On the Highly Substantial Alice Ghostley

Character actress Alice Ghostley (1923-2007) was born on August 14.

No doubt you already know where you know her from, and we’ll hit that, but honestly Ghostley was a woman of so many accomplishments as an actress and performer, of both stage and screen, that her career is impressive nearly from the beginning. Born in Missouri, raised in Arkansas and Oklahoma (her father was a telegraph operator), Ghostley began performing in school theatricals in her childhood. She dropped out of the University of Oklahoma to pursue her career, initially forming an act with her sister Gladys, the Ghostley Sisters. Alice then went solo in New York, becoming popular as a singer and comedian on the cabaret stage. This led to her being hired for the Broadway revue Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1952, with Paul Lynde, Robert Clary, Eartha Kitt, Ronny Graham and Carol Lawrence. This was Ghostley’s big break; after that, she worked constantly for the next five decades.

Ghostley began acting in television and Broadway at the same time. On Broadway, she was in the shows Sandhog (1954-55) and Shangri-La (1956) both starring Jack Cassidy; the bizarre experiment All in One (1955) which featured Tennessee Williams’ 27 Wagons Full of Cotton on a bill with tap dancer Paul Draper and a comedy sketch Trouble in Tahiti (which is the segment Ghostley was in); the Tom Sawyer musical Livin’ the Life (1957, as Aunt Polly); the short-lived Mel TolkinLucille Kallen comedy Maybe Tuesday (1958); A Thurber Carnival (1960); S.J. Perelman’s The Beauty Part (1962) opposite Bert Lahr; and Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964-65), which earned her a TONY.

There was a theatrical component to a lot of early TV work as well. She was in a 1955 TV adaptation of George Kelly’s The Show Off. She was in the 1957 TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, as an evil stepsister alongside Kay Ballard, who became a lifelong friend. (Ghostley would later appear on an episode of Ballard’s The Mothers-in-Law). Ghostley may well hold the the record for the most number of regular or recurring parts on TV series, The shows include Jackie Gleason’s American Scene Magazine (1962-1964), Captain Nice (1967), Bewitched (1969-72, although she’d made a guest appearance as early as 1966); Mayberry R.F.D. (1970-71); Nichols with James Garner (1971-72); The Julie Andrews Hour (1972-73); The New Temperatures Rising Show (1972-74); Designing Women (1986-1993); Small Wonder (1988); Evening Shade (1992-94); Hercules (1998) and Passions (2000). She also made repeat appearances on Car 54, Where Are You? (1961);  Get Smart (1966-68), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1969-70); Hogan’s Heroes (1969-71); Love, American Style (1969-73);  Good Times (1977); and One Day at a Time (1977). On top of this, she made single appearances on scores of other shows. It would be silly to list highlights, it was essentially every TV show known to mankind.

Ghostley also did the occasional movie, usually in small roles, although she jumped out at you from the screen thanks to her high visibility on television. Film appearances included The Flim Flam Man (1967), The Graduate (1967), With Six You Get Eggroll (1968), Viva Max (1969), Gator (1976), Rabbit Test (1978), Grease (1978), Not for Publication (1984). And who can forget the TV movie, The Hoboken Chicken Emergency (1984)?

In the late ’70s Ghostley returned to Broadway for the last time as a replacement in the role of Miss Harrigan in Annie. Her last screen role was nearly two decades later, in the comedy Mothers and Daughters (2006).

In 2003 her husband of 50 years, character actor Felice Orlandi passed away. But when Ghostley died in 2007, she chose to be buried with her sister Gladys in Arkansas. The grave is marked “The Ghostley Sisters”.

NOW: my temptation was to open to talking about one of her most memorable roles, as Esmerelda on Bewitched. It’s probably where I first saw her, and millions continue to associate her primarily with the part. I always wondered, “Did the producers devise the character to match her surname?” Because there is something wonderful about the fact that her name was Ghostley, and Esmerelda’s character trait was a nervous, retiring nature. Whenever anything vaguely upsetting would happen she would get a worried look on her face and vanish into thin air. This would be accompanied by spooky horror notes on a theatre organ. Amusingly, she wouldn’t just become invisible — she would go away. Just evaporate into the ether, like a ghost. Oh, to have this skill! Anyway, I didn’t want to lead by talking about this wonderful character, because as we have seen, Ghostley had a surprising amount of range for someone with so distinctive a face. Her characters weren’t all worriers. Some were pushy and obnoxious, some were brainy, some were very dumb, etc etc etc. I was also surprised to learn about her rural, crackery background, even though she certainly played country characters often enough on the screen. I always got a smart, sophisticated vibe from her, which is no doubt how she won over those New York audiences in her early cabaret act. There was something to her, and that’s always fascinating.

To learn more about variety entertainment, including cabaret, theatrical revues and the kind of TV variety shows Alice Ghostley appeared in consult my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available everywhere!