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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

40 Surprising Facts About Your Favorite Romantic Comedies

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Once again, Valentine’s Day is upon us—a day when the phone lines at any restaurant worth its weight in conversation hearts are as jammed up as the Hallmark aisle at your local grocery store. Who needs that hassle? Why not spend the night in, binge-watching some of your favorite romantic comedies instead? Here are 40 fun facts to get you started.

1. PRETTY WOMAN WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH DARKER.


Buena Vista Pictures

Screenwriter J.F. Lawton’s original script, which was titled 3000, wasn’t a love story—and it didn’t have a happy ending. Instead of a rom-com about two very different people finding love, it was a grittier tale about two damaged individuals who spent a week together that ends in tears and zero hope for a balcony-set reunion scene.

2. THE TITULAR CHARACTERS IN WHEN HARRY MET SALLY… WERE MODELED AFTER DIRECTOR ROB REINER AND SCREENWRITER NORA EPHRON—EXCEPT FOR THE FALLING IN LOVE PART.

Rob Reiner divorced fellow director Penny Marshall in 1981 after 10 years of marriage. When he met with Nora Ephron in the mid-'80s, he pitched a number of ideas for movies, including a comedy based on his dating experiences. Ephron agreed to write it after extensively interviewing Reiner. The two had many discussions about how men and women view sex, love, and relationships differently.

3. TITANIC’S MOST ICONIC LINE WAS IMPROVISED.


Paramount Pictures

When Leonardo DiCaprio first got up on the end of the ship in Titanic, he improvised the line, “I'm the king of the world!” Cameron liked the line so much that he kept it in the movie. Though the line would go on to be parodied countless times—including at the Oscars—it landed at #100 on the American Film Institute's list of the greatest movie quotes.

4. THE PRINCESS BRIDE WAS WRITTEN FOR THE AUTHOR'S DAUGHTERS.

William Goldman, who wrote the novel The Princess Bride in 1973 and penned the screenplay, told Entertainment Weekly in an oral history of the movie, "I had two little daughters, I think they were seven and four at the time, and I said, 'I’ll write you a story. What do you want it to be about?' One of them said 'a princess' and the other one said 'a bride.' I said, 'That’ll be the title.'"

5. TRUMAN CAPOTE WANTED MARILYN MONROE TO STAR IN BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S.

Marilyn Monroe’s advisor and acting coach, Paula Strasberg, said she shouldn’t play a “lady of the evening,” and Monroe took her advice. Capote said Paramount Pictures “double-crossed me in every way” when they cast Audrey Hepburn instead. The outspoken author also proclaimed the movie to be the “most miscast film I've ever seen.” Over time, Capote would go on to say that Tuesday Weld or Jodie Foster would be good choices to play Holly Golightly in a remake.

6. ANDIE AND DUCKIE WERE SUPPOSED TO GET TOGETHER AT THE END OF PRETTY IN PINK.


Paramount Home Entertainment

Originally, Pretty In Pink ended with Andie (Molly Ringwald) and Duckie (Jon Cryer) ending up together. But that changed when Cryer was cast. “Molly dropped the bomb that she would’ve been fine with the original ending if Robert Downey Jr. had played Duckie, but since it was me, she just couldn’t see it,” Cryer said on the film’s 2006 Everything’s Duckie DVD edition. “It was like, ‘Wow, so I’m that unattractive?’ Thanks, Mol!”

Though director Howard Deutch wanted Cryer to play Duckie, he seemed to later regret it. “What I learned was that there are no rules, in the sense that life isn’t fair,” Deutch said in You Couldn’t Ignore Me. “Duckie should have the girl and it was all built for that and it was designed for that. And I could have ended that way, had I not f*cked with one thing: I cast Jon Cryer.”

