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CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD / SUSAN KING

Betty Garrett, still naughty at 90

Betty Garrett will MC her birthday bash Sunday, so it'll have something for everybawdy.

May 27, 2009

Betty Garrett's life can be summed up by these lyrics from Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here" from his 1971 masterwork "Follies": "Good times and bum times, I've seen them all and, my dear, I'm still here."

The vivacious 90-year-old had a talented husband -- Larry Parks -- and has two equally talented sons, Garrett and Andrew. She appeared in such classic MGM musicals as "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and "On the Town." Garrett also gained new audiences as a regular on "All in the Family" and "Laverne & Shirley." A founding member of Theatre West on Cahuenga Boulevard, Garrett's done four plays there in the last two years alone and heads its musical theater workshop.

But behind her success and triumphs was also the insidious Hollywood blacklist that destroyed her husband's film career and nearly was the death knell to hers.

"People say how come you've lasted this long," says the gracious actress in the dining room of her Studio City hills home she and her late husband bought in 1963. Garrett currently shares her home with her son, composer-musician Garrett; his wife, singer Karen Culliver, who was in "The Phantom of the Opera"; and their daughter Maddy.

"I say I think it's because all of my life I have gotten to do what I love to do," Garrett says.

This Sunday, Theatre West is throwing a big birthday party for Garrett at the Music Box @ Fonda in Hollywood.

"David Galligan is going to direct," says Garrett. "I said to him, I want this to be very personal. I wanted to be a mistress of ceremonies and I want my family and close friends to be in it."

So her daughter-in-law's group, the Phantom Leading Ladies, will perform. Garrett Parks will play boogie woogie on the piano and Andrew Parks, "whom we call the orator of the family," says Garrett, is giving a speech. Garrett will be performing her bawdy limericks. "That is one of my great talents," she says, smiling.

"When I did my last show, where I put together a musical revue of all the songs I had written in my life, one night when I did the show I think the devil got into me. I said I am going to do something else no one is expecting. I did my bawdy limericks and they were the biggest hits of the whole show."

Garrett credits her mother, Octavia, for allowing her to pursue a career in entertainment. "She was a very intelligent lady, very musical," recalls Garrett. "She played the piano and worked in a music store. Early on I guess she saw that I was a performer."

She wasn't the only one. When she acted in her high school production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" at the Annie Wright Seminary in Tacoma, Wash., the Episcopal bishop said to her mother, " 'What are you going to do with your daughter?' My mother said, 'What do you think I should do?' He said, 'I think you better put her on the stage.' "

Her mother had a friend who was a good friend of dancer Martha Graham. "She arranged for an interview with Martha," says Garrett. And in turn, Graham arranged for her to receive a scholarship at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. "I graduated from high school at 16 and came right to New York."

But she didn't come alone. Garrett's mother gave her up her job in Tacoma to be with her teenage daughter.

Garrett and Parks, who were married from 1944 to his death in 1975, were struggling young performers in New York at the same time.

"Do you know he was studying with the Group Theatre and I was at the Neighborhood Playhouse? We had the same teachers. We knew all the same people but we never met until here in 1944."

After the blacklist ended Parks' film career in 1951 -- Garrett avoided being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee because she was pregnant with Andrew -- the couple got involved in real estate. "We bought property -- it's beyond Sepulveda and between Santa Monica and Wilshire and we built two-story apartment complexes. That income saved our lives."

She and Parks also did clubs and Broadway. "We went to Great Britain three times and played in variety houses," Garrett says. "We played the Palladium twice, which was like playing the Palace."

But then the blacklist would rear its ugly head.

"One time we got a call to do the Arthur Murray show," says Garrett. "It was the first TV job we had been offered in a long time. We got to New York and spent the day rehearsing. That night there was a message at the hotel that said they had gone overtime and didn't need us. We knew what it was. That was heartbreaking."

For more information on Garrett's celebration, go to www.theatrewest.org.

Elsewhere

Quincy Jones hosts the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' tribute to Oscar-winning songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman Friday evening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. www.oscars.org

A young Ian McKellen gives an erotically tinged star-making performance as Christopher Marlowe's "Edward II" (BBC Video, $15) in this 1970 production.

--

susan.king@latimes.com

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