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'Incendiary Blonde': Faith Refuels A New Life

December 12, 1985|JACK HAWN

It had been almost three years since we last heard from Betty Hutton--the shrieking, explosive "Incendiary Blonde" of decades past.

In belting out such slam-bang screamers as " 'Murder,' He Says," "His Rocking Horse Ran Away" and "I'm Just a Square in a Social Circle," the singer was at her best. But she also could go soft on you with dreamy ballads like "It Had to Be You" and other romantic favorites.

But that was yesteryear--a lifetime ago, before she went into a tailspin that nearly destroyed her.

Seemingly at the height of her career in movies and recordings in the 1950s, Hutton's hypertensive personality spilled over into a fast-living habit of parties, pills and booze. Ultimately, in the early '70s, she ended up in various New England hospitals, where she underwent psychiatric treatment.

"I tried to kill myself," Hutton was quoted as saying in 1983. "They put me in an alcoholic hospital because that was the only place where they know how to take you off pills, and I was on a lot of speed. I was furious. I couldn't wait to get out and try it again."

But a chance meeting with a Catholic priest saved her.

According to the story, Hutton had returned "from the grave . . . risen from the ashes," so to speak--the kind of dramatic phrases that seem appropriate in describing such comebacks.

Drug and alcohol abuse and an attempted suicide behind her, she had embarked on a professional comeback of sorts, too, having appeared in a limited run of the Broadway hit "Annie" and, at the time, taping a PBS television show called "Juke Box Saturday Night," a program of "golden oldies."

But since then, show business has been placed on a back burner, and, now, 2 1/2 months from her 65th birthday (Feb. 26), a "new" Betty Hutton seems to be emerging, complete with a college education and a recent face lift.

"I'm a whole new person and still I'm me," she said. "By the grace of God, I'm still moving around, still doing it."

Her unveiling took place Monday night as part of a tribute to composers Jay Livingston and Ray Evans at L.A. Stage Co., West, in Beverly Hills.

When she finally made her entrance almost at the conclusion of the two-hour program, she was greeted by a standing, near-capacity crowd of about 700.

Moved, she lifted teary eyes as if in prayer, mouthing the words, "Thank God," while making the sign of the cross.

"I haven't done this in a long, long time," she told the audience. "I'm a professor now."

Appearing slender and energetic in a black, see-through gown--but still showing the effects of her 3-week-old face lift (bruises and a slight swelling)--she needed a few minutes to regain her composure.

Then she sang--a lively number written especially for her about 20 years ago by Livingston and Evans. As a reluctant encore, she closed with the standard, "There's No Business Like Show Business."

The composers and the other two singers on the bill--Gary Crosby and Ralna English--greeted friends after the show, but Hutton did not, exiting via a rear door.

"I don't remember the last time I performed in Los Angeles," she had said a week or so earlier, during a telephone interview at her condo in Newport, R.I., "but it's been a long, long time. I would do anything for Ray and Jay. I love them to death."

Declining a request for a photograph at the time, saying she looked as if she had been "hit by a Mack truck," Hutton spoke candidly about undergoing cosmetic surgery in Los Angeles, where she comes frequently to visit her three daughters and five grandchildren.

"I thought I might as well look as young as I feel," she said. "I think I look terrific. I do physical exercises, dancing. . . . My body is in excellent shape.

"So, I figured I needed a little bit of a face lift. Why not get it? A little tuck here, a little tuck there. . . . Why shouldn't a woman look as good as she can? Men always look better--the lucky bums!"

Hutton also explained why show business doesn't dominate her interests these days.

"I've been going to college for four years," she announced, as if finally letting out a deep secret. "I'm getting my master's degree at Christmastime, then I will be teaching theater at the college starting the first of the year.

"I wouldn't want to go back to show business on a regular basis. It's back-breaking work and it hasn't gotten any better. There are more problems now, more drugs. . . . "

Actually, graduation ceremonies at the school--Salve Regina, a Catholic women's college in Newport--are scheduled in May, "but I will have all the credits by Christmas.

"Imagine little ol' me, finally graduating," she said proudly. "I majored in psychology. What else!"

A school dropout at age 9, Hutton said she had no formal education before meeting a Catholic priest 13 years ago--Father Peter McGuire, who, in her words, "saved my life."

He is, indeed, credited with turning Hutton's life around and even today isn't far from her side.

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