7. GHOST TURNED DEMI MOORE INTO THE HIGHEST-PAID ACTRESS AT THE TIME.

By the time Ghost was released, Moore was already famous for her roles in St. Elmo’s Fire and About Last Night..., but she wasn’t considered a bankable star. After the unexpected $200 million domestic gross of Ghost, she hit box office gold with a trifecta of other huge hits: 1992’s A Few Good Men ($141,340,178), 1993’s Indecent Proposal ($106,614,059), and 1994’s Disclosure ($83,015,089). If you add up all of Demi’s film grosses, it comes out to more than $1 billion. In 1995, she was paid an unprecedented $12.5 million to take her clothes off in Striptease. The film wasn’t a huge hit, and a few years later she traded Hollywood for Idaho.

8. BEFORE THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, KATHARINE HEPBURN SPENT A FEW YEARS AS “BOX OFFICE POISON.”

It's hard to believe given her legendary status today, but after a string of flops in the 1930s, Hepburn was considered "box office poison." That was an official designation, by the way; a 1938 survey of theater owners labeled her as such, along with such luminaries as Fred Astaire, Greta Garbo, Mae West, Joan Crawford, and Marlene Dietrich. (The theater owners weren't wrong about those stars' movies not being big sellers, though perhaps it wasn't very nice of them to publish a list like that.)

9. SOME PEOPLE WALKED OUT OF THE FIRST AMERICAN SCREENING OF FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL.

It was in Salt Lake City, Utah. The 30-person, Mormon-filled town council left the theater after witnessing the version of the opening scene with Charles saying "f**k." It was Hugh Grant’s first time seeing the entire film and he thought the walk-outs were a bad sign.

10. SAY ANYTHING’S LLOYD DOBLER WAS BASED ON CAMERON CROWE’S NEIGHBOR.


20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The writer-director was having issues writing the leading man, but became inspired when he met his Alabama neighbor, Lowell Marchant. “He was this friendly guy with a crew cut who just wanted to meet everybody he could,” Crowe told Entertainment Weekly. “He knocked on the door and said, ‘Hello, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Lowell Marchant. I am a kickboxer, and I’ll be living here for a little bit. Are you aware of the sport kickboxing? It is now a major sport covered by ESPN.’ I’d tell [executive producer James L. Brooks], ‘The character’s not coming, and there’s this f***ing guy down the way who keeps knocking on the door and he’s a kickboxer.’ And Jim’s looking at me like, ‘And you’re wondering what to write?’”

11. ANDIE MACDOWELL’S DRINK OF CHOICE IN GROUNDHOG DAY WAS FAMILIAR TO WRITER/DIRECTOR HAROLD RAMIS.

Rita drank sweet vermouth because it was Ramis’s wife’s favorite.

12. HUGH GRANT'S BLUE DOOR IN NOTTING HILL WAS WRITER RICHARD CURTIS'S BLUE DOOR.

Hugh Grant in 'Notting Hill'
Universal Pictures

The exterior of Will Thacker's (Hugh Grant) home in Notting Hillincluding the blue door—was once owned by screenwriter Richard Curtis. After the movie came out, the home's new owners—annoyed by all of the fans who came to visit the location—painted the door black. After it was sold again, the door was painted back to blue.

13. VIGGO MORTENSEN ALMOST PLAYED JAKE RYAN IN SIXTEEN CANDLES.

Viggo Mortensen and Molly Ringwald kissed during the audition, which made the future The Lord of the Rings star Ringwald's pick to play her love interest. “He made me weak in the knees," she told Access Hollywood. "He really did.” When the two co-starred in the movie Fresh Horses, Mortensen told Ringwald that he always thought he didn’t get the job because of his kissing.

14. WOODY ALLEN’S ORIGINAL IDEA FOR ANNIE HALL WAS COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. 

Although Annie Hall is now heralded as one of the most influential and inventive romantic comedies of all time, director and co-writer Woody Allen’s original mission was not to make a relationship picture. Allen and his writing partner, Marshall Brickman, instead conceived of the story as a general exploration of the main character’s life and psyche, which was to to be filled with romantic, mysterious, and fantastical subplots in equal parts.

The project, reflecting protagonist Alvy Singer’s persistent malaise, was first titled Anhedonia, a somewhat archaic psychiatric term referring to the inability to feel joy. The first cut of the movie ran about 140 minutes—almost 50 minutes longer than the final version.

15. SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE REFERENCED THE SOUP NAZI, TWO YEARS BEFORE SEINFELD DID.


TriStar Pictures, Inc.

When a writer in Meg Ryan's office was pitching a story and talked of a man that “sells the greatest soup you have ever eaten” while simultaneously doubling as “the meanest man in America,” he was talking about Ali “Al” Yeganeh, the proprietor of Soup Kitchen International. For what it’s worth, Yeganeh is from Iran, not Germany.

16. STEVE CARELL LOST 30 POUNDS FOR THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN.

Though Judd Apatow was originally "nervous about it, because I don't think comedians wanting to look good is ever good for the comedy," he gradually realized that Steve Carell being "ripped" was a good idea. Because it helped establish that Carell's character, Andy, was only a virgin because he’s shy and nervous, not because of his looks.

17. A WHOLE BUNCH OF GIRLS ARE NAMED "AMÉLIE" BECAUSE OF THE MOVIE.

Assuming, in this case, that correlation equals causation. In 2000, the year before the movie came out, there were 12 babies in England and Wales given the name Amélie. The number shot up to 250 in 2002, and by 2007, there were around 1100 new Amélies per year. The number has held steady ever since. The trend was similar in the U.S., with Amélie not among the 1000 most popular names until 2003, when it suddenly leapt to 839th place and rose from there.

18. 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU CO-WRITER KAREN MCCULLAH’S HIGH SCHOOL BOYFRIEND INSPIRED THE TITLE.


Touchstone Pictures

During a Q&A with 10 Things I Hate About You screenwriters Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith, McCullah revealed that, “The title is based on a diary entry I made in high school,” she explained. “I had a boyfriend named Anthony that I was frequently unhappy with. I made a list called 'Things I Hate About Anthony.' When Kirsten [Smith] and I decided to write this, I went through all of my high school diaries to bone up on the angsty memories, and when I told her about that list, she was like, ‘That’s our title.’” 

It turns out her ex-boyfriend likes the movie. “Anthony is very proud of that fact,” McCullah said. “We’re still friends today. And every now and then I’ll get a random phone call in the middle of night: ‘My nephew doesn’t believe that this title is about me. Tell him.’ On the phone, I’m like, ‘Yes, I hated Anthony in high school.’”

19. RICHARD LINKLATER, ETHAN HAWKE, AND JULIE DELPY KNEW CELINE AND JESSE WOULD SEE EACH OTHER AGAIN WHILE FILMING BEFORE SUNRISE.

“I always said that the movie was a litmus test for how you view romance,” Richard Linklater told The New York Times in 2004. “Some people would go: ‘It’s so clear. They will never get back together.’ People were so sure.” He said the viewer’s interpretation depends on their romantic history. Apparently Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke are romantics—they knew Celine and Jesse would come back together.

20. CAMERON CROWE BELIEVED FRIENDS WAS A RIP-OFF OF SINGLES.

Cameron Crowe was asked by Warner Bros. Television to turn Singles into a TV series about “a group of six 20-something roommates searching for love.” Crowe decided not to do that. When Friends, a Warner Bros. show, debuted in 1994, the show was so familiar looking to Crowe that he had his lawyer look into it. Apparently, just enough of the details were changed that it wouldn’t be an easy lawsuit.

21. CHER USED SONNY BONO’S FAMILY AS A REFERENCE POINT FOR MOONSTRUCK.

Cher and Nicolas Cage in 'Moonstruck' (1987)
MGM

Cher, who is part Armenian and part Cherokee, didn’t know how Italian families worked. “I didn’t come from that kind of family. I really didn’t relate exactly to it, but I had a sense of it, like a distant sense of it,” she told Good Morning America. “Not like something that you can relate to first hand. I’ve known some families like that and I got feelings of it. After a while I thought I might be able to do this.”

But her Moonstruck family reminded her of her ex-husband’s family. “It kind of reminded me of Sonny’s family,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “Everybody eating and talking and shouting—but you have such good times.”

