Today is the birthday of comedienne Ruth Buzzi (b. 1936). I’ve always felt a special connection to her because she was born in the same hospital as me (Westerly Hospital, Rhode Island) and my parents used to boast of having drunk with her father, a sculptor and monument-maker, in local bars. She was raised in Wequetecock, Connecticut and she’s never hidden her strong Southern New England accent, which to me, always sounds like home. The fact that my aunt and grandmother were both named Ruth, and sister and niece both have it for a middle name has cemented the connection further.
Buzzi had a sort of charmed career. She studied at the Pasadena Playhouse right out of high school and got her first professional job at age 19, performing in a touring show with Rudy Vallee. She played in such tours, off-Broadway revues and summer stock for years before things started to break for her in the mid 60s. She played Dom DeLuise’s assistant in a comedy magic act, got regular shots on national tv programs such as The Steve Allen Comedy Hour and That Girl, and was cast in the original Broadway production of Sweet Charity. It was from here that she was hired for the show that she is best known for Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in (1968-1973).
The toothy, goofy Buzzi was one of the stand-out stars of the most popular show in the country. Her best loved character was Gladys, the old woman who hit everyone with her purse, whom she regularly played in blackout skits with Arte Johnson as a dirty old man. The character outlasted Laugh-In — she often revived her for Dean Martin’s variety shows and celebrity roasts, and even voiced an animated version on the Saturday morning cartoon Baggy Pants and the Nitwits in 1977. And she also co-starred with Jim Nabors in the children’s show The Lost Saucer (1975-1976) which we wrote about here. The rest is so much denouement. Lots of guest appearances on prime-time in the 70s. Then lots of voice-over work and children’s tv. For the past several years she’s been in semi-retirement on her Texas ranch, apparently bookending her life in a progression from the smallest of the continental 48 states to the largest!
Here’s a tour de force turn by Buzzi — this crazy song was actually her audition piece for Laugh-In, here presented on the show:
To find out more about the history of vaudeville (including television variety), consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc