Tuesday, March 5, 2013

SINGER SPOTLIGHT: GINNY SIMMS

Since I started collecting music in the 1980s, I always enjoyed the singing of Ginny Simms. As a novice teenager, I did not know much about her, and I compared her singing to being a cross between Dinah Shore and Kate Smith. I do not know if that is a fair assessmentm, because Ginny Simms was so much more. I think Ginny Simms had nearly perfect pitch, second to only Jo Stafford. While Simms never became the star that Dinah Shore or Jo Stafford was, she was an important vocalist in the big band era.

Virginia Ellen Simms was born on a ranch near San Antonio, Texas, on May 25, 1914, the only child of Gertrude Lee of Virginia and Dormer Simms of Alabama.While still in high school, she worked as an usher at her father's theater in the evening. It was at this same time she developed a special skill for the piano, which made her want to become a concert pianist. But eventually, she enrolled in the Fresno State Teachers' College. It didn't take long for Virginia to form a vocal trio called Triad in Blue with two other members from her Sigma Phi Gamma sorority, as a way to earn tuition money. The trio performed at college proms and concerts with local bands. Later, at the urging of friends who heard the trio perform, Virginia would break out as a solo singer--even having her own radio program on a local Fresno radio station. She also took vocal lessons to further her vocal ability; during which time she had an unsuccessful audition for Guy Lombardo. In 1932, though, she got a job as vocalist with the band of Tommy Gerun that played at the famous Bal Tabarin in San Francisco. There, she shared the microphone with fellow singers Tony Martin (then still known as Alvin Morris) and Woody Herman. Unfortunately, radio material has not survived nor were any commercial recordings made by the Gerun band.

In late September 1934, Ginny joined Kay Kyser and His Orchestra as their female vocalist. Kyser's Orchestra had a steady gig at The Blackhawk Club in Chicago, and Ginny would remain with and tour with Kay Kyser for eight years. Eight years with one band is considered rare when you see how vocalists switched from band to band. In the late 1930s, she decided to change her first name from Virginia to Ginny as she is still remembered today. Thanks to their popular weekly radio show, the Kollege of Musical Knowledge (which aired regionally in 1937 on the Mutual Broadcast Network and was then nationally sponsored on NBC in 1938 by Lucky Strike), she achieved national popularity. She ably handled the sweet mid-tempo love ballads, often joined by band mate Harry Babbitt.Her first record with the Kyser band was recorded on the Brunswick label on June 17, 1935, to be followed by many others. Ginny also made three RKO films with Kay Kyser: That's Right, You're Wrong (1939), which co-starred Lucille Ball and Adolphe Menjou; You'll Find Out (1940) and Playmates (1941), which co-starred John Barrymore and Lupe Velez.Between the films "That's Right, You're Wrong" and "You'll Find Out," Ginny decided to undergo plastic surgery on her nose, teeth and parts of her face, as performed by Dr. Joel Pressman, known then as the best plastic surgeon in Hollywood. It is easy to judge that this operation was successful.


In the summer of 1941, Ginny Simms decided to leave the Kyser band (she was replaced by Trudy Erwin) and started her second solo career with a daily 5-minute radio program for Kleenex and a movie contract with RKO Radio Pictures. She continued recording commercially for the Okeh label and then later for Columbia Records. With her increasing popularity, her records sold in the millions. She was dubbed the "official sweetheart" of more than a 100 college fraternities. As one of the major stars of the U.S. music scene, her schedule between her radio show, guest appearances on other programs, films and recording contracts, and live performances, must have been grueling. Despite her busy schedule, Ginny Simms managed to visit all army camps from her native Texas to the Washington State in a 1941 tour-de-force, six months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Throughout World War II and after, Ginny showed great concern for all branches of the Armed Services. Her commitment was acknowledged by President Roosevelt, and she was honored with an invitation to lunch with the Roosevelts at the White House.

In 1943, Ginny joined the roster of stars at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio. According to several people who worked in the business at the time, Louis B. Mayer had plans to make her into a big star at the studio. Consequently, the publicists at MGM did their best to make her into a national figure. Prior to her first MGM release, 1944's Broadway Rhythm, which starred George Murphy and Gloria DeHaven and was filmed in Technicolor, MGM publicists got Ginny's pictures in all the papers and national fan magazines. Photo stills of Ginny Simms were issued in great quantity. While a May 8, 1944 Time magazine review of the show felt there was "... plenty of time to doze between the best moments," the article did note there were "... a great many tunes, of which the best remains the 1939 All the Things You Are, as Ginny Simms sings it."Unfortunately, studio head Louis B. Mayer developed a love interest in Ginny and subsequently proposed to her. When she turned him down, stardom at MGM was not to be, and her future as an actress had ended.


