Kendall and I went straight from Charlie's incubator at Cedars last night to the 90th birthday celebration for one of our favorite people in the world: Betty Garrett. It was a total love-fest starring her talented family and famous friends that we cried through from beginning to end. I was surprised to look at the official site for the event yesterday and find that it included a post I wrote three years ago on Betty’s birthday which I’m going to excerpt below. But first here is the opening montage we were treated to at last night’s bash for this great, great lady:
In Betty Garrett's very first film, “Big City,” young Margaret O’Brien says to her, “When you sing, you sing all over!” Truer words were never spoken. Of all the incredible stars of the MGM stock company of the 1940s and 50s (and, as Louis B. Mayer liked to say, “MGM had more stars than there are in the heavens”), Betty Garrett was my all-time favorite. Apart from her ability to act, dance, and sing anyone off the screen, she exuded an intelligence, wit, and sincerity that was quite rare among the studio manipulated stars of her day. Even though she often played man-hungry dames with a slapstick sensibility, Betty Garrett always transcended her roles and made us care far more about her characters than the screenwriters had any right to expect. She was funny and brash and had perfect comic timing, but there was always a vulnerable and sweet quality that came through and lit up the screen. You either have that quality or you don’t, in my opinion, it’s not something that can be taught or written into a script. Betty Garrett had it then and she still has it now.
Betty’s actual birthday, May 23rd, falls on the anniversary of my mother’s death. The last thing I ever gave my mother, just a few weeks before she died, was a copy of Betty's wonderful autobiography, “Betty Garrett and Other Songs,” personally inscribed to her. My mom treasured this book. She adored Betty Garrett and had the hots for Betty’s husband Larry Parks ever since she saw “The Jolson Story” at the age of 14 at the Roosevelt Theatre in downtown Chicago.
I first met Betty Garrett at Kendall’s mom’s house in Studio City in the late 1980s. She and Larry were friends of the Haileys since the 1960s when Betty starred in Kendall’s father’s autobiographical play, “Who’s Happy Now?” during the premiere season of the Mark Taper Forum. Kendall's dad Oliver worshipped Betty and when I told Kendall early on in our relationship that Betty Garrett was one of my favorite actresses, I gained a lot of points. We also knew Betty through one of her closest friends, our pal and blogging co-hort Naomi Caryl who recently celebrated Betty's 90th with her annual luncheon of lifelong girlfriends.
In my opinion "On the Town" is one of the best MGM musicals ever made. Betty's role as lady taxi driver Brunhilde Esterhazy was the first of many screen opportunities she had to chase after Frank Sinatra and Betty had some of the best songs in the film including “Come Up to My Place” and “You’re Awful (Awful Good to Look at).” In the Esther Williams vehicle, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” Betty and Frank sang the wonderful, “It’s Fate Baby, It’s Fate.” Propping up Esther Williams again in “Neptune’s Daughter,” Betty introduced one of my favorite songs ever, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which I've heard her sing live several times and always fantasized about singing with her.
I simply must go (But baby, it's cold outside)
The answer is no (But baby, it's cold outside)
This welcome has been (I'm lucky that you dropped in)
So nice and warm (Look out the window at that storm)
My sister will be suspicious (Gosh, your lips look delicious)
My brother will be there at the door (Waves upon a tropical shore)
My maiden aunt's mind is vicious (Gosh, your lips are delicious)
Well maybe just a cigarette more (Never such a blizzard before)
I've got to go home (Oh, baby, you'll freeze out there)
Say, lend me your comb (It's up to your knees out there)
You've really been grand (Your eyes are like starlight now)
But don't you see (How can you do this thing to me?)
There's bound to be talk tomorrow (Think of my lifelong sorrow)
At least there will be plenty implied (If you caught pneumonia and died)
I really can't stay (Get over that old out)
Ahh, but it's cold outside!
I bought this great caricature that Betty drew of herself at a silent auction at S.T.A.G.E., the AIDS benefit that Betty and Naomi started 25 years ago and which is still going strong. It's a drawing of her hugely successful Broadway appearance in "Call Me Mister" in 1946. After understudying Ethel Merman on Broadway and being part of Martha Graham’s dance company, Betty got famous for doing comical specialty songs, starting with “South America, Take It Away” from that play. I’ve been tormenting poor Charlie all morning with my rendition of that song which parodies America's “good neighbor policy” and the South American dance craze that resulted. Once again, YouTube won't let me upload Betty serenading my boy even though she'd be only happy to do so, so instead I will torment you with another tiny version for your viewing/listening pleasure. (I promise I won't be posting new videos every day. I have little patience for baby videos myself but I just can't help myself!) Charlie was pretty out of it today, a bit drunk on his new ability to breathe real air so he's hardly doing the samba or the mambo in the video, but I could tell by his stats that he enjoyed Betty’s hip-shaking performance.
Considering her spectacular talent, I always thought it was shocking that Betty didn’t make more movies. She only made five musicals for MGM despite being one of their most talented stars. In 1951, Larry Parks was dragged down by the House Un-American Activities Committee. While he was the first movie star to actually admit that he’d been a member of the Communist Party (between 1941 and 1945), he repudiated his involvement and explained how at the time the Party was one of the only groups trying to help the downtrodden groups in this country. But his admission to HUAC wrecked his career in Hollywood and severely damaged Betty’s as well which she spoke about last night, including their accidental face-to-face meeting with Senator Joseph McCarthy at a Las Vegas hotel. With no movie roles being offered, the Parks put together a successful nightclub act and were a huge hit at the London Palladium and elsewhere.
Most people today know Betty from one of her TV series. She played Archie Bunker’s liberal counterpart Irene Lorenzo on “All in the Family” and in my opinion she was TV’s first true feminist. While Bea Arthur’s “Maude” also sparred with bigoted Archie Bunker before getting her own series, she was often subservient to her patriarchal husband Walter. Irene Lorenzo had a loving relationship with her husband Frank (played by Vincent Gardenia) but she was always her own woman, never sacrificing her beliefs to make peace with her man and yet still being a caring spouse and a great friend to people with different beliefs. Later Betty moved over to “Laverne and Shirley” as landlady Edna Babish who ended up marrying Laverne’s father. On this show Betty got a chance to showcase her physical comedy abilities. Many of Betty's TV pals, Norman Lear, Garry Marshall, Cindy Williams, among others, were there to celebrate her last night as were some of the remaining stars of the MGM lot including one of my crushes, Andy Hardy's still lovely girlfriend Ann Rutherford.
I could go on and on about Betty Garrett but I’ll restrain myself and tell you to go read her excellent book! Today, at 90, Betty Garrett shows us all how people can move through the aging process with dignity, grace, and true beauty. She is a doting mother and grandma. Her talented sons Garrett and Andy are clones of Larry Parks and moved us to tears last night. So did her 13-year-old granddaughter Maddie who sang “My Funny Valentine” to Betty in a knockout performance that proves the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Everyone loves Betty and the large theatre was packed to the rafters. Of all those people, Kendall and I found ourselves sitting next to Peter Marshall, former host of "The Hollywood Squares" and a good friend of Charles Nelson Reilly, for whom our son is named. Charles and Peter starred together in the 1965 musical "Skyscraper" which also starred Charles' lifelong friend Julie Harris. We told him about Charlie and he told us funny stories about Charles.
Over fifty years ago, Betty told a New York Times reporter, “I’ve always thought my value as a performer was not having any claim to being great, just doing a little bit of everything. I’m certainly no Bernhardt, but I always manage to have a good time. I might even be ahead of her there!” Nicely stated, except I’d take Betty Garrett over Sarah Bernhardt any day of the week.