Alice Ghostley

Character actress in 'Bewitched'


Alice Ghostley, actress: born Eve, Missouri 14 August 1926; married 1953 Felice Orlandi (died 2003); died Studio City, California 21 September 2007

When the revue New Faces of 1952 opened on Broadway with a cast of fresh young talent (including Eartha Kitt), the critic Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune averred, "My own nomination for heroine of the evening is Miss Alice Ghostley, a patient, determined comedienne with vast amounts of self control and a real instinct for satirical mayhem. She stops the first act cold with what is probably the evening's happiest inspiration, a 'Boston Beguine', as she belts out some stentorian rhythms to the accompaniment of wonderfully inhibited gestures."

Written by Sheldon Harnick, "Boston Beguine" was to become Ghostley's signature song and was the lament of a "bachelor stenographer" who recalls the young man with whom she spent the night on Boston Common – where both of them fell asleep. "How could we hope," she sang, "to enjoy all the pleasures ahead, when all the books we should have read, were all suppressed in Boston."

For the next two decades Ghostley was a prime figure in cabaret, and later she became more widely known in the US and internationally when she was featured as Esmerelda, a witch with declining powers who becomes housekeeper for the young, married witch Samantha (Elisabeth Montgomery) in the television series Bewitched. The hit show started in 1964, and Ghostley joined it in 1969, staying until the series finished in 1972. In one episode the often befuddled Esmerelda summoned up Julius Caesar by mistake after Samantha asked her for a Caesar salad.

Ghostley was born in Eve, Missouri, where her father worked as a telegraph operator, and brought up in Oklahoma. After graduating from high school, she attended the University of Oklahoma, but dropped out to move with her older sister to New York, where they hoped to find work in the theatre.

During the next few years Ghostley took several jobs, including meat-market checker, typist at Life magazine, and a spell with a detective agency which hired her to sit at bars and observe whether bartenders were robbing the till or giving out free drinks. "The best job I ever had," she later recalled, "was as a theatre usher. I saw the plays for free. What I saw before me was a visualisation of what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be."

Aware that she could never play the ingénue, "with my long nose and crooked teeth", she built up a cabaret act of songs and comedy with the pianist-composer G. Wood (who hated his first name, George). Her vocal range was remarkable, and the composer Murray Grand, whose material she later sang, said, "G. wrote arrangements to suit that big range of hers, like a very dramatic version of 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home'. She would start off sounding like a mezzo, then she'd be way up in the clouds."

In 1951, after appearing at New York's Fireside Inn, where her admirers included Tennessee Williams, Ghostley had a major showcase when she débuted at the fabled Bon Soir, a basement café run by the Mafia in Greenwich Village and noted for its liberal atmosphere – both black and white were welcomed, and one half of the club featured a gay bar. Barbra Streisand is the Bon Soir's most celebrated graduate, but others who found it a prime showcase include Phyllis Diller, Kaye Ballard and Ghostley, whose outlandish depictions included a portrayal of Mona Lisa as an Italian prostitute, disappointed to find that da Vinci only wants to paint her picture.

When the producer Leonard Sillman encountered problems casting his Broadway revue New Faces of 1952, Murray Grand suggested Ghostley. "When I called Alice to tell her she was to audition for Sillman, she was up to her elbows doing dishes in this terrible apartment on Third Avenue where she lived."

Ghostley's most memorable moments from the show are preserved in the film, New Faces, which was released in 1954. Besides "Boston Beguine", her numbers included "Take Off the Mask", in which her dancing partner in Venice implores her to take off her mask, with disastrous results, and a hilarious sketch, written by Mel Brooks, in which she and Ronny Graham are pickpockets who wonder where they went wrong when their son decides he wants to join the police.

After New Faces, Ghostley's career embraced television, stage and movies. Her films included To Kill a Mocking Bird (1962), The Graduate (1967) and Gator (1976), the last including a memorable moment when on a sultry Southern evening she tells moonshiner Gator (Burt Reynolds) how much she reveres every living thing just before she viciously swats a fly.

On the Broadway stage she had little luck with further musicals. The Daily News critic John Chapman said of Shangri-La (1956), "Alice Ghostley is a good comedienne, but her material is ghastley (sic)", and when she played Tom Sawyer's Aunt Polly in Livin' the Life (1957), the critic Tom Connolly described her as "a great favourite of mine, but she is licked from the moment the curtain goes up."

She fared better with parts in The Thurber Carnival (1960), a revue based on the humorist's writings, S.J. Perelman's fantasy The Beauty Party (1962), in which her multiple roles earned a Tony nomination, and she won the Tony as best featured player for her performance in Lorraine Hansbury's The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1965).

In 1978 she took over the key role of Miss Hannigan, the alcoholic matron of the orphanage, in the long-running Annie, stopping the show with her solo, "Little Girls". She was a good friend of Maggie Smith, a fellow New Faces alumna – Smith made her Broadway début in New Faces of 1956 – and when Smith won the Oscar for her performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and was unable to attend the ceremony, Ghostley accepted the award on her behalf.

For three seasons of The Jackie Gleason Show (1962-64) Ghostley and Gleason regularly played Agnes and Arthur, two lovelorn residents of a tenement, and in 1987 she won a regular spot on Designing Women (1987-93), receiving an Emmy nomination in 1992. She was also seen in a flashback episode of Golden Girls. Ghostley married the Italian-American actor Felice Orlandi in 1953, and their 50-year marriage lasted until his death in 2003.

Tom Vallance

News
peoplePerformer had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer
News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Media baron Rupert Murdoch owns News Corps and 20th Century Fox
theatrePlaywright David Williamson is struggling to find a big name to star as the media mogul
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling will not be releasing a 'romance' novel anytime soon
books
Life and Style
tech

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
One of the 'princesses' in the video
videoYouTube reinstates sweary video after takedown for 'violating terms'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Functional/Full Life Cycle

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Func...

SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfordshire - £350 - £360

£350 - £360 per day: Ashdown Group: SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfor...

Business Intelligence Consultant - Central London - £80,000

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Intelligence Consultant - C...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£70 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Group: SEN Teaching Assistants needed in...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?