‘Darling, You Might Want to Make Note of This’

An acting job at Guild Hall in 1956 launched her television, Broadway, and movie career
Beulah Garrick’s career took her from Guild Hall summer stock to Broadway, the movies, and TV, often as a character actress. But she winks and calls this photo one of her “glamour shots.” Below, “Are you sure you have the right address, madame?” the doorman asked when she arrived dressed in character to audition for Noel Coward. Collection of Beulah Garrick

The phone rang in the kitchen and 97-year-old Beulah Garrick rose from a wingback chair in the living room of her East Hampton house, saying, “Oh, I’ll get it, darling. Watch me gallop. With my cane. Galloping, galloping,” she said as she hustled off to answer the call. “Keep ringing, keep ringing, keep ringing,” she half-sang.

Ms. Garrick, who built the house with her late husband, Bernie Pollock, credits an acting job at Guild Hall in 1956 with launching her illustrious television, Broadway, and movie career. After immigrating alone to the United States from her hometown of Nottingham, England, following World War II, she embarked on a lifelong series of adventures that, sooner or later, always pivoted on her bedrock conviction that acting was what she was born to do. 

Ms. Garrick eventually performed with everyone from Noel Coward to Walter Matthau, Al Pacino to Robert Redford, Rosalind Russell, Roger Moore, and Diana Rigg, usually as a character actress. She and a female friend double-dated once with Frank Sinatra and his voice coach. “Sinatra said to my friend, ‘Where’d you get her?’ ” Ms. Garrick said, mimicking his growl. Then she laughed.

Today, Ms. Garrick still has a sharp memory, a strong, clear voice you can imagine reaching the back row of every theater she played, and a vivid way of telling a story that can hardly be improved upon.

It goes something like this:

“Well, darling, in 1953 — and you might want to make note of this — my agent booked me in a play to come to Guild Hall, where they used to have summer stock theater. . . . I know the women’s improvement society in those days was very strict. And it got out that some of the actors from the theater were bathing in the nude in the moonlight.”

“It was the guys in the company. I didn’t see it. I only heard it, and I heard them say, ‘Yeah, well. So what? What’s so horrible?’ To artists, it’s nothing. But to prudish people — and this area was so prudish then — you have no idea. Very prudish.”

“So that’s how I first found East Hampton.”

Why Acting?

“I started in a charity show in my village. I was 4, and I was bitten already. . . . My brothers had to come out from the wings, pick me up, and carry me offstage because I wouldn’t go off. And the audience was roaring.”

“At 16, I saw an ad in The Stage, a newspaper for theatricals. They required chorus people. I rushed up to London on the train and attended the audition, and I got the job. Between jobs, I lived with my parents.”

“In 1939, World War II, I joined the Women’s Land Army. I also worked in a factory. I inspected the radios for the Spitfire fighters. . . . But it’s hard to explain to Americans the deprivations that persisted in England long after the war. Rationing went on for years and years. I couldn’t get any work in the London theater. I had to leave.”

Landing in America

“I came to the U.S. in 1948 on a visitor’s visa. I received a green card in ’49, lived all over Florida, working at a variety of jobs. But when I first arrived, I lived with a family in Virginia. Southern aristocrats. My mother was famous for meeting interesting people, and she had met the wife at the teahouse in Nottingham.”

“But only when I arrived did I learn this woman expected me to tutor their children. I said, ‘Darling, didn’t anybody tell you — I’m an actress. I wouldn’t know how to tutor a dog.’ ”

“I lived there maybe six months. . . . I cried myself to sleep every night. I auditioned for the owner of a club in Daytona Beach. I sang, like a chanteuse. He said, ‘It’s not quite what we book here. But you’ve got a lovely voice.’ ”

“So I did a lot of standard songs standing at the piano. And here I am, singing with an elegant gown on. And here are six strippers behind me. One woman had a cobra. And the audience, they’d be yelling to me, ‘Take it off or get off!’ ”

“You could put in that story, if you want to. I think that’s great fun. Anyway, that didn’t last that long.”

On the Move Again

“I ended up in a nightclub in Key West, Florida. And that was the last one. That was all sailors and that was really a rough joint. I told the agent, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ But I didn’t know what else I was going to do.”

“I was still there during one of the most famous hurricanes they’ve had, and I remember the palm trees were lashing up against the house. Oh, the lashing! That’s where my [rented] room was, and that’s where I met my first husband, who was a painter, an artist. . . . Hak Vogrin. He was this sweet, loving, gentle man. We married. We had no money. And we moved to New York.”

“But that’s when I discovered something was wrong with him. He couldn’t go out. He was overwhelmed. He passed out on a New York street and ended up in the hospital. The hospital worker said, ‘It’s agoraphobia.’ ”

“How he drove us from Key West to New York was a miracle. And he only did it for me. Because I told him, ‘Look. I can’t stay down here anymore. I’m an actress. I’m dying, I’m absolutely dying. I’ve got to do what I was born to do.’ ”

Pounding the Pavement

“Every day I’d go into New York City to do the rounds of agents’ offices. And every day’s end, I would go home despondent. It was a miserable time. No work. No money. And a husband with agoraphobia who couldn’t work. . . .”

