Saturday, October 16, 2010

Happy birthday, Alice Pearce!

In my halcyon coach potato years, it was sort of puzzling watching reruns of Bewitched because one afternoon you’d catch Dick York playing Darrin and the next day it’d be Dick Sargent. My kid-like powers of deduction posited that what may have happened was that sorceress Samantha Stephens just got tired of her husband’s facial features one day, did a little nose-twitch and Presto! a brand new spouse. Fortunately for me, the station that telecast the Bewitched reruns didn’t have the early monochromatic years of the series (1964-66) in its syndicated package…because seeing two different versions of the Stephens’ snoopy next-door neighbor, Gladys Kravitz, might have really freaked me out.

It wasn’t until Nick at Nite brought the black-and-white Bewitched episodes out of mothballs that a new generation of viewers learned that before Sandra Gould’s turn as the nosy neighbor to end all nosy neighbors, the role of Mrs. K was played by actress-comedienne Alice Pearce. Pearce’s peerless performances—not to take anything away from Sandy, but Alice was a tough act to follow—earned her an Emmy Award in 1966 for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Comedy…but sadly, Alice never got the opportunity to get her trophy at the May 22nd ceremony that year, because she had succumbed to ovarian cancer two months earlier.

Alicia Pearce was born ninety-three years ago on this date in New York City and after being educated abroad, returned to the U.S. to find work in summer stock. Her comedic talents were put to use in nightclub work, and after receiving rave notices in Broadway’s New Faces of 1943 revue landed a plum the next year with the musical hit On the Town. Pearce was the only performer from that show asked to reprise her role in the 1949 film adaptation, and anyone who’s seen the film (I think Pam’s run this one a time or two) knows that she is aces as adenoidal Lucy Schmeeler, Gene Kelly’s character’s parrot-faced blind date.

On the Town opened a lot of “musical doors” for Pearce, she would later land roles in movie musicals like The Belle of New York (1952) and The Opposite Sex (1956) and stage productions like Bells are Ringing—she replaced Jean Stapleton in the Judy Holliday show (though Stapleton returned for the film version) and that’s where she met her second husband Paul Davis. Other films on Alice’s resume include How to Be Very, Very Popular (1955), Tammy and the Doctor (1963), The Thrill of It All (1963) and The Disorderly Orderly (1964)—a movie she practically walks off with as the complaining patient who induces in star Jerry Lewis “sympathy pains.”

Landing the role of Gladys Kravitz on Bewitched wouldn't have been particularly daunting for Alice; she had appeared on TV on a frequent basis before the series premiered, in vehicles such as The Real McCoys, The Ann Sothern Show, Dennis the Menace, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and The Donna Reed Show—in fact, she even landed her own self-titled musical comedy quarter-hour on ABC back in 1949 when TV was still in knee-pants as a result of her great notices for On the Town. But paired up with character great George Tobias, who played her wearily sarcastic husband Abner, Pearce created one of sitcom’s most endearing characters—a woman who often questioned her sanity when she and she alone seemed to be only too aware that odd things had a tendency to occur at the neighbor’s house next door. (Pearce and Tobias were even recruited to play a married couple in the 1966 Doris Day slapstick romp The Glass Bottom Boat, her final theatrical film.) Alice was diagnosed with cancer before her work on Bewitched even started, and hid that fact from the public—so to a lady who was able to make millions laugh despite the pain inside, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear would like to take just a brief moment to acknowledge how special she is to us on her natal anniversary.

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quizshowbob said...

I totally forgot that there were 2 Mrs. K's.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

She was pro, and a champ. My favorite Mrs. K.

Yvette said...

I loved her in ON THE TOWN. She practically steals the show there as well. She was a natural scene stealer, she just couldn't help it.
As Jacqueline says: a real pro.

Toby O'B said...

The magical replacement of the Darrins is the Toobworld Central theory - with the addition of the magical replacement of the original Mrs. Kravitz as a test run for that particular spell.....