Friday, January 26, 2007

Broadway Baby

I had a day yesterday of true spiritual uplift. I spent the day with one of the last remaining reasons to admire show business as many of us did when we were just starting out in life and thought there were, as in the Irving Berlin(we have the same birthday) lyric, no people like show people: Betty Garrett.
Betty was a musical comedy star on Broadway in the 40s--had come to New York when she was sixteen, mother in tow, got a scholarship from Martha Graham, learned modern dance, sang with a fierce but feminine energy, did a couple of during-the-war musicals, broke out as a major star in 'Call Me Mister' singing 'South America Take it Away,' and was signed by MGM. She married Larry Parks, who became the biggest movie star in the world in 1946 playing Al Jolson in 'The Jolson Story,' and then was shot down, his career destroyed by his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee. You can read a better account than I would be able to give you in Victor Navasky's Naming Names. But one thing Victor never knew: Larry and two other actors, Charles Korvin and Robert Shane had done a report for the Screen Actors Guild when Reagan was its president addressing the question of whether actors were earning a living wage. Even factoring in the millionaires like Jimmy Cagney and Fred MacMurray, the conclusion was that they couldn't. Reagan, on receiving their report, blustered "That's nonsense!" and threw it in the wastebasket(something Betty contends he was later to do about the poor in America.) From that time on, Larry believed, Ronnie had it in for him. So although he never knew for sure who targeted him for the Committee, he had his suspicions.
Anyway, I missed all that, and met the still handsome and tall, smart, genial and only a little visibly broken Larry Parks when I first came to Hollywood at the end of the 50s. One of my cohorts from the Mars Club in Paris was singing in Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills; Betty was at the next table, and we became friends(she said to her escort about me "Is she picking us up?"). Larry warmed to me(and visa versa) and gave me my first screenplay assignment. Every Friday evening I would go to their house with pages, and he'd ask "Whose picture is on the $100 bill?" and I'd answer "Benjamin Franklin," at which point he'd hand me two of them, crisp new ones. It thrilled me at the time, someone I admired actually reading what I was writing, since no one at NBC, the only job I'd ever had, briefly and frustratingly when I was just twenty, even looked at anything I turned in(a sit-com a day, a musical a week.)
Then I opened at the Purple Onion on Sunset, doing my songs, and Betty brought in Robert Kirsch, the book critic for the LA Times, from whom she was taking a writing course at UCLA. I told him a few of my stories, encounters with Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Tony Perkins, my then love of the moment who I didn't know was gay, (I was a nice Jewish girl, and it was the Fifties.) Kirsch said "You ought to write a novel." So the next morning I got up and started Naked in Babylon, and the rest is not quite history.
Larry died too young, a victim, I think, of all that had happened to him and all that had failed to happen after his debasement, gifted man that he was. So when Don died, too young, too, I went to see Betty, who was then in the hospital, and she said to me "Now you must do what you wouldn't have done if Don was alive." So I went and bought a hat(he'd said I didn't have a 'hat face,') and some perfume(he didn't like perfume on me) and then started to travel(he was a homebody) and went to visit Gore Vidal(Don had said to me once, "It only proves what a pervert you are, that you enjoy the company of Gore Vidal.") So 'twas Betty who set my footsteps in place yet again.
She is going to be 88 her next birthday, and says she won't think of herself as old as long as she can get into her underwear standing up. She also teaches a workshop in Musical Comedy, is the spine of Theater West, does several benefits a year, and tap dances. She took up tap dancing when she was sixty, and was tap dancing in her kitchen, naked, a few weeks ago when her son and daughter-in-law walked in on her. There is not an ounce of guile in her, or anger, or regret, and naked tap dancer or no, she is more genuine lady than eccentric.
So whether or not my path has been rocky, it certainly feels like I've been guided to and by some remarkable souls. She said to me as we went into Barnes & Noble that she had luck in the beginning, and though there was a sag to her career in the middle, she feels gratified that so much is happening for her later in life. Still tiny and trim, her face exactly the same, except for the wrinkles that disappears when she smiles, which is often, her eyes still a pale, lively bright blue, though dimmed from her side by macular degeneration that doesn't keep her from reading more than most people who can see unimpaired, she is a gentle pistol. She is happily convinced that my career will echo hers, and be liveliest towards the finale. That would be nice. Rather than leaving it to Destiny, (or maybe she is a part of the Destiny she won't leave it to) she is trying to help me rescusitate(sp?) my musical.
What a spirit. And to think Dickens had only Tiny Tim to inspire and
bless us, every one.
BULLETIN: Lest you think I am sidestepping my role as observer of our eras' foibles in favor of nostalgia, rest easy. I am right on top of the lamb scandal front-paged in yesterday's NYTimes. There was a picture of two male sheep trying to look innocent. Scientists (what were they looking at?) have concluded that eight percent of rams ram other rams rather than ewes, so there's homolambsexuality in the flock. But once more into the breech: as soon as I finish this, I have a telephone interview with Keith Martin, the ecologically conscientious man I met at the Gourmet Institute, who gave up his career as a broker to start this higher level of sheep raising or whatever you call it(I'll find out) and I have passed on to him the intelligence(is it?) that there's hanky-panky among the lamby-pambys. No wonder the meat was so tender.