Nanette Fabray, original star of Broadway musicals dating back to World War II, including High Button Shoes and Irving Berlin’s swan song Mr. President, and one of the first actors to win a Tony Award for musical performance, has died at age 97.
Fabray is today more closely associated with Hollywood films she made during the 1940s and early 1950s, especially The Band Wagon, (1953) in which she starred opposite Fred Astaire and helped introduced the Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz song “That’s Entertainment.”
But before her move to Hollywood, she made nearly a dozen Broadway appearances, including original productions of lesser-known musicals by a panoply of Golden Age songwriters including Cole Porter (Let’s Face It! opposite Danny Kaye), Rodgers & Hart (By Jupiter opposite Ray Bolger), Harold Arlen & Yip Harburg (Bloomer Girl, replacing Celeste Holm), and Kurt Weill and Alan Jay Lerner (Love Life).
Her performance in the last-named show earned her the 1949 Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical, only the second time that award was given.
Fabray enjoyed one certifiable Broadway hit with the 1947 musical High Button Shoes by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, in which she introduced the high-energy “Papa Won't You Dance With Me.” The nostalgic show never got a Broadway revival, but was showcased (with Fabray) on the 1971 Tony Awards. Co-starring Phil Silvers, the show was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins.
Here is a clip of Fabray singing numbers from Love Life and High Button Shoes on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Her last Broadway musical was also Berlin’s last, Mr. President, which co-starred Robert Ryan as a U.S. president trying to have a normal middle-class life in the White House while the responsibilities of the job swirl around him. Fabray played First Lady Nell Henderson and got to sing Berlin’s last waltz for Broadway, the nostalgic “Let’s Go Back to the Waltz.” Then-president John F. Kennedy attended the out-of-town opening (in Washington, D.C., of course), but notoriously left at intermission. The show played eight months on Broadway.
She found renewed success in the 1950s in movies and on television appearing opposite Sid Caesar on the sketch comedy show Caesar’s Hour (1954–1957), replacing Imogene Coca, who had served as Caeser’s partner on his long-running Your Show of Shows. Fabray won three Emmy Awards for her performances on the show.
She had further TV success in the 1980s with the role of Katherine on the soap One Day at a Time. Mary Tyler Moore famously claimed to have learned her noted on-cue crying ability by watching Fabray. When Fabray appeared in a guest spot on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as Mary’s mother, the two had a scene in which they broke down together.
Fabray was born Ruby Bernadette Nanette Fabares October 27, 1920, in San Diego, California. She proved to be a child prodigy, making her stage debut at age 3, and touring in vaudeville. She was accepted as a student by tap master Bill “Bojangles” Robinson while still in elementary school. She made her Hollywood film debut at age 19 as one of Bette Davis’s ladies-in-waiting in the 1939 film The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.
She changed her name from Fabares to Fabray in 1941 after Ed Sullivan, who was hosting a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden, mispronounced her name as “Fa-bare-ass” when introducing her. Sullivan later made it up to her by booking her repeatedly on his nationally telecast TV variety show.
Fabray’s success in the music business came despite a significant hearing impairment that was already evident at age 5. She suffered from otosclerosis, a hereditary disease that causes a growth of spongy bone in the inner ear, progressing to deafness. She ”came out” about her disability in her 30s, at a time when such an admission could have cost her work. In later years she became a advocate for the rights of the deaf and hard of hearing, earning both the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award and The President’s Distinguished Service Award. She served on the board of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped and was appointed by Congress to the Commission on Education of the Deaf. She memorably performed “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in sign language on The Carol Burnett Show.
Despite her impairment, she was accepted as an opera student at Juilliard in the early 1940s.
Fabray was married twice, first to press agent David Tebet, whom she met while working on the Broadway musical Bloomer Girl. They were married from 1947 until their divorce in 1951. Her second marriage, to Ranald MacDougall, lasted from 1957 until his death in 1973.
Her final Broadway appearance was in the non-musical 1973 Bobrick & Clark comedy No Hard Feelings, which closed on opening night. She tried again in 1997 with the Off-Broadway comedy Bermuda Avenue Triangle, which also had a brief run.
She is survived by her son and two grandchildren.