Monday, November 5, 2012

Esther Williams

“The popular Andy Hardy series movies were MGM’s tests for its promising stars such as Judy Garland, Lana Turner and Donna Reed. If you didn’t make it in those pictures, you were never heard from again.” - Esther Williams

We are so glad that Esther made it. She's such a breathtaking Bombshell.

By age 16, Los Angeles native Esther Williams had earned three national championships in both the breaststroke and freestyle. She was the youngest of 5 children in her family.

While Esther was on the 1940 Olympic team headed for Tokyo when World War II intervened, canceling the games – along with her hopes for the gold and international fame.

In 1940 newspaper sports reportage, swimmers were frequently lined up for cheesecake photos, flashing big smiles and a lot of leg. It didn’t take long for legendary showman Billy Rose to notice the photogenic champion. Rose needed a female lead to star opposite Olympian and screen star Johnny Weismuller in his San Francisco Aquacade review. Billy Rose invited Esther to audition and it was Weismuller (the original Tarzan) himself who picked Esther out of a casting call of 75 other women.

The Broadway musical was called Aquacade complete with hundreds of swimmers, divers, special effects and singing. Esther was featured as Aquabelle #1, performing choreographed duet swims with Weismuller.

Rose explained that, “I want to pivot everything around Williams. It is up to us to make this girl known up and down the coast. With the possible exception of Eleanor HoIm (the 1936 Olympic swimmer who was also Rose’s wife), she’s the most beautiful swimming champion in the history of aquatics.”

MGM executives agreed and consequently offered her a screen test with Clark Gable. Gable and he studio liked her, and signed her to a contract. She made her first film opposite Mickey Rooney in Andy Hardy’s Double Life in 1942.

“The popular Andy Hardy series movies were MGM’s tests for its promising stars such as Judy Garland, Lana Turner and Donna Reed. If you didn’t make it in those pictures, you were never heard from again.” - Esther Williams

The audience response to the athletic All-American girl was phenomenal and put Esther's career into high profile. Whilst filming Mr. Coed with Red Skelton, they changed the name of the movie to Bathing Beauty and made Esther Williams the star, demoting Skelton to the supporting lead.

Bathing Beauty was Hollywood’s very first swimming movie with a special 90-foot square, 20-foot deep pool built at Stage 30 on the MGM lot. It even had hidden air hoses, hydraulic lifts and special camera cranes for overhead shots.

“No one had ever done a swimming movie before,” she explains, “so we just made it up as we went along. I ad-libbed all my own underwater movements.” 

The film’s elaborate water scenes were choreographed by Busby Berkeley – complete with smoke, flames, fountains and pretty girls swimming around with bows in their hair. Bathing Beauty was second only to Gone with the Wind as the most successful film of 1944.

By the tail end of World War II, Esther was a pinup favorite with returning Gl’s. 

MGM’s publicity mill kept churning out headlines and photo opportunities – she once counted 14 magazines on a local newsstand featuring her picture on the cover. Esther Williarns was America’s sweetheart for more than 18 years, appearing in 26 movies from the early 1940′s to the end of the ’5Os, all but the last few for MGM.

Esther didn't have many dry-land roles in such films as Take Me Out to the Ball Game, it was the lavish water spectaculars that made her such a box-office draw and that was her trademark. Esther's movie career played a major role in the promotion of competitive and synchronized swimming, which she is credited with popularizing. As International Swimming Hall of Fame literature explains, “If swimming would make his daughter grow up to look like Esther Williams, then father was willing to pay for the lessons.”

Movie making was very exhausting and Williams estimated that she swam more than 1,000 miles while making those movies and was in the water so many hours each day that she took naps with her legs on the pool deck and her head floating in the water.

 Williams showed that she had a head for enterprise between those broad swimmer’s shoulders. “I got into business because I knew those musicals couldn’t go on forever. In fact, I was doing some department store modeling at the time, and I told my bosses to hold my job. This movie-making thing wouldn’t last. I mean, how many swimming movies could they make?”

Esther married three times and had three children (Benjamin, Kimball and Susan) during her second marriage to radio singer Ben Gage.

"I don’t know to this day how I managed to fit into those bathing suits when I was pregnant,” she said, “but I did.” She still refers to each child by the movie she was making before they were born. “There I was, diving off platforms with Ben in Neptune’s Daughter, going underwater in silver lame’ with Kim in Pagan Love Song and learning how to water ski with Susie in Easy to Love…and somehow I stayed a size 10 through it all.”

When someone came to her with the idea of putting her name on a line of backyard swimming pools, she agreed. Twenty-five years later. “Esther ‘Williams is the most well-known name in the above-ground pool business today.” says Jerry Herson of the Delair Group in new Jersey, the company that actually manufactures the pools and sells them from California to Maine. Then came licensing agreements with fashion swimwear manufacturers that ultimately led to her own Esther Williams Collection sold in department stores which targeted older women and based on the retrospective look of her full-cut movie swimsuit designs.

“When I go to business conventions for my products, it sometimes takes me over four hours to sign all the autographs and pose for pictures,” she says. “Everyone wants a photo for their store, and I never turn anyone down, no matter how long it takes.”

Esther Williams has had a full life, as an athlete, movie star, mother, businesswoman, spokesperson and an inspiration to millions.

“I think the joy that showed through in my swimming movies comes from my lifelong love of the water,” she explains. “No matter what I was doing, the best I felt all day was when I was swimming.”

Then there’s her relationship with her children, all three of whom she taught to swim soon after birth. “One of the reasons I gave them this gift of swimming so early in their lives was because I loved having them with me in the water. And when I saw them take to it, it was a shared joy that we had in common.

When asked if she still swam, she laughed and said, “You know, I always get asked that. Of course I still swim. I’ll go in later when I have the pool to myself.”

Esther is 91 years young.

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