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Sunday, February 13, 2011
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R.I.P. BETTY GARRETT (1919-2011)

I was saddened to learn this morning that Betty Garrett, the great star of stage, screen, and TV, passed away yesterday at the age of 94 after suffering an aortic aneurysm.

Garrett was one of those rare people — like, say, Jack Valenti — who happened to be a witness to and/or participant in a remarkably high number of historic events of the 20th century. She was a member of Orson Welles’s famed Mercury Theatre company, and was with him on the night that he shook up America with his infamous radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” (1938); she was Frank Sinatra’s leading lady in two of the earliest great M-G-M musical-comedies, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (1949) and “On the Town” (1949); her career was greatly hurt by the Hollywood Red Scare after her husband, the Oscar nominated actor Larry Parks, refused to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and blacklisted; she later came back and was a part of two classic TV shows, playing Archie Bunker’s liberal neighbor on “All in the Family” (from 1973-1975) and the singing landlady on “Laverne & Shirley” (from 1976-1981); and she was the beloved godmother of the Oscar winning actor Jeff Bridges and his siblings. Perhaps most remarkably, she was just as passionate about her craft at the end as she was at the beginning — in fact, she taught her regular musical-comedy class at Theatre West on Wednesday night before being stricken on Saturday. All in all, she was quite a lady.

I had the immense privilege and pleasure of interviewing Garrett at-length at her home in Studio City back on August 23, 2005, and I’d like to share with you the full transcript of our conversation.

Tell me about when you were born, where you born, and what your childhood was like…
I was born in St. Joe, Missouri, 1919. That’s eighty-six years ago. But I didn’t live there very long, because my mother and father were divorced, and my mother moved to Portland, Oregon, and then subsequently up to Seattle, Washington. She was in the music business; she was manager of the sheet music department at a big music store in Seattle called Sherman Clay. So I really grew up in a music store. After school or Saturdays all day, I’d be sitting around waiting for my mother to get through work, and I had this beautiful store to wander around in. On the top floor were all the pianos, these beautiful old Steinways and Becksteins and Mason & Hamlins. And I could go around—and the Baldwin pianos—and play on the pianos. And then the second story was all the musical instruments. And the only musical instrument I ever learned to play was the ukulele. But then, of course, there was a thing—it’s kind of interesting—it was called the Victor Theremin[1], and there were only a few people in the world who’ve sort of mastered this instrument. It’s a box with a metal rod sticking out of the top, and then on the side is another metal rod. And when you turn it on, the closer you get your fingers to that upper rod, the higher the tone. And the closer and the further away you get to side rod is the volume. And I learned to play that. It’s an eerie sound—they’ve used it sometimes in movies, like Spellbound[2], where you hear that [imitates the sound]. That’s what it sounds like. Then downstairs, where my mother worked, was the sheet music, and also the phonograph records. And I think people have just lost track of what phonograph records are. You went in and there’s this little thing that you wind, and you put this disc on it, and you lower a needle onto it, and that played songs. And I could go in—they had little booths that you could go in and try out records—and I used to go in and just play records all afternoon. But then my mother’s department was yards and yards of sheet music on stands. And the covers were like works of art. I have a collection in my closet here—I’ll show you later—of nothing but old sheet music. And my mother would demonstrate. You know, someone would come in and want to buy a song, and she would go into this room where there was a piano and play the song for them so they’d decide whether they wanted to buy it. So that was the atmosphere that I grew up in. It was really a charmed atmosphere. I loved it.

Did you often go to the movies as a child, and if you did, did you especially like any films or stars?
Well, my mother sometimes would send me down the block—I can’t imagine doing this today—but she’d send me down the block with fifty cents, and I could go into whatever movie I wanted to, which was usually within a block or two, and sit and have myself maybe some candy or something. And I saw many movies that way. My mother was a, you know, very cultured woman, so she took me to concerts and plays and movies. And we loved movies. I think, ironically, one of our favorite movies were the Jolson movies, where Jolson sang “Sonny Boy,” and my mother and I would cry. And, of course, I grew up to marry Larry Parks[3], [laughs] which is kind of funny. And I remember, as I was a very little child, my grandmother—my mother used to send me back to Missouri every summer to spend time on a farm that my father owned—and my grandmother would take me to Charlie Chaplin movies. And I did not think they were funny; they were sad to me. And when he had to eat his shoes and eat the shoelaces, I mean, I cried, and my grandmother couldn’t understand that—she thought that was very funny. I remember all of the old movies. I’m trying to think of the movie actresses that we liked, in particular, my mother and I. I’m trying to think. It’s funny, I just came across the name Kay Francis[4] the other day, and I thought, “My God, I remember seeing her years ago!” And all those kind of romantic movies my mother loved, and she would take me with her. She was a very sophisticated woman, so she didn’t, you know, try to spare me. So I got to see movies practically—at least once a week, I’d see a movie.

Were you at all affected by the Great Depression? Many who I’ve spoken with have talked about getting into the movies or acting partly out of a desire for escapism from aspects of their own lives…
I don’t think so, with me, because I look back that I had a very happy childhood. I went to boarding schools a lot because my mother worried, because she was a working woman that, you know, I wouldn’t get enough care in the daytime. And then I was always with another group of little girls. And actually what happened was, I guess, maybe because I’d been exposed to movies and plays and things like that, I was always acting out with the other little girls. I would set up scenes and we would do them. And I remember I had a kind of captive audience because I was the oldest little girl in this one little boarding school I went to. So I would just do these elaborate monologues, and they would have to sit and listen. [laughs] I don’t remember ever feeling that I had to escape into that. I just loved performing. And I still, to this day, I love communication. It’s the one thing I hold against making movies, is that you don’t have the audience. And I prefer performing in the theater because there is that communication between the actor and the audience.

Well that brings up a question I was going to ask later but I’ll pose now. Having performed in so many mediums—theater, motion pictures, and television, among them—which do you most prefer, and why?
I think I would always say the stage. As I said, there is a direct communication with the audience, and their response feeds you. And also, you do a performance from beginning to end; it has a momentum. And film is rather frustrating because sometimes you shoot the last scene first, and then sometimes in just little segments, and you don’t have that momentum to carry you through. So what you have to do, actually, is be almost more creative. You have to know what went before and you have to create that within yourself, so that when you do that little bit it carries over from what you suppose [laughs] went before. And I know my husband, Larry Parks, loved film for that reason. He said, “It takes that much more ingenuity to do.” But he used to get very nervous with stage performances. He was very good, but he would suffer so before. And I’ve never had that, so I used to say to him, “I don’t understand why you became an actor if it makes you so nervous.” [laughs] But that’s the difference to me, that lack of communication. And television is the worst of both mediums. You have an audience, but then you have to make your marks—you have to stand in a certain place, and if you’re not in that place the camera doesn’t get you. And you only have one week’s rehearsal, which is never enough. You do have the luxury of taking something over if you make a mistake, but at the same time I just never felt ready. I never felt like I was well rehearsed. I was kind of winging it all the time—I call it ‘instant acting.’ But all three mediums, I must say, I enjoyed very much. And there’s something about making a picture, particularly in those days. Most of the pictures I made took, like, nine months to make. You could have had a baby in that time. So a company gets very close over that period and you work together—it’s the same on stage, but on stage, once the rehearsals are over, you just come in every night and your daytime is, you know, your whole other life. But, on a movie, your life with these people comes from six o’clock in the morning ‘til six o’clock at night. And you just live with them and learn to love them—or hate them, but I’ve never had that experience. I’ve always been very lucky.

