LOS ANGELES - Betty Garrett, the vivacious Broadway star who played Frank Sinatra's sweetheart in two MGM musicals before her career was hampered by the Hollywood blacklist, has died in Los Angeles, her son said yesterday. She was 91.
Betty Garrett was best known as the flirtatious girl in love with the shy Sinatra in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and "On the Town," both in 1949, and in the 1970s she became well-known to TV audiences with recurring roles in the sitcoms "All in the Family" and "Laverne and Shirley."
Her movie career was brief, largely because of the Red Scare led by congressmen who forced her husband, actor Larry Parks, to testify about his earlier membership in the Communist Party.
Parks had won stardom as singer Al Jolson in the 1946 "The Jolson Story." But in 1951, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and he admitted that he had joined the Communist Party in 1941 and left in 1944 or 1945.
Pressed to name his fellow members of the party, Parks pleaded not to be forced "to crawl through the mud as an informer." He agreed to testify fully in executive session.
"It was a dark period, a foolish, foolish period," Garrett said in 1998. "It destroyed a lot of lives and ruined my husband's career."
Garrett had also had a brief dalliance with the party but wasn't called to testify, perhaps, she said, "because I was nine months pregnant with my second son, and they didn't think I would be a good witness."
Garrett's stage career began to click when she sang the showstopping "South America, Take It Away" in "Call Me Mister" on Broadway in 1946. That brought Hollywood offers, and at age 27 she signed a contract with MGM, then the king of musical movies.
Particularly memorable was "On the Town," the Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein musical about three sailors on leave in New York City. She played the comically aggressive cabdriver who pursues Sinatra (singing the racy "Come Up to My Place") while his pals, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin, team up with Vera-Ellen and Ann Miller.
Besides the two pictures with Sinatra, she appeared in "Words and Music" and "Neptune's Daughter," in which she and Red Skelton sang the Oscar-winning song "Baby, It's Cold Outside."
MGM dropped her after Parks' testimony, and she received no film offers until she co-starred with Jack Lemmon and Janet Leigh in the 1955 musical version of "My Sister Eileen," playing Eileen's (Leigh's) sister, Ruth.
Unable to find much work in Hollywood, she and Parks hit the road with a musical act. It proved a hit. Parks died in 1975.
Garrett maintained a busy career in theater and television. She played recurring roles in "All in the Family," as the chatty friend of Edith Bunker who duels with Archie, and "Laverne and Shirley," as a landlady who married Laverne's father.
She garnered an Emmy nomination in 2003 for guest actress in a comedy series for an appearance on the Ted Danson sitcom "Becker." Over the years, she also had sporadic roles on Broadway, including parts in "Spoon River Anthology" in 1963 and "Meet Me in St. Louis" in 1989.
Asked in 1998 if she retained bitterness that she and Parks were blacklisted, she replied: "It's not my nature to be bitter. What I feel is deep sorrow. We both, I think, were just on the verge of becoming really big stars, particularly Larry. And it just went crashing down."