Betty Garrett: From Lady Cab Driver to Lady with a Tool Box

I first knew Betty Garrett (1919-2011) as a contemporary TV star in the 1970s. On All in the Family she played Irene, the neighbor Archie Bunker was suspicious of because she was handy with tools. Irene was married to Frank (Vincent Gardenia), a man Archie was suspicious of because he was good at cooking. After this, she went on to play Edna, the landlady on Laverne and Shirley. I was a kid at the time. Grown-ups knew something we didn’t: Garrett had been a star of musicals 30 years earlier.

Raised in a broken home in Seattle, Garrett came to New York at age 17 to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse. This gave her grounding to be a serious actress, but Garrett was a triple threat, and she rapidly gravitated toward show business. She danced with Martha Graham and performed at nightclubs like the Village Vanguard and in the Catskills with the likes of Danny Kaye, Imogene Coca, and Carol Channing. In 1939 and 1940 she appeared in the Railroads on Parade revue at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. On Broadway she appeared in Of V We Sing (1942), Let Freedom Sing (1942), Something for the Boys (1943-44), Jackpot (1944), Olsen and Johnson’s Laffing Room Only (1944-45), and Call Me Mister (1946-48). Then came musical films like Words and Music (1948), Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1948), Neptune’s Daughter (1949) with Esther Williams and Red Skelton, and On the Town (1949), in which she played the unforgettable role of Hildy the Lady Cab Driver.

In 1951, Garrett and her husband Larry Parks, star of The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949), whom she had married in 1944, were blacklisted for past Communist Party associations. To fill the time, they performed an act in nightclubs and English music halls for several years. When she returned in the mid 1950s her career had much less momentum. She appeared in the films My Sister Eileen (1955) and The Shadow on the Window (1957), and then returned to Broadway, first as a replacement for Judy Holliday in the original production of Bells Are Ringing, and then in Beg Borrow or Steal (1960), Spoon River Anthology (1963) and A Girl Could Get Lucky (1964).

And then 20 years after the blacklist Betty Garrett became a household word as one of the cast of the most controversial, left-wing shows of the day. Pretty tasty revenge, huh?

To learn more about classic show business, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,