Elaine Stritch, brash stage performer, dies at 89
07/17/2014 1:30 PM
07/17/2014 2:00 PM
Elaine Stritch, the brash theater performer whose gravelly, gin-laced voice and impeccable comic timing made her a Broadway legend, has died. She was 89.
A spokesman for Brigade Marketing, a publicity firm that represents Stritch, said the actress died Thursday of natural causes at her home in Birmingham, Michigan. Stritch moved to Michigan last year, bidding farewell to New York after 70 years as a tart-tongued monument to old-school show business endurance.
Although Stritch appeared in movies and on television, garnering three Emmys, she was best known for her stage work, particularly in her candid one-woman memoir, “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty,” and in the Stephen Sondheim musical “Company.”
She worked well into her late 80s, most recently as Madame Armfeldt in a revival of Sondheim’s musical “A Little Night Music.” She replaced Angela Lansbury in 2010 to critical acclaim.
In 2013, Stritch – whose signature “no pants” style was wearing a loose-fitting white shirt over sheer black tights – retired to Michigan after 71 years in New York City and made her final performance at the Carlyle Hotel “Elaine Stritch at the Carlyle: Movin' Over and Out.” She said she suffered from diabetes, a broken hip and memory loss – all of which she nakedly documented in the film “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” a documentary released in February.
“It’s going to be hard to turn my back on you guys, for a little while at least. But I have to. I’ve just got to take it easy,” she told the crowd. “Wish me well and I'll do the same to you.”
Stritch was a striking woman, with a quick wit, a shock of blond hair and great legs. She showed them off most elegantly in “At Liberty,” wearing a loose fitting white shirt, high heels and black tights.
In the show, the actress told the story of her life – with all its ups, downs and in-betweens. She frankly discussed her stage fright, missed showbiz opportunities, alcoholism, battle with diabetes and love life, all interspersed with songs she often sang onstage.
“What’s this all been about then – this existential problem in tights,” Stritch said of herself at the end of the solo show, which opened off-Broadway in November 2001, transferred to Broadway the following February and later toured. It earned her a Tony Award in 2002 and an Emmy when it was later televised on HBO.
“I think I know what I have been doing up here tonight. I’ve been reclaiming a lot of my life that I wasn’t honestly and truly there for,” she said. “It almost all happened without me but I caught up.”
In “Company” (1970), Stritch played the acerbic Joanne, delivering a lacerating version of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” a classic Sondheim song dissecting the modern Manhattan matron. Stritch originated the role in New York and then appeared in the London production.
Among her other notable Broadway appearances were as Grace, the owner of a small-town Kansas restaurant in William Inge’s “Bus Stop” (1955), and as a harried cruise-ship social director in the Noel Coward musical “Sail Away” (1961). She also appeared in revivals of “Show Boat” (1994), in which she played the cantankerous Parthy Ann Hawks, and Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” (1996), portraying a tart-tongued, upper-crust alcoholic.
Each generation found her relevant and hip. She was parodied in 2010 on an episode of “The Simpsons” in which Lisa Simpson attends a fancy performing arts camp. One class was on making wallets with Elaine Stritch and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Stritch got a kick out of it. “That’s worth being in the business for 150 years,” she said with a laugh.
Stritch’s films include “A Farewell to Arms” (1957), “Who Killed Teddy Bear?” (1965), Alain Resnais’ “Providence” (1977), “Out to Sea” (1997), and Woody Allen’s “September” (1987) and “Small Time Crooks” (2000). She also appeared in many American TV series, most notably a guest spot on “Law & Order” in 1990, which won Stritch her first Emmy.
Back in 1950, she played Trixie, Ed Norton’s wife, in an early segment of “The Honeymooners,” then a recurring sketch on Jackie Gleason’s variety show “Cavalcade of Stars.” But she was replaced by Joyce Randolph after one appearance.
More than a half-century later, Stritch was back at the top of the sitcom pyramid with a recurring role in “30 Rock,” winning her another Emmy in 2007 as best guest actress in a comedy. She played Alec Baldwin’s unforgiving mother.
She was also well known to TV audiences in England, where she starred with Donald Sinden in the sitcom “Two’s Company” (1975-79), playing an American mystery writer to Sinden’s unflappable British butler. Stritch also starred in “Nobody’s Perfect” (1980-1982), appearing with Richard Griffiths in this British version of the American hit “Maude.”
She starred in the London stage productions of Neil Simon’s “The Gingerbread Lady” and Tennessee Williams’ “Small Craft Warnings.” It was in England that Stritch met and married actor John Bay. They were married for 10 years. He died of a brain tumor in 1982.
Born Feb. 2, 1925, in Detroit, Stritch was the daughter of a Michigan business executive. She attended a Roman Catholic girls school and came to New York to study acting in 1944 with Erwin Piscator at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research.
Stritch made her Broadway debut in 1946 in “Loco,” a short-lived comedy by Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert. She was first noticed by the critics and audiences in the 1947 revue “Angel in the Wings.” In it, she sang the hit novelty song “Civilization,” which includes the immortal lyrics, “Bongo, Bongo, Bongo, I don’t want to leave the Congo.”
The actress understudied Ethel Merman in the Irving Berlin musical, “Call Me Madam” (1950). Stritch never went on for Merman in the role of Sally Adams, vaguely modeled after Washington party-giver Perle Mesta, but she did take over the part when the show went out on the road.
Stritch then appeared in revivals of two Rodgers and Hart musicals, “Pal Joey” (1952), in which she stripteased her way through “Zip,” and “On Your Toes” (1954).
The actress won good notices for “Goldilocks” (1958), a musical about the early days of movie-making, but the show, which also starred Don Ameche, was not a success.
She became good friends with Noel Coward after appearing on Broadway and in London in “Sail Away,” playing that harassed cruise-ship social director. The performer brought down the house by warbling a deft Coward ditty called “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?”
But Sondheim songs became her specialty, too.
Stritch sang “Broadway Baby” in a historic 1984 concert version of Sondheim’s “Follies,” performed at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. The concert, which also featured Lee Remick, Barbara Cook, Mandy Patinkin and George Hearn, was recorded by RCA.
In “At Liberty,” she delivered “I’m Still Here,” Sondheim’s hymn to show-business survival, a number she once described as “one of the greatest musical theater songs ever written.”
In 2005, after nearly 60 years in show business, Stritch made her solo club act debut, appearing at New York’s posh Carlyle Hotel and was brought back frequently. She lived in the Carlyle’s Room 309 for a decade.
A documentary, “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival the week before she left New York, showing a feisty Stritch as she reacted with anger, frustration and acceptance at her increasingly evident mortality. Asked what she thought of the film, she replied: “It’s not my cup of tea on a warm afternoon in May.” The film was released in 2014.
In the recent Broadway revival of “A Little Night Music,” Stritch played a wheelchair-bound aristocrat who offers dry and hysterical pronouncements in her half-dozen scenes, and mourned the loss of standards in her big song “Liaisons,” in which she looked back on her profitable sexual conquests of dukes and barons. She might as well have been speaking of theater itself.
“Where is skill?” she asked. “Where’s passion in the art, where’s craft?”
“You know where I’m at in age?” she said backstage, in her typical wit and sass. “I don’t need anything. That’s a little scary – when you know that the last two bras you bought are it. You won’t need any more. I’m not going to live long for any big, new discovery at Victoria’s Secret.”
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