I understand that you won a scholarship to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. Can you talk about that institution, what you learned there, and how it affected your approach to acting—whether or not it involves Method acting, or the need to be in costume or makeup to get into the part, or to live the part off the stage or the screen, or to research what the character might have been like, and so on…
It’s a very good question. I was lucky to study with Sanford Meisner[5] and Martha Graham[6]. I went into the theater primarily as a dancer—that was my first ambition—but I slowly worked into acting and, eventually, into musicals. But I had great teachers. And it was funny, you asking that question, because several years after I graduated from the Playhouse, I ran into Sandy Meisner and he said to me—you know, he taught the Method, more or less—and he said, “I want to ask you a question. When you do musical-comedy, do you use the Method?” And I said, “Yeah. I think so. You know, it’s ingrained in me to really know what the character is and sort of what the situation is.” But it was a funny question, because I think he doubted that anybody in musical-comedy would be using the Method. But the word Method has been misused so much. There’s been so many different versions of the Method. And, to me, whatever works for an actor is what should be his method. And I kind of go back and forth—I do investigate a character, I think a lot about it, I walk around living it for a while when I’m working on it. But I do know that the minute I start to put the costume on, or the makeup, or something, I look in the mirror and then I get this revelation of who that character is. Because, to me, the external things are important. And if I’m gonna be an old lady, and I get my old lady makeup on—I don’t have to do that anymore [laughs]—but I’ll look in the mirror and go, “Oh! That’s who I am.” And that helps a lot as an actress. And I know I’ve shocked a lot of young students who swear by the Method by saying, “Sometimes it’s better to work from the outside in.” And they go, “Oh! No! No! No!” And I say, “Yeah, just try it sometime. Put on the costume, walk around in that person’s shoes, and all of a sudden you’ll get a flash of who you are.” So I think, I guess, I work both ways.

I also want to ask about how you came to be involved with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre, who you worked with while a member of that famous company, and what you felt you came away with from your experience there…
That was my first job on the stage. And it came through a young man who was stage manager, Dick Wilson, of the Mercury Theatre. And a friend of mine met him and said, “Oh, you’ve got to meet this young lady. She needs a job.” And, sure enough, he took me into the Mercury Theatre. And my first experience was walking down the aisle of this dark theater and I see this big, tall, good-looking man—believe it or not, Orson Welles used to be thin. And he was standing on stage and what looked like a little girl was beating him on the behind with a big roll of material and saying, “Orson, please tell me what you want!” And he would say, “Virginia! Don’t bother me right now!” And then he would yell up to the lighting person, you know, “Over here! Over here!” And, finally, I found out later, that Virginia was his wife[7]—I thought she looked like Alice in Wonderland, little tiny girl—and she was trying to buy material for their curtains in their apartment and couldn’t get Orson to tell her what color he wanted. [laughs] So, anyway, that was my first introduction to Orson. And, actually, what I was hired for was a walk-on part, which was ultimately cut out of the show, which broke my heart. But I was then relegated to what was a whole troupe of off-stage voices. The show was about the French Revolution[8], and Orson had torn up the stage so that you went down steps in the middle of the steps into the basement. And all of us gathered down there and made various noises of the Revolution. We would tramp our feet like people running through the street [tramps her feet], we would yell, “Up with Danton! Down with Robespierre!” You know? And we’d sing songs like, [sings] “Come dance the Carmagnole[9], and wait for the gun, and wait for the gun!” We’d do all of these noises understage. So that was my particular introduction to Orson Welles. My one starring part was to cry like a baby at night, ‘cause he wanted noises over a village. So it was an incredible experience, because Orson had no sense of time. We would rehearse until six o’clock in the morning, and then we’d go home for the day, and come back at six o’clock at night. And we never, you know, knew when we were gonna eat. Orson would order—there was a restaurant called Longchamps[10] right next-door to the Mercury Theatre—and he would order these big, juicy steaks, and sit and eat them in front of us while we were rehearsing. And our mouths were watering. Then he’d let us go about nine o’clock to go get something to eat. But he was an amazing guy. He was truly a genius. Now, unfortunately, the show that I was in, called Danton’s Death, was his first big failure. He had done the plainclothes Julius Caesar, and Dr. Faustus, and just brilliant productions and things. And then he decided to do this French Revolutionary show. And people in it, at that time, were— Joseph Cotten[11] was one of the stars; yeah, he played one of the starring parts. Martin Gabel[12] and Arlene Francis[13], they first met in that show, and ultimately married and led a long, happy married life.

Was Ruth Warrick, who was a member of the Mercury Theatre at one time and also was interviewed for this book, there at that time?
No. Ruth was in some of their productions, but she wasn’t in that one. Ruth Ford[14] was in it. Mary Wickes[15], who was that wonderful character woman—played the nurse in The Man Who Came to Dinner.

Was John Houseman[16] there at the time?
Yes. Yes, uh-huh. As a matter of fact, one of John Houseman’s first books—he mentions me. Yeah, he was still in partnership with Orson. I’m trying to think if there was anybody—Edgar Barrier[17], who was a well-known actor, and Nikolai Sokolov[18], who played Robespierre, a little sweet little short man with an accent. And it was quite an experience. We ran for about four weeks, I think, but it was not a success.

Do you remember when this production took place?
Exactly, ‘cause I went to the playhouse from 1936 to 1938. So this was either the end of 1938 or the beginning of 1939.

Oh, then it must have been right around the time of the War of the Worlds situation?
I was there that night! We were all rehearsing at the theater, and Orson had these broadcasts that he would do, so he would have to run off from rehearsal and do the broadcast. So this one night, all of a sudden, we hear all these sirens in the street and we run out and in comes Orson into the lobby of the theater. And the photographers are there snapping pictures. And I remember Orson standing against one of the walls with his head up and his arms down saying, “What have I done?” He knew exactly what he had done—he scared the hell out of everybody! But we were so excited. Unfortunately, I was not part of the broadcast. But I was there that night that it happened and I remember, for years, I saved in my scrapbook all those headlines: ‘War of the Worlds!’ You know? And just to have been part of that time, it was really exciting.

So you were gone from the Mercury Theatre by the time many of the members started on Citizen Kane?
Yeah. I was only in that one show. ‘Cause then I moved on to doing all kinds of things. I was also—at the same time I was doing the Mercury Theatre, I was rehearsing with Martha Graham for two concerts. She augmented her group for a couple of numbers that she was doing, so that was a very exciting thing. Orson used to refer to me as [mimics Welles] “that girl who’s bicycling between the theater and the dance hall.”

