Nanette Fabray

Nanette Fabray (b. San Diego, CA, 27 October 1920) is an American actress, comedienne, singer, dancer, and activist. She began her career performing in vaudeville as a child and, despite impaired hearing, became a musical theatre actress during the 1940s and 1950s. She won a Tony Award®, Best Actress in a Musical, in 1949 for her performance in Alan Jay Lerner and Kurt Weill’s Love Life, and continued her Broadway career in Arms and the Girl (1950) and Make a Wish (1951). Moving to television in 1954 she replaced Imogene Coca as Sid Caesar’s comedy partner on Caesar’s Hour, winning three Emmy Awards. She later snagged another Tony® nomination starring as a fictional First Lady opposite “President” Robert Ryan in Irving Berlin’s musical Mr. President (1962). Fabray was Grandma Katherine Romano on One Day at a Time from 1979 to 1984.

Ruby Bernadette Nanette Fabares, whose father was a railroad conductor, grew up in Los Angeles. Her mother was determined to get her daughter early into show business, and little “Baby Nanette” did nothing to impede the project: she studied tap dancing with, among others, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and made her professional debut at the age of three as “Miss New Years Eve 1923” at the Million Dollar Theater. Much of her childhood was spent dancing and singing in vaudeville productions; at six she was sharing an act with cross-eyed comedy star Ben Turpin.

Although Fabray’s parents were divorced when she was nine, the family continued to live together for financial reasons. As the Great Depression deepened, her mother opened their home as a boarding house, which all members of the family helped to run. Nanette, in her early teenage years, had a scholarship to the Max Reinhardt School of the Theatre, and moved on to Hollywood High School, where she graduated in 1939.

She then entered Los Angeles Junior College, but had so much difficulty due to her undiagnosed hearing loss that she dropped out a few months later. An acting teacher recommended that she have her ears tested; said Fabray in retrospect, “It was a revelation to me. All these years I had thought I was stupid, but in reality I just had a hearing problem.”

At about this time Warner Brothers gave Nanette Fabares her first adult film role as a lady-in-waiting to Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). She appeared in two more films that same year (The Monroe Doctrine, A Child Is Born), but Warner Brothers failed to come through with a long-term contract, so she joined the cast of a touring company of Meet the People (1940–1941), starting out in Los Angeles and making its way to New York.

Nanette’s part in the show was to do a tap dance while singing the soprano aria “Caro nome” from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Rigoletto. While the show was running in New York, Eleanor Roosevelt was engaged to speak at a benefit at Madison Square Garden, with Ed Sullivan as emcee. The “Caro nome” number was pressed into service as part of the festivities. The famous stone-faced host, reading from a cue card, introduced her as “Nanette Fa-bare-ass.” The actress promptly changed her name to Fabray.

Artur Rodziński, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, saw her performance in Meet the People and offered to sponsor operatic vocal training for her at the Juilliard School. So, while performing in Cole Porter’s Let’s Face It!, with Danny Kaye and Eve Arden in late 1941, she was studying opera at Juilliard. But she soon realized that she preferred musical theatre to opera and withdrew after five months.

She was fortunate in that most of the shows she appeared in during her “apprenticeship” were solid hits: By Jupiter (1942, Rodgers and Hart’s last collaboration; Fabray replaced Constance Moore), Bloomer Girl (1945, Arlen and Yarburg; Fabray replaced Celeste Holm), then High Button Shoes (1947, her first original starring role, opposite Phil Silvers), for which she won a Donaldson Award, and finally Lerner and Weill’s Love Life (1948). This last show won her the Tony® for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. Following after this steady rise to the pinnacle were two disappointing musicals, Arms and the Girl (1950) and Make a Wish (1951). Another disappointment in 1951 was the end of her marriage to her first husband, Dave Tebet, a Vice-President of NBC.

Nonetheless, she was working her way into national television during this period, appearing on variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show, Texaco Star Theater, and The Arthur Murray Party.

Her best-remembered screen role came in 1953, when Fabray played a playwright (modeled on Betty Comden by Betty Comden) in MGM’s The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire and Jack Buchanan. Her renditions of “That’s Entertainment” and “Louisiana Hayride” were definitive, but the uncontested climax of the movie (which many judge to be the best film musical ever made) was the trio with Astaire and Buchanan, all dressed as infants, “Triplets.”

Nanette Fabray had been a guest performer on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows in 1950 and 1951, and when in 1954 Imogene Coca took on her own comedy hour and split with Caesar, Fabray replaced her as a regular on Caesar’s Hour, which ran from 1954 to 1957. She won three Emmys, but in 1956, Fabray quit the show due to a contractual misunderstanding between Caesar and her business manager. The misunderstanding and the personal rancor were not cleared up until many years later.

Fabray was married a second time in 1957 to Ranald MacDougall, screenwriter (Mildred Pierce, Cleopatra), film director (The World, the Flesh, and the Devil), and producer who would serve as President of the Writers Guild of America in the early 1970s. In 1961 he created a television series, alternately known as Westinghouse Playhouse or Yes, Yes, Nanette, in which she starred. It survived for 26 episodes. In many of the later films and television dramas MacDougall produced (Fame Is the Name of the Game 1966, Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County 1970, Magic Carpet 1972), Nanette Fabray was a member of the cast but not a central figure.

She sustained her television career well into the 1990s, with appearances on Playhouse 90 (1956), The Alcoa Hour (1957), The Kaiser Aluminum Hour (1957), Laramie (1959), her own Nanette Fabray Show, or Help Me, Aphrodite on Startime (1960, one time only), Burke’s Law (1964), The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1967), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1972), Love, American Style (4 episodes 1970–1973), Maude 1977, The Love Boat (3 episodes 1978–1981), and Murder, She Wrote (1991). Forty episodes of One Day at a Time, from 1979 to 1984, starred Fabray as Grandma Katherine Romano, and in 23 of those episodes she acted with her own niece, Shelley Fabares. On the series Coach (1990–1994), where Shelley was a regular, Nanette came in for four episodes as her mother. She did countless cameos on the shows of Dinah Shore, Andy Williams, Dean Martin, Perry Como, Rowan and Martin, Jerry Lewis, and Carol Burnett. She was always a popular participant on celebrity panel shows (What’s My Line, Stump the Stars, Password All-Stars, The Hollywood Squares, Password Plus) and was feted on This Is Your Life in October 1971.

Fabray returned to Broadway after eleven years’ absence in 1962 to star as the First Lady in Irving Berlin’s last musical, Mr. President, earning a Tony® nomination. For many years following she toured the nation in musicals (Wonderful Town, No No Nanette) and “straight” plays (Plaza Suite, Never Too Late, Cactus Flower, Last of the Red Hot Lovers).

Fabray’s most recent stage work was in 2007, when she appeared in Sherman Oaks, California, in The Damsel Dialogues, an original revue by composer Dick DeBenedictis. She now lives in Pacific Palisades, continuing her work as a long-time advocate for the rights of the hard-of-hearing. Her efforts on the part of the handicapped have been recognized with the President’s Distinguished Service Award and the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award.

Nanette Fabray has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, although the list of her big-screen films is a short one. It includes The Subterraneans (1960), The Happy Ending (1969), Harper Valley PTA (1978), Amy (1981), and Teresa’s Tattoo (1994).

Husband Ranald MacDougall, with whom she had one child, died in 1973.

– Lucy E. Cross