A century is a long time for a pop-culture icon to stay in the public’s consciousness. Two new releases are trying to ensure that it happens for a local legend.
Doris Day often is cited as the most important Cincinnatian ever to become an arts performer. Born on April 3, 1922 — 100 years ago — as Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff, she had huge, ongoing success as a singer with the jazzy big bands of the 1940s and then as a solo pop vocalist.
She sang hugely popular versions of such now-iconic songs like “Sentimental Journey,” “Secret Love,” “Que Sera, Sera” and more. And starting with the 1948 musical comedy Romance on the High Seas and continuing until her last film in 1968, With Six You Get Eggroll, she was as recognizable a Hollywood star as there was (she also had a television series for five years after her last movie).
But conventional wisdom holds that Kappelhoff’s cultural importance has waned with time. That’s partly because she lived long past her Hollywood heyday, dying in Carmel Valley, California, in 2019 at age 97.
But her musical style also had paled well before then. Once Boomers – who generally were born between the late 1940s and early 1960s – became old enough to start buying records, they opted for their own kinds of music rather than the singer’s jazzy or cinematic numbers. And Kappelhoff’s romantic comedies of the ‘60s didn’t seem to keep up with the changes brought on by the feminist movement and the edgy movies of New Hollywood.
With that in mind, you might figure this year’s centenary of Kappelhoff’s birth would pass quietly; you would be wrong. Not only are organizers of the centenary observation bringing forth new or forgotten archival material – including music and photographs that shed light on her Cincinnati childhood and the beginning of her musical career – but the new activity is being accompanied by a fierce reappraisal and defense of her worth in the culture-at-large.
The two marquee centenary events are the upcoming publication of the book Doris Day: Images of a Hollywood Icon and the release of a new album, Early Day: Rare Songs from the Radio, 1939-1950.
The album is noteworthy locally for making widely available two 1939 radio-broadcast recordings of Kappelhoff singing with a Cincinnati band led by Barney Rapp, who is credited for her discovery. The songs “Little Sir Echo” and “I’m Happy About the Whole Thing” were broadcast nationwide from a nightclub that Rapp owned, Sign of the Drum, which was located along Reading Road in Paddock Hills/Bond Hill.
In 1939, Rapp had auditioned the still-teenage Kappelhoff as a singer because the existing one, his wife Ruby Wright, was pregnant. Shortly after, Rapp suggested that Kappelhoff shorten her last name to “Day.” The rest is history, although it took her a few more years — and participation in non-Cincinnatian Les Brown’s Band of Renown — to achieve her true national breakthrough.
“She never failed to mention her beginning with him,” says Herb Reisenfeld, a Cincinnati devotee of the late Rapp’s music who also married Rapp’s daughter. “Whenever (Day) was on TV on different shows, she always mentioned Barney Rapp.”
Early Day: Rare Songs from the Radio, 1939-1950 also has a recording of Day singing on a 1943 WLW radio show called The Lion’s Roar, plus there’s a snippet of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” from a WLW radio audition.
The book Doris Day: Images of a Hollywood Icon, slated to be published later in June, treats Day like royalty – and she has some impressive fans on board to write appreciations of her artistry and character. The foreword is by Sir Paul McCartney, Great American Songbook historian and singer Michael Feinstein assesses her musical career, and Turner Classic Movies’ film historian Eddie Muller writes glowingly about her worth as an actress.
Images of a Hollywood icon’s photos cover her life from infanthood in Cincinnati’s Evanston neighborhood to her 97th birthday party at home in California, with plenty of glossy, colorful photographs from her film career and life in the public eye. The latter are endlessly complementary — she’s radiant as sunshine with her light hair, wide smile and lively, modernist fashions.
Cincinnatians particularly will be fascinated with the rediscovered images from her childhood as Doris Kappelhoff. The book’s “Early Day” section shows her and brother Paul (who died in 1957) as small children, as a baby held by her grandmother in front of the Evanston home, as a child riding a tricycle or sitting on a horse, as budding dancer in a hand-holding dance pose with a girlfriend, and more.
“When she moved out to Carmel and married her fourth and final husband, they started remodeling the property and she never unboxed the collections of photos and transparencies and things,” says Jim Pierson, who co-edited and -compiled Doris Day: Images of a Hollywood Icon and also produced the compilation album. “There was this loft in the back of her bedroom wing where she also had a dressing room, and there was this doorway that was like a panel in the wall. So she never even thought to go up there and basically used it as storage. It was filled with dozens of boxes.”
“It was really fortunate to find this buried treasure after her passing,” Pierson continues. “It was kind of a hidden, lost archive encompassing several parcels of historical materials, going back to Ohio and her infancy.”
Her longtime public activism on behalf of animal welfare also grows ever more impressive today. She had left her assets to benefit animals, including through the work of the non-profit Doris Day Animal Foundation.
“She loved Cincinnati,” says Bob Bashara, the book’s executive editor, who was also Day’s business manager and, for the last years of her life, personal manager. He is now CEO of her animal foundation, Doris Day Animal Foundation. “It was never her intention to leave Cincinnati. It was really one of those things where she was just this really talented little girl, and life just took her in a different direction than she had planned for herself.”