How did Broadway first call?
Well, I started working with a little—now we would call it off-Broadway group; they didn’t have that term then. Actually, they were in Brooklyn. It was a place called the Flatbush Arts Theater and it was filled with half professionals and half other pedestrians, as I call them. And there was an accountant, and a baker, and a policeman, I think, and then a few of us who were professional. And we used to do shows for all kinds of organizations. Mostly radical organizations. And sometimes we’d make five dollars a performance, but usually nothing. So we would do these shows—one of the shows we did was Marc Blitzstein’s Cradle Will Rock, which Orson had originally done. And we’d do that kind of show, and then we’d play benefits for the Office Workers Union or something like that. And we finally worked ourselves up into a fairly professional group and moved into Manhattan. And we would still be doing these shows and evenings for organizations, but we worked ourselves to the point where we had a decent show. And that opened on Broadway, and was not a big success, but I had people see men in that, and that’s really where I got my first jobs. In the meantime, I was playing in places up in the mountains called the Borscht circuit[19]—actually, one place, in White Roe Lake[20], was in the Borscht Circuit and the other two were down in the Poconos.[21] But it was the same situation; they were adult camps that had entertainment. And the main one was a place called Tamiment that—Danny Kaye started there, and Imogene Coca, and Jules Munshin[22]—wonderful, wonderful talent. So I was doing those in the summertime. And I also worked at the World’s Fair in 1939 and 1940 in a huge pageant called ‘Railroads on Parade.’[23] I was primarily a dancer in that. You know, gradually, I was just working my way into things. I worked as a chorus girl in a nightclub in Boston—it was called the Latin Quarter in Boston, which you probably don’t even remember; I don’t think it’s there for years. That was the original Latin Quarter, and then there was a Latin Quarter in New York, but the Latin Quarter in Boston was the place to go, and I worked there as a dancer. So, you know, I just kind of, little by little, got myself to Broadway. And my first Broadway show was understudying Ethel Merman, and I also had a small part in the show. And I got to go on for Ethel Merman—she actually was sick for one week, which is unheard of! And so from that I went to another show called Jackpot, and then from that into a show called Laffing Room Only, which was Olsen and Johnson.[24]

They really seem to have been forgotten…
They made a couple of movies, but people don’t remember them. I have to remind them they were the madcaps, you know, of show business. They had these crazy tricks. You’d walk into the audience and someone would throw a salami at you. And the head usher would lead you down the wrong aisle and across the wrong seats and everything and tear up your tickets and, you know, it was crazy. And sopranos would hit a high note and fly up into the wings. And just mad things. And I was—in that particular show, I was the, sort of, sanity; I had four singing numbers, singin and dancing numbers. So that was the last show I did before Call Me Mister. And Call Me Mister I got to star.

Before we discuss that, talk me through how you became such a terrific dancer…
Well, that was primarily with Martha Graham. I’d been taking dancing for years, all through high school, and that’s how I happened to get a scholarship to Neighborhood Playhouse—on the basis of my dancing. And so I was originally a modern dancer, but along the way I took ballet and tap. And I just—I think I just always have naturally been a dancer. That’s what I’ve always loved doing.

So—and I know it’s hard to separate them, but—do you consider yourself first-and-foremost an actress, singer, or dancer?
I hope I’m all three—and all three not that great, but the combination is unbeatable! [laughs]

Now we come to Call Me Mister, your first starring part on Broadway, for which you took home a Donaldson Award. Obviously, it must have been one of the great milestones of your career…
Well, it started out because the director was a man who had directed me up in the Poconos, and the composer, Harold Rome[25], had written a lot of songs for my Flatbush Arts Theater group. So it kind of was natural that I would be in that show. And Jules Munshin had been the comic up at Tamiment. The show was based on soldiers coming back from the war—that was the title, “Call me ‘Mister,’ not ‘Sergeant’ or ‘Private’ anymore.” And all of the men in the show were ex-servicemen, and some of the women, actually; all the women, at some point or other, had done U.S.O. shows, or Army Shows, and things like that. So that was all very oriented toward the returning serviceman. And for that reason—I mean, it was a terrific show but, in addition, it was so appealing to that particular generation of soldiers coming back and of wives and mothers having their sons back. It was just a great show. It was a revue and I had several songs to sing, but the outstanding one was a song called “South America, Take It Away.” And that stopped the show every night, which was nice. And Louis B. Mayer saw me in that show. And that’s how I happened to come to Hollywood. By that time, I was married for two years with Larry Parks, and he was under contract to Columbia Pictures and I was in New York doing shows, so for two years of our marriage we lived three thousand miles apart—it’s a great way to start a marriage. [laughs]

How did you two meet?
Well, I came out here to do a nightclub and Larry, at the time, was working at the Actor’s Lab. And he was putting on an evening of comedy and he had Lee Cobb doing The Evils of Tobacco[26], and they had an Irwin Shaw[27] comedy play, and a woman dancer called Moddie Gosler was doing a comedy dance. And he wanted a Broadway comedy sketch. And this mutual friend of ours said, “Well, I could give you a sketch. And the girl who did it in New York is in town.” So that’s how Larry and I met. And it was love at first sight. [laughs]

Take me through the transition you went through in 1947: signing your contract, coming across the country from New York City to Hollywood, and adapting to this strange place…
Well, the first place, you came by train; you didn’t come by plane in those days, so it took three days coming across. And I had my dog, and my cat, and mother in a little stateroom. And we came across, and it was wonderful fun. I was looking forward to it. The only thing is once I got into the studio, I realized that nobody knew what I did—Louis B. Mayer had seen me in the show, but nobody else had. And there’s always been that separation between Hollywood and New York; there’s a kind of snobbery between them that I’ve never understood. But it’s like, [adopts snooty voice] ‘Well, anything in the motion pictures is corrupting your artistry,’ you know? And the other way around, the movie people seem to think, [adopts snooty voice] ‘Well, the stage is not important.’ And it’s a ridiculous kind of attitude. But, consequently, most of the people—the producers on the M-G-M lot—had never seen me work. And they were so involved in their own picture making that very few of them, at that time, would come to New York, and they didn’t think it was important to see talent and playwrights and things that were happening in New York. So I wandered around the lot for a whole year, practically, just not knowing what to do. And I was being paid a nice salary but, you know, that’s not fun. And I’d go into the commissary and in the commissary—their wonderful, wonderful commissary—everybody had their own table. If you were shooting a picture, everybody sat at that table. Or the writers had their table. And the, you know, directors had their table. And I would walk in and, you know, I can’t butt into somebody else’s table, so I’d sort of stand in the door and look in, and then I’d go into the coffee shop and have a cup of coffee. But it was that way for almost a year, and then Joseph Pasternak made this picture called Big City[28] and he cast me in that. And that was with Margaret O’Brien and—terrific cast—Danny Thomas, Robert Preston. George Murphy, who played an Irish cop, is my boyfriend. And Lotte Lehmann, the famous opera star, is in it; Pasternak always loved to sort of cast people against type, and here he used this beautiful opera singer—she only sang one song—and she was playing the mother of a Jewish rabbi, and she sang an Irish folksong to him. I’ll never understand that. Not only that, but Danny Thomas, who is Lebanese, played a Jewish rabbi. [laughs] I know. And he sort of cast me to type; he cast me as a nightclub singer. And I think the kind of singer I was—in these days, it would have been a stripper, but everything had to be very clean then, so I was just a kind of bawdy nightclub singer. So that was my first picture. But I didn’t know whether my option was going to be picked up until the end of the year.

