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Monday, February 14, 2011

Actress Betty Garrett dead at 91

Betty Garrett, actress who wooed Frank Sinatra dead.

Betty GarrettBetty Garrett, who pursued Frank Sinatra in two classic musicals but got chased out of Hollywood because of the real-life blacklist, died Saturday at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. She was 91.

Garrett had been in good health, said her son Garrett Parks, and just this past Wednesday had taught her regular weekly class on musical theater.

She apparently suffered an aortic aneurysm.

Betty Garrett became known to a later TV generation for her recurring roles in the 1970s sitcoms "All in the Family" and "Laverne and Shirley," but she made her reputation in the 1949 films "On the Town" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

In "On the Town," she played a New York cab driver who escorts three sailors – played by Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin – on a whirlwind leave tour of the city.

She develops an immediate crush on the shy Sinatra – a novel twist at a time when female cabbies were themselves a novelty. She sings the saucy "Come Up To My Place" to loosen him up.

She had the same crush on the same Sinatra in "Take Me Out To the Ballgame." She just didn't drive a hack.

Garrett was born in Missouri and raised by her mother after her father died of alcoholism when she was 2. She showed early promise as an actress and singer, and when she was 15, her mother moved them to New York to see if she could become a star.

She spent the next decade studying under Martha Graham and working with performers and producers like Orson Welles, Ethel Merman, Carol Channing Joseph Cotton and Jerome Robbins. She played the Borscht Belt and did a brief stint as a chorus girl at the Latin Quarter in Boston.

She got her big break when she sang the show-stopping "South America, Take It Away" in the 1946 musical "Call Me Mister." MGM took notice and signed her to a movie contract.

Besides the Sinatra flicks, she also appeared in "Neptune's Daughter," where she and Red Skelton sang one of the 10,000 known duet of "Baby It's Cold Outside."

Her path to musical stardom was shut down, however, when her husband Larry Parks was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his membership in the Communist party a decade earlier.

His appearance there ended his own rising career and soon MGM also terminated Garrett's contract. She had also been a party member in the early 1940s, though she was not called by HUAC.

She said in 1998 that she was not bitter, but that it was still tragic that two careers, particularly her husband's, had been derailed because of what she called "a dark period, a foolish, foolish period."

She and Parks, who died in 1975, were able to make a living on tour until he left show business and became a successful home builder.

She made one more movie, costarring with Jack Lemmon and Janet Leigh in the 1955 musical "My Sister Eileen." She then moved primarily to theater and television.

She played Edith Bunker's talkative friend Irene Lorenzo on "All in the Family" and Edna Babish, the landlady who married Laverne's father on "Laverne and Shirley."

In more recent years she had roles on shows like "Boston Public" and "Grey's Anatomy."

Besides Garrett Parks, she is survived by one other son, Andrew.

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