22. ONE OF THE BIGGEST STARS IN THE WORLD SHARED BILLING WITH AN UNKNOWN IN ROMAN HOLIDAY.

Gregory Peck already had 18 films and four Oscar nominations under his belt when he was paired with Audrey Hepburn, a newcomer who’d had small roles in a handful of movies but nothing substantial. Given his status, it’s no surprise Peck’s contract called for solo top billing in the credits. But shortly after shooting began, Peck called his agent and said Hepburn’s name should appear with his above the title. The agent: “You can’t do that.” Peck: “Oh, yes I can. And if I don’t, I’m going to make a fool out of myself, because this girl is going to win the Oscar in her very first performance.” So maybe he was being pragmatic more than generous, but still. Stand-up guy, that Peck (and a bit of a prophet, too).

23. MEG RYAN DIDN'T HAVE A COMPUTER BEFORE MAKING YOU’VE GOT MAIL.

"I got my first computer when I did that movie," Meg Ryan told Vanity Fair. "I think that the company gave us a computer."

24. CLUELESS IS PART OF AN UNOFFICIAL TRILOGY.

Paul Rudd and Alicia Silverstone in 'Clueless'
Paramount Home Entertainment

Amy Heckerling is well known for her forays into coming-of-age stories; the first was her directorial debut, the beloved 1982 comedy Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Clueless came in 1995 was followed up with the Jason Biggs-fronted Loser in 2000, Each comedy not only centered on teens, but also aimed to capture the adolescent zeitgeist of its era in a way that made them accessible and cool to all ages. Obviously, some worked better than others.

25. ACTRESS ALI MACGRAW PUSHED ROBERT EVANS TO CUT HAROLD AND MAUDE’S LOVE SCENE.

Of course, her Paramount boss husband tried to oblige. Director Hal Ashby furiously objected, saying, “That’s sort of what the whole movie is about, a boy falling in love with an old woman; the sexual aspect doesn’t have to be distasteful.” About the less-than-explicit scene, Being Hal Ashby author Nick Dawson wrote, “Ashby wanted to show the beauty of young and old flesh together, something that he knew the younger generation, the hippies, the heads, the open-minded masses would dig, but Evans said it would repulse most audiences, so it had to go.” In the end, Ashby won by sneaking the footage into the film’s trailer.

26. LOVE ACTUALLY’S AIRPORT OPENING AND CLOSING WAS SHOT WITH HIDDEN CAMERAS.

The footage of passengers being welcomed and embraced by loved ones at Heathrow Airport that bookends Love Actually was shot on location with hidden cameras for a week. In the film's DVD commentary, writer-director Richard Curtis explains that when something special was caught on camera, a crewmember would race out to have its subjects sign a waiver so the moment might be included in the film. This was a fitting production device, as Curtis claims that watching the love expressed at the arrival gate of LAX is what inspired him to write the ensemble romance in the first place.

27. JACK BLACK DIDN’T WANT TO BE IN HIGH FIDELITY.

Jack Black nailed his role as High Fidelity's hyperactive and pathologically insensitive record store employee Barry—which, in fact, John Cusack and company wrote with him in mind—but the actor initially had no interest in playing the part. It was director Stephen Frears who managed to save the day, pursuing Black until he eventually agreed to join the cast.

28. MEET THE PARENTS INSPIRED A CAT TOILET-TRAINING PRODUCT.

A scene from 'Meet the Parents'
Universal Studios

Jo Lapidge and her husband, Terry, came up with the idea for Litter Kwitter—a toilet-training tool for cats—after seeing Meet the Parents. (Litter Kwitters come with plastic rings you put over the toilet seat. Gradually the hole in the rings gets bigger until the rings aren’t needed at all.) On set, though, the cats weren’t actually trained to use the toilet.

29. JULIA ROBERTS TURNED DOWN THE LEAD IN WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING.

Roberts was already flying high from the major success of Pretty Woman five years earlier, so the actress seemed like a solid pick for another charming romantic comedy about two very different people brought together by unexpected circumstances. Fortunately for Sandra Bullock, she turned down the role.

