Georgia Engel (Minnie Faye: Carole Cook, Phyllis Diller, Ethel Merman)
Georgia Engel was born in Washington, D.C., the daughter of Ruth Caroline (née Hendron) and Benjamin Franklin Engel, who was a Coast Guard admiral. Engel attended the Kodiak Island Borough School District, and Walter Johnson High School and the Academy of the Washington Ballet from which she graduated. She earned her college degree from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
To people of a certain age, Georgia Engel is the delightful Georgette of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. To another generation, she is Amy’s mom on Everybody Loves Raymond. Before both of those, there was Hello, Dolly! Already in 1969, one may not have heard the entire score of Dolly, but the title song was popular on the radio, thanks to Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong.
That song was part of the popular consciousness. The first time Georgia heard the entire score, she was in the show! She remembers it being happy and joyous music. When Georgia was in the University of Hawaii in 1969, the Australian company starring Carole Cook came through. They were auditioning for Minnie Fay and Georgia happened to get the part. Gary Alexander played Barnaby Tucker in that company. That’s also had Georgia got her Equity card.
She was only in the show for its duration in Hawaii, just a few weeks. She graduated from college that year as well at the age of twenty. After that, she moved to New York.
Shortly after arriving in New York, Georgia was doing a show with the Equity Library Theater. It was a production of Lend an Ear, which, of course, was the show that brought Carol Channing to Broadway.
Carol came to see the show and was nice to everyone. Carol ended up befriending Georgia. Years later, when Georgia was in My One and Only, as Mickey, the Mechanic, on Broadway, she was on a sixth-floor walk-up at the St. James Theater.
One night after the show, she hears that distinctive voice. Charles Lowe was screaming to Carol not to climb those stairs.
She said, “I’ve got to go up there!” That walk was so intense that on two show days, Georgia stayed in her dressing room between shows. Carol made that climb to see Georgia to tell her that she did a great job.
When Georgia was doing Sweet Charity at Kansas City Starlight, Carol was touring the country in Legends with Mary Martin.
When Carol and Mary came to Kansas City, Georgia went to see the show. She couldn’t have been sweeter to Georgia. She has always gone out of her way to be encouraging and sweet to Georgia. One of Merrick’s casting guys also came to see the show and Georgia got the opportunity to audition for Hello, Dolly on Broadway which would be starring Phyllis Diller.
This was on the heels of the all African-American Company starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway.
Part of the preparation of coming in for the Phyllis Diller Company was for the cast to go see the Pearl Bailey company. Georgia got to see it a few times and loved it. Some of the cast of the Diller Company had done previous productions of Dolly. Georgia was and has become even more aware of the fact that there was a community of people who had long years connected with the production.
Having done the role of Minnie Fay in the Hawaiian leg of Carole Cook’s Company, the role was in Georgia’s bones. Ethel Merman was already on board to play Dolly, but in the interim, Phyllis Diller did it for three months.
Georgia had been told that they were considering bringing Sondra Lee, the original Minnie Fay, in for these two actresses, but Sondra was not interested in repeating a role she had already played on Broadway.
Physically, Georgia and Sondra are very different, so new costumes had to be created. Georgia was one of the tallest actresses to play Minnie.
She’s not huge, but she is physically larger than the others.
Georgia definitely had the right quality. Having played the role prior, it gave Georgia a sense of dominion.
When it comes to the title song, Georgia says it is a magical number.
Georgia loved working with Phyllis Diller.
Phyllis did the sweetest thing for the entire company. While she was doing Dolly, she was also doing her club act late nights at the Upstairs at the Downstairs. Each night, she would pick out a few members of cast and crew and treat them to the show! They were taken there by limousine.
Georgia has never forgotten that. That was so much better than an opening night present. Phyllis did that for EVERY member of the company. Georgia and Phyllis would work together a few more times over the years.
They did Cinderella together.
Phyllis played the stepmother and Georgia played the Fairy Godmother.
Georgia and Phyllis loved getting in touch with each other again. Phyllis gave Georgia a beautiful red necklace which she has as a remembrance.
Phyllis lived such a full and beautiful life.
Many people don’t realize what a brilliant artist she was. She would be painting while they were on tour. The company would stay in hotels.
Prior to auditioning for Dolly in Hawaii, Georgia had no previous thoughts on the show. When Dolly opened on Broadway, Georgia was in junior high school. ‘You come down the pike when you come down the pike.” When it comes to playing a role, Georgia never puts a “spin” on the character.