“In 1953, I got my first break. It was a summer stock job at the Westport Country Playhouse. Then, finally, I got a TV job on ‘Robert Montgomery Presents.’ I was an extra. I was dressed as a duchess. I saw Robert Montgomery walk on the set. And he did a double take at me. Then told them to take my name.”

“It was like that.” 

“So that led to my first jobs in TV. But my big break was in 1956 in East Hampton. The play we were doing was ‘This Happy Breed’ by Noel Coward. I was playing Aunt Sylvia, and an actor, John Chapman, he said to me, ‘Oh, I guess you’re auditioning this for Noel Coward in the city next week?’ And I said, ‘Why, no. I don’t know a thing about it.’ ”

“But John Chapman said to me, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, Beulah. I’m going to tell [Coward] how marvelous you are.’ ”

Stairs Were Involved

“They were at the Essex House. Very beautiful. Very elegant. They had a suite there. And this — really, every minute of this I hope will stay with me till I die — this was one of the most exciting times of my life.”

“I knew to go dressed [in character] for the part — I wasn’t going to lose this one. And I had the little straw hat with the flowers. And I had the dress. Everything. . . . So I arrive looking like this strange little lady, the doorman opens the door and, well, they’ve never seen anything like this at the Essex House. And he said, ‘Are you sure you’re at the right address, madame?’ And I said, ‘Yes. I’m here to see Mr. Coward.’ ”

“ ‘Oh, oh! You’re an actress!’ ”

“ ‘Yes, yes.’ ”

“So then I’m ushered up. The elevator stops at the apartment. Not at a floor. You go right into the apartment vestibule, you see. And suddenly — I think there were stairs involved — there stood Noel Coward.”

“Ruby red, dark, dark red velvet smoking jacket with a sash. All satin. Cigarette. The holder.” 

“And he said, ‘Miss Garrick? I’m Noel Coward.’ ”

“I said, ‘I know who you are.’ And he laughed.”

“Up comes tea. The sandwiches. Cakes. On the tiered dish. I had never even seen anything like it. I ate them all!”

“He was so natural, and I was terrified — you know, the great Noel Coward. He was world famous. In London, there was nobody like him. I mean, idolized! It was a different era.”

“The elegance that went with it then, darling, you see? We don’t have that with our stars today.”

On Her Way

“ ‘So,’ Mr. Coward said, ‘you will hear from us.’ I did. It was a major role in a major television special. He played the leading role in it. And he was wonderful. And then I started to get a lot of work.”

“I worked on all the major television shows. And in 1957 I did my first Broadway show, ‘Auntie Mame’ — not the musical, the play with Rosalind Russell, who was brilliant. And that ran for a year. She was a perfectionist, a little difficult to work with. . . . One of the kids ran into her and took her breath away. He was fired. On the spot.”

“My second Broadway show was called ‘Juno.’ Then ‘Little Moon of Alban’ with Julie Harris. I worked with Robert Redford in that too. . . . He was not a star then. Not terribly warm. I said to him, ‘You’re going to be a star.’ . . . I can see it right away.”

“Then ‘Funny Girl’ — not with Barbra Streisand. I replaced Jean Stapleton in ‘Funny Girl.’ There were more. . . . But my last Broadway show was ‘Copperfield’ [in 1981]. I played Uriah Heep’s mom. One of my favorite roles. Why? Because she was just so common and awful. It was marvelous. I had a song and a dance with Uriah Heep: ‘We’re so humble, oh. . . . We’re so humble.’ And we crawled and groveled. Oh, it was just heaven!”

“I was an established actor. That’s what it’s called, you see.”

Her Most Important Break

“We still haven’t talked about my most important Broadway show, ‘The Hostage,’ in 1960. That’s where I met my stage manager second husband, Bernie. We fell madly in love. Eventually, we built this lovely little house in East Hampton.”

“I was never an alone person, even though I spent all of my life alone. Actors do, you see. You get a script; you have to be alone to learn it. . . . It’s a very, very difficult profession. But, if the show is a success, the curtain calls. Ahh. And the bows. The thrill — the thrill, darling.” 

“I’m not really under stress today. As you know, I’m retired long ago. But when I say stress now, I’m talking about living alone.”

“Bernie died two years ago. It was hard. We used to get an eight-foot Christmas tree every year.”

Looking Back

“Of everything I did, the theater was always my love. If you ask me why I loved acting, words like ‘the challenge’ or ‘the audience’ don’t work for me — I just loved acting. I never studied the classics. In fact, I never went to an acting school at all. But Noel Coward once said to me, ‘That’s why you’re such a great actress, Beulah. You didn’t have to. You’re a naturally born actress, don’t you see? And they’re the best. You had impeccable timing. How did you know?’ ”

“I suppose you can learn that in school. But I learned it just by experience. Life. Working in different repertory companies. I learned as I went along.”

“Some of it was just built-in. I had it.”

“Some people just do, I suppose.”

Above, Beulah Garrick with Burgess Meredith, who directed her in the 1974 Broadway play “Ulysses in Nighttown.” In “Auntie Mame,” she had a long run as Norah Muldoon opposite the stars Rosalind Russell and then Greer Garson, below right. Sy Friedman and Friedman-Abeles Photos