Take me through a day of a person working for a major studio…
Well, as I say, if you’re not working on a picture you don’t have to go in every day. But there are a lot of things available, like there was a wonderful vocal teacher there—two vocal teachers. One was Kay Thompson[29], and I never got to work with her, and I’m sorry I didn’t. She coached Judy Garland and people like that; she later on had her own act with the Williams Brothers. I can’t remember the name of the other man, a European who really was more a teacher of operatic kind of singing. But then there was a wonderful woman called Lillian Burns[30], and Lillian was a coach for the actresses and actors, and very strong personality. And she kind of took me under her wing and just worked with me on scenes and things. And if I was up for a part, she would work with me on the part. She decided that I was very talented and, at that time, she was married to George Sidney. And she arranged with George to do an extensive test, ‘cause she wanted everybody in studio to see what I could do. So this test was pre-recorded, in color, took two days to shoot. And I did a scene from Born Yesterday with Barry Nelson[31]; a scene with John Raitt[32] where we did a scene, and he sang “The Girl That I Marry,” and I sang “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun”; I did a scene with Cameron Mitchell[33] where I sang a song “I Don’t Know Why I Love You Like I Do”; then I did a monologue from Bury the Dead, by Irwin Shaw, which is very dramatic. So there was this range of things that I did. And I think the test ran about forty minutes—I mean, it was unheard of. It was so wonderful of her to do that, and George—George directed it. And I would give me eye teeth to find that test! I’ve had people go through all the old M-G-M films and stuff and nobody can find it. Someday, I have a feeling, it’s going to turn up. And I’ll probably hate it! I’ve had people who worked at M-G-M and worked with all this old film, and nobody can find it!

The studio system had its advantages and disadvantages. I gather that, on the one hand, it was nice to have that production line set-up that provided for all of your needs under one roof, but on the other hand, personal freedom was limited thanks to long-term contracts and the ironfisted assignment of parts which, if refused, could be met with fines, suspensions, loan outs, or even extensions of the contract. Having worked both within and without the studio system, is it something you would say you preferred to be a part of?
I don’t know whether I’d ever prefer to work with them. I remember chomping under the bit because they told you what you had to do and that always bugged me. One of the things I remember—it’s a funny story; it’s in my book, so you’ll read all this—but it was after I did my first picture, and my husband and I had never had a honeymoon, so we decided to go up to Oregon and go skiing. So we drove up the coast, two or three days up the coast. And they had told me, before I left, I had to tell them where I was going, and they said, “Now, be sure to leave a number and everything.” No sooner than I got there, the phone rang and they needed me for looping. You know what looping is? Looping is you go in and something’s wrong with the soundtrack, so you have to re-record that soundtrack, and you go in and you see your film up on the screen and you have earphones on, and you have to speak to that film so that it’s complete synchronization with whatever words were lost on the soundtrack—that’s called looping, I don’t know why. Anyway, I had to get in the car, drive down to Portland, take the airplane down to the L.A.X. Airport, get in a taxi, go to the studio, walk in, and see my picture. And at the end of the picture, everybody was around the piano singing “God Bless America,” and the camera was panning across these faces. When they got to me, I think this is the phrase I was singing: [sings] “From the mountain—” And that’s all. So I went, [sings] “From the mountain—” They said, “Okay, great!” I said, “That’s all?” [laughs] I got a taxi, went to the airport, drove back up the coast to Mt. Hood, arrived at three o’clock in the morning. But they could do that! You know? I couldn’t say, “Forget it!” I said, “Couldn’t you get anybody else in the studio to do that?” And they said, “Nobody sounds like you.” So I had to do that. And that’s the kind of thing. But, on the other hand, the fact that you were paid—well, you had thirteen weeks, I think, that were off every year, but the rest of the year, you were paid every week, whether you worked or not. You also knew that if the studio bought some wonderful property, you were in line to be in it—really first in line, ‘cause that’s what happened with On the Town, and Words and Music, and Take Me Out to the Ballgame, Neptune’s Daughter. I was automatically cast in those. I never had to refuse a picture because all the ones that they offered me were right up my alley. I once read for a dramatic part that was ultimately given to Lana Turner opposite Clark Gable, and I would love to have done that, but—you know, I don’t remember the name; it was a war film, and I can’t remember the name of it.[34] But I went around with that script under my arm for a few days. But, you know, I was just not right for that.

Were there ever any other parts that you hoped for that went somewhere else?
Well, of course, there’s the famous story about Annie Get Your Gun.[35] By that time, Dore Schary was head of the studio, and they offered me Annie Get Your Gun. My husband had just gone through a long lawsuit with Columbia Pictures on the basis that he charged them with duress when they offered him the part of The Jolson Story­—they wanted him to sign a new contract and he said “No,” and Harry Cohn literally threatened him, “If you don’t sign this contract, we will ruin you,” you know? And they made their threat actually real by sending him off on a one-day bit on a Boston Blackie film[36], you know, to just show him what they would do with him. And he had made forty-one pictures at Columbia! And so he fought this lawsuit, and lost it, but won a very big point, and this is important for people to know: The point was that because he made The Jolson Story, and enjoyed the effects of that—which were wonderful—they couldn’t say that he had been forced to do something that he didn’t want to do. What the judge didn’t understand is that show business works in that way, and that you can hold something over somebody and they have to do it or they’re gonna miss out. So the thing is that when M-G-M offered me Annie Get Your Gun, they wanted me to sign another whole contract. And I’d already had three years at M-G-M and they had four more years of my life, if they wanted it, so I said, “No,” you know? “Why should I give you seven more years of my life when you’ve already got four?” So we held out and held out, and the agent—which at that time was the William Morris Agency—said, you know, “Hang on, they want you. Don’t worry.” Well, it turned out the agency also handled Betty Hutton, and Betty Hutton commanded a much larger salary than I did at that time, so it was a much bigger thing for the agency to have.[37] But you know something? I never really regretted it because, although I would loved to have done Annie Get Your Gun, I didn’t think the picture turned out to be that great, particularly after seeing the stage show, which was so wonderful. And also, if I had been tied to M-G-M all those years, Larry and I would never have been able to do some of the things we did. We traveled to Great Britain, we toured the Provinces, we played the Palladium in London—we did all those kind of wonderful things—we did every show in summer stock that’s possible to do. So I think, really, our lives would not have been as full as that if I had been tied to a studio. But, in Larry’s case, what was interesting, and the point I wanted to make—the judge who gave the decision to Columbia took away Columbia’s rights to—what’s the word? It’s a particular legal word that means that you can’t do that. Anyway, he took away their right to do that. He said, “I have to give the decision to Columbia but, at the same time, you cannot hold him exclusively.” That’s the thing. And the judge making that judgment said, “I have read the movie contract. It is the most unfair contract I have ever read except the baseball contract”—that’s in the legal records—because he said, “It gives the option only to the studios; the actor has no option.” So, in other words, they could fire you any time they want; you could not leave under seven years if they wanted you. After seven years, it was considered slavery.

Thanks to the Olivia de Havilland Decision…
Yeah, the Olivia de Havilland Decision, exactly. So that was a very, you know, Solomon-like decision he made. What it resulted in was that Larry then, if he had wanted to, could have made any picture he wanted outside the studio. Which really, you know, in a way made the decision in his favor. So the studio immediately realized that they hadn’t won and settled with Larry at a nice raise in salary and subsequently made the second Jolson picture. So it was very interesting, it was an interesting case. So the reason I really held out so much with the Annie Get Your Gun thing was ‘cause we had just been through this. It’s funny, I said to Dore Schary, you know, “I know what can happen with this.” I said, “It’s going to get to the end of my contract again, and maybe I’ll have a lull. And some juicy property will come along, and you’ll say to me you can do this if you sign another seven year contract.” And Dore Schary said, “Oh, we wouldn’t do that to you!” And I said, “What do you mean you wouldn’t do—you’re doing it to me right now!”

