Booth, Shirley (1907–1992)

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Booth, Shirley (1907–1992)

American actress who won an Academy Award and Tony Award for her portrayal of Lola in Come Back, Little Sheba. Born Thelma Booth Ford in New York, New York, on August 30, 1907; died on October 16, 1992, in North Chatham, Massachusetts; eldest daughter of Albert J. (an IBM district manager) and Shirley (Wright) Ford; attended Public School 152 in Brooklyn, New York, until age 14; married Edward Gardner, on November 23, 1929 (divorced 1942); married William H. Baker, in 1943 (died 1951).

Selected stage appearances:

made first appearance in Hartford in The Cat and the Canary (1919); made debut in New York as Nan Winchester in Hell's Bells (1925); played Mabel in Three Men on a Horse at the Playhouse (1935); Mrs. Loschavio in Excursion at the Vanderbilt (1937); Elizabeth Imbrie in The Philadelphia Story at the Shubert (1939); Ruth Sherwood in My Sister Eileen at the Biltmore (1940–42); Leona Richards in To-Morrow the World at the Ethel Barrymore (1943–44); Louhedda Hopsons in Hollywood Pinafore at the Alvin (1945); Susan Pengilly in Land's End at the Playhouse (1946); Grace Woods in Goodbye, My Fancy at the Morosco (for which she won the Antoinette Perry Award, 1948); Abby Quinn in Love Me Long at the 48th Street Theater (1949); Lola in Come Back, Little Sheba at the Booth (for which she won the Antoinette Perry Award, 1950, and an Academy Award, 1952); Cissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at the Alvin (1951); Leona Samish in The Time of the Cuckoo at the Empire (for which she won the Antoinette Perry Award, 1952); Lottie Gibson in By the Beautiful Sea at the Majestic (1954); Bunny Watson in Desk Set at the Broadhurst (1955).


Come Back, Little Sheba (1952); Main Street to Broadway (1953); About Mrs. Leslie (1954); The Matchmaker (1958); Hot Spell (1958). On radio: played Miss Duffy on "Duffy's Tavern." On television: played the title role on the 1961–66 NBC series "Hazel," for which she received an Emmy award.

Acting may have appealed to Shirley Booth because of a shy, lonely childhood during which she liked to imagine herself as someone else, or perhaps Booth simply succumbed to what she described as the "heady" experience of her first performance at the age of three, singing "In the Good Old Summertime" in a Sunday School show. Regardless of her motivation, she blossomed into one of the finest character actresses of her time, mesmerizing audiences for over five decades on stage, screen, radio, and television.

Booth's earliest formal contact with the theater was through J. Hammond Daly, an actor friend of the family who snagged her a part in a stock production of Mother Carey's Chickens when she was 12. After a summer with the company

in Hartford, Booth returned to school for only a year before she left home, against her father's wishes, to pursue the theater in New York.

Taking up residence with a friend of her mother's, Booth landed an ingénue's part with the Poli stock company. Assigned to its New Haven unit, she spent a year there, then toured the major cities in the Eastern United States. Her first Broadway role was opposite a very young Humphrey Bogart in Hell's Bells, in 1925. For the next ten years, she alternated stock engagements with parts in short-lived Broadway plays. Appearing in nearly 600 stock productions, she had roles in plays as diverse as Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan and Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck. Booth recalled her stock days as good training ("You get your cue and you come out acting"), and she felt compelled to continue her stock work even after other opportunities began to come her way. "I was big in stock. I had a reputation and a public. I could afford to hang around New York and take my chances, but I had to go where people believed in me…. I had to keep acting, so I could believe in myself."

Her appearance in Sunday Nights at Nine (1934) brought her to the attention of George Abbott, who gave Booth the first substantial role of her career, as a good-hearted gangster's moll in the hit comedy Three Men on a Horse which ran for two years. After subsequent roles in a couple of flops, she moved to the West Coast to vacation for a year. She returned to New York in 1939 to play the wisecracking photographer Elizabeth Imbrie in the Theater Guild's production of The Philadelphia Story, for which she received as many raves from the critics as did the show's star Katharine Hepburn . Booth's next role, as Ruth Sherwood in My Sister Eileen, afforded her another two-year run during which she also performed the comedic turn as Miss Duffy in the popular radio program "Duffy's Tavern," which was written and produced by her husband Ed Gardner. She divorced Gardner in 1942 and a year later married William Baker, Jr., a New York investment counselor who died in 1951. Booth also appeared in other top radio variety shows and performed various dramatic roles on "Theater Guild of the Air."

The early 1940s brought the play To-Morrow the World, which was successful despite its serious story about a teacher who tries to reeducate a young Nazi, and Booth's first musical comedy, Hollywood Pinafore (1945), in which she played a movie columnist named Louhedda Hopsons (based on real-life columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons ). One of her numbers in Pinafore, called "Little Miss Butter-up," was George Kaufman's clever take on Gilbert and Sullivan's "Buttercup." New York Herald Tribune critic Howard Barnes was delighted with Booth's musical ability: "There are some who knew she could sing like a lark…. Those who did not know it will derive tremendous pleasure from her handling of the lovely songs."

For her part as the cynical secretary in Goodbye, My Fancy (1948), Booth received the Antoinette Perry Award (Tony) for Best Supporting Actress. She saw enormous success with her role of Lola Delaney, a frowzy middle-aged housewife, in the Theater Guild drama Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), for which she won not only the Tony, but also the Drama Critics Circle Award. Drama critic Brooks Atkinson observed, "She has the shuffle, the maddening garrulity and the rasping voice of the slattern, but withal she imparts to the role the warmth, generosity and valor of a loyal and affectionate woman." The show's director Daniel Mann was more succinct: "She doesn't act, she lives on the stage." Booth repeated the role of Lola in the 1952 film version of the play, winning an Academy Award as Best Actress as well as the Best Actress of the Year award from both the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics. In addition, she was named "the world's best actress" at the sixth International Film Festival at Cannes, France.

In 1951, Booth played the feisty Aunt Cissy in the musical A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, prompting the New York Post to call her, "one of the wonders of the American stage." For her role as the lonely Leona Samish in The Time of the Cuckoo (1952), Booth received her third Tony and the 1953 Delia Austrain Medal of the Drama League of New York (the play was subsequently made into the film Summertime with Katharine Hepburn). Booth went on to do another musical By the Beautiful Sea (1954) and the comedy The Desk Set (1955), for which she received the Sarah Siddons Award in Chicago.

During the 1960s, Booth found a new and loyal following as the lovable know-it-all maid in the NBC television series "Hazel" (1961–66). For her work in the show, she received a total of 28 awards, including the Emmy. Early in her career, Booth had told a reporter, "I want to keep improving, to keep acting and to play many character parts." She did just that, right up to her final Broadway appearance in a 1970 revival of Hay Fever.


Boardman, Gerald. The Oxford Companion to American Theatre. NY: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Current Biography 1953. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1953.

Morley, Sheridan. The Great Stage Stars. London: Angus and Robertson, 1986.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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