Wednesday 14 September 2022


She once had a situation comedy based loosely on her own life, but perhaps Nanette Fabray’s show should have been more of a dramatic one.

She had success on the Broadway stage through the 1940s and early ’50—the newspaper PM profiled her in a full-page article in 1943—then was picked to work opposite Sid Caesar on television. Those were the highs.

But then came fears she was going deaf, divorce from David Tebet (later a TV executive), a nervous breakdown that required hospitalisation, then failure at TV stardom.

She overcame it all, going on to a long, high-profile career appearing on top shows.

Our first stop is December 1, 1955. By then, Fabray had left Caesar’s Hour in a display of public mutual admiration with her ex-colleague but over undisclosed contract problems. She had nothing regular to go to. She did what Imogene Coca did after parting ways with Caesar—became an itinerate TV performer.

Nanette Fabray Now Awaits Own Weekly TV Production

NEW YORK — Nanette Fabray, the second of Sid Caesar's ex-television wives and winner last season of two of the top Emmy TV awards, is currently returning to the medium in a series of guest appearances.
A week ago, on NBC-TV's Saturday night spectacular, she revived the musical "High Button Shoes," in which she starred for a year on Broadway. A few weeks ago she appeared as a special guest on Jack Benny's show. On Dec. 20, she will have a straight dramatic lead in Playhouse 90's production of 'The Family Nobody Wanted," CBS-TV.
Granted these are all important roles on important television shows, but what Miss Fabray wants is a weekly television series. The lady wants a show she can call her own.
"After I left the Caesar show last spring, I knew there wasn't time to get a television show ready for this season," she said, "but I'm working on a filmed series for next fall. I've fallen for television. I'm plain hooked. For me, it's the most exciting and challenging of all entertainment mediums."
The former musical comedy star said that before she joined the regular cast of "Caesar's Hour" last year, she had the required amount of lofty indifference to television and she was certain that the theater would continue to be her true love.
"At first I just couldn't believe it was possible to do a show like 'Caesar's Hour' every week," she said. "It's like putting on a new musical comedy every six days. I was overwhelmed. But once I got into the rhythm of it, I loved it. Professionally, it was so stimulating to be able to meet the demands."
Miss Fabray said that for all the old talk about the intimacy of having an audience just across the footlights from you, there is actually much more sense of contact with the television audience. "The immediate applause of a live audience is rewarding," she said, "but there is a definite aura about people in the theater and in the movies. The audience regards you as a race apart. In television, the audience thinks of the performers as their own special, particular friends.
"That night on the Caesar show when I got conked on the head by a falling beam, NBC had to put on extra switchboard operators to handle all the calls. Twelve different women, each one claiming to be my mother, called from 12 different states, trying to find out exactly how I was.
“They weren't trying to pry or probe. They were terribly concerned. So many people tried to get into the hospital to see me that the hospital finally put a guard outside my door. Can you imagine what this means to a performer? Performers delight in this kind of affection and attention. It's intoxicating!"
A slim, brown-eyed woman, with a kind of wide-eyed prettiness, which should deceive nobody, Nanette Fabray is a tremendously hard-working, determined, gifted actress, with talent for both comedy and drama, plus the ability to sing and dance.
Born in Los Angeles, she made her professional debut at the age of four as Baby Nan, did a vaudeville tour with Ben Turpin, the comedian of silent movies, and had a running part in the "Our Gang" comedies, now bring revived on television.
She has not yet seen herself on television in any of the "Our Gang" comedies and she does not look back on her days as a child star with any particular pleasure.
"It's a terrible thing for a child to have to compete in an adult world," she said. "A child should have to worry about nothing more urgent than which doll to take to walk."
She said she was a student at the Los Angeles Junior College, when she won a scholarship to Max Reinhardt's Dramatic Workshop. This seemed to cinch, once and for all, her destiny for the theater.
"I'd been entertaining hopes of becoming a doctor,” she said, "but this scholarship was worth $3,600 and I couldn't afford to pass it up. I guess I'd have been a poor doctor anyway."
Miss Fabray, who is not married at present, has a house in Beverly Hills, "a large, small house, only six rooms, but big, comfortable rooms." She also keeps an apartment in Manhattan. She is a frequent commuter between here and the Coast and even though she spent ten steady years here on the Broadway stage, she regards California as her home.
"My mother and father live in Los Angeles and I have brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and we're all very close," she said. "But I do get a bit weary of this shuffling back and forth. I like to think that some day I'll get married again and settle down and have a family."
This doesn't necessarily mean she would retire from show business, for television is not incompatible with a domestic family life. And of all the fugitives from Broadway and the movies now on television, no one is more enthusiastic about it than Nanette Fabray.
And since she seems to be one who takes a direct aim at her target and has very few misses, the moral of this tale would seem to be that if Nanette Fabray wants a regular television series, it is merely a matter of time before she gets her chance.
And though it has nothing to do with TV, the stage or screen, Nanette Fabray can even cook—took lessons from the chief chef at the Cordon Bleu.

It took some time, but Fabares got her own, awkwardly-named show, The Westinghouse Playhouse, replacing The Westerner at the star of 1961. It was supposedly taken from her new married life with her step-kids.

