The actresses discussed in this article are individually remarkable because of their unparalleled versatility. To conquer Broadway, enchant audiences and make their mark in television is quite a feat.
Stage and Screen Star
Shirley Booth (1898-1992) loved working in theater. Following a stock apprenticeship in Pittsburgh, she moved to New York. Changing her name from Marjory Ford, she made her Broadway debut opposite Humphrey Bogart in Hells’ Bells. Shirley Booth quickly built a resume that would include the original productions of Three Men on a Horse, Goodbye, My Fancy (Tony Award), The Philadelphia Story, The Desk Setand My Sister Eileen. However, it was her performance as Lola in William Inge’s Come Back, Little Shebathat moved her to the upper echelon. After convincing Inge to remake the character from a sex kitten into a frumpish housewife both she and costar Sidney Blackmer were honored with Tony Awards that season. The 1952 film version costarred Booth, (who won an Oscar for her performance), and Burt Lancaster.
Booth also worked in radio as the man-crazy daughter on Duffy’s Tavern. When A Tree Grows in Brooklynwas made into a musical, she played the Aunt Sissy, charming audiences with her rendition of “He Had Refinement.” She starred in Arthur Laurents’ The Time of the Cuckoo, for which she won another Tony.
While Joan Crawford, Ruth Hussey, Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn took some of her roles on film, Booth appeared onscreen in About Mrs. Leslie, Hot Spelland the film version of The Matchmaker.
Ted Key had been drawing Hazel, a single-panel cartoon for The Saturday Evening Postsince 1943. Ignoring remarks that the role of the bossy maid was beneath her, Shirley Booth was lured to television and Hazelbecame the role of her career. Costarring Don DeFore, Whitney Blake and Bobby Buntrock as the Baxters, Hazelwas a success from its premiere and had a five-year run. Booth won two Emmys for her work.
Something that stood out about Hazel, was its use of product replacement. Sponsored by Ford Motors, the opening credits (which changed over time) featured Booth and the family gathered around a car made by, you guessed it, Ford. (Yet, in only one, do Hazel and the little boy buckle their seatbelts, a habit we think nothing of today, but which was only catching on in the early 1960s).
Following Hazel, Booth played Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. Her costars were Hal Holbrook as Tom, Barbara Loden as Laura and Pat Hingle as The Gentleman Caller. She was nominated for an Emmy.
Her love for theater brought Booth back to Broadway, first, in a revival of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever and then as the Mother Superior in Look to the Lilies, a short-lived musical based on Lilies of the Field. She toured with Gig Young in a revival of Harvey, before returning to television in A Touch of Grace, which lasted one season. After voicing Mrs. Claus in The Year Without a Santa Claus, she retired. Booth was married twice: to Ed Gardner from 1929-1942 and William H. Baker, Jr. from 1943-1951. There are several biographies about the actress, including one that’s almost a love letter to Booth and Baker.
When she was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame, because Booth’s health was in decline, she asked Celeste Holm to accept for her. Following a stroke, she lost her sight and after breaking a hip, declined quickly. She passed away at 94, in 1992.
Remembering Miss Ellie
She won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her performance as Miss Ellie on Dallas, but over a six-decade career, Barbara Bel Geddes (1922-2005) created many roles onstage and screen. Born into theater, her father was designer Norman Bel Geddes, and she was married twice, first to theater manager Carl Sawyer, then director Windsor Lewis.
Barbara Bel Geddes gained stardom in the long-running comedy, The Moon is Blue, later filmed by Otto Preminger (Maggie MacNamara took the film role). The movie was controversial because the verboten word “virgin” was used. A few years later, she created the role of Maggie “the Cat” in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Six years later, she created the title role in Jean Kerr’s Mary, Mary, which played over 1,500 performances. (Her roles of “Maggie theCat“was played onscreen by Elizabeth Taylor while Debbie Reynolds played Mary, Mary on film). She also appeared onstage in Burning Bright, Albee’s Everything in the Garden, Kerr’s Finishing Touchesand in Silent Night, Lonely Nightwith Henry Fonda. In 1993 both she and her father were inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
In Hollywood, she appeared in such films as The Long Night, I Remember Mama, Panic in the Streets, The Five Pennies and is perhaps, most memorable in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
HUAC and Alfred Hitchcock
In the late 1940s, Senator Joseph McCarthy led the House Un-American Activities Committee, investigating Communist activity. Along with a number of other performers, Barbara Bel Geddes’ name appeared on the Hollywood Blacklist. Unlike many, Bel Geddes was fortunately able to work onstage and television, where, by far, her most remarkable appearance was in Roald Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter, an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In it she portrays the pregnant wife of a policeman who kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb after he tells her he’s leaving her for another woman. She then puts the weapon in the oven, and later serves it to the investigators. Her facial expression at the end was also seen on Anthony Perkins’ face in Psycho.
Due to health problems, including a mastectomy, Bel Geddes worked sporadically throughout the 1960s and early 70s but was cast in television’s most popular prime time soap opera, Dallas. Bel Geddes was cast as Miss Ellie, the matriarch of the Ewing clan. Larry Hagman, Victoria Principal, Patrick Duffy, Linda Gray and a myriad of others played out the drama of oilmen and cattle barons at Southfork Ranch in modern Texas.
Beloved by the cast and crew, at the conclusion of the 1982-83 season, she underwent quadruple bypass surgery. Oscar winner Donna Reed took over as Miss Ellie, while Bel Geddes recovered. She retired in 1990, where she created a line of greeting cards and wrote two children’s books. Barbara Bel Geddes died of lung cancer in 2005. She was memorialized by the cast when Dallaswas revived a few years later.
F. Jasmine Addams
Julie Harris (1925-2013) was an extraordinary actress honored with 5 Tony Awards; a Grammy for her recording of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and three Emmys. She received the National Medal of Arts and a Kennedy Center Honor. Still, Julie Harris appeared in ten failures before her initial success as Frankie Addams in The Member of the Wedding (1952), the stage and screen adaptations of Carson McCullers’ novel.
A year later, she did a 360-degree turn to play a character that was the complete opposite of Frankie Addams: Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera, based on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. This play would later become the popular musical, Cabaret. She also recreated the role on film. Harris’ credits for Broadway include The Lark, A Shot in the Dark, Skyscraper, Little Moon of Alban, Marathon ’33, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, The Last of Mrs. Lincoln, Mixed Couples, Lucifer’s Child, The Glass Menagerie, The Gin Game,and perhaps her most famous role, The Belle of Amherst. Harris has also been honored with the Sarah Siddons for work in Chicago Theater.
One of television’s most prestigious actresses, she gained fame on Hallmark Hall of Fame, where she starred in Victoria Regina, Pygmalion, The Heiress, A Doll’s Houseand two productions of Little Moon of Alban. She also played Lilimae Clements on the Dallas spinoff, Knot’s Landing.
In 2001, Harris suffered a stroke, and another occurred in 2010. She did voice over work for several documentaries, including Ken Burns’ Civil War. Her last stage role was Nanny in a Cape Cod production of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. She passed on in 2013 at the age of 87.
The feats of Shirley Booth, Barbara Bel Geddes and Julie Harris places them among the most distinguished, important actresses of the last century, and could certainly teach this generation a thing or two about acting!