Ilona Massey (Who’s Who at MGM, 1937) 🇺🇸
Hollywood is the end of the rainbow for Ilona Massey. She was born Ilona Haj-massy, the daughter of Hungarian peasant parents. A scant few years ago, she lived in a one-room Budapest apartment, with her father, mother and sister, supporting the family on her frugal chorus-girl income of sixty pengő a month, equivalent to twelve dollars. Ilona’s natural blonde beauty assured her a place in the chorus, but the equally golden soprano voice which won her fame went undiscovered, because no one had the patience or time to encourage her.
Like every other Hungarian peasant girl, Ilona learned needlework as a child. When fourteen, she became a seamstress in a tailoring establishment, but dreamed of becoming a great actress. A year later, after days of indecision and waiting, she was interviewed by the manager of the Kiraly Schinaz, Budapest’s leading opera house.
“He asked me what I could do,” Ilona said, “and I answered, truthfully, ‘Nothing’.”
Impressed by Beauty
But the manager was so impressed by Ilona’s beauty that he placed her in the chorus, where she danced for two years.
Association with famous singers made Ilona ambitious to become an opera singer. Her untrained voice aroused no enthusiasm in the manager, who told her, “Do anything you like, you may develop into a fine dancer, but never try to sing with that voice of yours.”
Rebuffed whenever she attempted to sing, Ilona took lessons secretly. She went to Vienna, Mecca of all singers.
Ilona was given unimportant roles in one of the city’s less pretentious theatres, and doubled as an understudy to the leading lady. When that actress suddenly became ill, Ilona sang Tosca. In the audience was Felix von Weingartner, manager of the Vienna State Opera House, who went back stage after the first act and offered her a contract.
Receives Big Chance
Ilona was carefully coached in minor parts, when she received her big chance. Maria Nemeth, who was to have starred in the Empress Josephine at the Varosi Schinaz, Budapest’s finest theatre, was forced to relinquish her role two days before the play was to open. She suggested Ilona for the part.
After forty-eight hours of frantic rehearsals, Ilona made her debut as an opera singer. With her parents, dressed in peasant costume, in a box, Ilona sang magnificently and her success was instantaneous.
Ilona was immediately offered the star role in a modernized version of Offenbach’s La Belle Helene, to be produced in Vienna. But also watching Ilona’s triumph was Benjamin Thau, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive. He signed her to a long-term contract.
Although she had never appeared on the screen, Ilona was given an important role the day she arrived at the studio. She made her debut as Brenda, Eleanor Powell’s companion in Rosalie, which co-stars Miss Powell and Nelson Eddy.
Greatest Discovery In Decade
The singer’s voice has been acclaimed by critics as the greatest of any discovery of the past ten years. Although she spoke no English six months ago, she has made rapid progress with the language, and speaks with a distinctive accent, similar to that of Luise Rainer.
“Ilona Massey has a vibrant and ‘alive’ quality. She also has a terrific sense of humor, and her smile is contagious.”
“I am a harder worker, because I love to work,” she says, and she proves what she says by working assiduously. Every morning she reports to the studio at five o’clock — “just to be sure that everything is right.”
Collection: Who’s Who at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1937)