MAXINE GRAY FORD / ENTERTAINER
Glamorous star shone as bright as any in her era
Maxine Gray Ford was a star on the mainland, but Shirley Madej Sax's fondest memories of her longtime friend have nothing to do with big-band concerts or the heyday of network radio in the 1930s and '40s.
"She'd bought a home over here (in Kailua, in 1958), but we had no furniture because it took a month to get over here (and) we had no food to eat, hardly. We survived off the bananas and the papayas, and her son, Jerry, would climb the coconut trees ... and we had a ball!"
Ford, a Hawaii resident for 48 years, died in her sleep at the age of 92 on July 17. She is survived by her daughter, Marcia Gray Keller, her son, Jerry Ford, five grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. A private memorial service was held July 22.
It was a low-profile finale to an eventful life.
Ford sang for Webley Edwards on "Hawaii Calls," and with Chick Floyd, Alfred Apaka, Ed Kenney and the Del Courtney Orchestra, among others. On the radio she was the on-air partner of Sax's husband, the late Ted Sax.
But it was stardom on the mainland for which Ford will be most remembered, Sax says.
"The thing she was most famous for was singing at the Palladium and the Paramount Theatre in New York. Anyone who was anyone performed there -- Bob Hope and all the movie stars."
Ford became so popular during her long-running engagement in the Starlight Room at the Waldorf Astoria in New York that she lived in the hotel's penthouse for several years.
"I came upon one page (in her scrapbook) that floored me. It was a full-size newspaper page on which there were situated eight 3-inch circles. In those circles were movie stars: Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, Jean Harlow, Yvonne DiCarlo and several other great stars. But in the center, sprawled across the page in a satin gown with orchids in her hair was a full-size picture of Maxine -- the next, big, up-and-coming star."
Sax says it didn't stop there.
"Her stardom continued to grow as she became 'America's Sweetheart' across the U.S., from the Pantages Theater and the Coconut Grove in Hollywood, to the Starlight Room in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York," Sax wrote in reminiscence after Ford's death.
Ford also sang at the Brown Derby, another old-time Hollywood hot spot. She had a radio show, "California Melodies," where she was backed by David Rose and his orchestra. She also sang with Bob Crosby's orchestra.
Ford was 18 when she became the headliner of her first radio show, "The Early Bird Show at Radio Station WFAA in the Baker Hotel." There she was discovered by Lawrence Welk and was invited to become his first "Champagne Lady." Later, she moved to Chicago, where she sang with Jan Garber's band and then with Ted Weems.
Sax says Ford's life was not without tragedy. "Her one true love, Tommy Lee, who co-owned the Don Lee Broadcasting stations in California," died suddenly. She was almost killed when the canopy of a hotel where she was performing collapsed while she was on stage, and shortly afterward suffered a permanent back injury in a train wreck.
Ford came to Hawaii with her two children, the family dog and her best friend, Shirley Madej (the future Shirley Sax), for a two-month vacation after the death of her husband, Stoddard Ford, and decided to stay.
"She loved what she found here, and decided to stay where she loved it," Sax says.