Shirley Booth was born on this date one-hundred-and-twenty-three years ago and retired from acting in 1974 at the age of seventy-six. Happily, I was fortunate enough as a young teenager to have seen her in two shows prior to that date: a play and a musical, which came for her at the tail end of a fifty-year stage career. The first was Look to the Lilies, a musical version of the 1963 film Lilies of the Field, with Booth as a nun who enlists the help of an itinerant handyman to build a church in New Mexico. Closing quickly, it allowed for Booth to return later in the same season, for what would prove her final time; a revival of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever, which I am sorry to say, was also a failure. Still, it allowed me tiny glimpses of those qualities that, throughout Booth’s prime years of the twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties, made her one of the most admired actresses on Broadway with audiences and peers alike. I am grateful for the experience.
When Time Magazine published a cover story on her in August 1953, Booth had recently ended a successful run in Arthur Laurents' The Time of the Cuckoo on Broadway (for which she won the third of her three Tony Awards), which was awarded her ten days after winning the Academy Award for repeating her stage role of Lola Delaney in the film version of William Inge’s Come Back Little Sheba. Having made her Broadway debut in 1925, it was a long time coming, even though she appeared in practically a new show every season. The role of the “slatternly” housewife (the word you will always read next to a character description of Lola in almost any review—seriously—check it out), won Booth every conceivable award for the stage production as well as the film. In those days, there were many more awards handed out than just the Tony, and Booth won the Donaldson, the Variety Poll, and the New York Drama Critics Awards for Sheba. And for the film, she was the first actress to win Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival and repeat at the Oscars. She also received the New York Film Critics and National Board of Review honors as well. Sheba also added one more impressive stat as she was the first actress to win a Tony and an Oscar for the same role, something that’s only happened ten times in ninety years.
Much of the Time Magazine article concerns itself with how wonderful it is that someone as late in life (translation: as “old” as Booth) was enjoying such success. At the time of her Oscar win, by the narrow standards of Hollywood and its ageism, she was now the second oldest winner of Best Actress since Marie Dressler at the fourth Academy ceremony more than two decades before.
It is stated in the article that Booth was born in 1907 and goes on about how the forty-six-year-old actress managed to survive an abusive father and the devastation of her own first failed marriage with an actor who left her for another woman. It reads like a sob story, not as testimony to her prolific work and skills as an actress. And for whatever reasons, perhaps one of mutual agreement, the article doesn’t acknowledge that Booth was born in 1898, which advances her stated age of forty-six fully forward nine years to her true age of fifty-five.
Born Thelma Booth Ford in Flatbush, Brooklyn (just like both my parents), she was forced to drop the Ford upon taking to the stage when her father, a withholding and manipulative man, forbade her to use it, believing as he did that the acting profession was beneath the dignity of the Ford name. I suppose taking Shirley helped to create a wholly new identity, perhaps to hide the stigma of being forced to drop out of high school when her father and mother divorced while Shirley was still a teenager. Receiving no formal training as an actress, her abilities were improved by simply doing, working tirelessly in stock for years before making her Broadway debut in Hell’s Bells, a 1925 melodrama. She was cast as the ingénue opposite a young juvenile named Humphrey Bogart, and from that time on she never stopped. She was wildly popular on radio, as she had a very musical voice that was rich in character. She was a cast member of one of the most famous radio shows of the day, Duffy’s Tavern, heard by millions all over the country each week (her then-husband, Ed Gardner, had co-created the show with Abe Burrows, later to become one of the most famous writer-directors during the Golden Age of Broadway).
There really was nothing she couldn’t do. I was even fond of the very last thing she ever did in front of a camera, which was a sitcom that only lasted a few weeks based on a British series which had a greater success. In A Touch of Grace, Booth played a recent widow who wasn’t finished with life yet, by gosh! As tired as that premise was, I remember watching as a teenager and being very taken with her. I had never been a fan of her long-running series Hazel, where she played a domestic housekeeper to a dim-witted family that basically couldn’t do anything without her coming to their rescue every week. Based on illustrator Ted Key’s single-panel cartoon, which ran in thousands of daily newspapers, Hazel was a big hit that ran five seasons, mainly due to Booth’s inordinate charm. Hopefully it made her a bundle of dough. I never really liked all those white bread shows like The Donna Reed Show, Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. The Munsters and The Addams Family were more my speed, as they reminded me of my own family (and I only wish I was kidding).
Since she worked so much on stage, radio, and television, it’s hard to believe that Booth only made four films in her lifetime. Sheba was her very first one, and whether forty-six or fifty-five, that’s amazing for a film debut in a leading role. Four is a small number, but the quartet she leaves behind show us what was so special about her talents (she also excelled in a few films made for television, including an Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie in 1966). She is charm personified in Joseph Anthony’s film version of Thornton Wilder’s play, The Matchmaker (the genesis for the musical Hello, Dolly!). As Dolly Gallagher Levi, Booth is perfection. Speaking into the camera for a good deal of the film (not an easy thing to pull off) you half-expect her to break into song (that musical speaking voice again), especially when some of the lines in the film are the direct lead-ins to so many of the famous songs in Hello, Dolly!: “I put my hand in here … “It takes a woman …” Watch the film. See for yourself how much of Wilder that Herman purloined to write the lyrics.
The fifties was a particularly prolific decade for Booth. It began in February with her triumph in the stage version of Come Back, Little Sheba, but included six more Broadway shows by 1959 (including the leads in three musicals). And in addition to the film version of Sheba (1952), she starred in About Mrs. Leslie (1954), Hot Spell (1958) and The Matchmaker (1958). Of those three musicals A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1951), By the Beautiful Sea (1954) and Juno (1959), each feature her singing some terrific numbers, even if the shows were all considered failures at the time of their original productions. In particular, "He Had Refinement" from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, is a personal favorite.
Booth’s final years were spent in Chatham, Massachusetts as a neighbor to another legendary actress of the stage, Julie Harris, living twenty years beyond her retirement until the age of ninety-four (all the obits used 1898 as her birthdate). In her New York Times obituary, it stated that “Miss Booth was celebrated for never giving a bad performance.” It’s not the sort of thing one has engraved on a tombstone, but it’s possible that for Shirley Booth, this might have been the perfect encapsulation of her life as an actress.
Just for fun, here she is the evening of March 19, 1953, when she won the Oscar for Come Back, Little Sheba. Her speech is short and very, very sweet.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, please follow me here on Scrollstack and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.