As a matter of fact, she abhors that term. She tries to find the heart of the character. Everybody has to feel their way into a part.
Georgia is wary of the word “tweak” when it comes to her performance. As time goes on, you have more resonance. You find tiny little things that make it richer for you. Very often, directors come back and try and take out what actors have added to their performances.
It’s important to stay true to what you are given. There is always room to bring more richness to a part. She remembers one time in Hawaii. Georgia and Gary Alexander became good friends. Garrett Lewis was also in that production as Cornelius Hackl. Georgia had a crush on Garrett Lewis. During the docket scene, when Minnie and Mrs. Molloy were looking at Barnaby and Cornelius, Minnie found herself looking at the wrong guy. She found her way into Minnie Fay’s heart and became Minnie Faye.
Georgia played Minnie Fay on Broadway for fifty-two weeks, a full year, three months with Phyllis Diller and Richard Deacon and the rest of the year with Miss Merman and Jack Goode. It wasn’t until several years later that Georgia found out that he, too, had worked with Mary Tyler Moore. When you are young and coming down the pike, you are not always aware of what wonderful things those that you are working with have done. She never got to know him. Miss Merman and Georgia were the only ones in that company who never missed a performance. Georgia loved Miss Merman very much. Of course, Miss Merman had a formidable reputation. She didn’t suffer fools lightly. It was a thrill to work with her. The highest compliment came when they first started working together. There is a moment towards the end of the first act in the Dancing number in which Minnie Fay dances around Dolly at the end of the number. That moment was inspired by Sondra Lee when she suggested the movement to Gower in order to have a moment between Dolly and Minnie Fay emotionally. At that moment, Dolly and Minnie are the last two people left on the stage. When they started working together, Miss Merman would always look Georgia in the forehead. She was one of those old-time performers who could do a really great show without looking anybody in the eyes. The magic was between them and the audience. They didn’t feel a need, perhaps it was shyness. A few months into the run, Miss Merman began to look Georgia in the eyes during that moment and continued to do so. Dolly had originally been written for Miss Merman. In her finally agreeing to do the show, Love, Look in my Window and World, Take Me Back, both written for Miss Merman, were reinstated.
Georgia has had many opening and closing nights in the theater, but nothing to rival those of Miss Merman! It is unheard of to have someone walk out on stage and get a ten-minute ovation. As a young person, Georgia was aware that this was something extraordinary. People loved her so much. She was a legend. When Georgia saw her later in her career on shows like The Love Boat, she was saddened. Her gift was what she was able to create on the Broadway stage.
The TV was too small and too puny for her. She seemed too big for it. She was then out of place with the times. TV didn’t show how magnificent she was.
Georgia’s father was an Admiral in the Coast Guard and was transferred to Governor’s Island. When Georgia’s parents moved to Governor’s Island, they insisted that she move out of her cockroach-infested apartment in Manhattan and move in with them.
Although Georgia was ready to be on her own, she made the difficult decision to take them up on their offer. Georgia invited her and she accepted! She brought along two friends and they had a wonderful Christmas eve celebration. However, there was one embarrassing moment. Georgia’s grandmother, whom they called Nanny, didn’t follow protocol and called Miss Merman Ethel. Of course, Nanny didn’t mean disrespect. She said, “Ethel, why not sing us a song!?!” Miss Merman got a little bit of her rancor up and said, “I only sing when I’m getting paid.” Nanny was wrong, but she didn’t know any better. Miss Merman didn’t want to be put on the spot. She was invited as a guest. When everyone sang together later, she joined in. Miss Merman threw the closing night party for the company at her hotel at The Waldorf. Miss Merman invited Georgia to stay overnight so she wouldn’t have to commute to Governor’s Island. Georgia didn’t accept. She knew she had to take the subway to South Ferry.If she didn’t get the ferry by two AM, she would be stuck. Her dad would probably worry. She used to have to have dinner at home every night at six pm and she was always rushing right into the theater right at the moment at half hour. She was afraid of the stage manager because he had a
little black book and if you were not there by half hour, your name would go in this book. As she has matured as an actress, she is always at the theater way early.
Looking back, she feels she should have taken Miss Merman’s invitation.She didn’t accept the invitation, but Miss Merman gave a wonderful closing night party.Georgia also loved Danny Lockin. They once took an acrobatics class together. This was a class that she took every day. He wanted to take this class with her, without even warming up! He did everything the instructor asked him to do and the instructor was very impressed. As we can still see, thanks to the film of Hello, Dolly, he was very acrobatic. When Hello, Dolly, the film, premiered in New York at the Rivoli Theater on December 16th, 1969, Danny and Georgia were appearing opposite each other on Broadway in Phyllis Diller’s Company. Danny’s date for the premier was Georgia. She feels that EJ was perfectly lovely in the film.
