Monday, August 30, 2010

In Memoriam: Shirley Booth


My earliest exposure to the unique talents of Shirley Booth was on the original cast recording of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in which she played the character of Cissy; I was then about 22, a budding theatre queen, and had long* been a fan of Betty Smith's novel of the same name. Although the story is ostensibly about Francie, onstage the unlucky-in-love Aunt Cissy steals the show, mainly due to the strength of Booth's personality. To this day I have no idea why a character who's such a loser with men should so capture my imagination, but there you have it...

Booth's career was centered on the Broadway stage, yet because of the greater durability of movies and the wider reach of television, she is better known for the five movies she made and the five seasons in which she starred as the titular Hazel, the sitcom that cemented her reputation**. Still, for those who know Shirley Booth only as that brassy maid with a heart of gold (or was it the other way 'round?) it was probably the 1952 film Come Back, Little Sheba that made it all possible; Booth became the first person in history to win both a Tony Award for the stage version and an Oscar for the movie version, which was also her big screen debut. She later starred as Dolly Levi in the film version of The Matchmaker (supplanting the role's Broadway originator, Ruth Gordon) a full decade before Barbra Streisand hammed it up for director Gene Kelly in Hello, Dolly! and five years before Carol Channing's iconic portrayal in the stage musical.

Born on this day in 1898 - which for actress-y reasons she later changed to 1907 - Shirley Booth made her final curtain call in October 1992, having been retired since 1974.

*Well, for five years anyway, but when you're 22 five years is a very long time!
**As well as launching the all-too brief career of Ann Jillian...

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