from Funny Face to Eloise
Kay Thompson
PART TWO: BEHIND THE SCENES BEHIND THE SCENES ON FASHION SHOWS: 1957 French Fortnight at Neiman-Marcus (Neiman- Marcus Department Store, Dallas, Texas) Creative consultant and guest of honor: Kay Thompson. Because of Kay Thompson’s long-standing personal friendship with Stanley Marcus (owner of Neiman-Marcus department stores) and his wife Billie (whom Kay had known since they were sorority sisters in St. Louis), Kay’s book Eloise in Paris (Simon & Schuster, 1957), included the following quote: “My mother has a charge account at Neiman-Marcus.” This little mention helped instigate a grand annual tradition that would reverberate for the next thirty years. As it happened, 1957 marked the store’s fiftieth anniversary, and to commemorate this milestone, Stanley Marcus wanted to organize a cause célèbre in October, a fête that would attract consumer and media attention. In his search for a theme, Kay’s timely love affair with France rubbed off, because the extravaganza evolved into “The French Fortnight” with Thompson, “star of Funny Face and author of Eloise in Paris,” crowned “Special Guest of Honor” and behind- the-scenes “Creative Consultant.” To salute the event, Coco Chanel and a hundred other dignitaries from Paris were flown in on a chartered Air France plane, the first international flight to land at the Dallas Airport. The October 1, 1957, issues of both the American and French editions of Vogue devoted thirty-five pages to the bazaar, with full-page ads from A to Z representing name-brand sponsors: “A is for Air France,” “B is for Baccarat,” “C is for Chanel,” “D is for Dior,” etc. Time called the $400,000 event “the biggest birthday party ever attempted by any U.S. department store.” Amid Gallic art, decor, food, and haute couture, Eloise got her own three-dimensional in-store and window displays. Plus, fashion shows featuring the latest collections of Dior, Balmain, and Nina Ricci were upstaged by surprise intrusions of mischievous youngsters wearing Thompson’s embroidered “Je Suis Me” smocks, “Allo Cherie” aprons, and “Renault Dauphine” car coats (from the Kay Thompson / Eloise Collection). The Denton Record-Chronicle reported, “Kay Thompson was in the audience and made entertaining comments when little girls modeling Eloise dresses appeared.” Beyond everyone’s wildest expectations, the expo drew World’s Fair–like hordes of tourists and opinion makers from around the globe. For the next thirty years, a different country was honored by Neiman-Marcus during its annual Fortnight celebrations. Ken Scott’s “Burn the Bra and Bury the Girdle” Fashion Show (Rome, Italy, 1968) Creative consultant, music director, music arranger, vocal arranger, accompanist: Kay Thompson. Thompson opened the show as a celebrity runway model in a “slinky black and white print with a long, black ostrich boa,” then swooped over to a white grand piano and performed “30s songs while the models paraded.” Le Grand Divertissement à Versailles (Queen’s Theatre, Palace of Versailles, France, 11/28/1973) Director, choreographer, coach, vocal arranger, music supervisor, pre-recording accompanist and choral singer: Kay Thompson. Fashion spectacular headlined by Liza Minnelli, featuring the new collections of American designers Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, and Halston. Celebrity models included Marisa Berenson (costar of Cabaret), Baby Jane Holzer (Andy Warhol’s very first “superstar”), Elsa Peretti (the jewelry designer), and China Machado (former Avedon muse and fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar). Thompson borrowed Paramount’s original multi- track recording of “Bonjour, Paris!” from Funny Face and replaced the vocals with Liza Minnelli and a female chorus that included Kay. For the finale, Liza would sing “Cabaret,” followed by “Au Revoir, Paris,” a cover version of the song Thompson had composed for Andy Williams’ 1960 album, Under Paris Skies—with Kay on keyboard and Max Hamlisch (father of Marvin) playing the accordion. Critics were unanimous in their praise of Thompson and declared this show to be the single most important fashion event of the twentieth century, for the first time legitimizing American designers on the world fashion stage as a force to be reckoned with. In 1993, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a twentieth-anniversary tribute to the Versailles spectacular as “the moment American fashion came of age.” The show was also chronicled in Deborah Riley Draper’s documentary Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution (2012).   Bergdorf Goodman Grand Opening “Exhibition on Escalators” Fashion Spectacular (Bergdorf Goodman, White Plains, New York, 9/21/1974) Director, choreographer, music supervisor: Kay Thompson. Thompson staged a Rube Goldberg–inspired “Exhibition on Escalators” for the opening of Bergdorf Goodman in White Plains, New York, showcasing collections by Halston, Bill Blass, James Galanos, Norman Norell, Pauline Trigère, Donald Brooks, and Kenneth Jay Lane—with Hubert de Givenchy, Prince Egon von Fürstenberg, New York governor Malcolm Wilson, and Pat Kennedy Lawford on hand as guests of honor. The kick-off was underscored with Burt Bacharach’s exotic Bollywood ballet, “Sir James’ Trip to Find Mata,” from the soundtrack to Casino Royale. As the New York Times reported, “Twenty-five models, choreographed by Kay Thompson, glided, twirled, reclined and danced as they went up and down” a labyrinth of cascading escalators in a vast three-story atrium under a moonlit skylight. “I wanted it to look like a waterfall of beautiful girls,” Kay explained in the New York Post. “Miss Thompson,” the New York Times added, “crouched at the bottom and using her hands as a baton to orchestrate the movements, was, to many, a sight equally as mesmerizing as the show.” Fashion columnist Eugenia Sheppard reported, “Surrounding Kay was a team of Otis workmen who were making the escalators do tricks.” It was Barnum & Bailey meets Busby Berkeley with Thompson as Houdini. Or, as the New York Times concluded, simply a “smasheroo.” Fashion Show of Donna Karan’s Debut Collection for Anne Klein (New York, 5/1974) Director, choreographer, music supervisor: Kay Thompson. When Anne Klein died of cancer in 1974, her assistant, Donna Karan, became head designer for the company and chose Thompson to direct the presentation of her first collection. When Kay decided to show the tropical resort wear in a grimy, industrial warehouse setting, some of the Klein establishment feared she’d lost all her marbles, but critics and buyers went positively nuts over the unusual juxtaposition. At the conclusion of the show, amid screams of approval, Thompson gave Karan a great big bear hug and said, “You just went out and came back a star.” When Thompson’s name was mentioned to Donna Karan in 2008, her eyes lit up and she exclaimed, “Oh my God, Kay! She was so important in my life. She meant so much to me and I wouldn’t be here today without her. After Anne passed away, Kay was the one who helped me produce my first show for Anne Klein. I was just 25-years-old and Kay was my total inspiration through the best of times and the worst of times. She was motherly, delicious, and made it all happen. She was the creative Mom who stood by my side through the whole process. I couldn't have done it without her.” In Women’s Wear Daily, 10/24/1974, Catherine Bigwood wrote: “Now Ms. Thompson is known around town as the lady who turns predictable fashion show formats into unexpected theatrical events. She stages her sophisticated, stylized, slick tableaus in the most unlikely places—on moving escalators in suburbia (Bergdorf Goodman’s White Plains opening), in a shipping room (Anne Klein’s resort collection) and in an ancient gold and blue French theater (Versailles)—and even the most jaded fashion show habitués are impressed.”
Think Pink! Think Pink! Think Pink!
Liza Minnelli and Kay Thompson, Palace of Versailles, 1973
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