On February 25, 2017, Genevieve Grazis’ son, Jeffrey Sliakis, and I finally met up in Burbank, California- the town he grew up in, the town where his mother lived for the rest of her life. Sitting at a picnic bench in Verdugo Mountain Park, shivering from the unusually cold weather, we talked about his mother.
Much of what we discussed, her swing dancing and film career, are already chronicled on Swungover* . What I learned that day is who she was to her family. They called her Jean, daughter, wife, mom.
She was a devoted daughter, born Genevieve Teresa Grazis, who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska during the Great Depression. Her parents were Lithuanian immigrants and farmers. Despite the Depression they had enough for themselves and enough to share. One of her fondest memories is of the weekly trips into town, when her father hitched the horse to the wagon full of vegetables, eggs, meat and bread. There, she and her mother would hand out the food to whoever needed it. They never took money, even though some tried to offer it. She passed this lesson on to her children- always help those who have less.
Her family moved to Hollywood between 1935- 1938, where her father worked as a gardener. Her parents supported her love of dance, enrolling her in classes while in High School. It wasn’t long before she was dancing Swing, entering and winning in competitions from Hollywood to Venice. The earliest footage we have of her is from the fall of 1938, dancing with Jack Helwig in the “Venice Beach Clip”, as it has become known. Then, the studios took notice and she started calling herself Jenny Gray. She and Jack were in “Naughty But Nice” in 1939. By 1940 she met Johnny Duncan on the set of “Too Many Girls”. They remained dance partners, appearing in a number of films throughout the years during World War II.
Genevieve’s parents were best friends with another Lithuanian immigrant family by the name of Sliakis. While their son Joseph was away serving in the military during the war, they encouraged her to write to him. Their correspondence continued until he came home six months after the war ended, and despite Johnny Duncan being in love with her, George Montgomery’s proposal, and the interest of numerous other actors, producers and directors, she married Joseph in 1948. He didn’t want her to continue to work in film, and to be fair it sounded like she had some close calls with casting directors. They settled down in Burbank and raised three children, Christine, Timothy and Jeffrey.
Jeffrey said that if there was one thing he would like people to know about her, it’s that “she was just as great a mom as she was a dancer”. She loved children and worked as a pre-school administrator until she was 85 years old. She passed away in 2009.
All that he has now of her dancing days are some precious personal photos and a few costumes. He gave me digital copies of the photos and asked me to take care of them. I have created a gallery for you to enjoy, but please link back to this blog if you copy one, and please ask for permission to reproduce them in quantity or for profit. I want to honor his mother’s legacy and ensure that these are used in the most respectful way.
As we ended our interview and started saying our good-byes, he asked if I would like to have something that belonged to his mother- an old cedar chest. I was, of course, honored. Later that week, as we arranged to meet and pick up the chest, he mentioned that there were a few things he put in the chest as well, things that he thought I would take good care of, things that might one day go in a museum.
What was in the cedar chest?