By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2011; 7:13 PM
Betty Garrett, a comic actress who played the man-hungry love interest of Frank Sinatra and Red Skelton in movie musicals of the late 1940s and decades later had recurring roles in the TV sitcoms "All in the Family" and "Laverne & Shirley," died Feb. 12 of an aortic aneurysm at a Los Angeles hospital. She was 91.
In a seven-decade career, Ms. Garrett was known for her exuberant performances in stage and screen musicals. A supporting player in movies, her persona became the vivacious wisecracker who was often in pursuit of reluctant men.
Ms. Garrett played a lusty and aggressive cabdriver named Brunhilde Esterhazy in "On the Town" (1949), a musical directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, with music by Leonard Bernstein and with a witty script by Adolph Green and Betty Comden.
In one memorable duet, "Come Up to My Place," Ms. Garrett's character tries to seduce a sailor played by Sinatra, who would rather see the sights of New York than her boudoir.
"Take Me Out to the Ball Game," also from 1949, cast Ms. Garrett as a besotted fan of baseball player Sinatra.
That year, Ms. Garrett appeared in the musical "Neptune's Daughter," receiving praise for her performance of "Baby, It's Cold Outside."
The Oscar-winning Frank Loesser tune, which became a jazz and pop standard, is often rendered by a wolfish male and demure woman. But the situation was reversed in the script, which had Ms. Garrett making advances on the rubber-faced Skelton. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther praised Ms. Garrett for her "well-polished comic style."
Collectively, the films represented Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios at a peak of musical filmmaking and established Ms. Garrett as a dynamic screen presence. But her career was sidetracked when her husband, actor Larry Parks, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee that he had once been a communist.
Parks's career vanished overnight, just a few years after he had received an Oscar nomination for his performance as entertainer Al Jolson in "The Jolson Story" (1946). Ms. Garrett, who did not testify before the HUAC hearings, was nevertheless dropped from her MGM contract.
"It was a dark period," Ms. Garrett later said of the blacklisting. "A foolish, foolish period."
Over the next several years, the couple found work in vaudeville and summer stock theater in England and in nightclubs in Las Vegas. Parks died in 1975.
Later in her career, Ms. Garrett was best known for her TV roles, notably as Edith Bunker's chatty neighbor Irene in the 1970s series "All in the Family" and, from 1976 to 1981, as landlady Edna Babish in "Laverne & Shirley."
Her characters on those shows were "hi-bye girls," said Ms. Garrett, who swept onscreen to deliver a quick joke before exiting. "That was my function - so little compared to what I'd been used to doing."
She received an Emmy nomination for best guest actress for her 2003 role as a man-chaser on the prowl for Ted Danson in "Becker."
Betty Garrett was born May 23, 1919, in St. Joseph, Mo. Her father died when she was young. She grew up in Seattle with her mother, who encouraged her interest in dancing and singing. At 17, she went to New York, where she won a scholarship to the Neighborhood Playhouse acting school.
She attracted Hollywood's notice for her Broadway performance in the musical revue "Call Me Mister" (1946). As a USO hostess fed up with congas, rumbas and sambas, she performed a rollicking number called "South America, Take It Away." In other skits, she played a cane-wielding grandmother and a young waitress longing for the GIs who have returned to civilian life.
In 1962, she co-founded Theatre West, a Los Angeles-based arts organization for which she performed and taught workshops. She continued to perform on Broadway, including in a 2001 revival of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Follies."
Survivors include her two sons, Garrett Parks and Andrew Parks, and a granddaughter.
Ms. Garrett toured for years in a one-woman stage retrospective, "Betty Garrett and Other Songs," that she adapted into an autobiography in 1998.