THE CAREER OF GINNY SIMMS
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, who were of Scottish, English and French descent. When Virginia was eight years old, the family moved to Fresno, California, where Dormer ran a local movie theatre. Even though her father was once involved in a minstrel show, no other show business activity in the family has been documented.
According to several magazine articles from the 1930s and 1940s, it was at her father's theater that Virginia first experienced the thrill of show business, while watching lavish musicals of the Depression Era. 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. 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.
Then, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Ginny started recording as "Ginny Simms and Her Orchestra." The new billing also gave her a chance to record for a new label, Vocalion. As a matter of fact, Ginny Simms' Orchestra on those sides is actually Kay Kyser's Orchestra, a fact confirmed by surviving members of the band in interviews with researcher and documentarist Steve Beasley.
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 1940s magazine interviews, she described this as one of the highlights of her life.
She made two movies for RKO Radio Pictures in 1942; the first was Seven Days' Leave, starring Lucille Ball and Victor Mature, which offered her only a cameo spot, singing the memorable "Can't Get Out Of This Mood." The second film was Here We Go Again, which featured Ginny in a leading role beside other radio stars of the time: Harold Peary (The Great Gildersleeve), Jim and Marian Jordan (Fibber McGee and Molly) and Edgar Bergen (with his dummies "Charlie McCarthy" and "Mortimer Snerd").
Her option at RKO was dropped after these two movies and she signed up with Universal to co-star in 1943's Hit the Ice, an Abbott & Costello picture that received favorable reviews. In the comedy film she sang four songs, including the ballad "I'd Like to Set You to Music."
Her weekly radio show, later called The Program of the Purple Heart, was sponsored by Philip Morris and served as a link between the battlefronts and the homefront. Each week, Ginny interviewed servicemen and a member of the Armed Forces was chosen to talk via long distance to his sweetheart, wife or family. At a time when direct dialing was basically unknown, this was quite a phenomenon and added a lot to Simms' popularity among the Armed Forces. The San Diego Marine Base made her an Honorary Platoon Sergeant. British pilots even named one Flying Fortress, "Ginny Simms."
In June 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.
Returning to Universal, she starred with Charles Coburn and Robert Paige in Shady Lady, playing Coburn's niece, Lee.
Around this time, wedding bells rang for our raving beauty; she was finally altar bound! On July 28, 1945, after finishing her daily shoot at Universal, she eloped with Hyatt Robert Dehn to the First Presbyterian Church in Beverly Hills. She was married at 10 p.m. and the ceremony was performed by the Rev. William Everett Roberts in the presence of Ginny's parents and her aunt, E.B. Anderson. Best man was Captain John Rogers, who had recently received a Presidential Citation. Apparently, the newlyweds met only months before their wedding day; according to a Louella Parsons article in the Los Angeles Examiner of July 29, 1945, the wedding came as a great surprise to the Hollywood community.
The bridegroom, 34, was a wealthy socialite from New York. He was a graduate engineer of Randolph Macon College in Virginia and New York University. By 1945, he was not only the founder, but also the executive head of the Defense Housing Corporation of Los Angeles for four years. Hyatt von Dehn is best remembered today as the founder of the Hyatt Hotel chain.
Ginny Simms formed her first California committee of the "Lest We Forget" organization in June 1944. The organization would provide entertainment for hospitalized servicemen during the war and after. Her national committee included Mrs. Roosevelt, General John J. Pershing, Mayor Fiorella La Guardia of New York, Nils Trammel, President of NBC, to name a few.
From her childhood days, Ginny Simms still loved farming. So, in the mid-1940s, she fulfilled one of her biggest life dreams and bought a 63-acre farm in Northridge, California. As a dedicated farmhand, she planted alfalfa and citrus fruits, had a model vegetable garden and "an ultra-modern piggery" (to quote a 1946 fan magazine); other livestock included 1,000 chicken and 19 cows.
Having this parcel of land gave Ginny the opportunity to be close to her parents once again, whom she had been estranged from while in the glamorous world of Hollywood. She made her farm the permanent home for her parents, and whenever she could she would escape from her luxurious home in Beverly Hills for a retreat to Northridge in the San Fernando Valley.
As one of many publicity gimmicks of the time, Ms. Simms was made honorary mayor of Northridge, California. This was possibly dreamed up by Louis B. Mayer himself. [Note: During a research visit at the University of Northridge, I couldn't find a trace of this event. Why? Because Northridge, as part of Los Angeles, didn't have a mayor of its own!]
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. It is surprising it took five more years to again see her in the movies.
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 writ of divorce in March 1951.
1951 marked Ginny's final appearance on the silver screen. She played in the Allied Artists' film Disc Jockey. Even with a host of stars like Tommy Dorsey, Sarah Vaughn, George Shearing and Russ Morgan, the show didn't win the favor of critics and failed at the box office.
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.
During these difficult personal times, Ginny Simms kept working; hosting a television variety show called Front and Center. She also appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show with Jack Smith, Audrey Hepburn and others during the same period.
She returned to the concert stage for a few years in the mid-1950s. She worked the nightclub circuits but realized that a comeback was not easy. 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. For their honeymoon, Ginny and Don sailed on the Queen Elizabeth to Europe on July 18, 1962, accompanied by Conrad von Dehn (12) and her new husband's children: the twins Shawn and Sharon (11), Donald, Jr. (9), Carl (12) and Diane (14).
The marriage, unfortunately, turned out to be another rocky one. 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."
Her mother died November 4, 1969, at Yucca Valley, California, winter home of Ginny Simms and Don Eastvold. Her husband Dormer, three sisters and two brothers survived her. She was 73 years old.
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.