Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Betty, It's Cold Outside

Betty Garrett

On television, she lived next door to the Bunkers for a couple of years (a gig she inherited from Sada Thompson, who quit the show after one episode), and was Laverne's stepmother in Laverne and Shirley's later years, a performance for which she won the Golden Globe. She was nominated for an Emmy for a guest spot on Becker in 2003, losing to Christina Applegate's turn on Friends.

But she considered her brief time as a player on the MGM lot to be the highlight of her long career. She had a goofy chemistry with a young Frank Sinatra in two films, one of which, On The Town, is considered a classic of the genre.

Her film career was cut short by the House Un-American Activities Committee, when her husband, Oscar nominee Larry Parks (The Jolson Story), was forced to name some names. Our Betty ducked her interrogation by being 9 months pregnant; pictures of a pregnant woman being hauled before the committee were deemed too unseemly. Nevertheless, her career was severely damaged by the experience (and her husband's was demolished); they survived the blacklist by performing a nightclub act, and by forming a construction company.

Betty's Broadway career included Call Me Mister and the 2001 revival of Follies (she sang "Broadway Baby"). She and her husband replaced the stars of the original Bells Are Ringing in 1956, and in 1989, Betty was hoofing it up in a fundraiser for AIDS when she was spotted by a producer who thought she was dead. The charity gig landed her a role in Meet Me In St. Louis, which ran for a year or so on Broadway.

That charity gig, the Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event (known in L.A. as S.T.A.G.E.), is an ongoing annual concert which I attended many times when I lived in California. Betty was always one of the co-chairs of the evening, which gathers dozens of Hollywood types together to sing songs in tribute to some composer or other, and Garrett always contributed a zippy comic tune to the proceedings. I know she will be sorely missed at this year's gala next month.

Betty introduced this week's Dance Party in Neptune's Daughter, opposite the excruciating Red Skelton. Frank Loesser wrote the tune for himself and his first wife, who performed the ditty at parties in New York before he sold it to the movies. His wife was furious (she considered it their song), but perhaps she calmed down a bit when it won the Oscar.

Betty Garrett, at age 91, was in good health before her sudden death last weekend (a few days earlier, she had even taught her usual musical comedy class at Theatre West, an organization she helped found). I waited on Betty several times when I worked as a waiter in Los Angeles, and she was always charming and likable. She'll be missed.