While essentially a comedic actress best known to her television audience as the shy, anxiety-ridden, supernatural housekeeper Esmerelda on the ABC sitcom, Bewitched, and as the batty Bernice Clifton (a role which earned her an Emmy nomination in 1992) on CBS' comedy series, Designing Women, Alice Ghostley was…more
Alice, at the start of her entertainment career, use to do a lot of backers' auditions, where actors would do portions of shows to try and raise money for the production. It was while doing such an audition that she met composer G. Wood, who convinced her to join him in a nightclub act that they premiered at the Bon Soir club in New York City.
Alice played Mrs. Murdock, the auto mechanics teacher, in the film version of Grease (1978), a role which she found quite ironic since she didn't drive.
Alice listed her year of birth as 1926, but many sources dispute the date, including comedic actress and longtime friend, Kaye Ballard, who claims Ghostley was actually about two years older.
Alice's last public performance as an actress occurred in 2004 on the PBS program, Great Performances, also on which aired the 1957 televised Rodgers and Hammerstein comedy musical, Cinderella, in which she was cast as the stepsister, Joy.
Alice had a major showcase when she debuted at the fabled Bon Soir, a basement café run by the Mafia in Greenwich Village (New York City, New York) and known for its liberal atmosphere. (It welcomed an interracial audience, and one half of the club featured a gay bar.) Ghostley and friend/fellow comedian, Kaye Ballard, performed outlandish depictions including a portrayal of Mona Lisa as an Italian prostitute whose advances Leonardo da Vinci snubs when he only wants to paint her picture.
Alice had a remarkable vocal range. Composer Murray Grand, whose material she sang after having built up a cabaret act of songs and comedy with pianist/composer, G. Wood, said, "G. Wrote arrangements to suit that big range of hers, like a very dramatic version of 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home.' She would start off sounding like a mezzo, then she'd be way up in the clouds."
Alice worked with stand-up comic/actor Paul Lynde in three different entertainment capacities: Broadway's New Faces of 1952, ABC television's Bewitched (1960s), and in the 1978 full-feature film, Rabbit Test.
Alice received less than stellar reviews for her work in the Broadway stage musical, Shangri-La, and as Tom Sawyer's Aunt Polly in 1957's Livin' the Life.
Alice played a wide variety of characters in A Thurber Carnival, a Broadway revue based on the work of humorist and cartoonist, James Thurber. It ran for nine months in 1960.
Alice was doing the dishes in her Third Avenue (New York) apartment when composer/friend Murray Grand called to notify her that she had been asked to audition for Leonard Sillman for his revue, New Faces of 1952, the production which made for her Broadway debut.
Alice appeared in New York's Fireside Inn in the early 1950s, where one of her admirers was playwright, Tennessee Williams.
Alice was a prime figure (singer and dancer) in cabaret the two decades before embracing a career in television, stage, and movies.
Alice was required to wear a prosthetic pig nose almost the entire episode of the CBS comedy series, Designing Women, when her character, Bernice Clifton, had to deal with plastic surgery gone awry.
Alice made over 900 television appearances in a career that spanned six decades.
Alice earned an Antoinette Perry Award nomination for Best Supporting or Featured Actress in a Dramatic Role for her work in the 1963 Broadway production, The Beauty Part.
Alice's father, Harris Francis Ghostley, worked as a telegraph operator in the same Eve, Missouri train station where she was born. She spent part of her childhood in Arkansas, but essentially grew up in Henryetta, Oklahoma, where her mother, Edna, and sister, Gladys, and she moved when Miss Ghostley was five years old, to live with her grandparents after the sudden death of her father.
Alice is remembered for TV parts in such diverse productions as "The Twelfth Night" (Hallmark Hall of Fame, 1957), The Jackie Gleason Show: The American Scene Magazine (1962), her starring role in Captain Nice (1966-67), and The Jonathan Winters Show (1967-1969).
Alice received the Antoinette Perry Award for Best Supporting or Featured Actress in a Dramatic Role (1965), the New York Critics Circle Award for Best Performance of 1965, and the Saturday Review Award for Best Performance of 1964/1965 for her work in the Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry's The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window.
