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Obituary: Anne Francine

TALL AND elegant, the actress and singer Anne Francine cut a striking figure in cabaret in that era of pre-rock culture when night-clubs proliferated, particularly in New York, where customers could listen to the songs of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Rodgers and Hart stylishly performed.

For six decades Francine was a part of that scene, and between cabaret engagements had a successful career in film, television and especially theatre. Her stage roles ranged from Restoration comedy to modern musicals, and her favourite role was that of Vera Charles in Mame, a part she played both in the Broadway original, in touring versions and in the 1983 revival with its original star Angela Lansbury. The show's stage manager Paul Phillips, said of Francine:

She was glamour, she was chic, she was fabulous. I first saw her walking along 57th Street. That tallness, that gait! She would have on this sleek black dress, a fur hat and gloves, with Tillie, her big black poodle, pulling her. Imagine Kay Thompson and Audrey Hepburn combined! It was like MGM come alive.

Born Anne Francine in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to an aristocratic family who were descendants of the Francinis of Italy, whom Louis XIV had brought to France to build the fountains at Versailles, she was a 19-year-old member of Philadelphia's Social Register when she first broke into show business.

A new phenomenon had sprung up in the mid-Thirties, the socialite singer. Look magazine reported, "All over Manhattan, society girls are now singing and crooning into microphones. More than half the current singers in the expensive East Side cafes are socialites singing for champagne suppers." One of those clubs, Le Coq Rouge, ran a torch-singing contest for amateurs, open only to "post-debutantes", and Francine won, singing Cole Porter's "Night and Day" and two other songs, one in French.

Her home-town paper, The Philadelphia Record, reported, "Contralto-voiced Anne sang her way into the hearts of the judges and is going to give New York's cafe society an earful as well as an eyeful."

Her success was such that she stayed at Le Coq Rouge for a year, then played in such prestigious venues as the Persian Room of the Plaza Hotel and Les Ambassadeurs in Paris. She took singing lessons with Robert Fram and dancing lessons with Valerie Bettis, and started to gain experience by touring with repertory companies during the summer, when the clubs were closed: "I had a little car. I'd take my own pots and pans and tinned things, and I'd hit the woods. I'd get a room for $6 a week with kitchen privileges."

In 1940, when she took over the leading role of Eileen in the touring version of the Broadway musical Too Many Girls, Rodgers and Hart wrote a new ballad for her character, "You're Nearer", which she introduced. (The song was then interpolated into the score for the film version.)

She made her Broadway debut in a short-lived comedy Marriage is for Single People (1945), and later starred in New York as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew (1950). Her night-club act, which during the Forties took her to London and Paris as well as the top clubs in the United States, now incorporated some hilariously earthy humour along with the impeccably performed songs of Porter, Kern and the other great songwriters. "Annie is outrageous," stated the cabaret producer Erv Raible. "Her comedy is incredibly physical. Once I watched her perform, standing with one hand on the piano and the other hand on her hip. She could work the audience with just her head. Her hair had as much to say as most performers have to say altogether. She is one of the funniest people I know."

In 1954 Francine had a featured role in the Broadway musical By the Beautiful Sea starring Shirley Booth and the following year appeared with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in The Great Sebastians. "The Lunts were so good to me," said Francine, "that once, as we toured from town to town, I decided to have a tea party for them on the train. Alfred loved good tea. I started heating the water, and blew out every light on the train!"

In the New York production of Sandy Wilson's Valmouth (1960), Francine starred as Mrs Hurstpierpoint, contributing both pathos and comedy to the wistfully nostalgic trio, All The Girls Were Pretty. But her favourite role was that of Vera Charles in Mame (1966), a part she took over a few months into the Broadway run. Vera, the heavy-drinking, waspish but loyal friend of extrovert Mame, had been created in the musical by the brilliant Beatrice Arthur, a hard act to follow, but Francine triumphed in the part and played it not only with Lansbury but her successors Ann Miller and Juliet Prowse. When the show was revived on Broadway in 1983, Lansbury requested that Francine again play Vera. Four years later Francine made her last Broadway theatre appearance as the imposing dowager Mrs Harcourt in a revival of Cole Porter's Anything Goes starring Patti LuPone.

Francine was less active in cinema, but had a role in Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and a telling cameo as a Manhattan society hostess complete with black turban and long cigarette-holder in the hit Australian comedy Crocodile Dundee (1986). On television she became well-known for her role in the series Harper Valley PTA (1981-82), one of only two series in television history to be based on a gramophone record. (The other was a cartoon series The Alvin Show based on the record "The Chipmunk Song".)

Jeannie C. Riley's 1968 hit Harper Valley PTA told of the struggles of a liberated woman fighting hypocrisy in a small Southern town. In the television series Barbara Eden was the independent heroine and Francine her principal adversary, a wealthy, self-righteous and conniving matriarch constantly trying to get Eden removed from the board of the Parents and Teachers' Association.

In the early Eighties, Francine was invited to become a Master Teacher at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's Cabaret Symposium in Waterford, Connecticut. Its artistic director Ellie Ellsworth said, "Anne was a little terrifying at first, because she was so arch. And she had this absolutely patrician, Philadelphia way of speaking. She spoke like people in 1930s drawing-room comedies. But the truth was, she could do wacky and dirty comedy - and she had the best arched eyebrows in the business."

Seven years ago Francine had a stroke and lost her speech, but her gift for pantomime, plus a large plastic pad on which she would write, enabled her to communicate. Invited to continue her teaching, she used a series of flash cards which she would show to students with such phrases as "More Heart", "Less Heart", "Open Your Mouth", "Smile" and "Attitude".

Anne Hollingshead Francine, actress: born Atlantic City, New Jersey 8 August 1917; died London, Connecticut 3 December 1999.