Break a Leg, Mary Anne!

Mary Anne Kappelhoff was born on April 3, 1922, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father, William, was a music teacher. Her mother was a homemaker. Perhaps it was because of her father’s musical influence, but Mary Anne wanted to be a professional dancer. In the early 1930s, Mary Anne formed a dance duo with Jerry Doherty. Together, they performed a variety of dancing and comedy skits in local hotels. In 1937, Mary Anne and Jerry’s performances got the attention of a Hollywood agency which supplied dancers to movie companies. They signed a contract and were due to leave on October 24 for what they hoped would be promising dancing careers on the silver screen. Fate decided that Hollywood was not ready for Mary Anne.

Just before midnight on October 14, 1937, fifteen-year-old Mary Anne was riding through Hamilton, Ohio, about 25 miles north of Cincinnati with friends 18-year-old Marion Bonekamp, 19-year-old Lawrence Doherty (older brother of Jerry, Mary Anne’s dancing partner), and 20-year-old Albert Schroeder, the driver of the car. The group chatted as Albert drove the car west down High Street. As they approached the railroad crossing at Fifth Street, Albert slammed on the brakes, but he had not seen the freight train until it was too late to stop. The car slammed into the train, whose force spun the car around. Mary Anne and the other occupants were tossed around inside the car. (It would be another twenty years before the invention of seat belts.) Albert and Marion were knocked unconscious. Marion received cuts to her face and one knee; Albert received cuts on his head and face; Lawrence, the luckiest of the bunch, received only a bruised knee; Mary Anne, who was due to leave for Hollywood in less than two weeks, cried “My leg is broken, my leg is broken. Get my mother.” Reporting on the car-train collision, one newspaper reported, “The shattered pieces of a Hollywood dream career lay around the bed of [Mary Anne] Kappelhoff, … at Mercy Hospital tonight, almost on the eve or realization.” The newspaper reported, “Although the situation may not be as serious as it appears, a broken leg is a tragedy to a dancer.” Mary Anne was depressed.

On the following day, Jerry arrived at the hospital to check on Mary Anne. He had not been told the exact nature of her injuries. Jerry asked Mary Anne how she was feeling. She replied, “My leg is broken, Jerry.” Mary Anne explained that hospital staff told her she would have to remain inactive for at least four months. Jerry listened intently. After a few seconds, when the consequences of Mary Anne’s injury sunk in, he broke down and sobbed uncontrollably. “Don’t worry, I’ll dance again, Jerry,” Mary Anne said in an attempt to console Jerry. Mary Anne’s mother tried to reassure Mary Anne and Jerry. “Now we will wait until spring, dear, for that trip to Hollywood.”

Mary Anne’s recovery was long and boring. She spent a lot of her time listening to the radio, the height of entertainment technology in the late 1930s. One day, while listening to the radio, she began to sing along. Mary Anne discovered a new talent. She especially liked to emulate Ella Fitzgerald. Determined to reignite Mary Anne’s dream of a career in show business, her mother hired a singing coach who commenting that Mary Anne had “tremendous potential.” By December, Mary Anne was performing again, this time as a solo singer.

By July of 1938, it became clear that the Mary Anne and Jerry duo were not destined for Hollywood. They had lost their dancing contract. Mary Anne and two of the other three people involved in the car-train crash sued the city of Hamilton and the Pennsylvania railroad. They argued that buildings obstructed the view of the train and a watchman failed to signal. Mary Anne sought the largest amount in damages, $20,000, and claimed that her injuries ruined her career as a dancer and entertainer. The outcome of the lawsuit remains a mystery.

Mary Anne began a new career as a singer when she landed a job on the radio program Carlin’s Carnival. In 1939, orchestra leader Barney Rapp was looking for a new singer. He had heard Mary Anne sing on the radio program and invited her to audition. Out of approximately 200 singers who auditioned, Mary Anne got the job. Following her stint with Barney Rapp, Mary Anne performed all over the country with some of the most prominent bandleaders of the era including Bob Crosby and Les Brown.

Mary Anne’s popularity soared while working for the Les Brown Band. She performed as the vocalist with the Les Brown Band in three movies. It was while performing with Les Brown that she recorded seven top ten hit songs. Songwriters Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn heard Mary Anne sing a touching rendition of “Embraceable You” and suggested her for a role in a musical they were writing entitled “Romance on the High Seas.” She auditioned for the picture and, to her surprise, she got the role. Then she got another, and another. The roles kept coming. She starred as the leading lady alongside such actors as James Stewart, Rock Hudson, and James Cagney in a career which spanned some three decades. In addition to her movie career, Mary Anne had a successful recording career. As a vocalist, she recorded twenty top ten albums.

It is impossible to know what direction Mary Anne and Jerry’s careers could have taken had she not broken her leg in the accident in 1937. Unfortunately, Jerry Doherty never “made it” in Hollywood. At the suggestion of orchestra leader Barney Rapp, Mary Anne performed under a stage name which would be easier to fit on marquees. We know Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff as… Doris Day.

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