Patricia Morison, who found the role of her career as Lilli Vanessi/Katharine in the original Broadway production of Kiss Me, Kate, has died at age 103. She was one of the last surviving stars from Broadway’s post World War II golden age.
Paired with Alfred Drake in Kiss Me, Kate, she introduced the Cole Porter songs “So in Love,” “Wunderbar,” and other favorites from the score. But she stopped the 1948 musical with the song “I Hate Men.”
Born Eileen Patricia Agusta Fraser Morison in New York City, she was trained at the Arts Students League and the Neighborhood Playhouse, and studied dance with Martha Graham. She made her professional stage debut in the May 1933 revue Don’t Mind the Rain at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, and was quickly ushered uptown to make her Broadway debut at age 19 in the November 1933 comedy Growing Pains, which persisted for just 29 performances. Morison told the Los Angeles Times that she was so bad in the role that they fired her, but then “I cried so hard they gave me a walk-on.” However she attracted the notice of directors and producers and, with only a single Broadway show under her belt, served as understudy for Helen Hayes on her 1935 costume epic Victoria Regina.
Morison’s next Broadway show was as inauspicious as her first: a 1938 operetta compilation, The Two Bouquets , but the cast included Drake, with whom she would later make history.
Morison tried her luck in Hollywood where she worked steadily, quickly earning leading parts, without having a true breakout role. Originally hired as a contract player for Paramount, where she was billed as “The Fire and Ice Girl,” Morison went on to appear in more than two dozen films including Untamed opposite Ray Milland, Persons in Hiding, Romance of the Rio Grande opposite Cesar Romero, Beyond the Blue Horizon with Jack Haley and Dorothy Lamour, One Night in Lisbon with Fred MacMurray, Lady on a Train with Ralph Bellamy, Danger Woman, and Queen of the Amazons. Among her better-known films were the Sherlock Holmes episode Dressed to Kill and Song of Bernadette. During her film years she also was promoted as having the longest hair in Hollywood (reportedly 39 inches).
But she desired a Broadway career, and it continued to elude her—for a time. She co-starred in 1944 musical Allah Be Praised, which lasted only 20 performances. During World War II she toured with the USO entertaining American troops in the field. It was on one of these tours that she met and began to sing for composer Cole Porter. When it came time to cast his 1948 musical about a feuding divorced husband-and-wife acting team (built around Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew), Porter insisted that Morison was the one he wanted for the female lead, Lilli Vanessi. She got the part over the objections of his producer and partners, who wanted a more recognizable Broadway name. Kiss Me, Kate was described by critic Martin Gottfried as “one of the greatest of all musical theatre scores.” It also was the first show to win the Tony Award as Best Musical.
After her triumph in Kiss Me, Kate, Morison she made just one more Broadway appearance: She was the last in a series of replacements for Gertrude Lawrence during the original run of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I. She played Anna Leonowens for the final weeks of its run in 1954, and stayed with the show when it toured with Yul Brynner. Afterward Morison focused on TV, films, and touring and stock stage productions such as The Merry Widow, Song of Norway, Do I Hear a Waltz?, The Sound of Music, and Pal Joey. She recreated her performance in Kiss Me, Kate in London, in 1958 for a TV broadcast, again in 1965 at the New York City Center, and once again in 1972 at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in the U.K. Despite her long film career, Morison lost the 1953 film role as Lilli Vanessi to Kathryn Grayson. Morison made her final screen appearance in the 1992 film The Long Day Closes, under the name Patricia Morrison, after which she retired and devoted herself to painting.
Morison made a widely noted, if brief, return to the New York stage in March 2014, at age 99, when she performed as part of the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS benefit, Broadway Backwards 9, in which she she sang the Kiss Me, Kate comedy number "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." A clip of her performance appears in this roundup at the 1:06 mark: