Eccentric comedienne and sometime songstress Alice Ghostley (b. Eve, MO, 14 August 1924; d. Studio City, CA, 21 September 2007) is best remembered as the fade-in, fade-out bumbling babysitter witch Esmeralda on the TV sitcom Bewitched (premiered 1964) from 1969 to 1972, and as the batty Bernice in Designing Women (in 1993). But she also had a notable career on Broadway in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, appearing in ten musicals and plays, and winning a Tony Award® for her part in The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964) and a nomination for her three roles in The Beauty Part (1962).
Alice Margaret Ghostley was born in rural Missouri at a whistle-stop railroad station where her father worked as a telegraph operator. She grew up in other small towns in Arkansas and Oklahoma, and began performing at age five, reciting poetry, singing, and tap dancing. She briefly studied drama at the University of Oklahoma but dropped out to seek her theatrical fortune in New York as one of “The Ghostley Sisters” with her sister Gladys.
Alice developed her own solo cabaret show as a comedienne and singer, working day jobs as a music teacher’s assistant, an usherette, a waitress. “The best job I had then,” she later recalled, “was as a theater usher. I saw all the plays for free. What I saw before me was … what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be.”
Her big break came with Leonard Sillman’s Broadway stage revue New Faces of 1952, singing “The Boston Beguine,” a satirical sendup of proper Bostonians. Also featured in the show (filmed as New Faces in 1954) were future stars Carol Lawrence, Eartha Kitt, Robert Clary, June Carroll, and Paul Lynde (among others); Lynde in particular was often seen with Ghostley in later films and television shows (Bewitched, Bye Bye Birdie), as they shared certain looks and qualities.
Alice Ghostley followed her auspicious start with four Broadway musicals, all of which turned out to be duds, and a straight comedy that did even worse. Far more successful were the 1960 revue A Thurber Carnival (1960) with Peggy Cass, Tom Ewell, and Paul Ford, and S.J. Perelman’s 1962 comedy The Beauty Part with Bert Lahr, Charlotte Rae, and Larry Hagman. In both of these shows Ghostley played multiple roles, giving the broadest scope to her talent for nonsensical mimicry. She was rewarded with a nomination for the 1963 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play.
Two years later, her performance as Mavis Parodus Bryson, the conventional sister of the play’s unconventional lead (played by Rita Moreno) in Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964) brought her the Tony win as Best Featured Actress.
By this time Ghostley was a television veteran. Her first appearance on the small screen was in 1953. She was featured in the 1957 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical for television, Cinderella, starring Julie Andrews, as one of the ugly stepsisters – the other was Kaye Ballard, who became a close and lifelong friend. Their coordinated clowning very nearly stole the whole show. (In the cast also were Ilka Chase as the stepmother and Edie Adams as the fairy godmother.) Also in 1957 she played Maria to Maurice Evans’s Malvolio in a TV Twelfth Night, and by the 1960s she was a frequent guest on series shows (Dow Hour, Play of the Week, Art Carney Special, Tom Ewell Show, Car 54, Where Are You?, The U.S. Steel Hour, Naked City, Jackie Gleason, Captain Nice, Get Smart).
Ghostley’s first large-screen film was To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) with Gregory Peck, in which she played Aunt Stephanie Crawford, the neighborhood busybody. It was followed by My Six Loves (1963) with Debbie Reynolds and Cliff Robertson, The Graduate (1967) with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, and With Six You Get Eggroll (1968) starring Doris Day.
At this point her film career might have continued its trajectory, were it not for her being called back to a regular role as Esmeralda on Bewitched in 1969 – she had appeared once as a similar character (albeit mortal), the “Maid to Order” Naomi Hogan in the show’s second season. She had kept at least one toe in television waters, guesting on many series, like The Mothers-in-Law, It Takes a Thief, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Odd Couple, and Hogan’s Heroes. Later series on which she appeared, even while playing Esmeralda, were Mayberry R.F.D., Nichols, Circle of Fear, Love, American Style, The New Temperatures Rising Show, and Maude.
In 1978 Ghostley was back on Broadway, replacing Dorothy Loudon as the merciless Miss Hannigan in the original run of the musical Annie. Although this was her last Broadway appearance, she played Miss Hannigan frequently over the next decade in various venues around the country, starring also in Take Me Along, Bye, Bye Birdie, and Nunsense. Also in 1978 she appeared in Joan Rivers’s film Rabbit Test and the film version of Grease.
Her main focus always, however, was upon television sitcoms. Among her 90 appearances on the small screen for the rest of her six-decade career were two episodes of the Julie Andrews Hour, three on Good Times, two on One Day at a Time, four on Small Wonder, six on Evening Shade, two on Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, six on Passions, and, most notably, 33 as wacky Bernice on Designing Women, for which she received an Emmy Nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series in 1992. Among the 30-odd remaining series where she appeared only once were Friends, Trapper John, Tales from the Dark Side, The Golden Girls, Perry Mason, Daddy Dearest, Rugrats, and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. As the millennium approached, she did mostly voice-over work.
For all her thirty films, Alice Ghostley never won an award, but she did once accept one for her friend Maggie Smith, who got an Oscar in 1970 for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Smith was working in England at the time.
Ghostley was married for fifty years to Italian-American actor Felice Orlandi, who died in 2003; they had no children. She had a series of multiple strokes that put an end to her career around the year 2000, and seven years later she died of colon cancer. Her sister Gladys passed away in 2009, at which time Alice’s ashes were taken to Siloam Springs, Arkansas, to be buried at her sister’s side, next to their parents.
– Lucy E. Cross