In 1948, you made Words and Music, a fictionalized account of the partnership of musical composers Rodgers and Hart, which I hope you’ll talk about…
Well, that was one of those things where I was under contract, so I was the logical one to play that part. I was always kind of disappointed because the first song I sang in the movie was “My Funny Valentine,” you know, a perfect song to sing to Mickey Rooney. And, somehow or other, they got in the rushes and the muck-a-mucks are sitting watching the rushes and they’re saying, “What song is that? I never heard that song.” It was before “My Funny Valentine” was ever popular. And they cut it out and replaced it with “Small Hotel,” which is a lovely song, but the other was so appropriate. And, secondly, at the end of the picture, when Mickey Rooney as Larry Hart is falling apart and is about to die, he wanders into a nightclub and sees his old girlfriend—which is me—and I’m singing “It Never Entered My Mind,” which is one of my favorite songs of all time. And I guess it just was so sad [laughs] they said, “Oh my God! This is,” you know, “such a downer.” They cut that out, too—but it is on a record album of M-G-M. But, you know, for that reason, I never think of that picture as being very illustrative of my best work.

We come now to a movie, On the Town, that many of your fans—and perhaps you, as well—believe features some of your best work. How did you get the part of Brunhilde “Hilde” Esterhazy, a New York cabbie who is atypically “aggressive” with Frank Sinatra’s sailor during his brief leave in the Big Apple?
Well, because—primarily because—I was on the lot and Gene Kelly, I think, knew my work. Also, Stanley Donen, who was Gene Kelly’s assistant, had been the choreographer—actually the second choreographer—of Call Me Mister. So it just was kind of logical that I was. In those days, nobody who played a part on stage ever got to do it in the movies. And I know Nancy Walker[38] always felt very disappointed that she didn’t get to do it in the movies, but it was logical because I was under contract. If that hadn’t been true, Nancy probably would have done the part. So that part of the studio system was good; you were guaranteed to work.

Talk about your experience making this movie with such an unbelievably talented cast, which featured three up-and-coming—Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen, and yourself—and three very talented men—Gene Kelly, Jules Munshin, and, of course, ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’ himself, Frank Sinatra, who played your love interest[39]
Well, it was a very, very happy time. We had already made Take Me Out to the Ballgame—which I think is one of my favorite movies—and so it was kind of a stock company; we all knew each other.[40] And each of the musical numbers would rehearse maybe two weeks or so before we ever shot it, which was much more like Broadway where you really knew what you were doing. You’d rehearse two or three weeks and then you would record, and when you recorded it you knew what you were doing at the time of the song, so that it wasn’t like just going and recording it cold and then trying to fit what you were doing afterwards. So those days of rehearsal were just wonderful times. We would rehearse usually around—maybe start at ten and end at six—with lunch off in the wonderful commissary—with lots of laughs, and a lot of fun, and hard, hard work. Gene was a taskmaster. But, you know, in those days I just loved dancing so much. I just loved every minute of it. And I loved Gene. And Frank I just adored.

Can you discuss Sinatra and your experience working with him a bit further? This was one of his first major film roles…
Well, it goes back to when we were doing Take Me Out to the Ballgame, the first time I ever met him. And, of course, like every other girl, I’d had a crush on him for years before. But we were shooting outside in the baseball diamond and it was a close-up—the very first shot and the very time I ever met him was a shot over my shoulder to his face, a close-up—and we finished that shot and the director said, “Okay, let’s move the camera.” And Frank stopped and he says, “Hey, wait a minute! What about a close-up of my girl here?” And he made them reverse the camera over his shoulder to do a close-up of me. And, you know, that’s just sweetness. And he was always that way with me. He was just protective, and affectionate, and sweet, and just loving. I just adored him.

Can you recall any interesting, funny, or strange stories that occurred during the making of On the Town?
Well, my favorite story about Frank is one day he was in his dressing room, sitting at his dressing table, and I went in for some reason. And he was looking in the mirror and he said, “I hate your husband.” And I thought, “This is an interesting approach now.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “He’s got what I call a noble head. Look at my head! It’s shaped like a walnut.” [laughs] I mean, that was what’s kind of sweet and wonderful about Frank. The other story that I tell in my book is the first day the guys got into their sailor’s costumes. Now, all during rehearsals, everybody’s very free and easy and you come in, you pat someone on the behind, you know, say, “Good morning, how are you?” And we came in, and the guys were in costume, and I went up to Frank and I gave him a little pat and he said, [growls] “Don’t do that!” And I went to Gene and I said, “What’s a matter with Frankie?” He said, “Don’t touch his behind.” He said, “They had to make symmetricals for him.” You know what symmetricals are? Well symmetricals, usually, for Shakespearean actors were false legs or, you know, calves. And guys who had too skinny legs, they had to wear tights; they would make these padded things that made them look like they had nice— Well, poor Frank had to have symmetricals for his behind ‘cause he not only didn’t go out, he went in! [laughs] He just had no behind at all. And so he was so mortified by this that, you know, for me to go patting him on the behind?

I imagine that the favorable response to On the Town must have created more opportunities for you, since I would imagine your stature had improved…
Absolutely. Well, what happened, really, was very good. Because my husband, of course, was like a big, big star from The Jolson Story and, you know, I was doing nicely, but it sort of made our roles equally good. And when we went to England, we were able to put together a variety act—which we call “Vaudeville” here and they call “variety”—and we played the Palladium. And, you know, so there we were: Larry Parks and Betty Garrett. And they were two sort of equally popular movies, except for the fact that The Jolson Story in England and Scotland was probably the biggest hit of any place in the world, even more so than the United States. The English people, they love American movies in the first place. And this was such an American story. And the movie was a powerful movie, you know, as far as entertainment went. And they just went wild over it. And particularly Scotland. When Larry and I toured Scotland, we were absolutely mobbed. It was dangerous. I mean, fans just crawled on our car, and rocked our car, and stood outside and serenaded us all night long. And it was just an incredible popularity that movie had. I still get mail from England and Scotland about The Jolson Story.

So this was a trip for an extended period of time before you came back to do your next film after On the Town?
Yeah. We used to go over about—the first time we went over, I’m trying to think. It must have been—yeah—it was right after my eldest son was born in 1950. And we always try not to leave our kids more than about six weeks, and I had a wonderful mother who was a babysitter. And we went over, I think, it must have been in about February or March of 1950. And then we went over the next time about two or three years later. And then we began to—I think we went over a third time—we began to realize that the variety houses were beginning to fall away. The ‘telly,’ as they call it, was coming in to England the way movies came into the United States and killed Vaudeville, and the telly kind of killed the variety houses. And we realized that they weren’t going to be prosperous anymore. But we would go over and we would work with these wonderful British Vaudeville acts, just incredible. And we would do our act, and you got very good money for that in those days.

