Judy Knaiz: Gussie Grainger/Ernestina Simple in the film version of Hello, Dolly!
In the early 1960s, Judy Knaiz’s career began as a musical comedy featured entertainer at the Pittsburgh Playhouse . She studied there for two years before being asked to be on the staff there as well.
That led to a local television show and a friend’s brother, who was an agent at William Morris saw her. He ended up becoming her agent and by the time she went to pursue a career in New York, she already had an agent!
She got several gigs in New York including working at The Upstairs at the Downstairs. She did a few industrials and ran up and down Broadway in her rehearsal clothes hoping to get roles. She got cast in Dames at Sea as Joan off-Broadway and was in that show when it closed.
Two years prior, he had cast her as Sandra Dee’s roommate in a movie that never got made. He told her at the time that she was a dead ringer for Carol Haney who was one of his favorite people.
He had heard Judy sing when she auditioned to be Gene Kelly’s partner for a television special he was doing. Later, while auditioning for Dolly at (no
kidding) Carnegie Hall, he saw everyone William Morris sent for the audition and remembering Judy said, “What about Judy Knaiz?” They called her and she rushed right over.
She was asked to screen test in Hollywood.
Her first screen test was as Minnie Fay and it was exciting to be on a movie set. That first day, she met associate Producer
Roger Edens. He was walking past his office which was a replica of something out of An American in Paris.
When she told him how much she loved Singin’ in the Rain, he told her he was also one of the producers of that film. She could have ended it right there she was so thrilled.
The producers had other plans for Judy as far as casting was concerned. She was brought back in and refitted in costumes to convince them that she
could play Gussie Grainger. After doing the screen test, Judy’s mother passed away on January sixth.
She came home from the funeral and the phone rang. It was her agent. She was so distressed that she hung up the phone. Her father said to her, “Look how quickly your mother is working on your behalf.” She called her agent back and was told she had the part.
Getting cast in Hello, Dolly, the film, was the dream of Judy’s life.
To work with Gene Kelly, who was Judy’s inspiration for going into the business in the first place was elation personified. His Singin in the Rain inspired Judy Knaiz’s career as a musical performer.
Jo Anne Worley had also screen tested for Gussie. Judy feels she was too pretty for the part.
Her first day of shooting was her entrance into Harmonia Gardens and that was in April 1968.
There were fresh flowers on every table. They smelled divine.
The whole episode was just wonderful fun. The movie, in her opinion, is not as wonderful as they had all hoped. The hope was that it would take off like the show did. It didn’t capture the same kind of passion and energy on film as the stage show but it is charming in its own way.
Being on the set, Judy feels that Michael Crawford’s in person performance was twice as dynamic as it was on film.
The day she started filming, her dresser slipped her a note from one of the extras asking if she was a theater actress.
She immediately toned down her performance. She was projecting too hard. In the stage version, Ernestina Money ( the name was changed toGussie Grainger/Ernestina Simple for the film) and is a “burlesque” character. In the movie, that interpretation would not really play very well. The part called for a little bit more reality.
Judy was given a lot of freedom to develop the character as she liked. The only direction that Kelly gave her was “Margaret Dumont”, that type of character from the Marx Brothers films.
She tried to bring that aspect to the character. He instilled in her the sense of “work.” When Judy relayed to Kelly about her mother’s death, he said he had experienced something similarly.
Costume designer Irene Scharaf made an incredible costume for Gussie/Judy.
It had ruffles and real jet beads. Judy had a few fittings. The first fitting, Scharaf was in a suede skirt and crepe blouse. Without trying to copy her, Judy went out and bought a tan suede skirt and a pale blue crepe blouse with those poet sleeves.
Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.
Because of the direction that the film went with Kelly’s direction, Judy doesn’t know if the film would have fared any better with either Carol Channing or a Betty Grable type at the helm. What she does remember was her and Tommy Tune dreaming up a dream cast. Judy became friends with with Tommy Tune and they secretly recast the
movie with Judy Garland and George Burns in the leads.
Judy would get to play Dolly herself years later in a production in Clairmont, New Jersey. She says it is a very tough part. There is a built in magic. Opening night was wonderful and then it sort of deflated for Judy. It was hard work. Judy feels Lady Gaga would make a great Dolly from today’s crop of entertainers.
Judy had another “connection” to Dolly. She also had worked with Jerry Dodge, Barnaby Tucker in the original Broadway production prior to working on the film. She and Jerry played a couple of servants in an Off Broadway show called Shoemaker’s Holiday. The musical was based on a play from the Middle Ages. Later that year, she went to see Jerry play Puck in A Midsummer’s Night Dream in Stratford.
Jerry invited her to spend the night where they were staying. It was Gish Gables, Lillian and Dorothy Gish’s house! She loved him.
