Alice Ghostley, 81; Tony Award-winning actress who starred in ‘Bewitched’

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Times Staff Writer

Alice Ghostley, the Tony Award-winning comedic actress and singer who specialized in playing ditsy ladies and was best known on television for her supporting roles as Esmeralda on “Bewitched” and Bernice on “Designing Women,” died Friday. She was 81.

Ghostley died at her home in Studio City after a long battle with colon cancer and a series of strokes, said Jim Pinkston, a longtime friend.

Ghostley made her Broadway debut in “Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1952,” the hit revue in which she received critical acclaim for singing the satirical send-up “The Boston Beguine,” which became her signature song.


“She was just so wonderful,” said Miles Kreuger, president of the Los Angeles-based Institute of the American Musical, who saw “New Faces of 1952” repeatedly and recalls Ghostley singing “The Boston Beguine.”

“There was nothing glamorous about her,” he said. “She was rather plain and had a splendid singing voice, and the combination of the well-trained, splendid singing voice and this kind of dowdy homemaker character was so incongruous and so charming.”

Ghostley won the Tony Award for best featured actress in a play in 1965 for “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.”

She also received a Tony nomination two years earlier for various characterizations in the 1962-63 Broadway comedy “The Beauty Part” with Bert Lahr.

“She was an exceptional actress,” said Kaye Ballard, a longtime friend who appeared with Ghostley as the wicked stepsisters in a 1957 television production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” starring Julie Andrews.

Although Ghostley was often compared to Paul Lynde, one of her “New Faces” co-stars, Ballard said Ghostley “was completely original. If anyone was influenced, it was Paul who was influenced by Alice.”


Ghostley, she said, “was gentle and she was sincere and she was kind and she never said a cruel thing about anyone -- ever. I feel humor has changed today; everyone has mean humor. Alice was the epitome of class when it came to comedy.

“But Alice was superior in everything she did. She was a very special, special person.”

Ghostley last appeared on Broadway in “Annie,” taking over the role of Miss Hannigan, the wicked orphanage supervisor, in 1978 and playing the part until 1983.

During her show business career, she regularly moved between the stage, cabaret, movies and television.

On “Bewitched,” she played the timid good witch Esmeralda, the housekeeper, from 1969 to 1972.

And from 1987 to 1993, she played Bernice Clifton on “Designing Women,” a role that earned her an Emmy nomination for supporting actress in a comedy in 1992.

Among Ghostley’s film credits are “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Graduate,” “Gator” and “Grease.”


She was born Aug. 14, 1926, in the train station in Eve, Mo., where her father worked as a telegraph operator, and she grew up in Henryetta, Okla.

“When I was 5 years old, my mother took me to the Legion Hut and stood me on a table,” she told the Boston Globe in 1990. “I recited poetry! I sang songs! I tap-danced! I didn’t know it then, but that table was my first stage. There was applause.

“The second time my mother took me to the Hut, I made her give me a nickel before I stood on that table. I wanted the applause but, even at 5, I knew I had earned the applause.”

After graduating from high school, Ghostley attended the University of Oklahoma but quit to move to New York with her sister Gladys.

Ghostley was known for her cabaret appearances as a singer and comedian before she was cast in “New Faces of 1952.”

When she first arrived in New York, she recalled in the Boston Globe interview, she couldn’t afford to take singing lessons, so she worked as a secretary to a music teacher in exchange for lessons.


“The best job I had then was as a theater usher,” she said. “I saw all the plays for free. What I saw before me was a visualization of what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be. I saw all the first jobs I did, from waitressing to patch testing for a detergent company, as a bridge to the stage.”

But she was a realist, she said.

“I knew I didn’t look like an ingenue. My nose was too long. I had crooked teeth. I wasn’t blond. I knew I looked like a character actress.

“But I also knew I’d find a way.”

Ghostley, whose actor husband, Felice Orlandi, died in 2003, is survived by her sister Gladys.