30. JULIA ROBERTS ALSO TURNED DOWN THE LEAD IN SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE.

In a 2014 interview with InStyle, the Oscar-winning actress shared that she had been "offered Sleepless in Seattle but couldn't do it," adding that, "[Meg Ryan] and Tom Hanks are just such a jewel of a fit in that. I guess what they did for that moment in time is sort of what Richard [Gere] and I were doing across town (in the 1990 film Pretty Woman), you know?"

31. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND MIGHT NOT BE FICTION MUCH LONGER. 


Focus Features

In 2014, scientists reported that they’d successfully manipulated mice’s memories, or at least the emotions associated with those memories. See, we form the informational part of our memories—the facts and events—in the hippocampus neighborhood of the brain. The emotions connected to them—how we feel about those facts and events—are stored down the road in the amygdala. Scientists messed with some mice’s amygdalae and basically reversed how they “felt” about prior lab experiences, changing an unpleasant association into a pleasant one, and vice versa.

The scientists were quick to point out that while this could be useful in erasing a person’s negative emotions about something in their past (for PTSD sufferers, for example), it would be a bad idea to actually make them forget that these events had happened. Which means they must have gotten the message of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

32. CAMERON DIAZ HAD CONCERNS OVER THE "HAIR GEL SCENE" IN THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY.

Cameron Diaz was concerned that the audience would be too disgusted over the physical gag to laugh, which could possibly ruin her acting career. With those concerns in mind, another version of the date scenes was shot without anything in her hair. Once the viewers at a test screening heartily laughed at the scene with Ted’s product in Mary’s hair, Diaz was okay with it.

33. BEN STILLER ALSO HAD PROBLEMS WITH THE SCENE.

Ben Stiller couldn’t figure out how his character wouldn’t feel what was hanging on his ear, and even went so far as to suggest that it be written somewhere that Ted had somehow lost sensitivity in his ear. He was told to stop thinking about it.

34. THE EPIC FIGHT SCENE BETWEEN HUGH GRANT AND COLIN FIRTH IN BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY WASN’T CHOREOGRAPHED.

You can thank the two actors for the hilarity of the iconic scene. In a Vulture article about the greatest fight scenes in movie history, writer Denise Martin recalled the improvised spar, writing, “No stunt coordinators. No elaborate choreography. Just a perfectly realized wimp brawl between two upper-middle-class Englishmen coming to awkward fisticuffs in front of a Greek restaurant.”

35. GHOST’S SUCCESS MADE ROMANTIC FILMS MORE VIABLE.

Summer tentpoles Die Hard 2 (starring Demi Moore’s then-hubby Bruce Willis), Total Recall, and Dick Tracy failed to claim a slot in the top five year-end box office, but romantic comedy Pretty Woman did. Like Ghost, Pretty Woman was yet another female-loved film that made a lot of money ($178 million domestic). “The success of Ghost and Pretty Woman has revitalized the romantic comedy, a genre that in recent years had become less appealing to Hollywood studios intent on making blockbuster action-adventure films,” read a 1990 article in The New York Times. In Ghost’s wake, The Bodyguard, Jerry Maguire, and Titanic all became huge hits for the romantic drama genre.

36. MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING BROKE A LOT OF RECORDS.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding made $241,438,208 in U.S. theaters, making it the highest-grossing romantic comedy in history, over $58 million ahead of What Women Want (2000). It's also the highest-grossing movie since at least 1982 to never be number one during any box office weekend. With a gross revenue (theater and home video sales) of approximately $369 million off of a $5 million production budget, it's also one of the most profitable movies ever made.

37. THE SCRIPT FOR JUNO WAS "DEEPLY PERSONAL" FOR DIABLO CODY.

Ellen Page in 'Juno'
Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Oscar-winning screenwriter based the story for Juno on her own life and wanted to tell a story that was “different” from the rest of Hollywood movies. “Juno is like a personal, emotional scavenger hunt for me," Cody told The Telegraph. "I dragged so many of my own experiences into it that I'm shocked the movie is so coherent. I managed to get every person, quirk, and object that has meaning in my life into the script. I wanted to make it deeply personal. I didn't want it to be generic."

