“I guess they thought I was just the opposite of her”
Betsy Palmer on appearing with Joan Crawford in Queen Bee
Betsy is a very much in the moment type of person. She was not one to save her press-clippings.
The photos were saved in her daughter, Melissa’s scrapbooks! Betsy was a very lucky woman. From the moment, she arrived in New York to be an actress, one thing led to another. Her career unfolded with one thing leading to another. She just desired to be a working actress. Her stage career eventually led to film and television. To millions of baby-boomers, Palmer will forever be associated with her work as a panelist on such TV game shows as I’ve Got a Secret; a later generation of televiewers will most readily recall her as Virginia Bullock on the 1989-90 season of
Her memories of Dolly are vague beyond remembering how much she loved working with Max Showalter, her Horace Vandergelder, and appearing mostly in theatres in the round.
Being in the round, of course, is totally different from being in a proscenium theatre.
She said first of all, you HAVE to keep moving so that everyone in the audience sees your face.
The audiences are a lot closer. They are usually right down where your feet are.
Betsy Palmer and John Ireland in Queen Bee.
You’re sitting in their laps half the time. There weren’t even the traditional stairs in the Harmonia Gardens! She made her entrance down the aisles. She said it was a sweet show to do, that she enjoyed doing Dolly. She got a call to do it and she did. She didn’t even audition. She never fancied herself a singer and she says she wasn’t. But she got around it enough to make it happen. She says she remembers calling her father, who was still living in the midwest, and saying, “Guess what, I’m going to be doing ‘Hello, Dolly!” There was this long silence and he said, “Since when, do you sing?” She said you get into a mode when you’re on the road. It’s all a whole new ballgame. Your life consists of getting up in the morning and asking what town you’re in and what day of the week is it; “Am I doing a matinee today…or just a show tonight?” Ethel Merman says you become a nun. (Nun of this and nun of that…you just do the show.) You just don’t have the time OR the energy to do other things. The play is the thing.
She said Max was a doll. Max Showalter (June 2, 1917 – July 30, 2000) was an American film, television, and stage actor, as well as a composer, pianist, and singer. One of Showalter’s most memorable roles was as Jean Peters’ character’s husband in the 1953 film Niagara. Showalter is also credited as Casey Adams.
She also worked for David Merrick but NOT on Dolly. She and Lloyd Bridges replaced Lauren Bacall and Barry Nelson in Cactus Flower on Broadway produced by David Merrick. She was the ONLY one who ever gave him a present.
It was a holiday or a birthday…or even, maybe, opening night, she doesn’t recall the circumstances. He was cool about it, he didn’t do flip flops. The woman who was his secretary told Betsy that she was the only actor who ever gave this man a gift.
Betsy said he treated her great. She said she couldn’t have asked for a better producer. She liked him. Carol Channing loved him as well. He was always Mr. Merrick. Betsy did the same.
She never called him David.
She had great respect for him. He had great respect for Betsy and gave her lovely productions to be in. He gave a lot of people a lot of work.
When she did Dolly in a proscenium theatre, she vaguely remembers Gower’s original staging. In the round, everything had to be modified. In the round, oftentimes, you begin a scene at the beginning of an aisle. That could also be your exit. By the time you make it to the stage, you keep moving so the audience can see you. They are always seeing either your face or your backside. It’s always a challenge to appear in the round but she enjoyed it.
She never met or worked with Jerry Herman.
Now, about Betsy beyond Dolly. She was born in East Chicago, Illinois. She grew up there never believing in her wildest dreams that she would grow up to be in the theatre. From the time she was in kindergarten, her teachers always putting her on the stage. She was comfortable there.
It always worked out but she didn’t really think much about it. Betsy’s mother worked in a business college. Betsy’s father was born in Bohemia, formerly Czechoslovakia. She had a brother who has passed on. Melissa, her daughter, is her only living family.
After high school, Betsy went to her mother’s business college. Betsy eventually got a job working for the B and O railroad. One day as Betsy was pounding the typewriter, her mother asked her what she was going to do with her life. Betsy felt that she was happy. She had a good job making good money. Everyone thought she was cute and adorable. She told her mom other than what she was doing, she had no idea what she wanted to do. Her mom said “Why don’t you try and get a job in the loop, Chicago?” Her mom suggested she take an aptitude test. She went to the local YWCA to take the test.After her test. they suggested that she should go into a career that had to do with people. Because of her love of theatre, she thought of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.On the train going home, she got to thinking “where should I be with the most people? I guess on the stage “That’s how it all came about!
