Finally, we’ve arrived at a channel number on which you’ll actually find something to watch!
Nanette Fabray was a singer, dancer, and comedic actress, perhaps best known for her role on Sid Caesar’s Caesar’s Hour.
Born in San Diego to a train conductor and a housewife, Fabray’s career began when she was very young, performing in vaudeville productions as early as three years old. She studied tap-dancing under the legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and said throughout her career that she considered herself a tap-dancer first and foremost (unfortunately I was unable to find any videos of her specifically tap-dancing.) Though her parents divorced when Nanette was nine, and though she helped her mother run a boarding house to bring in money, Nanette was a constant presence on local stages.
Nanette’s star rose quickly – she attended the Max Reinhardt School of Theatre as well as Hollywood High School, where she participated in theatrical productions. However, in 1939, she found herself having difficulty in the Los Angeles Junior College, and withdrew from school. Upon the suggestion of an acting teacher, she had her hearing examined – she discovered that she suffered from conductive hearing loss due to congenital otosclerosis, an abnormal growth of bone in the middle part of the ear. Fabray said of the diagnosis, “It was a revelation to me. All these years I had thought I was stupid, but in reality I just had a hearing problem.” For the rest of her life, she would be an advocate for the rights of the deaf and profoundly hard-of-hearing.
Nanette’s feature film debut was in the rather dry The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, in which she played a lady-in-waiting to Bette Davis’s Queen Elizabeth. Despite appearing in this and a handful of other films, she was not signed to a studio contract, as was the practice with screen actors of the time. Nanette continued her work in theater, and in 1941 performed at a benefit hosted by Ed Sullivan. Sullivan made the embarrassing blunder of pronouncing her birth name “Fabares” as “Fuh-bare-ass.” Nanette quickly adopted the spelling Fabray after the incident.
Fabray continued her work in musical theater for several years, winning a Tony for her performance in the musical Love Life. She balanced this with a healthy presence on television, as well, lending her talents to several of the different variety shows that were popular in the 40’s and 50’s. She caught the attention of Sid Caesar, who cast her as a comedic foil for his Your Show of Shows follow-up, Caesar’s Hour. Though she won three Emmy awards for her work on the show, Nanette was fired from Caesar’s Hour when her manager made what were considered “unreasonable demands” while negotiating a contract renewal.
Fabray would go on to feature in a wide variety of television shows and films, still finding time to make appearances on the stage. She also seemed quite accident-prone, almost dangerously so – during an incident backstage on Caesar’s Hour, she was knocked so badly unconscious that Caesar was initially told she had been killed. Fabray was also knocked over by a stampeding elephant while filming The Harper Valley PTA. This gave her a severe concussion, from which she temporarily suffered memory loss and involuntary eye movement – she was made to finish filming her scenes, despite this.
Fabray championed the rights of the deaf throughout her entire life, using American Sign Language on many of the shows she appeared on (again, no video that I could find, unfortunately.) She received both the President’s Distinguished Service Award and the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award for her work on the matter.
Nanette Fabray passed away at the age of ninety-seven in February of this year.
This is a scene from a movie that briefly made her very famous, Band Wagon. This is Nanette in only some of her singin’ and dancin’ glory. I encourage you to seek out her work on Caesar’s Hour and The Carol Burnett Show – she’s a funny gal.
(This movie also features a bizarre little number with Fred Astaire and Jack Buchanan called “Triplets” in which they dress like infant triplets and sing about how much they hate being triplets. Apparently variety shows just love that song because there’s no fewer than three versions of it on YouTube, including one with Donny Osmond. Watch it or better yet, don’t.)