38. THE ENDING OF LEGALLY BLONDE WAS CHANGED BECAUSE OF TEST AUDIENCES.

Initially, Legally Blonde ended with Reese Witherspoon and Luke Wilson kissing on the courthouse steps, then cutting to Elle Woods and Vivian forming a “Blonde Legal Defense Club.” Test audiences were too invested in what happened to Elle’s life to like that conclusion.

39. CHASING AMY WAS ORIGINALLY GOING TO BE A PG-13 MOVIE SET IN HIGH SCHOOL.

The studio initially suggested to Kevin Smith that he make Chasing Amy as a PG-13 high school movie. Smith thought about it for a time and wrote some scenes. Ethan Suplee was going to play one of the main characters, but then Smith changed his mind. "A week later, I was like, 'No,'" Smith told The A.V. Club. "Then the movie [Mallrats] tanked, and that sealed the deal. It was just like, that's the last movie I make that doesn't have anything on its mind."

40. BRIAN GRAZER CAME UP WITH THE IDEA FOR SPLASH WHILE DRIVING DOWN THE PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY.

One night, while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu in 1977, Brian Grazer—then 25 years old—thought about what it would be like to meet a mermaid and fall in love. For seven years, he was turned down by most Hollywood studios until he revised his pitch for Splash to be more of a love story between a man and a mermaid. Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who penned Ron Howard’s Night Shift (1982), and Bruce Jay Friedman (Stir Crazy) were the credited screenwriters for Splash. The script was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

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John P. Johnson, HBO
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Charles Dickens Wrote His Own Version of Westworld in the 1830s
John P. Johnson, HBO
John P. Johnson, HBO

Charles Dickens never fully devoted himself to science fiction, but if he had, his work might have looked something like the present-day HBO series Westworld. As The Conversation reports, the author explored a very similar premise to the show in The Mudfrog Papers, a collection of sketches that originally appeared in the magazine Bentley's Miscellany between 1837 and 1838.

In the story "Full Report of the Second Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything," a scientist describes his plan for a park where rich young men can take out their aggression on "automaton figures." In Dickens's story, the opportunity to pursue those cruel urges is the park's main appeal. The theme park in Westworld may have been founded with a slightly less cynical vision, but it has a similar outcome. Guests can live out their heroic fantasies, but if they have darker impulses, they can act on those as well.

Instead of sending guests back in time, Dickens's attraction presents visitors with a place very similar to their own home. According to the scientist's pitch, the idyllic, Victorian scene contains roads, bridges, and small villages in a walled-off space at least 10 miles wide. Each feature is designed for destruction, including cheap gas lamps made of real glass. It's populated with robot cops, cab drivers, and elderly women who, when beaten, produce “groans, mingled with entreaties for mercy, thus rendering the illusion complete, and the enjoyment perfect.”

There are no consequences for harming the hosts in Westworld, but the guests at Dickens's park are at least sent to a mock trial for their crimes. However, rather than paying for their misbehavior, the hooligans always earn the mercy of an automated judge—Dickens's allegory for how the law favors the rich and privileged in the real world.

As for the Victorian-era automatons gaining sentience and overthrowing their tormenters? Dickens never got that far. But who knows where he would have taken it given a two-season HBO deal.

[h/t The Conversation]

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Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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10 Fascinating Facts About Ella Fitzgerald
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Today marks what would have been the 101st birthday of Ella Fitzgerald, the pioneering jazz singer who helped revolutionize the genre. But the iconic songstress’s foray into the music industry was almost accidental, as she had planned to show off her dancing skills when she made her stage debut. Celebrate the birthday of the artist known as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, or just plain ol’ Lady Ella with these fascinating facts.

1. SHE WAS A JAZZ FAN FROM A YOUNG AGE.

Though she attempted to launch her career as a dancer (more on that in a moment), Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz enthusiast from a very young age. She was a fan of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, and truly idolized Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters. “She was tops at the time,” Fitzgerald said in 1988. “I was attracted to her immediately. My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it. I tried so hard to sound just like her.”

