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 VallanceReuse content