Doris Day, Cincinnati's Biggest Star, Dies At 97

May 13, 2019

Doris Day, the biggest Hollywood star produced by Cincinnati, died Monday at her California home at age 97.

Born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff, she overcame a severe leg injury as a teenager which ended her promising dancing career to star in 39 films, record "Sentimental Journey," "Que Sera Sera," and hundreds of songs, and enjoy a five-year run in The Doris Day Show situation comedy on CBS.

Day was honored by the Grammy Awards in 2008 with a lifetime achievement award. Twice she was nominated but did not win a Grammy -- for her "Everybody Loves A Lover" single in 1958 (at the first ever Grammy Awards), and for her "Sound of Music" album in 1960.

In 1960, after the release of Please Don't Eat The Daisies, Day was the No. 1 star in the Motion Picture Herald (Quigley Poll) of the Top 25 Box Office Stars; the All-American Favorites (Box Office Magazine) poll, and Motion Picture Exhibitor Magazine. She also was the Theatre Owners of America's Star of the Year. 

Doris Day with Gordon McRea in 'Starlift' in 1951
Credit Courtesy Warner Bros.

That Touch of Mink in 1962 again made her No. 1 in the Quigley Poll, Box Office Magazine and Motion Picture Exhibitor Magazine. She topped all three again in 1963 with Move Over Darling and The Thrill Of It All.

Many of her films were light comedies: Calamity Jane, The Pajama Game, Pillow Talk, The Glass Bottom Boat, Where Were You When The Lights Went Out?, With Six You Get Eggroll and Do Not Disturb. Here's a link to her movie credits.

Doris Day with actors Todd Starke and Phillip Browne playing her TV sons on CBS' 'The Doris Day Show.'
Credit Courtesy CBS

As her movie career was winding down, she starred in her CBS sitcom for five seasons (1968-73) as a widow with two young boys who move from a big city to a farm. It earned her two Golden Globes nominations in 1969. 

She also hosted Doris Day's Best Friends (1985-86) on the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) cable channel to promote her animal rescue efforts and the Doris Day Animal Foundation, which she founded in 1978 as the Doris Day Pet Foundation.

Day was honored by the city in 2017 when part of Walnut Street was given a secondary name of "Doris Day Way" between Sixth and Seventh streets, in front of the Aronoff Center. She did not attend the ceremony. In fact, the reclusive Day had not visited her hometown in decades. She did not return for Cincinnati's "Salute To Our Stars" gala in 1988, for the city's bicentennial. 

Day originally thought she'd be a star dancer with her partner Jerry Doherty. They were planning to move to Hollywood in 1937, until they were injured in a car-train wreck in Hamilton. During her year-long recovery from a severely broken leg, Day turned to singing.

Day was born April 3, 1922, to William and Alma Kappelhoff of Evanston. He was a music director and choir master. She took lessons at Hessler's Dance Studio in Mount Adams, and attended Our Lady of Angels High School in St. Bernard.

At 15, Doris and Jerry Doherty were excellent dancers heading for Hollywood until Doris broke her leg in the Hamilton car wreck in 1937. During her year-long recovery, she turned to singing. She performed on WLW-AM and around town before being hired by local bandleader Barney Rapp.

Doris with actor Terry-Thomas in 'Where Were You When The Lights Went Out?' in 1968
Credit Courtesy MGM

Rapp suggested Doris take the stage name "Day." Known as Hollywood's "girl next door," she literally was the girl next door here until 1940, when Les Brown offered her $75 a week to sing for his Band of Renown.

Herb Reisenfeld of Provident Travel loves to say that his mother-in-law, singer Ruby Wright "was responsible for Doris Day's career." Before Wright became a regular on Ruth Lyons' 50-50 Club TV show, she sang for her husband Rapp. When Ruby was pregnant with her daughter Susie, Rapp hired a local teenager singer named Doris Kappelhoff.

Reisenfeld appeared on WVXU's Cincinnati Edition in September 2017 with retired surgeon Bob Maltz, a Doris Day fan who requested the city to honor Day, before the city honored her on Walnut Street.

Reisenfeld said Rapp suggested Day change her name because "Kappelhoff" didn't fit on the marquee at his club, The Sign of the Drum, which was located across from Suger n' Spice on Reading Road, just north of Victory Parkway, in Avondale. He suggested Doris Day, since she enjoyed singing the popular song "Day By Day."

"She didn't like it, but she accepted it," Reisdenfeld said.

And it worked out OK for her.