2. SHE DABBLED IN CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES AS A TEENAGER.

A photo of Ella Fitzgerald
Carl Van Vechten - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Fitzgerald’s childhood wasn’t an easy one. Her stepfather was reportedly abusive to her, and that abuse continued following the death of Fitzgerald’s mother in 1932. Eventually, to escape the violence, she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt. While she had been a great student when she was younger, it was following that move that her dedication to education faltered. Her grades dropped and she often skipped school. But she found other ways to fill her days, not all of them legal: According to The New York Times, she worked for a mafia numbers runner and served as a police lookout at a local brothel. Her illicit activities eventually landed her in an orphanage, followed by a state reformatory.

3. SHE MADE HER STAGE DEBUT AT THE APOLLO THEATER.

In the early 1930s, Fitzgerald was able to make a little pocket change from the tips she made from passersby while singing on the streets of Harlem. In 1934, she finally got the chance to step onto a real (and very famous) stage when she took part in an Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater on November 21, 1934. It was her stage debut.

The then-17-year-old managed to wow the crowd by channeling her inner Connee Boswell and belting out her renditions of “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.” She won, and took home a $25 prize. Here’s the interesting part: She entered the competition as a dancer. But when she saw that she had some stiff competition in that department, she opted to sing instead. It was the first big step toward a career in music.

4. A NURSERY RHYME HELPED HER GET THE PUBLIC’S ATTENTION.

Not long after her successful debut at the Apollo, Fitzgerald met bandleader Chick Webb. Though he was initially reluctant to hire her because of what The New York Times described as her “gawky and unkempt” appearance, her powerful voice won him over. "I thought my singing was pretty much hollering," she later said, "but Webb didn't."

Her first hit was a unique adaptation of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she helped to write based on what she described as "that old drop-the-handkerchief game I played from 6 to 7 years old on up."

5. SHE WAS PAINFULLY SHY.

Though it certainly takes a lot of courage to get up and perform in front of the world, those who knew and worked with Fitzgerald said that she was extremely shy. In Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, trumpeter Mario Bauzá—who played with Fitzgerald in Chick Webb’s orchestra—explained that “she didn't hang out much. When she got into the band, she was dedicated to her music … She was a lonely girl around New York, just kept herself to herself, for the gig."

6. SHE MADE HER FILM DEBUT IN AN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MOVIE.

As her IMDb profile attests, Fitzgerald contributed to a number of films and television series over the years, and not just to the soundtracks. She also worked as an actress on a handful of occasions (often an actress who sings), beginning with 1942’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy, a comedy-western starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

7. SHE GOT SOME HELP FROM MARILYN MONROE.

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Fitzgerald said in a 1972 interview in Ms. Magazine. “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him—and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status—that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard … After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Though it has often been reported that the club’s owner did not want to book Fitzgerald because she was black, it was later explained that his reluctance wasn’t due to Fitzgerald’s race; he apparently didn’t believe that she was “glamorous” enough for the patrons to whom he catered.

8. SHE WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN TO WIN A GRAMMY.

Ella Fitzgerald
William P. Gottlieb - LOC, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Among her many other accomplishments, in 1958 Fitzgerald became the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award. Actually, she won two awards that night: one for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, and another for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook.

9. HER FINAL PERFORMANCE WAS AT CARNEGIE HALL.

On June 27, 1991, Fitzgerald—who had, at that point, recorded more than 200 albums—performed at Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she had performed at the venue, and it ended up being her final performance.

10. SHE LOST BOTH OF HER LEGS TO DIABETES.

In her later years, Fitzgerald suffered from a number of health problems. She was hospitalized a handful of times during the 1980s for everything from respiratory problems to exhaustion. She also suffered from diabetes, which took much of her eyesight and led to her having to have both of her legs amputated below the knee in 1993. She never fully recovered from the surgery and never performed again. She passed away at her home in Beverly Hills on June 15, 1996.

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