Georgia feels the film was a different animal from the Broadway show. Georgia, however, enjoyed it and loved Barbra Streisand.
Hello, Dolly launched Georgia’s career. She has a great love for it. She had a great time and learned the discipline of doing a long run. It is hard to do it for a year. You get tired of it. You have to find ways of keeping it fresh. It is a wonderful discipline for someone starting out. When Georgia was appearing in Dolly on Broadway, she got a movie.
It became a crazy schedule. She was shooting during the day and did the show at night. It was one of Milos Forman’s first films, Taking Off for which she was nominated for a British Academy Award for best-supporting actress. John Guare was one of the writers on the film.
After Dolly closed, Georgia started collecting unemployment. At that time, you had to go way downtown to pick up your checks.
On her way down one day, she ran into John Guare. He asked what she was doing. She replied that since Dolly had closed, she was now collecting unemployment.
He told her to go to the Truck and Warehouse Theater, that they could really use her as one of the leads in The House of Blue Leaves.
She went down and got it. Although she was now making less money than unemployment, she knew it was more important as far as her resume was concerned. Even as a young person, she knew it was important to work with quality people.
She very quickly started out understudying two parts. The actress who was playing Corinna Stoller left for a better paying job. Georgia then went into that wonderful role.
Several months later, the theater burned down. Instead of waiting for the theater to be built back up, they took the show to Hollywood. All of the people who later became Georgia’s friends on The Mary Tyler Moore Show came to see the show.
Georgia was taking a ballet class on Hollywood Boulevard. Mary Tyler Moore was in the same ballet class, but Georgia didn’t recognize her. She was there with no make-up on.One day at the ballet bar, Moore told her that she and her husband, Grant Tinker had seen the show with a couple of friends and that they really loved it. Georgia found out later that it was Allan Ludden and Betty White. Georgia finished her run in House of Blue Leaves and six months later, she got a call to play a tiny part, at that time, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Georgia’s manager didn’t think she should do it because she would have to fly herself out to LA on her own expense. Georgia said sometimes you have to pay for the privilege of working with the best. Georgia flew out to play this tiny part that didn’t even start out at the beginning of the week with the rest of the cast. It was a Wednesday through Friday part as opposed to a Monday through Friday. By the time those three days were over, they had written Georgia into the cast.
Georgia was teaching Sunday school and had to get back to New York after her three days of taping.
She flew back to New York after the taping on Friday night. On Monday morning, she received a big potted plant delivered to her front door. That’s unheard of in a New York apartment building with a doorman. Usually, he will call up to say there’s a delivery. The doorbell rang and Georgia peeked through the peephole to see this huge potted plant outside her door.
She brought it in and the card said, “Welcome to the MTM family.” They had not even negotiated or anything with her. It wasn’t like she was hard to get. They knew she had been on Broadway. They had seen her in House of Blue Leaves. It was a funny fit putting her with Ted Knight. All of this was a natural trajectory from Hello, Dolly.
Georgia feels that Tyne Daly would make a great Dolly if she had any interest. She was so wonderful in Gypsy when she did it.
The discipline that Georgia learned from Dolly is a discipline that she does not see in the young people coming up in the theater today.
Miss Merman would go on even if she had a cold or whatever. It was NEVER in her thoughts that she wouldn’t go on. Georgia learned that discipline from Mary Tyler Moore as well. Nothing would stop them.When Georgia was doing Dolly on Broadway, there were no vacation weeks. Equity has since given so many wonderful perks to actors to help them to make them happier and healthier in long-term Broadway jobs.
Georgia considers herself now one of the seniors of the “old school.” When you are young, you are very impressionable. Georgia learned so much from observing Miss Merman’s work habits. She would never think of disappointing the people who came to see her. Lucia Victor was the one who put Georgia in Dolly. Hello, Dolly got people to appreciate the highest caliber of showmanship. Georgia thought Lucia was wonderful. She was wonderful to Georgia. She was no-nonsense, and Georgia didn’t get to know her on any personal level whatsoever. The worst experience for Georgia may not be the worst by someone else’s standards. She went one day to a friend’s home for an early dinner between shows.
She had a little bit too much to eat. She had a part in the show where she had to jump up in the air with her back arched into the arms of dancer Sean Nolan.
It was difficult with what she had eaten to do this with any kind of grace or dignity. He laughed later about that. Sean was big strong masculine Irish guy. He later said to Georgia that he knew something was amiss. She came towards her like a Mack truck. She was just grateful they didn’t end up in a heap. At that moment, it felt, to Georgia, like the end of the world.Sean died shortly after Dolly closed. There were many deaths from that company so soon after it closed. It was quite unusual, June Helmers (Irene
Molloy), Danny Lockin (Barnaby Tucker), Jack Goode (Horace Vandergelder). It was spooky to Georgia as a young person.
Other than seeing Pearl Bailey on Broadway, Georgia has only seen three other Dollys, Ruta Lee at Casa Manana in Texas , E. Faye Butler at the Drury Lane Dinner Theater in Chicago in 1991, and Carol Channing’s revival in 1977.Ruta is very beloved in Texas and has done a lot of musicals there. Georgia enjoyed Ruta’s Dolly very much.
E. Faye and Georgia appeared in Nunsensetogether. E. Faye is much beloved in Chicago. She was a magnificent Dolly, with a magnificent voice and comic ability. Sid Smith in The Chicago Tribute wrote:
Drury Lane Theatre`s keen, generally appealing revival now in Evergreen Park manages by going after both entertainment levels. E. Faye Butler stars as the fast-talking, slippery Dolly Levi, and hers is a matchmaker who`s funny one moment, beautifully voiced the next. Moreover, she has the force of personality, the mystical onstage authority, to carry off Dolly`s high-handed antics-Channing isn`t the only one who can carry the role, but whoever does needs to be broad, larger than life, demonstrably memorable on stage.
Therein Butler fills the bill, an astute area comedian waiting for the right lead to come along for some time now. She`s at home with the zingers, broad takes and sass for such scenes as the Harmonia Gardens dinner, during which she dumps mountains of steaming beets and mashed potatoes, first onto Horace Vandergelder`s plate and then into her own mouth.
But Butler also uses a silky, girlishly restrained air for some scenes, tossing lines away and giving Dolly a soft, vulnerable, lovable side.
(She even does “Love, Look in My Window,“ a song written especially for Ethel Merman and lost to the show ever since.) Together, she and John Beasley, as a muscular, virile Horace, turn in a slightly sexy romance, sweetly sentimental, as well as funny.
Although Georgia has not seen many productions of Dolly, she is very aware that those who are not “famous” can do a magnificent job with this role. When a musical is well written, anyone who has the singing, movement, acting chops to do it, that larger than life quality that Dolly requires, can be wonderful in it. Think of all the joy it has brought to many high schools. She did see the 1977 Broadway revival with Carol Channing and Lee Roy Reams as Cornelius. It was a production of pure love. Because Georgia was young and not living in New York, she did not see Carol do it originally. It was great to finally see her magic in doing this. Carol Channing owned it. It was hers, she made it hers. Jerry Herman is a lovely, lovely man. She got to later work with him closely at Goodspeed in Dear World in 2000. She enjoyed his kindness so much. All that Georgia can remember about the closing night on Broadway is the excitement of it. She remembers thten-minutete ovation on Miss Merman’s entrance and the massive non ending applause at the end of each number.
Everything else is a blur. As mentioned, Miss Merman threw the closing night party Georgia has no desire to play Dolly herself. She thinks she is past the age now to do it. Georgia was very blessed and satisfied just being Minnie Fay. Georgia has been one of the greatest supporting actresses of all time and she loves that with all her heart. Supporting actors and actresses can have wonderful careers. For Georgia, the similarities between doing comedy on stage and in television are what she loves. There are some sitcoms that are taped without an audience. They are not as much fun for Georgia. She just did three episodes of The Office.
She loved the cast and crew. They give three hundred percent too much. Two hundred percent of what you do gets edited out. They do it like a Christopher Guest movie. They do more than they need and it becomes an editor’s art.
With The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Everybody Loves Raymond, they are both done with great precision. Since they are both filmed in front of an audience, just as on Broadway, the audience tells you where the humor should be. Even when you do a role on Broadway for a year, the audience doesn’t always laugh at the same place.
Sometimes an audience will laugh thirty seconds after where they normally do.
It’s the same on television. Once on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, something that the cast laughed at so hard during the week, the audience didn’t laugh at where the cast expected the laugh to land. It came a few minutes later. Georgia remembers thinking how smart it is to be on your toes and let the audience tell you where the laughter is.
Most recently, Georgia appeared at The Paper Mill Playhouse in Jerry Mitchell's Half-Time.