Johnnie Ray: Remembering Marilyn’s ‘Show Business’ Co-Star

In There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), Johnnie Ray played the eldest son of the Travelling Donahues, a clan of stage stars, who leaves the family vocation to join the priesthood. He has one scene with Marilyn, and they reunite for the film’s finale. It’s unclear how well they knew each other, but in photos from the set, they seem quite friendly. Marilyn was something of an outsider among the cast of seasoned professionals, and maybe Johnnie Ray was as well. (They’re pictured above at Ciro’s restaurant in Los Angeles in 1953, a year before working together.)

Marilyn with Ethel Merman and Johnnie Ray in There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954)

Although Johnnie Ray never made another movie, he was one of the most popular singers of the early 1950s, and a teen idol whose good looks and emotive style bridged the gap between Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. He’s remembered in the first verse of ‘Come On Eileen,’ the 1985 chart-topper by Dexy’s Midnight Runners:

“Poor old Johnnie RaySounded sad upon the radioMoved a million hearts in monoOur mothers criedSang along, who’d blame them?”

Now Johnnie Ray is the subject of a new 30-minute TV documentary which airs at 9 pm on October 24 in his home state, as Kristi Turnquist reports for The Oregonian. It can also be streamed for free here.

“Though he was a star in the 1950s, Ray isn’t as well remembered today, which makes OPB’s ‘Oregon Experience’ documentary, Johnnie Ray, a compelling reminder of Ray’s successes and challenges.

Written and produced by Kami Horton, Johnnie Ray uses footage from early TV appearances, vintage photos and recordings to paint a picture of a singer whose intensely physical performance style and full-throated renditions of such hits as ‘Cry’ and ‘The Little White Cloud That Cried’ briefly made him a sensation.

Raised on a farm near Dallas, Oregon, Ray later moved to Portland, where he sang on the Stars of Tomorrow radio show. Ray was hearing-impaired, and sometimes wore a hearing aid onstage. In addition to singing, Ray also wrote music, and after moving to Detroit, he performed at the Flame Showbar, a venue that featured Black musicians. Ray was heavily influenced by rhythm and blues, and the Black artists who performed at the nightclub.

During his time in Detroit, Ray was also arrested for propositioning a police officer, and pled guilty. As the documentary notes, the late 1940s wasn’t a good time to be gay or bisexual, another obstacle Ray had to contend with. Over the years, Ray also struggled with alcoholism.

But Ray’s career took off with the release of the song, ‘Cry,’ which became a big hit. Ray started appearing on TV shows such as Ed Sullivan’s The Toast of the Town, and he co-starred with Ethel Merman, Marilyn Monroe, Dan Dailey, Mitzi Gaynor and Donald O’Connor in the showbiz tale, There’s No Business Like Show Business, in 1954.

Even as cheering crowds applauded him, some critics made fun of Ray’s theatrical style as overwrought. By the end of the 1950s, his career was cooling. Ray remained popular in Australia and in England, and continued to perform, up until his final appearance, in Salem, in 1989. He died of liver failure in 1990, at the age of 63.”