Alice sang "The Boston Beguine" on Broadway with stand-up comedian Paul Lynde in New Faces of 1952, Leonard Sillman's revue which helped launch both of their careers. Years later, Ghostley and Lynde would work as semi-regulars on the ABC sitcom, Bewitched: Alice as the nervous, wall-flower witch, Esmeralda, and Paul as Samantha Steven's Uncle Arthur. Comedic actress, Alice Pierce, who played the nosey neighbor, Gladys Kravitz, on the series, was also a featured performer in New Faces of 1952.
Alice never enjoyed cooking or sewing, and did not drive.
Alice, an aspiring actress in her late teens, headed for New York where she teamed up with her sister, Gladys, to form a stage act called The Ghostley Sisters.
Alice, in her initial appearance on the ABC sitcom, Bewitched, portrayed Larry and Louise Tate's mortal maid, Naomi, who was hired to replace their regular housekeeper named Esmeralda, ironically, the same name as the witch character she would later be cast as in the series.
Alice joined the ABC sitcom, Bewitched, in the program's sixth season (1969-1970), the same time as actor Dick Sargent replaced Dick York as Darrin. The two became close friends and remained so until Sargent's death in 1994.
Alice was inspired to pursue a dramatic career by her small Oklahoma town high school speech teacher, as well by a cousin who was a tightrope walker for Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus.
Alice, with help from actor/composer/lyricist G. Wood, made her Broadway debut in Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1952, the hit revue in which she became an overnight sensation and received critical acclaim for singing Sheldon Harnick's satirical send-up, "The Boston Beguine," which became her signature song.
Alice, a then aspiring actress, secured employment in a variety of capacities including cosmetic factory worker, meat market checker, typist at Life magazine, restaurant worker, secretary, detective agency employee (where she was hired to sit in bars and observe bartenders suspicious of robbing the till or giving out free drinks), music teacher, and theater usher in order to pay for acting and voice lessons.
Alice, joining the cast of the hit CBS TV sitcom Designing Women (1968) as the dippy Bernice Clifton, was well-received by viewers, especially the studio audience, who would rally around her after each taping. Even though it had been years since her portrayal of the supernatural housekeeper, Esmeralda, on the ABC comedy series, Bewitched (1969-1972), her loyalty remained with the show as she nostalgically would sign each autograph with "Best Witches, Alice Ghostley."
Alice attended the University of Oklahoma where she minored in drama before dropping out to move to New York with her sister to pursue theater.
Alice (as Joy, the dowdy one) and fellow comedic actress, Kaye Ballard (as Portia, the merry idiot) played the very vocal and funny stepsisters in the 1957 live-televised production of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's musical comedy, Cinderella. Rodgers and Hammerstein favored singers over actors; it was rare that they cast comics with real voices in their musicals. Although the presentation's score was subsequently made into an album featuring Ghostley's vocal talents, it never made it to the Broadway stage. However, a revamped version of the production did reach London's West End for the 1958 Christmas season, but without the original cast. Alice's role was filled by a male performer dressed like a woman.
Alice's most characteristic and repeated lines as the shy and insecure witch, Esmeralda, on the ABC comedy series, Bewitched, were "Oh, dear!" "Oh, my!" and "I think I'm going to fade."
Alice's two favorite episodes of Bewitched, the ABC comedy series in which she portrayed Esmeralda, a shy, inept witch-maid, were "Samantha's Magic Mirror" (Episode 224, Season 7) because she was able to work with guest star and long-time friend, Tom Bosley, and episode 230 of season 8 titled, "Samantha's Not-So-Leaning Tower of Pisa," for more comic reasons: her character's accidental incantation was the reason why Italy's famous Tower of Pisa leans.
Alice played the role of Miss Hannigan, the alcoholic housemother in the 1978 Broadway musical stage production of Annie, based on the comic strip, Little Orphan Annie, stopping the show with her rendition of the song, "Little Girls." The role required her to wear so much makeup that Alice was virtually unrecognizable, except to the children in the audience who remembered her from her days as Esmeralda on the ABC sitcom, Bewitched. Annie would prove to be Ghostley's last Broadway appearance. Alice was in a total of 907 productions of Annie.
Alice was featured in the 1967 groundbreaking film The Graduate, along with actress, Marion Lorne, who later portrayed Aunt Clara on the ABC comedy series, Bewitched. After Lorne's untimely death in 1969, she was replaced by a similar character named Esmeralda, portrayed by Alice Ghostley.
