Betty Garrett, the wisecracking tough gal who chased Frank Sinatra around New York City so memorably in the 1949 film version of On the Town, opens Jan. 17 in the world premiere of a new play in Los Angeles, Tom Tom on a Rooftop by Daniel Keough, at Theatre West, running through Mar. 2.
The 77-year old actress/singer/dancer has maintained a career in film, TV and theatre for nearly 50 years. Dancers may remember Garrett as a principal dancer in Martha Graham's company.
Musical theatre lovers may think of her fondly on Broadway in roles such as Mary Francis in Something For the Boys, the replacement Ella Peterson in Bells are Ringing, and more recently on Broadway in Meet Me in St. Louis, in which she played a fiery Irish maid who did a jig on a table.
Cinema fans will recall her many other film appearances in features like My Sister Eileen (the basis for Wonderful Town) and Neptune's Daughter; and her countless TV appearances can still be seen on re-runs of "All in the Family" and "Laverne and Shirley," to name a few.
Now, Los Angeles audiences have the opportunity to see the legend back on stage, as part of a theatre company she helped found. In the new work by the young, Chicago native Daniel Keough, Garrett will originate the role of Eleanor, a New York City denizen living in an old tenement building with her husband and several elderly neighbors. The inhabitants gather on the rooftop and share their issues, in discussions sparked mainly by the young newlywed couple in the building across the street who neglect to pull their curtains shut. "It's a charming play and an important play. It deals with people beyond middle age (I don't like to say old age), particularly about sex," Garrett told Playbill On-Line. "They are all problems of people my age."
Thirty four years ago, Garrett joined the likes of actors Joyce Van Patten, Charles Aidman, and Sandy Kenyon, Carol Rossen, Bert Remsen, Philip Abbott and others, to form Theatre West. All hailed from New York, and, according to Garrett, felt that LA "was a desert . . .as far as theatre went. We needed a place to exercise ourselves".
Abbott, who co-stars in Tom Tom with Garrett, was the hit of TV series "The F.B.I."
Garrett said she loves working with Abbot, who has been a friend for many years. "We're so familiar with each other, we know what each is doing behind each other's back." Garrett says that she met 70 percent of her friends through Theatre West. New and young members keep joining, then, Garrett explained, their careers get busy and they leave, and then return. She refers to Theatre West as "a place to work and experiment, and a family."
Of her co-stars, Garrett says, "They're all wonderful actors." She is enthusiastic about Keough's script, and feels that he is not only competent as a playwright and director, but is also a talented designer. "He built the most magnificent set-- he is a master carpenter [Keough learned carpentry as a way to make money while developing his writing]. It really looks like one of those old apartment buildings."
Keough first exposed his writing in Theatre West's writer's workshop, for which he asked Abbott and Garrett to work on a scene, before Tom Tom was a play. They developed it further in a writer's festival. When Keough expanded Tom Tom to a full length play with four more characters, Theatre West performed it for one weekend for the public, in its work-in progress series called "Westworks." From that production, the Theatre West board voted for a full, six-week production .
When asked if she thinks Tom Tom could graduate to a bigger venue, Garrett replied, "You never know. . .we've had several things go from Theatre West to the public. We've even travelled as far as Ireland and Scotland. "
Garret travelled to New York with Theatre West's 1963 production of Spoon River Anthology, where it enjoyed a long, successful run at the Booth and then the Belasco theatres. Movies and other shows have been developed at the theatre, such as Chazz Palminteri's A Bronx Tale.
Nevertheless, Garrett, who received the 1995 L.A. Drama Critics' Circle Award for Lifetime Achievement, said she isn't relying on Tom Tom to keep her busy. "I keep working whenever I am asked. I do TV shows, if I ever got a chance to do another Broadway show I would, and naturally [I'd do] a movie."
In the meantime, Garrett keeps herself busy with STAGE (Southland Theatre Arts Goodwill Events), which is getting ready to stage it's big benefit for AIDS, held annually at the Charles Luckman Theatre on the Cal State Campus. According to Garrett, the STAGE benefit "involves every talented cabaret performer in this town, " and this year plans to include Tyne Daly, Sharon Gless, Jane Powell, Tim Curry, and Twiggy, to name a few.
Last year, STAGE's benefit was a tribute to Stephen Sondheim, and Garret entered the stage to sing "Broadway Baby" with a walker in hand. The number led into a wild tap scene, and ended with Garrett triumphantly exiting, carrying the walker over her head.
For more information or to purchase tickets to see Betty Garrett in Tom Tom on a Rooftop, running at Theatre West through Mar. 2, please refer to the Theatre West regional listing on Playbill On-Line.
--By Blair Glaser