We are in Chicago this week and were devastated to find out that our wonderful friend Betty Garrett died yesterday at the age of 91. 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 had it for the rest of her life.
When I read Betty's obituaries today and saw the date of her birth, I remembered that her birthday was 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. For 20 years I attended the S.T.A.G.E., the world’s longest running AIDS benefit, that was co-chaired by Betty. Betty’s numbers were always the highlight of the show, whether she was rollerskating across the stage (in her 80s!) or shimmying up some set piece.
In one of the shows honoring Comden and Green, we were treated to Betty singing some of her numbers from one of the best MGM musicals ever made, “On the Town.” Her 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 heard her sing at another S.T.A.G.E. benefit and which I 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!
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 her huge Broadway hit, “Call Me Mister” that opened 65 years ago. A few years ago I bought this portrait at one of the S.T.A.G.E. silent auctions. It was drawn by Betty and shows her character singing that song (which was later "cleaned up" and recorded by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters). The song parodied America's “good neighbor policy” and the South American dance craze that resulted.
Take back your Samba, ay!, your Rumba, ay!, your Conga, ay-yi-yi!
I can't keep movin', ay!, my chassis, ay!, any longer, ay-yi-yi!
Now maybe Latins, ay!, in their middles, ay!, are built stronger, ay-yi-yi!
But all this takin' to the quakin' and this makin' with the shakin' leaves me achin', ole!
Who else could sing lyrics like that? In that first movie she made ,”Big City,” Betty’s character Shoo Shoo Grady (love that name!) sang the song “Ok'l, Baby, Dok'l.” As she said in a newspaper article at the time, “I will inflict ‘Ok'l, Baby, Dok'l on the public, just as I inflicted ‘South America, Take it Away’ on them—and I hope they will not hold it against me!” We didn’t. Betty introduced so many great songs over the years, many of which are available on the CD “Betty Garrett, Star of Stage and Screen” which I listen to often and love playing for Charlie. 28 tracks, most never before released on CD, and several recorded with Larry Parks. Yippee!
I always thought it was shocking that Betty didn’t make more movies. She only made 5 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. His admission to HUAC nearly wrecked his career in Hollywood and severely damaged Betty’s as well. 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.
I feel so blessed that I got to spend time with Betty Garrett over these last 25 years. She showed us all how people can move through the aging process with dignity, grace, and true beauty. She was a doting mother and grandma and my heart goes out to the Parks family and all of Betty's loved ones. I am so grateful that Betty's image will live on in her fabulous movies but just so sad that we will no longer be able to see her here.
Sixty 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.
Betty Garrett is actually responsible for Kendall and I being together. Kendall later admitted that at first she had no intention of going out with me when we met at a wedding years ago...that is, until I mentioned in passing that Betty Garrett was my favorite MGM star!
We love you, Betty, and always will.