Celeste and I

Photo courtesy of Rolf Kristian Stang Rolf Kristian Stang and Celeste Holm, who were inducted into the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame in 1998 and 1995 respectively, are pictured at the annual Ugly Duckling Birthday Party, telling stories by Hans Christian Andersen.

Rolf Kristian Stang reflects on the life of award-winning actress Celeste Holm

Rolf Kristian Stang

New York, N.Y.

On July 15, award-winning actress Celeste Holm passed away in her Manhattan home. Her storied career on the stage, screen and TV spanned seven decades, and her life was celebrated in the New York Times and Time Magazine obituaries. As with other great icons in the theater before, the lights on Broadway dimmed, for one minute, in her honor on July 20 at 8 p.m.

Celeste Holm was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on April 29, 1917 to Theodor Holm, a Norwegian businessman for Lloyd’s of London, and Jean Parke Holm, a portrait artist and author. Holm grew up in Chicago and traveled around the world with her parents, and she studied drama at the University of Chicago before becoming a stage actress in New York.

The Times concentrates on her legacy of films and stage with distinguished co-stars: “Gentleman’s Agreement” with Gregory Peck, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress; “Snake Pit” with Olivia de Havilland; “All About Eve” with Bette Davis; “High Society” with Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly; “Three Men and a Baby” with Ted Danson and Tom Selleck.

She appeared in eight Broadway musicals. She played and sang the part of Ado Annie in the original production of “Oklahoma!” which brought her to public attention, as well as “The King and I” and Mame. In 1991, at the age of 73, she had a fling with John Barrymore’s ghost in “I Hate Hamlet” with Nicol Williamson.

Holm was a regular guest star on many TV shows including “Falcon Crest,” “Archie Bunker’s Place” and was a star in the CBS series “Promised Land.” She made a luminous Fairy Godmother in “Cinderella.”

In addition to her career, Holm was an outspoken advocate for the community. In the 1970s, it was she who was so effective in raising money for new sails for the tall-masted training ship, the Christian Radich. New York knew her as a strong impetus for cleaning up and transforming 42nd Street and spearheaded the grassroots drive to restore Central Park, which had been neglected due to the city’s financial crises in the 1980s.

Celeste Holm

A promotional photo of Celeste Holm taken in 1947

Fifty years ago, Celeste and I were both on the Ed Sullivan Show. “Oklahoma!” was celebrated for being the first American musical done abroad and in that country’s language; the country was Sweden. Celeste sang her unsurpassable “Cain’t Say No” in its delicious English, but I was there from a Scandinavian college in the Midwest to sing “O, What a Beautiful Morning” – in Swedish. During rehearsal, she asked that I come over to where she was sitting. “So. You’re Swedish-American!” When I told her I was Norwegian-American, our friendship of a half-century began. You see, while she was a person of many, many facets, she was tied strongly to her Norwegian roots.

After college, I moved to New York and we picked up where we left off. We then did many things together, some of them with her father Theodor. Born in Norway, this tall, elegant gentleman lived to be 95. His father and grandfather, of whom Celeste was proud, were the Pastors of the well-known Jæren parish church in the southwest of the country, Hå Prestegård. Today, it’s on the registry of Norway’s historic places. Celeste was often there visiting relatives. She was amazed to experience the Norwegian three-day-long country weddings.

Once, as we headed to Garden City, Long Island, where Celeste would be interviewed at a seminar for future-journalist high school seniors, she talked about it being an opportunity to interject some serious thoughts into her answers for these young people. “But,” she said, “there has to be humor, too.” She told me, in a story she’d often repeat, of an interview with the great English TV and stage performer Hermione Gingold, which took place in in the comedienne’s Manhattan apartment.  It seems, there, as the interview ended, seeing her bedroom with its only-a-little-larger-than-twin-sized bed, the comedienne was asked, “Where does Mr. Gingold sleep?”  Without skipping a beat, she replied, “In London!”

Celeste was at her best that day. Beyond that, in reaction to the adoration of those young people, she made it very clear to them that she was certainly not perfect, far from it. There have been no scandals, one said. “That’s because I chose my parents well and luck, I guess. That’s been true, at least, so far!” she added. Like Hermione, Celeste was both inspiringly serious and refreshingly funny on such occasions.

One last thing, in 1982, we were asked to perform for a fundraiser in Houston, Texas. The Norwegians were suddenly in the oil business making working deals with Texas petroleum-industry experts. His Majesty King Olav V would be there and a banquet with him present would be held to raise money to build a new Norwegian Seamen’s Church in the Houston harbor.

We rehearsed an interesting and varied program… so, I thought. A few nights before we were to leave she called me… at 1:30 a.m.  In fact, through all the years, when she never called it was never earlier than about 12:30. “Rolf, we’re gonna bomb in Houston, I’m sure. I feel it in my bones. Please come up with something novel for us to do.”

Luckily, the next night, at the usual 3 a.m., when all my creative ideas come, I had it! Next morning, I called Celeste and told her we would sing “The Yellow Rose of Texas” in a Norwegian translation I’d do.  “Great!” said she. We sang it in as a kind of moony-croony duet. She was hilarious, head on my shoulder looking a bit sad, but also looked up hopefully towards heaven.

The king, whom we could both see, looked as if he recognized the song, but had to ask what it was. Suddenly, he threw his head back in loud laughter, slapping his hand on the table. The audience was figuring it out too and we had to sing it three times!  After we were thanked by the king himself, Celeste, usually the eloquent speaker of English, turned to me to say in that very special New York way she’d use now and then:  “Well, ya pulled us oud’a dat one!”

Doing things with Celeste was always a pleasure and a privilege and, somehow, always unique. Talk about a wonderful friend and great, great company!

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 17, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

Avatar photo

Rolf Kristian Stang

Rolf Kristian Stang is an American vocalist, educator, actor, advertising executive, and writer. He has been the beloved Hans Christian Andersen storyteller at NYC's Central Park for over 25 years. He was decorated as a knight with the St. Olav medal by King Harald V of Norway, has been named to the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame, and was the recipient of the Sons of Norway Leif Eriksson Citation in the millennium year 2000.