Reta Shaw: Housemaid from Hell

Thank you, Scott Stiffler, for reminding me of the existence of Reta Shaw (1912-1882) the bulldog-like character actress who played any number of severe housemaids, nurses, lady military officers and suchlike in sitcoms and films from the early 1950s through the mid 1970s. With her broad-shoulders, barrel-like torso, and deep-throated, commanding voice, Shaw seemed to enter every room like a tornado. There was no ignoring her. I’ve known many women like her in real life — scary teachers, intimidating aunts. But one seldom sees them represented in movies and shows. You need just the right person, and Shaw clearly was — she had the market cornered for over two decades.

I would have probably first encountered her as Aunt Hagatha on Bewitched, or as the stern maid whom Felix hires to get Oscar’s life in order on The Odd Couple. She was also the cook Mrs. Brill in Mary Poppins (1964), and a regular on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Shaw was at the pitch of perfection in these roles, as a silver haired older woman. She’d been plying her unique trade for decades by that point,of course.

I am not astonished to learn that this rugged actress hailed from Maine, nor that her father was an orchestra conductor and her mother a second generation spiritualist. Shaw attended the Leland Powers School of Elocution in Boston, and made it to Broadway by 1947, in the comedy It Takes Two. She was in the original production of the musical version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949-51), and both the Broadway and Hollywood versions of Picnic and The Pajama Game in the mid-50s. She had regular roles on The Ann Sothern Show (1958-58), The Tab Hunter Show (1960) and Oh Those Bells! (1962) with the Wiere Brothers, and did guest shots on such shows as The Real McCoys, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, My Three Sons, The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, That Girl and The Monkees. Other films included Pollanna (1960), A Global Affair (1964), The Loved One (1965), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), and her last, Escape to Witch Mountain (1975).

Emphysema took Reta Shaw when she was not yet 70. If smoking can kill a woman that tough, it’s got to be bad for you.