Alice, debuting in an early episode of the ABC comedy series, Bewitched, as Larry and Louise Tate's mortal maid, Naomi, was asked to return after positive first impressions. When Alice Pierce, cast as the Steven's nosy neighbor, Mrs. Gladys Kravitz, passed away, Ghostley was offered her part. Having been close friends who worked together in the early years of their comedic careers, Alice was superstitious about replacing her and declined the role.
Alice, featured in some thirty films, including To Kill a Mocking Bird (1962) and The Graduate (1967), never won an Oscar. However, in 1969, she accepted one for her close friend and fellow Broadway revue (New Faces) alumna, Maggie Smith, when she was honored with the Academy Award for Best Actress for the title role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Miss Smith, in London the night of the award presentation, was unable to attend; Miss Ghostley claimed the Oscar on her behalf.
Alice earned the nomination for the 1963 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her multiple characterizations in S. J. Perelman's Broadway play, The Beauty Part. However, two years later, she would take home the coveted prize in the same category for her performance in Lorraine Hansberry's The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window.
Alice and actor/writer Felice Orlandi, a college friend of her nightclub act partner, G. Wood, were married in 1952 and remained so until Orlandi succumbed to lung cancer on May 21, 2003. Alice remained in the home they had made together in Studio City in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, California, where she passed away on September 21, 2007. They had no children. Alice is survived by her sister, Gladys.
Alice: (about being a ham) I have to be.
Alice: When I was five years old, my mother took me to the Legion Hut and stood me on a table. I recited poetry! I sang songs! I tapped danced! I didn't know it then, but that table was my first stage. There was applause. The second time my mother took me to the Hut, I made her give me a nickel before I stood on the table. I wanted the applause, but even at five, I knew I had earned the applause.
Alice: When I first started out, I had this natural ability to sing. That was another reason why I chose New York, with all the musicals that were happening at the time. But I looked so different from everyone else. I was never what you would call an ingenue. I was having difficulty finding jobs. 'Get your eyes straightened,' they would tell me, 'and maybe we can work with you.'
Alice: I'm really happiest when I'm working.
Alice: (finding it difficult to watch herself on the ABC sitcom, 'Bewitched') It's always hard for me to critique myself.
Alice: (about her youngest ABC sitcom, 'Bewitched,' fans watching her perform as Miss Hannigan in the 1978 Broadway musical stage production of 'Annie') The kids didn't care how I was made up. All they wanted to see was Esmeralda [her character on Bewitched]. I was in that show for two years, and after each matinee, they'd be standing outside the theater waiting to see me and screaming, 'Esmeralda! Esmeralda!'
Alice: (about her character on the ABC comedy series, 'Bewitched') Esmeralda would sometimes take the long way around a situation, but she had powers that would cause excitement one way or the other. There were certain aspects of her personality, her shyness for one, that made her very lonely. She was very amiable and wanted to be a part of everything, but her bashful nature stopped her from joining in. At the same time, this made her more a human-witch than a witch-witch.
Alice: (about her character and storyline in "Samantha's Magic Mirror," Episode 224 of the seventh season of the ABC sitcom, 'Bewitched') I loved that because Esmeralda had the chance to express varied emotions. It gave the audience a chance to know other sides of her, to understand why she was so shy.
Alice: (about journeying to Italy to see the Tower of Pisa years after the premiere of "Samantha's Not-So-Leaning Tower of Pisa," the episode of the ABC television sitcom, 'Bewitched,' in which her character, Esmeralda, is revealed as being responsible for making the tower lean) I just looked at that thing and thought, 'Wow! It's so large and powerful, not even I could move it.' The reality of the situation set in.
Alice: (about employment after her initial move to New York after dropping out of college) The best job I had then was as a theater usher. I saw all the plays for free. What I saw before me was a visualization of what I wanted to be.
Alice: (about her shy, bumbling witch character, Esmeralda, on the 1960's ABC television sitcom, 'Bewitched,' who becomes invisible when she gets nervous) That seems to happen continually. I disappear so regularly, I may end up as only a voice-over.
Alice: (aware of the types of roles she should pursue) I knew I didn't look like an ingenue. My nose was too long. I had crooked teeth. I wasn't blond. I knew I looked like a character actress. But I also knew I'd find a way.
Alice: I always wanted to be a movie star like Ruby Keeler and I was just seventeen. I thought the big city was the place to begin.