Betty Garrett, Comic Player of Movie Musicals and Broadway, Dies at 91

Obituaries   Betty Garrett, Comic Player of Movie Musicals and Broadway, Dies at 91
Betty Garrett, a comedic musical comedy actress whose brief film career, though curtailed by the McCarthy-era blacklist, nonetheless left a lasting impression on movie-musical fans, died in Los Angeles at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center on Feb. 12. She was 91.

Betty Garrett
Betty Garrett

During two short years, 1948 to 1949, Ms. Garrett starred in series of notable pictures at the movie musical powerhouse studio, M-G-M. She was in "Words and Music," the fictionalized story of the songwriting partnership of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart; played opposite Frank Sinatra, Esther Williams and Gene Kelly in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"; and appeared alongside Williams again in "Neptune's Daughter," in which she and Red Skelton sang the Oscar-winning song "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

But to most film buffs, she is remembered as the man-hungry taxi driver Brunhilde Esterhazy, who spentmuch of the indelible 1949 film version of the Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical "On the Town" trying to get naive sailor, played by Frank Sinatra, alone in a room. Along with co-stars Ann Miller, who portrayed another wolfish female, the rubber-faced, bright-eyed, brassy-voiced Ms. Garrett provided many of the hit film's laughs, and paired with Sinatra in the comic number "Come Up to My Place" and the duet (written for the film) "You're Awful" (music by Rogers Edens), the latter performed at the top of the Empire State Building (or the soundstage version of it).

Ms. Garrett and husband, actor Larry Parks, took a detour to London shortly after to capitalize on the popularity of Parks' hit film "The Jolson Story." They appeared together at the London Palladium and then toured the U.K. several times with their nightclub act. Ms. Garrett returned to Hollywood for what became her last significant film, "My Sister Eileen." She took the place of Judy Holliday, who had dropped out. Ms. Garrett portrayed the sensible, cynical Ruth Sherwood, sister of the beautiful and sought-after Eileen, in the adaptation of the Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov play, which was in turn adapted from Ruth McKenney's famous New Yorker stories. (The same material led to the musical Wonderful Town.)

The careers of Ms. Garrett and her husband, who were married in 1944, were severely harmed by the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Both had been affiliated with the Communist Party in the 1940s. In 1951, Parks was called to testify and earned the ire of many of his colleagues by naming names. Despite having cooperated, he was blacklisted by Hollywood. Ms. Garrett was never called to testify, very likely because she was pregnant at the time, and her interrogators feared she wouldn't make a good witness. But M-G-M dropped her, and she also found it difficult finding film work thereafter.

"It was a dark period, a foolish, foolish period," Garrett said in 1998. "It destroyed a lot of lives and ruined my husband's career." Ms. Garrett and Parks remained married until his death in 1975. She had two sons, Garrett and Andrew. Betty Garrett was born on May 23, 1919, in St. Joseph, MO. Shortly after, her family moved to Seattle. Her childhood was difficult. Her father was traveling salesman with a drinking problem. When her parents divorced, she and her mother, Octavia, lived in a series of residential hotels to save on money. Octavia remarried and the family moved to Regina, Saskatchewan. That marriage, too, dissolved, and mother and daughter returned to Seattle. At the Annie Wright School in Tacoma, young Betty often organized musical productions and was encouraged by the bishop there to try acting as a career. A friend of the family arranged an audition with Martha Graham, who recommended her for a scholarship at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York.

Both Ms. Garrett and her mother arrived in New York in 1936. Working with Sandy Meisner, Lehman Engel and Margaret Webster, she concentrated on serious roles, feeling she was destined to be a dramatic actress. Performing in the Catskills during the summer, she was exposed to the talents of Danny Kaye, Imogene Coca and her future "On the Town" co-star Jules Munshin. Among various engagements, she performed with Martha Graham's dance company at Carnegie Hall, sang at the Village Vanguard, briefly joined Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre and acted in satirical revues in Brooklyn.

She made her Broadway debut in 1942 in the revue Of V We Sing. Producer Mike Todd saw it and cast her as an understudy to Ethel Merman in Cole Porter's Something for the Boys in 1943. Jackpot and Laffing Room Only followed, along with the Harold Rome revue Call Me Mister. The latter won her the Donaldson Award and an Al Hirschfeld caricature in the New York Times. Louis B. Mayer came calling and signed her to a one-year movie contract.

Following her foray into Hollywood, Ms. Garrett and Parks replaced Judy Holliday and Sydney Chaplin in the Broadway production of Bells Are Ringing. In the coming years, she would return to Broadway in Beg, Borrow or Steal, Spoon River Anthology, A Girl Could Get Lucky and The Supporting Cast, though none of these proved to be hits.

The actress found renewed fame on television in the 1970s, first as Archie Bunker's opinionated neighbor Irene Lorenzo on "All in the Family" (the show's creator, Norman Lear, has been a press agent on Call Me Mister) and then as Edna Babish, the friendly landlady of the two lead characters on "Laverne and Shirley."

In 1989, she played Katie, the family maid, in the Broadway stage version of the M-G-M musical Meet Me in St. Louis. A final hurrah on Broadway came when she sang "Broadway Baby" as Hattie Walker in the 2001 revival of Follies. She never lost her zest for performing. In 2008, she appeared in the Noel Coward play Waiting in the Wings in Los Angeles.

From the 1980s on, she often appeared in an autobiographical one-woman show called Betty Garrett and other songs. In one version, she sang the Sondheim anthem of longevity, "I'm Still Here," adding the comment, "I did everything that's mentioned in that song, except stand in a breadline."

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