The renowned American stage, screen, and television actress Shirley Booth (b. New York, NY, 30 August 1898; d. North Chatham, MA, 16 October 1992) was said never to have given a bad performance. Primarily a theatre actress, with a total of 32 Broadway plays (some hits, some flops) to her credit, she also starred in five Hollywood films and headed the cast of the five-year television series Hazel (1961–1966). Her greatest and best-remembered role was the drab but talkative housewife in William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba (Broadway 1950, film version 1952), for which she won both the Tony® and the Academy Award® for Best Actress – the first actress ever to win both awards for the same role. (She won the New York Drama Critics Award and the Golden Globe as well.) Although it was not her major claim to fame, she also had signal success as the singing star of four Broadway musicals.
Thelma Marjory Ford grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where she attended P.S. 152 and acquired the distinctive accent that endeared her to audiences of Come Back, Little Sheba and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. By the time her little sister Jean was born, she was twelve and already acting in amateur theatrical productions. At fourteen she dropped out of school, much to her father’s displeasure, to devote herself to the stage, and at sixteen she had joined a professional company. It is estimated that she performed in as many as 600 productions in various stock companies in Hartford, New Haven (where she became “Shirley Booth”), and Pittsburgh before arriving on Broadway in 1925.
She debuted in Hell’s Bells, a comedy, along with another newcomer, Humphrey Bogart, and continued for ten years in as many short-lived comedies before landing the female lead as a gangster’s moll in George Abbott’s Three Men on a Horse (1935). This play ran for nearly two years, at the close of which Abbott declared, “I have worked with more actresses than I can count, and to me Shirley is easily tops.”
In 1929 Booth had married Ed Gardner, an important entertainer in early broadcast radio, later famous as the creator and star of Duffy’s Tavern – also one of its writers, along with Abe Burrows. Shirley Booth too was doing a considerable amount of acting on radio during this period, although no recordings survive; she played the two leading female roles in Arthur Laurents’s first radio play, Now Playing Tomorrow (1939), and starred on Duffy’s Tavern from 1941 to 1943 as Miss Duffy, the tavern’s wisecracking cashier.
Simultaneously with her radio work, Booth’s Broadway career was taking off, resulting in nearly impossible schedules and some white-knuckle taxi rides between studio and theatre. She acted with Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story in 1939 and originated the role of Ruth Sherwood in My Sister Eileen in 1940, continuing in it until the beginning of 1943. She played an anti-fascist schoolteacher alongside Ralph Bellamy in Tomorrow the World in 1943. Some of the stress must have let up in 1942, when her marriage with Gardner ended in divorce and she left the radio show.
Shirley Booth received her first Tony Award®, for Best Supporting or Featured Actress, for her performance as Grace Woods in Goodbye, My Fancy (1948). Her second Tony® was for Best Actress in a Play, which she won for her heart-wrenching performance as Lola Delaney in Come Back, Little Sheba (1950). Her success was such that when she took on the role of quirky Aunt Cissy in the musical version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn the next year, the script was substantially altered from that of the original novel and film (1945) to give her the leading part (instead of the young girl), and to give a more comedic slant (in place of nostalgia) to the plot. Her performance of Dorothy Fields’s lyrics to “He Had Refinement” is still treasured as one of the historic jewels of musical comedy.
In 1952 she went to Hollywood to re-create Lola in Come Back, Little Sheba on film, with Burt Lancaster as her husband Doc. It was her film debut, and it won her the year’s Oscar®. Booth made only four more films subsequently, the most noteworthy of which was Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (1958), in which she was a trend-setting Dolly Gallagher Levi. Two of her later Broadway hits, The Time of the Cuckoo and Desk Set, were adapted for the screen, but in both instances the Shirley Booth role went to Katharine Hepburn.
Returning to Broadway after filming Sheba, she played Leona Samish, the American tourist spinster looking for romance in Venice, in Arthur Laurents’s The Time of the Cuckoo (1952). The role won her third Tony Award®; by this time she was so well recognized as an award-winner that when she appeared on What’s My Line? in May 1953, a panelist cracked that she had won everything but the Kentucky Derby. She replied, “Well, I almost won it yesterday, but I drew the wrong ticket in the lottery.”
Shirley Booth enchanted the normally dour Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times. “The stage begins to glow the moment she steps on it,” he wrote in a review of the 1954 musical By the Beautiful Sea. “No one else in the theater has made native decency so human, so triumphant and so captivating.”
She starred in yet another Broadway musical, Marc Blitzstein’s Juno (1959), as the long-suffering spouse of a charming but deadbeat Irishman played by Melvyn Douglas. The show, an adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s classic Juno and the Paycock, did not do well and closed after sixteen performances. In 1961 she forsook the stage for a television sitcom, taking on the role of Hazel, the irrepressible maid based on Ted Key’s popular Saturday Evening Post comic series. She won two Emmy Awards in a row, thus becoming one of the very few entertainers ever to win top honors in all three major fields: stage, screen, and television. She also received an Emmy nomination playing Amanda in an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie in 1966.
Booth returned briefly to Broadway in two short-lived shows in 1970, a musical, Look to the Lilies, and a revival of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever. Then after an engagement in Chicago and a short stint in another television sitcom (A Touch of Grace 1973), she retired to Cape Cod in 1974.
Shirley Booth was married a second time in 1943, to William H. Baker Jr., an artist and farmer, who died of heart disease in 1951. She had no children by either marriage.
She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. All her other awards have vanished or been stolen, except for her Oscar® (itself a replacement) which resides in The Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts.
– Lucy E. Cross