Saturday, February 12, 2011

Betty Garrett

Betty Garrett died this morning of natural causes at UCLA Medical Center following a brief illness. She was 91. The actress, comedienne, singer and dancer originally performed on Broadway before being signed to a film contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. While there, she appeared in several musical films before returning to Broadway and making guest appearances on several television series.

Later, she became known for the roles she played in two prominent 1970s sitcoms: Archie Bunker's liberal neighbor Irene Lorenzo in All in the Family and landlady Edna Babish in Laverne and Shirley.



After graduating from public grammar school, Garrett enrolled at the Annie Wright School in Tacoma, which she attended on a full scholarship. There was no drama department there, and she frequently organized musical productions and plays for special occasions. Following her senior year performance in Twelfth Night, the bishop urged her to pursue a career on the stage. At the same time, her mother's friend arranged an interview with Martha Graham, who was in Seattle for a concert tour, and the dancer recommended her for a scholarship at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City.


Garrett and her mother arrived in Manhattan in the summer of 1936 and Garrett began classes in September. Her teachers included Graham and Anna Sokolow for dance, Sandy Meisner for drama, Lehman Engel for music, and Margaret Webster for the Shakespearean classics, and fellow students included Daniel Mann and Richard Conte. She felt she was destined to be a dramatic actress and shied away from playing comedic roles.


During the summer months, Garrett performed in the Borscht Belt, where she had the opportunity to work with Danny Kaye, Jerome Robbins, Carol Channing, Imogene Coca, and Jules Munshin, and she was encouraged to hone her singing and dancing skills. She joined Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre as an understudy in what was to be its last stage presentation, a poorly-reviewed and short-lived production of Danton's Death that gave her the opportunity to work with Joseph Cotten, Ruth Ford, Martin Gabel, and Arlene Francis. She performed with Martha Graham's dance company at Carnegie Hall and the Alvin Theatre, sang at the Village Vanguard, and appeared in satirical and political revues staged by the Brooklyn-based Flatbush Arts Theatre, which eventually changed its name to the American Youth Theatre and relocated to Manhattan. It was during this period she joined the Communist Party and began performing at fundraisers for progressive causes.


Garrett made her Broadway debut in 1942 in the revue Of V We Sing, which closed after 76 performances but led to her being cast in the Harold Rome revue Let Freedom Sing later that year. It closed after only eight performances, but producer Mike Todd saw it and signed her to understudy Ethel Merman and play a small role in the 1943 Cole Porter musical Something for the Boys. Merman became ill during the run, allowing Garrett to play the lead for a week. During this time she was seen by producer Vinton Freedley, who cast her in Jackpot, a Vernon Duke/Howard Dietz musical also starring Nanette Fabray and Allan Jones. The show closed quickly, and Garrett began touring the country with her nightclub act.


After closing on Broadway, Laffing Room Only played extended runs in Detroit and Chicago. Garrett returned to New York and was cast in Call Me Mister, which reunited her with Harold Rome, Lehman Engel, and Jules Munshin. She won critical acclaim and the Donaldson Award for her performance, which prompted Al Hirschfeld to caricature her in the New York Times. It also led to her being signed to a one-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by Louis B. Mayer. Garrett arrived at the studio in January 1947 and made her film debut portraying nightclub performer Shoo Shoo O'Grady in Big City, directed by Norman Taurog and co-starring George Murphy. Mayer renewed her contract and she appeared in the musicals Words and Music, On the Town, Take Me Out To The Ball Game, and Neptune's Daughter in quick succession.



Garrett was born in Saint Joseph, Missouri. Shortly after her birth, her parents relocated to Seattle, Washington, where her mother, Octavia, managed the sheet music department in Sherman Clay, while her father, Curtis, worked as a traveling salesman. His alcoholism and inability to handle finances eventually led to their divorce, and Garrett and her mother lived in a series of residential hotels in order to curtail expenses. Garrett and her mother arrived in Manhattan in the summer of 1936 and Garrett began classes in September. Her teachers included Graham and Anna Sokolow for dance, Sandy Meisner for drama, Lehman Engel for music, and Margaret Webster for the Shakespearean classics, and fellow students included Daniel Mann and Richard Conte. She felt she was destined to be a dramatic actress and shied away from playing comedic roles.


During the summer months, Garrett performed in the Borscht Belt, where she had the opportunity to work with Danny Kaye, Jerome Robbins, Carol Channing, Imogene Coca, and Jules Munshin, and she was encouraged to hone her singing and dancing skills. She joined Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre as an understudy in what was to be its last stage presentation, a poorly-reviewed and short-lived production of Danton's Death that gave her the opportunity to work with Joseph Cotten, Ruth Ford, Martin Gabel, and Arlene Francis. She performed with Martha Graham's dance company at Carnegie Hall and the Alvin Theatre, sang at the Village Vanguard, and appeared in satirical and political revues staged by the Brooklyn-based Flatbush Arts Theatre, which eventually changed its name to the American Youth Theatre and relocated to Manhattan. It was during this period she joined the Communist Party and began performing at fundraisers for progressive causes.


