underappreciated actress that ever came out of Hollywood.”

Among 39 movies released in 22 years in which Day appeared, highlights include:

  • “Romance on the High Seas” (1948): Her first movie. Yielded the Oscar-nominated hit single “It's Magic.”
  • “Young Man with a Horn” (1950): Co-starring Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall. An intense drama partly inspired by legendary jazzman Bix Beiderbecke.
  • “I'll See You In My Dreams” (1951): With Danny Thomas as songwriter Gus Kahn and a soundtrack full of classic songs.
  • “By The Light of the Silvery Moon” (1953): A small-town musical with Gordon MacRae. One of her personal favorites.
  • Calamity Jane” (1953): Of her non-glamorous character in a Western musical comedy, she said, “That’s the real me.” Her version of “Secret Love” won the Academy Award for best song.
  • “Love Me or Leave Me” (1955): The critically praised biopic on singer Ruth Etting's life with her gangster boyfriend contained eerie parallels to Doris Day's marriage to Marty Melcher.
  • “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956): For director Alfred Hitchcock, she memorably played a woman nearing a breakdown. Also produced the Oscar-winning “Que Sera, Sera,” which she at first dismissed as a forgettable children's tune.
  • “Teacher's Pet” (1958): Showcases her non-musical skills. Day plays a modern journalism teacher butting heads with a hard-boiled newspaper editor (Clark Gable).
  • “Pillow Talk” (1959): The best of her three romantic comedies alongside Rock Hudson and Tony Randall.
  • “Move Over, Darling” (1963): A comedy carried by her chemistry with co-star James Garner.
  • “With Six You Get Eggroll” (1968): Her last feature film. Her character, Abby McClure, a down-to-earth widow and mom, was one of her favorites.