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Isabel Bigley Barnett, 80; Last of Original `Guys and Dolls' Leads Won a Tony for Her Role

October 03, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Isabel Bigley Barnett, who won a Tony Award for her performance as the original Sarah Brown in "Guys and Dolls" and was the last surviving principal of the Broadway classic, has died. She was 80.

Barnett, a resident of Los Angeles and Rancho Mirage who was an active supporter of the arts, died Saturday of pulmonary disease at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, her family said.

As Isabel Bigley, the Bronx-born singer-actress had been playing Laurey in the London production of "Oklahoma!" when she was cast as Sarah Brown of the Save-a-Soul Mission in "Guys and Dolls," the acclaimed interpretation of the flamboyant world of Damon Runyon by Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling.

The long-running musical, whose other leads were Robert Alda, Vivian Blaine and Sam Levene, opened at the 46th Street Theatre in November 1950 and closed in November 1953 after 1,200 performances.

For her performance, she won the Tony Award as best supporting or featured actress in a musical in 1951.

"She was the ideal ingenue," Miles Kreuger, president of the Los Angeles-based Institute of the American Musical, told The Times on Monday. "She was pretty and had a beautiful voice and could act.

"I remember 'If I Were a Bell' -- she brought such delightful humor, a subtle humor, to the singing of the song.... It really was a thrilling moment in the theater."

Barnett also played the female lead opposite Bill Hayes in "Me and Juliet," an original musical comedy by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II about the mounting of a Broadway show, which ran from May 1953 to April 1954. The part was created especially for her and included the memorable "No Other Love," which she sang with Hayes.

"She was a wonderful performer and a wonderful person," Hayes told The Times on Monday. He met Barnett at Dick Rodgers' home when Rodgers played the show's score for them, Hayes said. "She was tall, slender and beautiful, and she retained her beauty all her life."

Barnett was born Feb. 23, 1926. Her mother, a concert singer, guided her early interest in music, and her high school music teacher arranged for her to audition for a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music in Manhattan, which she received.

In 1946, she joined the New York production of "Oklahoma!" as a member of the chorus and was transferred to the London production five months later to understudy the part of Laurey, which she wound up taking over.

During her three years in London with the musical, she attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; performed in a musical on the BBC, "Gay Rosalinda"; starred in "Cafe Continental," a weekly TV show filmed in London and broadcast in the United States; and performed in Bagatelle, a nightclub act.

A rave review of the act in Time magazine caught the attention of RKO Pictures owner Howard Hughes, who offered her a screen test. Taking a leave of absence from "Oklahoma!," she flew to Hollywood, where she was put up in a hotel and kept waiting for several days.

Finally, "My mother said, 'The heck with this; I'm going back to London,' " her son, Lawrence Barnett Jr., told The Times on Monday.

On her way back to London, she stopped in New York. The producers of "Guys and Dolls" also had seen the review in Time magazine and had flown to London to talk to her about playing Sarah Brown but had missed her.

"When they found out she was in New York, they had her sing for Frank Loesser, and Frank said, 'That's the girl I want,' " her son said. "They had already hired someone for the role, but they paid her off and went with my mother."

She married Lawrence R. Barnett, president of Music Corp. of America, or MCA, then the world's largest talent agency, in 1953. She retired from show business five years later to raise her family in Rye, N.Y.

Barnett donated her theater memorabilia to the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute at Ohio State University, where she and her husband established a graduate program in arts policy and administration. They also funded the Lawrence and Isabel Barnett Fellowships and endowed the Barnett Arts and Public Policy Symposiums.

Barnett was elected to the board of trustees of the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert in 2000, and five years later she became the board's first chairwoman.

In addition to her son Lawrence Jr., she is survived by her husband, five other children, Robert Barnett, William Barnett, Claudia Scott, James Barnett and Laurey Treiger; 16 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

A funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. Friday at All Saints Church, 504 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills.

Donations may be sent in Barnett's name to the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert, CA 92260.


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