Next stop, New York. Hollywood was never Betsy’s “camping ground”. She never really cared much about making movies. She always loved the stage. It was alive and fresh. Betsy went to the Neighborhood Playhouse. She worked with Sanford Meisner… who “hated women”. He did, however, treat Betsy with respect because he saw that she was sincere.
Movies, for Betsy, was always “hurry up and wait”. Then, you may even end up on the cutting-room floor. It makes no difference how great your performance was. It could have been the performance of your life. But it is definitely the directors medium. She remembers once doing a scene with Jack Lord. They were doing a sequence that was shot outside at night, a suburb of LA. It had been a great scene. It was a very emotional scene. When they finished it, They both felt really good about what they had just done. The director said, “OK.We’re going to do this again.” Betsy and Jack looked at each other and asked, “Why? That was perfect.” She had cried in the scene and was spent emotionally. The director said they were just doing that to be on the safe side. Betsy and Jack were both adamant that they would not do it again. They felt that it was the best that it could be done. Finally the director relented and let Betsy and Jack have their way. The scene they filmed ended up in the show as it was filmed with no retakes. She always had great respect for the people she worked with and visa versa. That being said, Betsy feels, as I do, that repetition does not always equal truth or spontaneity. Most times, directors don’t always know what they desire, they are just covering their fannies.
She was called in to do I’ve Got A Secret. Fay Emerson was out of town. Fay was one of the originals. The sponsor liked Betsy. Betsy got the job when Fay decided not to come back. She went on to do Password and a LOT of other game shows.
In the days of live television, there was always work. One would be out of a game show and if you were as reliable as Betsy was, you’d be called in to replace another. It was it’s own little cadre of people. She never took game shows seriously. But because of game shows, she could go out and do theatre, mostly summer stock. She LOVED doing summer stock. She didn’t really like game shows but she did stive to win and come off as intelligent rather than a “dumb blonde actress.”
Audiences loved her and eventually Allen Funt came calling and Betsy did Candid Camera throughout the seventies. All she really wanted to do was be an actress. All of these other perks was just icing.
She loved working with Joan Crawford. They got along very well. They did Queen Bee together. Betsy talked Joan into going and doing live television. Joan could not get over how Betsy acclimated herself to live television. Joan always wondered how Betsy was able to go out in front of groups of people not having lines and/or dialogue to fall back on. Betsy told her it was fun! Betsy talked her into doing it and she liked it. Betsy made it sage for Joan. Betsy was on the panel and Joan was the guest.
Again, Betsy LOVED live television. She said your life was on the line. You had to sink or swim.
Then there’s Friday the 13th! She was sent the script. She read it and she said, “What a piece of s!@#. Nobody will ever see this.” She was in New York doing a play at the time. Her car had broken down driving home to Englewood, New Jersey from the city. It took her all night to get home. She didn’t get there till about 5 or 6 in the morning. People were picking her up and taking her to an outdoor telephone. She still had her stage make-up on. She said she must have looked like a hooker walking down the road. After that experience, she needed a new car. It was $10,000 to buy the car that her and her daughter wanted, a German car. It was a Tuesday. Betsy’s agent called her on Friday and said, “How would you like to do a movie?” I said, “Great! A motion picture out in California?” He said, “No, it’s going to be shot here and will only take 10 days and they will pay you $10,000!” I said, “Perfect! I can get my car!” And THAT’S how Friday The 13th happened! It became a cult classic and Betsy still gets fan mail from all over the world for that “silly, silly movie.”
All in all, Betsy feels very fortunate for the career she has had. She says it has given so much to her, too. She was married ONLY once. Her daughter, Melissa, is an expression of that marriage. She divorced him after twenty years of marriage and never had a desire to remarry. She was always happy to take
care of herself financially. She was always independent and liked to work. She said she has no highlights, no lowlights, just happy to have had a steady career. It unfolded beautifully for her all of her life. She had recognition from the very beginning. She was never out of work. When she wasn’t in one medium, she was working in another.