After a quick marriage in 1945, her first son, David Martin von Dehn, was born in August 1946, followed by second son Conrad three years later on December 27, 1949. Apart from becoming a mother, 1946 also brought a change of record companies for Ginny Simms. Her contract at Columbia Records expired in December 1945 when Dinah Shore switched from RCA Victor to Columbia Records. Ginny signed with ARA (American Recording Artists), a small, short-lived label based in Los Angeles. She also got a part in Warner Brothers' highly-fictitious portrayal of the life of Cole Porter, Night and Day, wherein Cole was played by Gary Grant. This high-budget musical, shot in glorious Technicolor, gave her the best opportunity in years to show her singing abilities. However, after this high profile film, Ginny would only make one more movie appearance in 1951.

Ginny Simms now signed a recording contract with Sonora Records (with its motto, Clear as a Bell) in 1947. The company issued her only album on 78 rpm, appropriately titled Night and Day, after the recent release of the Warner Bros. movie. She remained very active in radio in the late 1940s. Apart from numerous appearances on Command Performance, Mail Call, Personal Album and other AFRS programs, she had a weekly regular show on CBS for two seasons starting in 1945. The show, appropriately called The Ginny Simms Show was originally sponsored by Borden's Milk, but in 1947 she switched sponsors and sang for the Coca-Cola Co. for a season. From 1950 to 1951, she had a show sponsored by Botany Mills and by August 1951 she sang regularly with Jack Smith on his long-running Tide Show. Her marriage to Hyatt von Dehn grew more and more difficult in the meantime. As a result, she filed for divorce for the first time in June of 1948. After a brief reconciliation, she finally separated from him in January 1950, when their second baby was only four weeks old. She was awarded a divorce in March 1951.

On June 27, 1951 marked Ginny Simms' second wedding day. She married a 33-year-old millionaire oilman, Robert Calhoun, in Las Vegas at the Flamingo Hotel. Even though she was quoted in magazines of the day as saying she had loved Robert Calhoun for years, the newlyweds were already parted by mid-September. When Ginny Simms had a miscarriage in December, the new pair reconciled, but in March 1953, she finally (and again) filed for divorce. She was awarded this divorce a few weeks later in June 1953. In the 1950s, the music style had changed dramatically since the 1940s. According to Variety, these appearances at nightclub were not too successful for Ginny. Her voice had changed, Variety claimed; she didn't have the same timbre and sweetness as in the earlier days. In 1960, Ginny Simms and Pat Boone helped promote the new resort town of Ocean Shores Estates, and Ginny Simms opened and operated the Ginny Simms Restaurant at the Ocean Shores Inn. After her passing in 1994, that restaurant was torn down to make way for the new Shilo Inn.


On June 22, 1962, Ginny Simms got married for the third time. The wedding with groom-to-be, Donald Eastvold, Sr., 42, was performed by Judge Merrill Brown in Miss Simms' home at Thunderbird Heights in Palms Springs. The best man and maid of honor were Mr. and Mrs. Merwyn Bogue. Merwyn Bogue is perhaps best remembered as performer "Ish Kabibble" with the Kay Kyser Orchestra. The wedding reception took place at the North Shore Beach Club on the Salton Sea, 30 miles south of Palm Springs. Donald Eastvold, Sr., former Attorney General of Washington State, became a developer and had a multi-million dollar marine community project there with co-owner oilman Ray Ryan. Sadly on November 20, 1963, Donald filed for divorce while Ginny's father was seriously ill in the hospital. In December that same year, she is quoted as saying she and her estranged husband would not have any reconciliation; she would seek a divorce and only see him as a business partner because their real estate development project would probably continue for another ten to 15 years. However determined this sounded, the pair remained married until Ginny's death in 1994. After her marriage to Don Eastvold, Ms. Simms regularly appeared in her own restaurant in Ocean Shores, Washington. During that time, an independent label produced her last studio LP, appropriately called "Ginny Simms at Ocean Shores."

Ginny Simms' first husband, Hyatt Robert von Dehn, died July 28, 1975, at the age of 58 in Pebble Beach. Ginny Simms died of a heart attack at the Desert Hospital in Palm Springs on April 4, 1994. She was survived by her two sons and her husband Donald. She was followed by her 45-year-old son Conrad on September 2, 1995, who died of cardiopulmonary failure. Donald Eastvold, Sr. succumbed to heart failure in Palm Springs on December 9, 1999. He would have celebrated his 80th birthday less than a month later on January 2, 2000. Ginny Simms might have had trouble with her career and personal life, but one thing is very certain. Ginny Simms had no trouble keeping her fans happy, and every day I try to find more and more recordings from this talented songbird...


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