“Almost every episode is based on actual happenings in our household,” she told UPI’s Vernon Scott. “It’s very adult and sophisticated.” Cynthia Lowry of the Associated Press disagreed after a viewing. “It was played far too broadly by all concerned, and was full of pretty tired situations and dialogue,” she decided, adding “Nanette Fabray is a great comedienne and seems wasted in the trifle.”

It wasn’t on the schedule for the following season. Fabray continued guest shots, especially with Carol Burnett, and appeared with some frequency on Hollywood Squares. That’s where many viewers noticed her doing sign language when announcer Kenny Williams introduced her.

Here’s a bit of an explanation from a syndicated column of Sept. 14, 1970.

Nanette To Tell Life Of The Deaf

Gannett News Service
HOLLYWOOD — The publicists call her a "lovely lady."
No argument. Nanette Fabray is, indeed, a lovely lady.
She is also a lovely busy lady. In the next month or so, starting with the Broadway musical adaptation of "George M.!" on NBC last Saturday, she is making five special appearances on television.
Among them will be a CBS documentary on deafness to be shown throughout the nation beginning Sept. 22.
In the lobby of the Ambassador Hotel, she sat on the edge of an overstuffed couch giving a demonstration in the difficulty of lip reading.
"See if you can tell what I'm saying," she said.
Her lips moved three times. Each of the words she was forming looked the same.
"Do you know what they were? Pretty, pregnant and present. They all look the same, don't they?"
Nanette Fabray believes that deaf education that concentrates solely on teaching the deaf person to speak at the expense of learning sign language is not right.
"I think the individual need of the child is what's important. Speech is lovely, but education is much more important. Speech comes when the child wants it to. And sign language is very beautiful. It has a grammar and syntax all its own. Kids learn it secretly."
Ask the lady who should know. She was moving toward deafness herself until her hearing was rescued in an operation.
"No one has done a program on what it's like to be deaf. In all the things that have been done they turn off the sound and you lose your audience. In this they use me as a narrator and they show a deaf person driving and going to the store and just coping in everyday situations."
It is obvious that Miss Fabray's work with the deaf is very precious to her. She talks freely about her career as comedienne and her other charitable work, but nothing matches the affection she has for talking about the deaf.
The day before, she had been appointed to the National Advisory Committee for Education of the Deaf. She had gotten congratulations from California Sen. George Murphy.
"I once made a screen test with George Murphy, so I told him now he is a senator and I'm a national advisor."
Add that advisory chore to other assignments with such groups as the National Association of Hearing and Speech Agencies, the UCLA Hearing Foundation, the New York University deafness research center, the National Theater of the Deaf, and much more.
"Of course the roughest part is that you have to show up at board meetings all over the country. But I won't just lend my name to something. I like to work at it."
She is on the board of at least seven national organizations and she admits she runs as much as two to six months behind in her mail.
"I do all my own secretarial work. Well, I can type faster than I can dictate, so that puts me one up. And I have a crazy filing system."
She and her husband, Ronal [sic] MacDougall, the writer-producer who developed "The Name of the Game" series for NBC, live in Pacific Palisades, which is home and office for her.
If there is any interest apart from her work with the deaf that is getting a lot of attention from her these days, it's her membership on the board of the Los Angeles Museum of Science and Industry. "It's amazing that a museum can be so much a part of the lifeblood of a city."
At the museum, she has been involved in a transportation presentation to the city for a monorail system for Los Angeles.
"Alweg built the Disneyland monorail partly to show what could be done. A monorail for Los Angeles has been turned down as not in the public's best interest. But they're talking about adding a bus lane to the freeway. What kind of nonsense is that?"
She is also involved with the museum because her 11-year-old son is taking part in a science workshop program there and is studying things like computers and indexing, radiation and biology. "Honestly, it makes you tear up to hear what the kids do."
Somewhere along the line she manages to work in a full show business career. Like playing George M. Cohan's mother, Nellie, in "George M.!" Or the deaf special. Or a special called "Howdy" with Glenn Ford on ABC Sept. 26.
Or an appearance with Carol Burnett on CBS Sept. 28. Or an ABC movie called "I Don't Want to Get Married" in early October.
"Well, things do go to pot once in awhile. I'm going to have to vacuum the front hall one of these days."
Nanette Fabray has won Broadway's Tony Award and three Emmys for her work with Sid Caesar on television. But those aren't the kinds of things she talks about.
"I'd like to get a total approach to education for the deaf — any means to teach the child the concept of communication—without abandoning strict speech and lip reading training."
That's what Nanette likes to talk about.

Operations gave Fabray her hearing. Producers gave her roles. Fabray was 97 when she passed away in 2018. Variety called her an “exuberant, indefatigable actress-singer.” The Hollywood Reporter dubbed her “the effervescent comedienne.” The New York Times’ assessment was a Tony and Emmy winner with “enthusiastic charm, wide smile and diverse talents.” She was all those, and deserved accolades for her work to support and lobby on behalf of others who couldn’t hear the applause they gave her.


  1. "I feel sorry for anyone who has never seen Nannette Fabray perform...they have nothing to tell their grandchildren"

  2. Loved Nanette as Grandma Katherine Romano on "One Day at a Time" (1975-1984)!!

    FYI - her niece Shelley Fabares played Francine Webster on the series as well

  3. What OUR GANG (Or little rascals) how many did she appear at? Anybody know specific titles?