Stage and film actor Sally Ann Howes, best remembered as Truly Scrumptious in the 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, died December 19 in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. She was 91.
The news was confirmed to The New York Times by Northwood Funeral Home manager John Lloyd. Howes was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance as Fiona in a 1963 revival of Brigadoon, but is best remembered as Truly Scrumptious in the 1968 movie musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Born to a theatrical family in London July 20, 1930, Ms. Howes made her professional performing debut at the young age of 13 leading the 1943 British film Thursday's Child. The performance, as a humble but talented young girl who finds herself an unwitting child star, made Ms. Howes a child star of the British cinema herself, with followup screen appearances in a number of films including Nicholas Nickleby, My Sister and I, and Anna Karenina.
Though not known for musical films, Ms. Howes was blessed with an extraordinary soprano singing voice, which led to a 1950 West End debut in The Boyfriend writer Sandy Wilson's Caprice, and a BBC TV musical adaptation of Cinderella the same year.
In 1953, she appeared in a West End production of Paint Your Wagon, a performance that led to her American career, as she told Playbill in 2007.
"I was working in England, and Lerner and Loewe came over to work on a show I was doing, which was their Paint Your Wagon, which I did with my father. We were both starring in it. My father came out of retirement to do it. Therefore, I met them, and then when Julie [Andrews] was leaving [the Broadway cast of My Fair Lady], they offered me to take over from her. That's how I met them, and that's how it happened. . . . At the same time, I got an invitation to go to the Old Vic by Tyrone Guthrie, so I didn't know which path to take. Anyway, I chose My Fair Lady, and so that was my first show over here."
My Fair Lady took Ms. Howe's fame to another level, appearing on the cover of Time in 1958 to celebrate her arrival in the hit musical. The same year, Ms. Howe entered her first marriage, to Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game composer Richard Adler. In December 1958, she starred in a TV musical adaptation of O Henry's The Gift of the Magi, which was crafted specifically for her by Adler.
She became a fixture on TV variety and chat shows in the '60s, even hosting her own in Britain following her stint on Broadway in My Fair Lady. She returned to Broadway in 1961 to star in Adler's Kwamina, a musical that proved to be short-lived at just 32 performances due to the then-controversial subject matter of interracial relationships. In 1963, Ms. Howes starred as Fiona in the aforementioned revival of Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon, a role she reprised in a 1966 TV adaptation co-starring Robert Goulet and many cast members from the '63 Broadway production. She also starred opposite Robert Alda in 1964's What Makes Sammy Run?, which enjoyed a modest success on Broadway with a run of 540 performances.
Ms. Howes would give perhaps her best remembered performance in the 1968 musical film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, playing the glamorous and aristocratic Truly Scrumptious opposite Dick Van Dyke.
Though well received, the performance would become one of her final major film roles, with Ms. Howes spending much of the latter part of her career on the stage. She spent the '70s as one of the leading Rodgers and Hammerstein ingénues, touring the U.K. in The King and I and the U.S. in The Sound of Music. She also became a fixture in the world of operetta, starring in productions of Blossom Time, The Great Waltz, and The Merry Widow.
Her experience in operetta and musical theatre would collide in a 1990 production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music at New York City Opera, the work's first major New York production since its Broadway debut in 1973. Starring as Desiree, Ms. Howes' lyrical soprano voice brought a decidedly different sound to a role famously written around original Broadway cast member Glynis Johns' relatively limited vocal abilities. Singing the character's iconic "Send in the Clowns" in a dramatically higher key than originally written, Ms. Howes showed that the material could be just as effective being delivered by a more classically trained voice. The production was a huge hit for City Opera and was broadcast on TV on PBS's Live From Lincoln Center. Ms. Howes reprised her performance when the company re-mounted the production the following season.
Though she would occasionally take film roles and voice over-narration work, Ms. Howes spent much of the late '90s and early 2000s semi-retired, mostly performing at benefit concerts. She made a brief Broadway return in 2000, playing Aunt Julia Morkin in a short-lived musical adaptation of James Joyce's The Dead. In 2007, Ms. Howe returned to the musical that made her famous, playing Mrs. Higgins in a U.S. tour of My Fair Lady. She talked to Playbill about playing the role during the production's stop in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
"I think she's an extraordinarily interesting woman. The reason that she becomes so attached to Eliza and the friendship [that occurs] when Eliza goes to Mrs. Higgins' house is because they have a sort of kindred spirit in the fact that it's actually that time when suffragettes were beginning to have their voice. I think it was an interesting point of view, certainly if you read Shaw's notes: Eliza is on the brink of it really, but she doesn't have the education to know what she's actually doing. But she is changing. She wants to have her own say in the world. Therefore, she very cleverly finds the professor and vise versa, and she becomes sort of under the heading of a type of suffragette, which Mrs. Higgins recognizes, and I think that's their kindred spirit. I think also Mrs. Higgins is a woman who doesn't take any nonsense, and it's the only woman that obviously has dominated her son a great deal."
Ms. Howes adopted Adler's children from a previous marriage—Christopher, who would become a Broadway lyricist before passing away due to AIDS-related cancer in 1984; and Andrew—following their mother's death in 1964. The marriage ended in divorce in 1966, though she remained close with her step children. Ms. Howes remarried in 1972 to Douglas Rae. The two remained married until his death earlier this year.