“I like comedy that makes you laugh with joy – not at the pain of others.” — Shirley Booth

September 5, 2010

On the cover of Time

Shirley Booth‘s biographer, Jim Manago, noted an error in my recent post about the movie “Summertime,” which starred Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi. “Summertime” was based on Arthur Laurents’ Broadway play, “The Time of the Cuckoo,” in which Booth played the part that Hepburn later played on the screen. I had incorrectly given the character’s name as Jane Hudson – the name used in “Summertime” – but Manago, whose book is “Love is the Reason for it All,” noted the character was called Leona Samish on the stage. I corrected it in the post.

I interviewed Shirley Booth many years ago; it was one of the few occasions in which I approached the subject of an interview with a sense of awe. By the time of I met her, Booth had established herself as one of the most highly honored actresses in American entertainment — on the stage, on film, and in radio and television – and had won multiple awards. Later generations have largely forgotten her, but she was a serious, versatile artist.

SHIRLEY BOOTH

Her favorite role in a long career, she told me, was Lola Delaney in the Broadway drama, “Come Back, Little Sheba” by William Inge.  This is the story of a middle-aged couple whose  marriage and whose lives in general are unfulfilled and unhappy. Shirley Booth had already won a Tony as best supporting actress for “Good Bye, My Fancy” in 1948, and she won the best-actress Tony for “Come Back, Little Sheba” in 1950. In 1952, she appeared in the film version of Inge’s play, and she won the Oscar for best dramatic actress. She won her third Tony for “Time of the Cuckoo,” again being named best actress in a leading role. She also won two Emmys as best actress in a comedy role for the TV series “Hazel,” which had its first run from 1961-1965 and was seen in syndication for many years afterwards. People who know Dolly Gallagher Levi only from the musical performances of Carol Channing and Barbra Streisand and wonder if that’s really what Thornton Wilder had on his mind, should get their hands on the 1952 film “The Matchmaker” in which Shirley Booth played the part, which was originated on Broadway by Ruth Gordon.

I met Shirley Booth in 1971 when she was appearing at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Paul Osborn’s 1930 play, “The  Vinegar Tree.”

On the cover of TV Guide during the run of her second TV series, "A Touch of Grace."

She was a little more formal than I am used to, but she was also thoughtful and witty.

I sought her input one a favorite subject of mine — the interaction between performers and live audiences, particularly the way the audience reaction affects the performer on stage. Ms. Booth told me she thought inexperienced actors sometimes put too much pressure on themselves if they feel that the audience isn’t reacting as expected.

“I say, ‘They’re not getting this; let’s slow down.’ I think you should beguile them instead of dazzling them.”

And when guile doesn’t work, she said: “All right. If they don’t want to have a good time, let’s have such a good time among ourselves that they’ll be sorry they didn’t come.”

Shirley Booth was an important figure in American entertainment and an exceptionally talented performer. Not everyone has forgotten. To visit a blog devoted to Shirley Booth, CLICK HERE.

Shirley Booth, Don DeFore, and Whitney Blake in a publicity shot for "Hazel."

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2 Responses to ““I like comedy that makes you laugh with joy – not at the pain of others.” — Shirley Booth”

  1. bronxboy55 Says:

    That’s a sweet quote you used for the headline of this post. Maybe someday comedy will turn back toward the kind of work Shirley Booth did. Thanks for a nice profile.

  2. shoreacres Says:

    During my childhood, someone used to say, “Come back, little Sheba!” Now, I can’t remember the context or who was sayng it – and at the time, I had no idea what it meant. Since it was the 50’s, I’m sure it was related to the play. Very interesting, and a nice post.

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