Garrett made her Broadway debut in 1942 in the revue Of V We Sing, which closed after 76 performances but led to her being cast in the Harold Rome revue Let Freedom Sing later that year. It closed after only eight performances, but producer Mike Todd saw it and signed her to understudy Ethel Merman and play a small role in the 1943 Cole Porter musical Something for the Boys. Merman became ill during the run, allowing Garrett to play the lead for a week. During this time she was seen by producer Vinton Freedley, who cast her in Jackpot, a Vernon Duke/Howard Dietz musical also starring Nanette Fabray and Allan Jones. The show closed quickly, and Garrett began touring the country with her nightclub act. After closing on Broadway, Laffing Room Only played extended runs in Detroit and Chicago. Garrett returned to New York and was cast in Call Me Mister, which reunited her with Harold Rome, Lehman Engel, and Jules Munshin. She won critical acclaim and the Donaldson Award for her performance, which prompted Al Hirschfeld to caricature her in the New York Times. It also led to her being signed to a one-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by Louis B. Mayer. Garrett arrived at the studio in January 1947 and made her film debut portraying nightclub performer Shoo Shoo O'Grady in Big City, directed by Norman Taurog and co-starring George Murphy. Mayer renewed her contract and she appeared in the musicals Words and Music, On the Town, Take Me Out To The Ball Game, and Neptune's Daughter in quick succession.


The Jolson Story had been a huge hit in Great Britain, and Garrett and husband Larry Parks decided to capitalize on its popularity by appearing at the London Palladium and then touring the UK with their nightclub act. Its success prompted them to return to the country three times, but the increasing popularity of television eventually led to the decline of music hall entertainment. Then Garrett was cast opposite Janet Leigh and Jack Lemmon in My Sister Eileen, a 1955 musical remake of a 1942 film starring Rosalind Russell, when Judy Holliday dropped out of the project due to a contract dispute.[20] The following year, she and Parks replaced Holliday and Sydney Chaplin in the Broadway production of Bells Are Ringing during their vacation from the show. Over the next two decades, she worked sporadically, appearing on Broadway in two short-lived plays (Beg, Borrow or Steal with Parks and A Girl Could Get Lucky with Pat Hingle) and a musical adaptation of Spoon River Anthology, and making guest appearances on The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, The Lloyd Bridges Show, and The Fugitive.


In the fall of 1973, All in the Family added two new neighbors to the neighborhood. Frank Lorenzo and his feisty Irish American wife Irene. Lear had been the publicity man for Call Me Mister, All in the Family writers Bernard West and Mickey West knew Garrett from her days with the American Youth Theatre, and Jean Stapleton had been in the cast of Bells Are Ringing, so she appeared to be a front runner for the role of Irene. It went instead to Sada Thompson, but, unhappy, after filming one episode, Thompson asked to be released from her commitment, thus freeing the role for Garrett. Irene was a kind of nemesis to Archie Bunker, but she later worked with Archie at the plant driving a forklift and be paid less than the man she replaced. Garrett remained with the series from 1973 through 1975.



The following year, Garrett was performing her one-woman show Betty Garrett and Other Songs in
Westwood when she was offered the role of landlady Edna Babish in Laverne and Shirley. The character was a five-time divorcĂ©e who eventually married Laverne's father Frank. Although Garrett felt she never was given enough to do on the show, she appreciated the fact her musical talents occasionally were incorporated into the plot, and she won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Series, Miniseries or Television Film for her performance. When the series was extended beyond what had been intended to be its final season, Garrett was forced to drop out because she already had committed to performing with Sandy Dennis, Jack Gilford, Hope Lange, and Joyce Van Patten in The Supporting Cast on Broadway. The play closed after only eight performances, but returning to Laverne and Shirley was not an option, as the writers had explained Edna's disappearance by having her divorce Frank.


In the ensuing years, Garrett appeared on television in Murder, She Wrote, The Golden Girls, Harts of the West, Union Square, Boston Public, Becker (for which she was nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series), and Grey's Anatomy, among others; on stage in Plaza Suite (with Parks), And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little, and the 2001 Broadway revival of Follies. At Theatre West, which she co-founded, she directed Arthur Miller's The Price and appeared in the play Waiting in the Wings. She won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award twice, for Spoon River Anthology and Betty Garrett and Other Songs.


Garrett received a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame in 2003. On the occasion of her ninetieth birthday in 2009, she was honored at a celebration sponsored by Theatre West at the Music Box Theatre in Hollywood. In 2010, Garrett appeared alongside former two-time co-star Esther Williams during Turner Classic Movies' first annual Classic Film Festival. Their film Neptune's Daughter was screened at the pool of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, California while a Williams-inspired synchronized swimming troop, The Aqualilies, performed.

Good Night Ms. Garrett

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa

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