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Betty Hutton, 86; star of Hollywood musicals, comedies in '40s and '50s

March 14, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Betty Hutton, the exuberant singer-actress who shot to Hollywood fame in the 1940s in musicals and comedies such as the madcap classic "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek," has died. She was 86.

Hutton died in her Palm Springs apartment Sunday night from complications of colon cancer, Carl Bruno, her longtime friend and executor, told The Times on Tuesday.

Although an unidentified source had reported Hutton's death to the Associated Press late Monday, official confirmation and details were withheld until after her funeral Tuesday.

"She wanted to have everything totally private, and we tried to respect her wishes," Bruno said.

Veteran Paramount producer A.C. Lyles told The Times on Tuesday that "Betty Hutton was one of the most popular stars we ever had on the Paramount lot. Everyone adored Betty."

During Hutton's heyday at Paramount in the '40s, her high-energy performing style earned her nicknames such as "the Blond Bombshell" and "the Blond Blitz."

"If they put a propeller on Hutton and sent her over Germany, the war would be over by Christmas," Bob Hope joked at the time.

Hutton was best known for belting out lively tunes, delivered with appropriately animated body English, such as "Murder, He Says" and "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief."

But Hutton "wasn't all just a zany comedian," said Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, who did a rare on-camera interview with Hutton in 2000.

"The thing about Betty Hutton was she could also sing a song and break your heart, and she was a very good actress," Osborne said Tuesday. "Behind the zaniness there was a very sweet, vulnerable person; and there was that in real life as well."

One of Hutton's greatest screen triumphs came in 1950 when she starred as Annie Oakley in the Irving Berlin musical "Annie Get Your Gun," which landed her on the cover of Time magazine.

She followed that by starring as a trapeze artist in Cecil B. DeMille's 1952 drama "The Greatest Show on Earth," winner of the best picture Oscar.

But Hutton's movie career ended a short time later. Although she cashed in on her movie fame performing a nightclub act in Las Vegas, New York and Europe and made a stab at a television series, she virtually disappeared from the limelight.

In 1974, however, she generated headlines when she was discovered in an unlikely venue: the rectory of St. Anthony's Church in Portsmouth, R.I., where she had begun working after meeting a Catholic priest when she was in detox for an addiction to sleeping pills and other drugs.

By then she had endured four failed marriages, bankruptcy, the death of her mother in a fire and estrangement from her three daughters.

"I don't want to go into how I got here," Hutton told a reporter at the time. "I was a brokenhearted woman and didn't want to live anymore. I should be dead, but I'm not."

Born Betty June Thornburg on Feb. 26, 1921, in Battle Creek, Mich., Hutton never really knew her father, a railroad brakeman who reportedly walked out on her mother, Mabel, when Betty was 2 and her sister, Marion, was 3.

To support her two daughters, Mabel made and sold bathtub gin and beer during Prohibition in their Lansing, Mich., home.

As a young child, Betty earned spare change singing for her mother's customers.

After a police raid, Hutton's mother fled with her children to Detroit, where she got a job working in a Chrysler factory. To help make ends meet, Betty sang on street corners and in the bars where her mother drank.

In 1936, the 15-year-old Hutton took a $15-a-week summer job at a lake resort singing with a local band.

She was singing in a Detroit nightclub about a year later when she was hired by bandleader Vincent Lopez, who changed her name to Hutton.

Her sister, who became a vocalist with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, also adopted the name.

After a smash engagement at Billy Rose's Casa Manana nightclub in New York in 1938, a vaudeville tour with the band and appearances on Lopez's late-evening radio show, Hutton struck out on her own in 1940.

She made her Broadway stage debut early that year in the musical revue "Two for the Show," wowing the critics with her "riotous" performance.

She followed that up later in the year with a supporting role in "Panama Hattie," a long-running Cole Porter Broadway musical hit starring Ethel Merman.

When "Hattie" producer B.G. "Buddy" DeSylva became head of production at Paramount Studios in late 1941, he brought Hutton to Hollywood with the promise of making her a star.

One of Hutton's most memorable film performances was one in which she did not sing: "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek," the 1944 Preston Sturges war-time comedy co-starring Eddie Bracken.

Hutton plays a small-town music store clerk who spends the night dancing with overseas-bound GIs, accidentally gets a knock on the head, wakes up married, with no idea of the bridegroom's identity -- and soon learns that she is pregnant with what turns out to be sextuplets.

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