She also loved the movie’s Barnaby Tucker, Danny Lockin who got several cast members from the film connected with a traveling Chinese tailor!
One day a studio driver knocked at Judy’s door. She’d rented a house in Nichols Canyon from Terry Sullivan who played Arthur Tate on Search for Tomorrow. And that day she was scrubbing her kitchen floor on her hands and knees (this was 1968) and her knees were dirty. She looked down at them. “Come as you are”, he said. and she was kidnapped.
Tune, Danny Lockin, Joyce Ames…they all made appointments with this traveling Chinese tailor and were measured for suits of their choosing.
Judy’s was a midi skirted wool suit in coral. Tommy was into Eton collars at the time. Judy also thought Danny was just delightful in the movie.
Judy, however, didn’t get to really know Barbra off set.
Work on the set was work. Judy felt as if she was a bit player in the film and did not maintain a relationship with Streisand. She also regrettably never met Jerry Herman.
Judy would be in Hollywood April through August 1968.
In fact, she was left all alone in Los Angeles when the entire company went to Garrison, New York in June of 1968 to shoot location scenes. The town of Garrison, New York, was the filming site for scenes in “Yonkers”. In the opening credits, the passenger train is traveling along the Hudson River. Provided by the Strasburg Rail Road, the train is pulled by Pennsylvania Railroad’s #1223 (now located in the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania) retrofitted to resemble a New York Central and Hudson River locomotive. The railroad car used in Put on Your Sunday Clothes was restored specifically for the film and is still running on the Strasburg Rail Road in Strasburg, Pennsylvania.
While the company was filming in Garrison, Robert Kennedy was assassinated and she felt even more alone. She had no one to cry or hold hands with. That was the only bad part.
She brought her father to Los Angeles for the month of July which was when the parade sequence was shot. When he arrived on the set, there was a huge billboard prominent that misspelled ketchup-catsup. Her dad had worked for Heinz for 44 years and knew for certain that Heinz initiated the spelling “ketchup.”
The next time they went on the 14th Street Parade set, the billboard had been corrected! Did he feel big! Hollywood is something!
Judy was disappointed that Gussie is a non-singing role. Her entire career was musical comedy and she got the part of a lifetime and it was a straight comedic part in a Gene Kelly film! That was a major heartbreak for her.
Most of Judy’s scenes were with Walter Matthau. He made her laugh just watching him walk down the street. He was very humorous on screen. The same could not be said off screen. Work, however, was work. They had one month to shoot all of the Harmonia Gardens sections. They had to keep moving and be professional about it. All of their scenes at the Harmonia Gardens were filmed in one day.
The skinny on the row between the stars Barbra and Walter was blown up for publicity purposes but Walter was unhappy amidst all the neophytes in the film. It is true that they were not friends. One day the producers and studio filled Streisand’s trailer with flowers.
Matthau had said something insulting to her and she was miffed. Judy never saw or felt that tension on the set.
Judy went to the premier of the film in Pittsburgh at the Warner Theater for a Catholic charity. She had been invited to a premier in Acapulco but was unable to attend.
The Pittsburgh premier was her “Cinderella” moment. She arrived in a beautiful ball gown by limousine. At one time, she was an usherette in that movie theater. After the film, Judy’s career continued and she was cast in No, No Nanette on Broadway.
She understudied Helen Gallagher. After that she went into a Dietz and Schwartz revue called That’s Entertainment. Things started rolling in her direction. Producer Cyma Rubin let Judy out of her contract to go to ACT in San Francisco, the repertory company.
She did the first National Tour of George M starring Joel Grey playing George’s first wife, Ethel Levy.
She also did a summer stock tour of Two By Two starring Milton Berle and she got to sing for Richard Rodgers which was a great honor.
The one thing that Judy learned from her involvement in Hello, Dolly that she carried forward in her career since then was to be prepared, to rehearse. She also learned to not take things for granted. For example, at the time of Dolly, Judy was having some new headshots done. Tommy Tune told her that she must plan everything ahead of time, how she wanted to be shot and what she was going to wear, etc…Like everything else in life, one must rehearse.
The story of Hello, Dolly is still moving, uplifting, and charming. It takes everyone back to a more genuine time and brings everyone to a more genuine place in themselves.
Beyond Streisand, Judy only saw Martha Raye in the role and thought she was wonderful.
Judy has left the acting profession. She is now a writer. She is, as of this writing, working on a musical, a screenplay. She is taking classes at Point Park University, a wonderful school.
When she hits the jackpot, she’ll be back in New York…this time producing!
Hello, Dolly for Judy Knaiz was her reason to live. It was the peak of her career. It was the best thing she feels she accomplished. If that had not happened, the arc of the rest of her career would have been uncertain. It saved her. It saved her.