Classic Movie Travels: Betty Garrett – Missouri, Washington State and New York

 

Betty Garrett – St. Joseph Missouri, Seattle & Tacoma Washington
and New York City

Betty Garrett

 

“I loved the farm. It was my favorite time of the year.” -Betty Garrett

No musical cast is complete without fabulous supporting cast mates, and Betty Garrett was one of the best. Hilarious, unfailingly energetic, and lovely, Betty was the perfect addition to many an MGM musical.

Elizabeth “Betty” Garrett was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, on May 23rd, 1919, to Curtis and Elizabeth Octavia Garrett. While she was born in St. Joseph, most of her childhood was spent in Seattle, Washington, where her family relocated not long after her birth. There, her mother worked as the manager of a sheet music department at Sherman Clay & Company, a retailer of musical instruments as well as a publisher and seller of sheet music. Her father was a traveling salesman but struggled heavily with alcoholism and an inability to manage the family’s finances, which eventually led to the couple’s divorce. Her father would pass away in 1921, leading Betty and her mother to live in various hotels while they tried to regain control of their finances.

Betty was roughly two years old when she moved to Seattle with her mother, but also spent time back in St. Joseph on a farm situated on the outskirts of the town. Her father previously lived there and she would stay with his relatives over the summers — a time she remembered fondly, according to a 1989 interview with the St. Joseph News-Press. Moreover, she was also close with her aunt, Catherine Pike, a highly active St. Joseph resident. Despite turning 80, Catherine practiced yoga and accomplished worldwide travels, which inspired Betty to be just as vivacious as she.

When Betty turned eight, her mother married a former boyfriend and the three of them settled in Regina, Saskatchewan, where Betty’s stepfather worked for the meat-packing industry. Unfortunately, the marriage came to an end when Betty’s mother learned of her new husband’s relationship with a male assistant. In response, she and Betty moved back to Seattle, where Betty carried out her education.

Betty enrolled at the Annie Wright School in Tacoma, Washington, with a full scholarship. The school had no drama department, so Betty decided to organize musicals and plays for special occasions throughout the academic year. Upon her senior year performance in Twelfth Night, Betty was urged by others to consider a career on the stage. Her mother’s friend also coordinated an interview for Betty with American modern dancer Martha Graham, who was in town for a concert tour. Graham recommended Betty for a scholarship at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, New York.

By 1936, Betty and her mother resided in Manhattan, where Betty began to take classes for dance, drama, music, and classics. Betty felt that she would become a dramatic actress and typically avoided comedic roles.

betty garrett sitting on CouchBetty Garrett

Betty performed throughout the Borscht Belt during the summers, where she grew her singing and dancing skills. She joined Orson Welles‘ Mercury theater as an understudy and performed with Martha Graham’s dance company. She also found work as a singer and appeared in various satirical and political revues. During this time, she joined the Communist Party and performed at fundraisers for its causes.

In 1942, Betty debuted on Broadway as part of a revue called Of V We Sing. In the same year, she was also cast in a revue called Let Freedom Sing, which producer Mike Todd saw. Todd enjoyed Betty’s performance and hired her both as an understudy to Ethel Merman and as a small role in Cole Porter‘s Something for the Boys (1943). When Merman fell ill, Betty was able to carry out her role for a week. She was spotted by producer Vinton Freedley, who cast her in the musical, Jackpot. Though the show closed soon after, Betty toured the country with a nightclub act. She returned to New York and became an acclaimed actress after performing in Call Me Mister. 

As her act toured the country, Betty was invited to perform as part of a comedy sketch for the Actor’s Lab in Hollywood. Larry Parks was producing the show and it wasn’t long until they fell in love during her two-week stint in Hollywood. Parks was determined to marry her, though she soon left for Chicago with her nightclub act. He quickly joined her in Chicago and introduced her to his mother, as Parks and his family were from nearby Joliet, Illinois. Parks returned to Los Angeles to work on a film, while Betty left for New York to work on a show. Before her rehearsals began, she called Parks and proposed. On September 8th, 1944, Betty and Parks were married four months after they met, with Lloyd Bridges standing as best man. Betty would later be godmother to Lloyd’s son, Jeff Bridges.

After their honeymoon, the couple lived apart for two years to further their careers. They had two sons–Garret and Andrew–and remained married until Parks’s death in 1975.

Betty Garrett and Larry Parks and son GarrettBetty with husband Larry Parks and son Garrett

Parks enjoyed success after portraying Al Jolson in The Jolson Story (1946), with the film being extremely popular in the United Kingdom. He and Betty toured the United Kingdom with a nightclub act before audience interest in the novelty of television eventually created a gradual decline in live entertainment.

By 1947, Hollywood called for Betty and she signed a one-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She made her film debut as a nightclub performer in Big City (1947), co-starring George Murphy and Robert Preston. When her contract was up, Mayer renewed it, leading Betty to appear in a string of musicals, including Words and Music (1948), On the Town (1949), Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), and Neptune’s Daughter (1949). One of her more notable performances is in On the Town (1949) as cab driver Brunhilde Esterhazy, who is in hot pursuit of Frank Sinatra’s character, Chip. Betty worked with her husband once again when the two of them temporarily replaced Judy Holliday and Sydney Chaplin in Broadway’s Bells are Ringing.

betty garrett in a taxi in the film on the townBetty Garrett as Brunhilde Esterhazy in On The Town, 1949

While both of their careers were on the rise, past affiliations with the Communist Party became a problem for Betty and Parks. Both of them came under the scrutiny of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, though only Parks was called upon to testify. As a result, Parks was blacklisted, and both he and his wife had a difficult time finding work in the entertainment industry. Eventually, Parks founded a successful construction business and the couple owned several apartment buildings in the Los Angeles area, with Parks profitably serving as landlord.

