Betty Garrett dies at 91; versatile comedic actress

Betty Garrett "was a woman of boundless optimism," said Miles Kreuger, president of the Institute of the American Musical. "On the screen and on television there was just a wonderful sense of joy."
(Columbia Pictures)

Betty Garrett, a comedic actress who was a fixture in such MGM musicals as “On The Town” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” a regular on the television series “All in the Family” and “Laverne & Shirley” and a star on Broadway and in Los Angeles theater productions, has died. She was 91.

Garrett died early Saturday morning at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center of an aortic aneurysm, said her son Garrett Parks.

Just last Wednesday, Garrett went to dinner with friends and afterward taught a weekly musical comedy class at Theatre West, the nonprofit theater she helped found in North Hollywood half a century ago.

“She was a woman of boundless optimism,” Miles Kreuger, president of the Los Angeles-based Institute of the American Musical, told The Times on Saturday. “On the screen and on television there was just a wonderful sense of joy.”

In a 2009 interview with The Times, Garrett reflected on her long career. “People say, how come you’ve lasted this long?” she said. “I say I think it’s because all of my life I have gotten to do what I love to do.”

Born on May 23, 1919, in St. Joseph, Mo., Garrett had a flair for performance that was apparent at an early age.

In 1936, a family friend arranged for her to meet famed dancer Martha Graham. Graham recommended Garrett for a scholarship at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York.

“I graduated from high school at 16 and came right to New York,” Garrett later recalled.

Within a few years, she was landing roles on Broadway. She made her first big splash in “Call Me Mister,” a sketch comedy revue in which she sang the hit song “South America, Take It Away.”

Soon, Hollywood came calling. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract drew her west in 1947, and she spent the next several years making musicals, including 1949’s “Neptune’s Daughter” with Red Skelton and “On the Town” with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.

“I was in on the end of what they called the golden years,” she told The Times in 1979. “I met Gable and Tracy and, of course, Gene Kelly and Sinatra. To grow up with Frank being your idol and then suddenly being his leading lady is an extraordinary fantasy lived out.”

In 1944, Garrett married actor Larry Parks, who had had success onscreen in “The Jolson Story” but whose film career ended with the Hollywood blacklist. The couple toured Britain with a vaudeville act. Parks died in 1975.

Garrett was best known on TV for her roles on two popular 1970s sitcoms, as landlady Edna Babish on “Laverne & Shirley” and as Archie Bunker’s neighbor Irene Lorenzo on “All in the Family.”

In recent years, she had performed a one-woman show, “Betty Garrett and Other Songs.” She appeared frequently on the Theatre West stage. Her final shows there included “Nunsense,” the Los Angeles premiere of Noel Coward’s “Waiting in the Wings” and a revue, “Betty Garrett, Closet Songwriter.”

In addition to her son Garrett, a composer, she is survived by her son Andrew, an actor, and a granddaughter, Madison.

On Saturday night Madison performed in an opera at her high school.

“She’s following in her grandmother’s footsteps,” Garrett Parks said of his daughter.