Stage and screen legend Betty Garrett reveals her hidden talents in Theatre West's Betty Garrett: Closet Songwriter.
"I think I've been writing poems and songs all my life," Garrett admits. "When I was four years old, my family got me up on a stair landing and said, 'Recite your little poem, Betty.' And so I recited, 'Trees, trees with all the leaves/Up so high where the birdies fly.' And I was four years old when I wrote that, so it's just one of those things. Besides being a performer, I think that's the other thing I always wanted to be was a writer."
The two-hour show, which is narrated by Garrett, covers the creation of about 30 songs that were written by Garrett, along with a dozen other collaborators, and which will be performed by a cast of seven: Debra Armani, Bridget Hanley, Daniel Keough, Jack Kutcher, Robert W. Laur, Barbara Mallory, Lee Meriwether, and Andy Taylor. "The show tells why I wrote a song, or how I wrote it, or what the circumstances were," she says. "Some of them are slightly staged, and we have a couple of numbers that are danced. So it's like a musical revue and my narration ties it all together."
Fans of the Golden Age of movie musicals know Garrett from films like On the Town, Words and Music, Neptune's Daughter, My Sister Eileen, and Take Me Out to the Ball Game. She's also got a dozen Broadway shows to her credit, including the musicals Something for the Boys, Bells Are Ringing, Meet Me in St. Louis, and, most recently, the 2001 Roundabout Theatre Company revival of the James Goldman/Stephen Sondheim extravaganza Follies (as "Broadway Baby" Hattie). Meanwhile, television viewers remember her fondly from her recurring roles on two classic comedies of the 1970s: All in the Family (as liberal neighbor Irene Lorenzo) and Laverne & Shirley (as landlady Edna Babish).
However, her talent for songwriting, which she first began in high school, seems inevitable considering her upbringing. Garrett was raised by her divorced mother, who worked as the manager of the sheet music department of Sherman Clay, a large music store in Seattle. "I grew up in that store with all that wonderful sheet music," she recalled. "There were little rooms where you could take records in and play them, and a whole floor of pianos and musical instruments. I was just engrossed in all of that music."
At age 17, Garrett won a scholarship to the famed Neighborhood Playhouse. Once there, she studied acting while her mother continued selling and promoting sheet music for Shermer Publishing and other musical houses. "All my life, she was part of music," Garrett says fondly. "I tell you, when I hear stories of people whose parents object to them going into show business, I think, 'Boy, I was lucky!' My mother was never a stage mother; she was not an aggressive woman, but she just was there. And no matter how bad I was in something, my mother would always come backstage and say, 'Oh Betty, that was lovely, dear.' Everybody should have somebody like that in their life."
After two years of studies, Garrett launched her show biz career at age 19 by landing a gig with Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre. At that time, she was also dancing with Martha Graham. "I've danced all my life," she says. "My mother sent me to dancing school when I was about seven years old. That's the thing dearest to my heart. I love dancing."
Not surprisingly, all that singing, dancing, and acting training led her to a career heavily based in musical theater. And since she was also a budding tunesmith, it's not surprising that lyrics (and, in some cases, melodies) began spilling from her pen as well. Songwriter Bob Russell ("Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me") offered her major encouragement to follow her songwriting aspirations, and she later received more guidance from her friend Lehman Engle (also her conductor for Call Me Mister) at the famed BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop.
Eventually Garrett left New York, and made her home in Los Angeles. In 1962, together with a group of fellow New York actors, she helped to found Theatre West, now the oldest continually operating theatre in Los Angeles. Every Wednesday night, Garrett is there running the theater's musical comedy workshop.