Jumping back to the making of On the Town for a moment, wasn’t it one of the early films to be shot— in part, at least—on location, as opposed to on or near the studio back lot?
The very first part where the guys go all around New York—that was shot in New York. And a lot of people are under the impression that the whole picture was shot in New York, ’cause they sort of advertised it was the first time that that had happened. But it’s only that section and then the very end of the picture, down at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, that was shot in New York. And they were just gonna take the three boys, but Arthur Freed, who was the producer, was very soft-hearted. And Ann Miller went and cried bitter tears to him and said, “You’re taking the boys to New York and you’re not taking the girls?” And so he relented and he brought us to New York, and we sat at the Ambassador Hotel, I think—or one of the most elegant hotels—for a whole week, went to shows, and went shopping, and had the greatest time. [laughs] And the only thing we did was at the very end when they did that long dolly shot at the end of the three girls waving. We did that. And, as I say in my book, something happened to that film—there was a hair in the aperture or something—and they had to re-shoot after we left. So they shot it—it didn’t make any difference, it was so far away—with three extras. And I always say the reason I know that that wasn’t me is the girl with me had the widest behind I’d ever seen! [laughs] And so I know that wasn’t me.

I just want to mention that Betty Comden, the co-screenwriter of On the Town along with Adolph Green, has also given a wonderful interview for this book—
Oh, great! Oh, wonderful! She’s great. My heart broke when Adolph died. But he’d been quite blind until the end—and I’m getting that way, too! I have macular degeneration, but not that much yet. But they were a wonderful team. I got to know them in New York before we ever came out here because they had a wonderful group called the—now it’s just escaped my mind.[41] But they were fabulous entertainers. So I knew them from those days. Well, she was a wonderful actress. But she and Adolph were a unique team. The interesting thing about On the Town was that they did not use most of the songs from the play—they did not use the ones in the movie—and I’ve always felt that was a mistake. I’ve heard it explained several different ways. I heard Gene Kelly once interviewed and he said, “They didn’t use them because, by that time, the play had been on for several years and the songs would have been worn out.” But that’s not true, because none of those songs from the play were ever overplayed—they were special. So they wrote all new songs. I think it’s because the big muck-a-mucks, as I call them, decided that the average audience is stupid and would not understand the sophisticated lyrics. And I think they just misjudged audiences. So they wrote songs—Betty and Adolph wrote songs—that were much more, I don’t know what you call—[laughs] common, more popular kind of songs. And I don’t think they were as good. I mean, I didn’t get to sing “I Can Cook, Too.”

And, just so everyone understands, that’s not a knock on Comden and Green’s work—they also wrote the songs for the play and were heartbroken that they were discarded for the film…
Yes. Sure. They had to redo those songs, and Roger Edens did the music. And, you know, I think they were very good sports to do that. But, you know, the songs like “It’s a Lonely Town” and, you know—none of those. Instead, I sang a song called “You’re Awful,” which is a darling song, but it didn’t compare to song of those—“You’ve Got Me, Gabey, You’ve Got Me.” Instead, we did “You Can Count on Me,” which is like a cowboy western song. And they were fun, all of the songs. But they did that a lot in movies. They underestimated the intelligence of the audience and said, “Oh, you know, they won’t understand that.” So they would downplay them.

Speaking of popular songs that were included in this movie, “New York, New York” obviously stands out as one that people will not soon forget. Can you comment on that one?
Well, that number, you know, had to be in, it was so beautiful. And then, of course, I was lucky because “Come Up to My Place” was the one from the New York show that they included. And I was always thankful for that ‘cause that was really fun to shoot.

I think you can say you made being a cab driver a little more glamorous than it probably had been before…
[laughs] Yeah.

I had been under the incorrect impression that Take Me Out to the Ballgame came after On the Town, but you actually knew Sinatra and Kelly quite well before—
It was shot before, yeah. We were, by that time—and Julie Munshin and Frank. And then, of course, Ballgame was Esther Williams. But the two new ones were Ann Miller and Vera-Ellen in On the Town.

You were on quite a hot streak in 1949, between those two films and Neptune’s Daughter, in which you and Red Skelton sang “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”…
Yeah. Right. Yeah, I was lucky to have that song. I actually, of course, read and I sang the switched version where I did the male part and then, of course, Red was using that phony Spanish accent. So, consequently, the record that went out was not our record. So I’ve had that bad luck all along the line, ‘cause “South America, Take It Away,” which I recorded, was never played ‘cause it was considered risqué, and the Andrews Sisters had the hit record—so instead of saying, “There’s a great big crack in the back of my Sacroiliac,” they said, “There’s a strange click-clack in the back of my Sacroiliac.” And then “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”—I think Perry Como and Rosie Clooney, I think, made the hit record. I mean, that kept happening to me all the time. [laughs]

I want to raise a subject that tragically arose shortly after this string of successes and may be unpleasant to discuss—the Hollywood Blacklist…
Oh, yeah. Well that was a black time for everybody, I think. Yeah. My husband was called twice, the first time with what they call the ‘Unfriendly Ten.’ And he was to be next in line, actually, to testify, and they cut off the proceedings at that time, and those ten men were sent to jail. He would have been the next one. And so we lived under the shadow of that for a number of years, knowing that the hearings were probably going to be called again. And, sure enough, one day a man came with a subpoena, and so Larry knew he was going to have to go. And he was the first. And I’ll always feel it was deliberate, because by that time he was a big star and all of the other witnesses—so-called—were just writers and directors and people not as evident in the public’s eye. So they knew—they knew they were gonna get big headlines with that. And the headlines were outrageously big. I mean, there was a headline that was three inches big, and underneath that was Truman’s dismissal of MacArthur and some really very important war going on, and yet that thing of Larry’s was, you know, three inches tall. And it was—it was very sad, because Larry had made up his mind to simply admit, yes, that he had been a Communist. And we were all involved in those days because, you know, when you’re young you want to heal the ills of the world. And the Communist Party was always in the forefront of good housing, and anti-discrimination, and Spanish war orphans, and anything you felt in your heart you wanted to help. And so, you know, everybody was involved. And it was just so ridiculous to say that Hollywood movies were corrupting the morals of the United States [laughs]—it was just so stupid. But, anyway, I can laugh at it now, but it was not funny then. So he paid for it for all those years. He never made another picture until shortly before he died, which was Freud, which was quite a wonderful part. Montgomery Clift. It was a John Huston film. And they made that in Germany. And Larry was wonderful in it. He looked like, by that time—Larry got better-looking as he got older, you know?—by that time, he had a grey beard. He looked like everybody’s ideal psychologist. [laughs]

As we look back at that period now, most young people cannot fathom how McCarthy and the blacklist was allowed to happen, and how so many careers and families, like your husband’s, were so tremendously affected. I would imagine it affected your career, somewhat, as well…
Yes. I was able to get back, you know, because I was not in the public eye as much as Larry. I’ll always give credit to Danny Thomas, who had been in my very first movie. I walked into a studio one day and Danny was there and he said, “What are you doing lately?” And I said, “Not much.” Next thing I knew, I was on his variety show that he was doing. So I know he went to bat for me. And then, from then on, I did two shows with him, and a show with Jack Carson, and two shows with Art Carney—T.V. shows. And they were, you know, wonderful shows.

Do you believe people in the movies withheld opportunities—certain roles—from you as a result of this? Because you were on as hot a streak as anyone at that time…
Well, it was always faceless. It was hard to fight, because you would be up for something and then, all of a sudden, your chance would disappear. And you could never say, “Who said I couldn’t work?” You know? “Who did it?” And they’d say, “Well, no, no, it’s—” You know, the muck-a-mucks, as I call them, said, “You can’t hire her.” And you could never put a name to it—in that case, you probably could sue if you wanted to. But the thing is that gradually, because Larry and I kept working—you see, there was no blacklist in New York on the stage, and summer stock, and things. And, of course, in England, they just thought we were nuts. We could work there. And so, gradually, things began to work for me. And Lillian Burns then went over and became an executive producer at Columbia Pictures under Harry Cohn. And, of course, Larry had worked at Columbia for many years. And, all of a sudden, I got this offer to do My Sister Eileen, which is probably one of my favorite pictures. And I know—I just know, in the back of my mind—that Lillian Burns had something to do with that. I just know she said, you know, “Betty Garrett’s the one.” So that really broke through, for me, into film again.

So, though there was never an official “blacklist,” you feel that’s effectively what happened to you?
Oh, for me? Yes, I think so. You know, guilt by association. [chuckles] But it was—you know, you were saying before that young people say, “Oh, that wouldn’t happen now.” And I keep saying, “Look around! Wait a minute. It’s happening now.” It’s always happening. You have to be on-guard that nobody is taking your civil liberties away from you. And it always takes different forms—it’s either, you know, a political thing, or it’s against gays, or it’s against something or other, a religious kind of bias of some kind. And you have to be so careful that somebody else is not telling you how you have to think or what you have to do. And, you know, I just want to say to young people all the time, you know, “Don’t say this couldn’t happen again.”

It can affect a lot of lives…
You bet.

As long as we’re on the subject of larger issues, do you have other thoughts on some of the large issues we’re facing today—a lot’s going on…
Oh. That would take another whole tape. No, you know, I don’t want to make my political views, you know, public. I’m very distressed by the way things are, partly because I have a grandchild, you know, and I want the world to be peaceful, and I want it to be green, and I want it to be a place where she can live and have her rights.

Beginning shortly after its arrival, you had a second career, of sorts, in television, with roles on shows like All in the Family[42] and Laverne and Shirley[43]
Well, I was very lucky to be cast in two series that were top series. The first one was All in the Family, of course, and that was at CBS, which was the top network at that time. All in the Family was the top show. And it’s always good to be associated with associated with something ‘top.’ You can be brilliant at something that’s not, you know, popular or, you know, in favor, and it doesn’t matter. And you can do as small a part as I had in All in the Family and it sticks with you, and it helps you a lot. And the same with Laverne and Shirley. I came along and then, all of a sudden, ABC was the top network and Laverne and Shirley was the top show. So I was very lucky in those ways. Those shows came about—All in the Family came about, I think, through my association with Norman Lear, who had been a publicity agent on Call Me Mister when he was twenty-six years old. And, also, I knew everybody in that show. Carroll O’Connor was a member of Theatre West[44], which is a theater group that I am one of the founders of—forty-four years ago—and we’re still existing, still doing things. And Carroll had been a member of that. And Rob Reiner, son of Carl Reiner—I’d known Carl for years. And Jean Stapleton had been in Bells Are Ringing[45], and Larry and I substituted for Judy Holliday and Sydney Chaplin when they went on vacation in New York. And I knew everybody in that group except Sally Struthers, and then I fell in love with her—she’s just the cutes, most talented lady. So I stepped into that, you know—it was just wonderful luck. And then, of course, after that closed—or rather they went on to another year I left—then I went into Laverne and Shirley. And that happened—just casting, I guess. I was called. I was doing a one-woman show at the time, and I think that’s what did it. The writers came and saw the one woman show, and cast me as the landlady. And that went on for seven years.

Your passion for acting is so obvious, which leads me to ask, are you still acting or would you consider yourself retired?
Never! Never! There ain’t no such thing in my vocabulary. No, I work a lot with Theatre West, and I’ve done several T.V. shows. A couple of years ago I did a Boston Public and I also did a Becker, and I got nominated for an Emmy for the Becker. And that was so much fun. I played an old lady who stalks Ted Danson. And it was vaguely familiar—it was like stalking Frank Sinatra. So I answer a lot of casting calls, but I’m in a position now where I can say, you know, “No,” because I don’t need to do it. And if I don’t think it’s really fun, or important, or something, I won’t do it. I turned down a chance to play with my godson, Jeff Bridges, which I hated to do because I adore him and I’ve always wanted to work with him—I think he’s the most talented actor in the world. But he was making a picture about a bunch of guys who were making a pornographic film.[46] And my part was just very small, but I would have done it except that—you know, it was not offensive; I mean, it’s was funny. It’s gonna be a funny film. But, I just thought, I’m eighty-six years old, this may be the last picture I ever make, and I somehow don’t want the last picture I ever made something my grandchild can’t see. So I turned it down. And Jeff was very understanding; he said, “Oh, my Ma felt the same way. She turned down her part.” [laughs] So I figured as long as Dorothy Bridges won’t do it, I won’t do it either. Let me just say, also, at Theatre West now—I’m always active there—I’m working on a show, a revue, to put together all my songs that I’ve ever written. I’ve got a trunk-full of songs that I’ve written; I write mostly lyrics and, once in a while, the music. And then, also, we just finished doing a production of Nunsense. Have you ever seen that show? Oh, if you ever get a chance to see it, it’s so much fun. It’s a bunch of nuns who put on a benefit and each one of them do a turn, and I get to tap-dance in full nun’s habit.[47] We did that for six weeks at Theatre West, which is my theater, and then we’re gonna take it on tour—we’re going to Arizona, and Palos Verdes, and the Motion Picture Home—in November. So, you know, we keep doing things. And I’ll never stop.

The movies today: Do you see them? What do you think about them?
Well, I’m sort of hampered now because of my eyesight. I can’t drive, so I’m sort of dependent on what my family wants to see. And we usually go, like— We just saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.[48] And, of course, The Lord of the Rings. And Harry Potter—and I love all of those! I’m hooked on them. But some of the other movies I have to depend on seeing them on television. And I should make a list of the ones I like, because some of them are very good. And some of them that are very good are ones that are not big, popular ones. I think, “Oh, thank goodness that they put this on television, ‘cause it’s a beautiful little movie.” But, unfortunately, sometimes those are not the biggest hits.

Are there any of today’s actors, in particular, who you feel could have held their own with you guys in the older days?
Well, oh gosh, what’s the one? [Yells to her son, Gary, “What’s the movie we love? A romance with Hugh Grant?” Gary responds, “Oh, you means Love Actually?”] Love Actually! I mean, I fell in love with this movie. I mean, that kind of movie [Gary yells from the other room, “I thought you were talking about True Romance,” drawing laughs because the 1993 film is one of the more violent in recent memory. “Well, actually, you liked that movie too, Mom! Remember the one with Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette?” She responds genuinely, “Yeah. Yeah. I did. Yes.”]

It’s funny, because it sounds like you’re a lot more open than many of your contemporaries to open-mindedly approaching movies with sex and violence. After all, Quentin Tarantino, who wrote True Romance and wrote or directed numerous other films that feature sex and violence, is considered by many today to be one of the most talented filmmakers of this generation…
Well, yeah. You know, I can get in an argument with people about sex and stuff like that. And I say, you know, “The only true violence, the only true obscenity is violence in war. And the rest is just words, for God’s sake! What are you so upset about? [laughs] Bodily functions? That’s funny, you know?” So, I don’t know. I’ve always had a bawdy sense of humor, anyway, so that doesn’t bother me. I have not seen The Aristocrats—I’m not sure I’m gonna like that; it’s sounds a liiittle bit far for me! [laughs]

[1] Only roughly 500 of these instruments were commercially produced by RCA in the early 1930s, and today are collectors’ items.