Though Betty and Parks sometimes performed in various live acts in Las Vegas, summer stock shows, and as part of Broadway touring companies, Betty’s career transitioned towards television. In 1973, she appeared as Irene, an Irish-American wife and new neighbor to the Bunkers, in All in the Family, winning a Golden Globe for her performance. When performing a one-woman show called Betty Garrett and Other Songs, she also took on the role of landlady Edna Babish on Laverne & Shirley. She left the series to join the cast of The Supporting Cast on Broadway, but the show closed quickly and Edna Babish was already written out of the show.

betty garrett and cindy williams laverne and shirleyCindy Williams and Betty Garrett in Laverne & Shirley

Nonetheless, Betty made appearances on Murder, She Wrote, Grey’s Anatomy, The Golden Girls, and many other television shows. She also continued acting on the stage in various productions, including carrying out the role of Katie the maid in Meet Me in St. Louis. She fondly recalled her aunt Catherine Pike from her St. Joseph days and decided to take on the role in memory of her. Well into her 70s, Betty’s portrayal of Katie included performing a dance on a tabletop, singing two song, and advising the other characters in the show.

Betty remained active as a performer all the way until her passing on February 12, 2011. She even attended Turner Classic Movies‘ first Film Festival with co-star Esther Williams. The pair attended a poolside screening of Neptune’s Daughter (1949), the film in which “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was introduced. Ricardo Montalban serenades Esther Williams, while the roles of “cat and mouse” are reversed in the second half, with Betty serenading Red Skelton.

While there are no direct tributes to Betty in her hometown, the farm on which she spent her summers remains privately owned at 1819 E. Jule Street in St. Joseph, Missouri. Here is the property today:

1819 e jule st, st joseph missouri, site of betty garrett childhood farm1819 E. Jule Street in St. Joseph, Missouri

One of Betty’s Seattle residences in 1930 was at 1014 Minor Ave. This is the property today:

1014 minor ave in seattle, one of betty garretts former residences1014 Minor Ave, Seattle, Washington

The Annie Wright School that Betty attended continues to function as a private school. It is located at 827 N Tacoma Ave.

Annie Wright School that Betty Garrett attended at 827 N Tacoma Ave in Tacoma WashingtonAnnie Wright School in Tacoma, Washington

Finally, when Betty and her mother moved to New York in 1940 for Betty to begin taking various classes relating to the performing arts, they resided at 243 E. 39th Street in New York, New York. This is the property as it stands today:

243 e 29th st nyc where betty garrett moved with her mom in 1940243 E. 39th St, NYC

Though Betty is no longer with us, audiences can still enjoy her boundless energy preserved through her many performances.

 …..

–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub

Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.

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23 Responses to Classic Movie Travels: Betty Garrett – Missouri, Washington State and New York

  1. Shelia says:

    I just love the hairstyles and clothes of that era. And of course, it always seems that they lived the Golden Life during the Golden Age, but we know it’s just a fantasy. A nice one though.

  2. Gloria Elizabeth says:

    I’m enjoying this series of posts exploring where stars lived throughout their lives, especially the photos of those places today. Most seem such homey, ordinary (and small!) places to have launched and nurtured such interesting lives. Thanks!

  3. Vienna says:

    Lovely tribute. Betty also had a starring role in MY SISTER EILEEN, with Janet Leigh and Jack Lemmon.
    I was fortunate to see Betty on Broadway in Meet Me in St Louis and spoke to her in her dressing room after the show. Great memory!

  4. Javier Valverde says:

    Fascinating article about Betty Garrett! Never knew about her early life and how she got the contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Glad she was able to survive the blacklist and that she transitioned to television. I enjoyed her on All in the Family trading barbs with Archie. Thanks for the article Annmarie.

  5. Great post. I loved her in “All in the Family” It fascinates me to know that they had problems like her stepfather having an affair with a male assistant back then in the 1920s. Interesting read about a great actress.

  6. Glad you’re enjoying these! Please feel free to check out my blog to see more of my Hometowns articles.

  7. Sara Stewart says:

    Wow… had no idea all that she had done. Such a hard start t life, organizing shows in a school with no drama department, all of the musicals. I definitely remember her from All in the Family and Laverne and Shirley, and I vaguely remember seeing her in an old movie. What a gift she had and what a wonderful character actress. Thank you for all of this amazing information.

  8. Philip Orem says:

    You might want to include information about the theater company Betty helped found and was a vital part of in LA, Theatre West. Lots of folks have been members there.

  9. Pingback: A Big Thank You from CMH: “Give a Gift, Get a Gift” Holiday Contest Promotion… | Classic Movie Hub Blog

  10. Kassidy J Jacobs says:

    She was so determined to get into acting at such a young age! She was so beautiful, and I am glad she found happiness in her career and life. It is so interesting that her associations with communism could have ruined her career, but she wouldn’t let that happen. What a great read and an amazing tribute to Betty!

  11. David Hollingsworth says:

    The name is familiar, but the face isn’t. She seemed like the type of actress who always brought her own style and talent to any film, including musicals. Great article!

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