Marian Collins, Day's childhood friend, holds the "Doris Day Way" sign at Cincinnati City Hall on Sept. 27, 2017. She was riding with Doris and the Doherty brothers when their car wrecked with a train in 1937 in downtown Hamilton.
Credit John Kiesewetter

Doris Day became arguably the biggest star produced by Cincinnati, along with Roy Rogers, the singing cowboy.

"If she was a baseball player or a racehorse, she would have won the Triple Crown," said Maltz in 2017. The retired ear, nose and throat surgeon has been a huge Doris Day fan since he was a teen in the 1950s.

"I was drawn to her by her movies. She was so perky, with those All-America good looks, blonde hair and blue eyes. Then I became a fan of her singing. When I heard her singing 'It's Magic,' I thought she was singing it just to me," Maltz said.

As a kid growing up in Cincinnati, Maltz might have said Rogers was the greatest star from Cincinnati – before he saw Day's movies.

"I'd have to say Doris Day is the biggest star. She was prettier than Roy Rogers, and she could sing better," he said with a laugh.

When A&E's Biography series did a two-hour documentary on Day in 1998, it was still believed that she was born in 1924. However, her birth certificate dated 1922 was found by author David Kaufman, and revealed in his 2008 book, Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, the Enquirer reported in 2008.

Day did not talk to Kaufman. She also didn't grant an interview to A&E 10 years earlier.

"She's pretty much a recluse," her cousin, Robert Kappelhoff, told me before the A&E Biography aired.  

Terry Melcher, her son and manager, appeared as her spokesman on the TV show. Melcher, adopted by Ms. Day's third husband Marty Melcher in 1951, was born in 1942 during the singer's first marriage to Cincinnati trombonist Al Jorden. She met Jorden in 1940 while singing in Barney Rapp's night club.

Of all Day's roles, Calamity Jane (1953) came closest to home. "She's a lot like Calamity Jane. I call her 'Calamity' to this day,"  Melcher told A&E. Melcher, a rock musician and record producer, died in 2004 at age 62.

Doris Day with cinematographer Wilfred M. Cline during filming of 'Lucky Me' in 1954.
Credit Courtesy Warner Bros.

Biography revealed that the men in Day's life brought great pain. Her parents divorced after her father's scandalous affair when she was in grade school; Jorden, her first husband, had an abusive temper; her second husband, saxophonist George Weilder, was jealous of her success; and Melcher, her third husband, made poor investments that left her $500,000 in debt upon his death in 1968. That's why she did the CBS sitcom.

The A&E retrospective ended with her last visit with close friend Rock Hudson on the 1985 premiere of Doris Day's Best Friends cable show, just before he died of AIDS.

Melcher explained that his mom retired when "she felt she was just one inch past her prime … That's just her particular ethic about artistry."

When Day released her My Heart album in 2011 – her first in 20 years – she granted an interview to Paul McCartney, which was published in Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.

When McCartney asked about her son, Day said: “I miss my Terry every day. But…I’m so happy that he’s singing on the album. I used to hear him sing and he should have done more things. I get mail from his friends all the time saying he had so much talent and he was always laid back. He didn’t push himself. He was such a good guy and I loved him dearly."

McCartney told Day that he "knew Terry a little bit in the '60s and he was a really nice man … He was a lovely boy.”

For years the Doris Day Animal Foundation has raised funds by selling calendars.
Credit Courtesy Doris Day Animal Foundation

Day's legacy is the Doris Day Animal Foundation that she started in 1978.

"The world has lost a light today. Doris was not just a darling of song and screen, but a close friend, an inspiration when the world seemed bleak, and a dear, compassionate advocate for her favorite beings on Earth: the 4-leggers," said T. Robert Bashara, her foundation's chief financial officer, in a statement Monday.

"Her life's work -- her music, her films, and her animal advocacy -- comprise an enduring legacy. Fans will continue to laugh at her romantic comedies, admire her dramatic grit, marvel at her pitch and interpretation of so many great, songs. She redefined what it meant to be a girl singer with a Big Band, and she broke the mold for Hollywood starlets. And for so many fans, young and old, the name Doris Day will always make us smile.

"Doris' passionate work on behalf of dogs, cats, horses, sea lions, raptors and other animals in need of rescue, veterinary care and adoption will not end. The Doris Day Animal Foundation is committed to continuing its work as a grant-giving organization, funding smaller animal welfare non-profits across the country …. She was truly a voice for the voiceless among us, a bright and beautiful champion for the cause of animal welfare, and a dear, dear friend to us all," Bashara said.