Just got the word that Nanette Fabray (b. 1920) passed away today. She’d been retired for a decade; it was a surprise to know that she was still with us. When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, she was one of the army of ubiquitous celebrities who were on all the variety, talk and game shows, people whom everyone knew, but, as a kid, you had no idea why they were famous. In subsequent decades I learned certain things that made her more interesting to me, and now that I’ve learned abut her early history, she’s become very interesting!
Her full name was Ruby Bernadette Nanette Fabares. The actress/singer Shelley Fabares from Coach and The Donna Reed Show is her niece. “Fabray” is merely a phoneticized, Anglicized spelling of her real surname, which is French in origin, much as her first name would suggest. The legend is that she changed the spelling after Ed Sullivan pronounced it “Fa-Bare-Ass” when introducing her.
Born and raised in San Diego, she started out as a child performer, studied dance with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, studied theatre at the Max Reinhardt school, and performed in vaudeville as a child with the likes of Ben Turpin. I never would have dreamt she was that old, but she was!
In 1939, she played a lady in waiting in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) with Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, and appeared in a couple of other films that year, but after this auspicious start in the film business she made a major detour and became a Broadway performer over the next decade. In Meet the People (1940) she tap danced while singing opera. Then came Cole Porter’s Let’s Face It (1941) with Danny Kaye and Eve Arden, Bloomer Girl (1944-47), High Button Shoes (1947-49), and many others.
In the ’50s film and tv came calling. She was in the movie musical The Band Wagon (1953), and was a regular on Sid Caesar’s variety show Caesar’s Hour (1954-56). In 1961 she had her own variety show, The Nanette Fabray Show, which ran 26 episodes. She played Mary Richards’ mom in two episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1972), and was a regular on One Day at a Time (1979-1984) as Ann Romano’s mom. And on Coach (1990-1994) she played Chistine’s mom in three episodes — Christine of course played by her real life niece Shelley Fabares! But this is really just a sample of her credits.
Like I say, she seemed to be everywhere on television for several decades. She was always a very animated, energetic presence. Her face always seemed lit up with a smile. It seems strange to imagine all of that stilled. And, ya know, maybe it’s not! Let us just say she took the show on the road.