Echoes of Doris Day

Pam Munter

 Someone arriving on earth the first weekend in April would surely believe she had found a small, anachronistic, countercultural colony here at the Cypress Inn in Carmel, California. There are people present from the far reaches of the planet, having migrated here for an annual weekend replenishment of spirit and nostalgia. It’s all second-hand, though. The worshipped idol won’t be making an appearance but it almost doesn’t matter. We can so easily resurrect images from a favorite film, her long-running TV sitcom or from the more than 500 recordings she made.

 Doris Day’s career is a cornerstone of motion picture history. She holds the record as the only person on the list of the top ten box office stars for ten years in a row. Only Streisand and Sinatra would subsequently achieve such conspicuous success in both films and records simultaneously. She is an icon of the 1950s, representing the innocence of a bygone era where even the social and political culture seemed to be in black and white. Shades of gray were viewed with suspicion. Doris Day and especially her films were viewed as comforting, reassuring family fare, many featuring her warm, inviting vocals.

 And now, many decades after her career has ended, her fans have come to worship at the shrine of imprinted memories, unconditional approbation of the body of work of a beloved legend and to celebrate her birthday on April 3. Most of us stay at the Cypress Inn, which the icon co-owns. It’s not only pet-friendly like the luminary but its walls are covered with fading film posters and stills from her 39 films, the last released in the mid-1960s, a half-century ago. A flat-screen TV in the bar continuously plays her movies and episodes of her TV show. This weekend, time will stand still.

 Overheard conversations are dominated by talk of her career, each contributing bits of information often gleaned from media coverage. Some eagerly and competitively proclaim their superior status. One man proudly told me, “I’m a Doris Day savant.”

 Even her birthday is fictitious. Doris MaryAnn Kappelhoff, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, was born in 1922 but she continues to maintain it was two years later. And so we have come to honor her on her 92nd birthday, not the real one. It seems oddly appropriate.

 There are nearly 150 people here, some from as far away as the U.K. and Germany. Most are 50-something women or gay men, few people of color. The isolated younger attendees belong to the older ones, not here on their own. And yet, they are all alike in many ways. There is a Stepford Wife quality to the perpetual and relentless cheerfulness and beaming faces. It resembles a provincial church social where everyone makes quick friends. There is no sadness or dismay here, no snark and no complaints. They introduce themselves, want to know where I’m from, what my connection is to Doris. More to the point, they want to tell me their own treasured Doris stories, how she has impacted their lives – how she made them happy or nourished them when they needed it most. Some are so fervent, I fight the urge to say, “Amen.”

 Most of them are latter-Day fans, from her last half dozen films in the 1960s after the game-changing sexy “Pillow Talk.” They speak lovingly of her as if they were intimate friends, frequent adjectives being “warm,” “lovely,” and “sweet.” Any critical analysis of her work is in short supply here. I spoke with a couple who effervescently spoke of her “purity” and “wholesomeness,” qualities in equally short supply in today’s coarsening culture. She’s emblematic of a simpler time, the one with inevitably happy endings.

 Doris, herself, won’t be here, though she did make a surprise appearance two years ago. Those who were there still speak in reverential tones about what it meant to them to meet her. This time, she sent a recorded message to all of us, played back over a speaker phone during the first gathering appropriately held in a church. She thanked us all for being here and for being there for her, too. “It’s all about the doggies,” she reminded us, asking for financial support for her Doris Day Animal Foundation. Her love for animals is a passion that has consumed her life these past five decades.

 Few celebrities have enjoyed her longevity and range of marketable talent. It seemed there was little she couldn’t do. Her public personage was meticulously groomed first by Warner Bros. then by her controlling and avaricious third husband and manager, Marty Melcher. The inconvenient conclusion is that much of what we admire and love about Doris is a well-crafted image, a manufactured persona. We don’t want to hear about the rough early life of easy sex on the band bus, the four dysfunctional marriages, her sometimes turbulent relationships with her son and grandson. We cling to the crystalline voice, relishing that little squeak when she got excited, the boyish-yet-seductive figure, her compelling on-screen honesty and her incredible capacity to exude an evocative warmth even on a recording. It’s like pouring warm honey over the soul. For us, it’s personal.

 For me, the weekend celebration is a poignant reminder of who I once was. I was weaned on Doris Day movies. My first film was hers, too, “Romance on the High Seas” in 1948. I fell in love with the voice, the personality and the movie magazine hype. I sat transfixed through her films countless times, bought all her records, fell completely under her spell. In fact, by the time I was 15 I had joined her church and subsequently studied the profession she portrayed in “Teacher’s Pet” – a journalist. And, yes, I became a performer, like Doris a singer and actor. As the decades wore on and life’s realities cascaded over me, I left my adulation behind – mostly. My last gasp came in a couple of tribute shows to her performed across the country and a CD done at Capitol Records. I sent one to her and received a flattering, almost gushing fan letter in return. After all those years of listening to Doris in my bedroom, now she was in her house in Carmel, listening to me.

 And so my being here in the Land of Doris is an oddly existential experience. I’ve had countless connections to her on many levels over my lifetime. As a young admirer, I considered her mine alone, an integral component of my identity. But here in the middle of all these giddy fans, I am even more dazzled by the indelible illusion she created for those of us in the emotional hinterlands. She seemed to speak and sing only to each one of us, one needy person at a time.

 There were two nights of performances here in Carmel, both given by 30- or 40-something singers. The largest was in a crowded high school auditorium, full of garrulous ambient noise. While waiting to get in, I looked for a place to get away from the cacophonous jabber. I found an isolated women’s restroom. As I entered the stall in the empty reverberating room, cutting through the silence was the familiar title track from Doris’ album, “What Every Girl Should Know.” I realized, though I hadn’t heard it in 50 years, I still knew all the words. I remained for a few more minutes, listening. Once again, we were alone.