[2] It also is featured in other classics films like Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), as well as the songs “Good Vibrations,” by The Beach Boys, and “Whole Lotta Love,” by Led Zeppelin.

[3] Larry Parks (1914-1975) was an actor and is best known for his performance as Al Jolson in The Jolson Story (1946). He was a major contract player for Columbia Pictures throughout the 1940s. In 1951, he refused to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and was blacklisted. He participated in only a handful of motion pictures before his untimely death from a heart attack.

[4] Kay Francis (1899-1968) was an actress and is best known for her performance as an aristocrat conned by Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise (1932).

[5] Sanford Meisner (1905-1997) was an original member of the influential Group Theatre in the 1930s, and went on to teach at the Neighborhood Playhouse for over fifty years. The ‘Meisner Technique’ of acting, which encouraged actors to “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” was similar to Stanislavsky’s ‘Method,’ but encouraged increased spontaneity.

[6] Martha Graham (1894-1991) was pioneering dancer and choreographer who is largely responsible for the shape of modern American dance. Garrett was a member of her dancing company for a time.

[7] Socialite Virginia Nicholson (????-19??) and Welles married in November 1934, and together they had one daughter, the oddly-named Christopher Feder, born in 1937. They divorced in February 1940, shortly before he began production on Citizen Kane (1941). Nicholson also appeared in Welles’ silent short The Hearts of Age (1934).

[8] This production, Danton’s Death, was written by German playwright Georg Buchner (1813-1837) and performed by the Mercury Theatre in 1938.

[9] A song popular among rebels during the first French Revolution.

[10] Richard Barr (1917-1989), Welles’ longtime assistant, said he would regularly bring Welles’ lunch ‘from Longchamps up the theater.’ The 632-seat Comedy Theatre, built in 1909 and located at 108 W 41st Street, was known as and housed the Mercury Theatre from 1937-1940 before being demolished in 1942; Longchamps was located at nearby 423 Madison Avenue.

[11] Joseph Cotten (1905-1994) was an actor and is best known for his performances in Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Gaslight (1944), The Third Man (1949), and Touch of Evil (1958)

[12] Martin Gabel (1912-1986) was an actor and is best known for his work on stage. He won the Tony for Best Supporting or Featured Actor in 1961 for the Broadway production Big Fish, Little Fish.

[13] Arlene Francis (1907-2001) was an actress and is best known for her work on stage.

[14] Ruth Ford (1915-) was an actress and is best known for her performance in Wilson (1944).

[15] Mary Wickes (1910-1995) was an actress and is best known for her performance in The Man Who Came to Dinner on stage and in the 1942 film.

[16] John Houseman (1902-1988)

[17] Edgar Barrier (1907-1964)

[18] Nikolai Sokolov (????-????)

[19] Also known as the ‘Borscht Belt,’ it was a series of resorts in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, popular primarily among wealthy Jews who, at that time, were restricted from vacationing in many other locations. It also was the place where many of the finest comedians of the 20th century got their start; the Pocono Mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania offered a similar venue.

[20] The White Roe Hotel was the only area resort catering exclusively to singles between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five.

[21] Comedienne Carol Channing, in her memoirs Just Lucky, I Guess (2002), wrote: “Mildred Weber, the great organizer of the New and Unknown Talent Department of William Morris, put me on the Borscht Circuit for one summer at Camp Tamiment in the Catskills, pronounced by the clientele ‘Cahmb Dowmnt’ in the ‘Kedzgls.’ Betty Garrett and I were assigned as roommates, only tentmates is what we were. We lived in a tent with a wooden roof over it and Betty’s twelve cats and a drawing of Ethel Waters that Betty did for me. I framed it and hung it over my cot. Most of the cats were housebroken, but we got used to the cat litter within twenty-four hours and it never bothered me, mostly because Betty was the best roommate and friend anyone could have. She was so in love with Larry Parks, later her husband and father of her two sons… We did three shows a week, all different and never repeated. Betty and I did one sketch I remember. We played switchboard operators for a legal firm. We’d answer, ‘Beaton Barton Batten and Button, good morning.’ It got more and more complicated. We adored the way we did it. So did the cats and the audience.”

[22] Jules Munshin (1915-1970) was cast alongside Garrett in On the Town (1949) and Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949).

[23] A lavish performance featuring 250 cast members who depicted the evolution of railroad transportation from the 1820s through 1939.

[24] The production ran on Broadway from December 23, 1944 through July 14, 1945; Ole Olson and Chic Johnson were a comedy team of similar popularity and talent to relative contemporaries Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers, and the Three Stooges.

[25] Harold Rome (1908-1993) also wrote the lyrics to the soundtrack song ‘Lisa’ for Rear Window (1954).

[26] Written by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), this one-act monologue has been called a ‘tragicomedy.’

[27] Irwin Shaw (1913-1984).

[28] A 1948 film.

[29] Thompson (1909-1998) also served as vocal coach for Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Liza Minnelli, and Andy Williams, among others

[30] Lillian Burns (1903-1998), M-G-M’s preeminent dramatic coach, primarily groomed with previously-untrained actors, but also helped some from other mediums adapt to motion pictures; her students included like Lucille Bremer, Ava Gardner, Greer Garson, Peter Lawford, Janet Leigh, Margaret O’Brien, Donna Reed, Debbie Reynolds, Lana Turner, and Esther Williams, among others.

[31] Barry Nelson (1920-).

[32] John Raitt (1917-2005).

[33] Cameron Mitchell (1918-1994).

[34] The films that meet this description are Homecoming (1948) and Betrayed (1954).

[35] The film eventually was made in 1950.

[36] Almost certainly Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture (1949).

[37] ‘To have’ Hutton (1921-2007) play the part, as opposed to Garrett, which ultimately was the case.

[38] Nancy Walker (1922-1992) may be best remembered as Ida Morgenstern on the Mary Tyler Moore television show (from 1971-1974).

[39] Garrett is the sole survivor of the principal cast members, the others being Miller (1923-2004), Vera-Ellen (1921-1981), Kelly (1912-1996), Munshin (1915-1970), Sinatra (1915-1998).

[40] Another 1949 film, Take Me Out to the Ballgame featured all three of the male leads who would appear in On the Town later that year—Sinatra, Kelly, and Munshin—as well as Garrett (Miller and Vera-Ellen were not part of the cast).

[41] The Revuers, which also included Judy Holliday, as well as John Frank and Alvin Hammer; for more, see interview with Betty Comden.

[42] From 1973-1975, she played Irene Lorenzo.

[43] From 1976-1982, she played landlady Edna Babish-DeFazio.

[44] A non-profit theater and arts organization in North Hollywood that Garrett formed in 19??.

[45] The Broadway production (1956-1959), not the 1960 film of the same title, in which Holliday also stars.

[46] The Moguls (2005; also known as The Amateurs), is a comedy about small town America and a man (Bridges) in the midst of a mid-life crisis; Joe Pantoliano, Tim Blake Nelson, Ted Danson, and Laura Graham also appear in the film.

[47] ‘Habit,’ in this case, refers to the distinctive dress or costume of a religious order.

[48] She means Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), the re-make of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971).

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  • SusanH

    Dear Mr. Feinberg,
      This is a really interesting piece of writing.  Thank you so much for revealing so much more about Betty Garrett, her career and philosophy of life.  As a child, I had seen many of the films in which she appeared.  I never knew the depth of her character until I happened upon this interview. Thank you.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read it and share such kind words!