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Alice Ghostley was a film, stage, and television actress who was often described as looking “sweetly befuddled.” She most often played comedic roles, though she won Broadway’s Tony Award as best featured actress for her serious portrayal in the 1964 drama The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Ghostley’s distinctive face and quavering voice became known to millions for her comedic performance as a good witch/housekeeper in the television sitcom Bewitched in the 1960s and 1970s. From 1986 to 1993, she won new fans for her performance as eccentric family friend Bernice Clifton in the television series Designing Women, created by Arkansan Harry Thomason and his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason.
Alice Margaret Ghostley was born in Eve, Missouri, on August 14, 1923, though other sources offer different years. While the death certificate from the County of Los Angeles uses 1923, the memorial card at her funeral lists her year of birth as 1926, and some sources cite 1924. Friends say she shaved years off her birthdate for the sake of her career. Her mother was homemaker Edna Rooney Ghostley, and her father, Harry Francis Ghostley, worked as a telegraph operator. Her older sister, Gladys Rooney Ghostley, was born in 1922. When Alice was a small child, the family moved to Siloam Springs (Benton County), where they lived until her father’s death in 1933.
After his death, the family moved to Henryetta, Oklahoma, where Alice Ghostley graduated from Henryetta High School in 1941. Encouraged by a teacher, Ghostley attended the University of Oklahoma to study English and drama. She left college when she and her sister went to New York City to launch a theatrical act as the “Ghostley Sisters.” While also working as a theater usher, Ghostley said she could see Broadway plays for free, enabling her to envision what she wanted her career to be.
When the Ghostley Sisters’ act broke up, Alice Ghostley debuted on Broadway in Leonard Stillman’s New Faces of 1952 along with Paul Lynde, Eartha Kitt, and Mel Brooks. Ghostley sang a song by lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who went on to create the music for 1964’s Fiddler on the Roof. Ghostley’s other Broadway successes include A Thurber Carnival (1960), The Beauty Part (1962), and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964). During her 1978 stage appearance as Miss Hannigan in Annie, she starred with Sarah Jessica Parker, who played the title role.
In 1957, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Cinderella appeared on television with Ghostley as one of the stepsisters and Julie Andrews in the title role. Along with her long-running roles on Bewitched and Designing Women, Ghostley worked steadily on television in such programs as CHiPs, Evening Shade, Golden Girls, Good Times, Hogan’s Heroes, It Takes a Thief, Love American Style, Mayberry R.F.D., Maude, One Day at a Time, and The Odd Couple. Ghostley’s film work includes To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), My Six Loves (1963), The Graduate (1967), The Flim-Flam Man (1967), and Grease (1978).
In 1953, she married Italian-American actor Felice Orlandi (1925–2003), with whom she had appeared on Broadway. They made their home in North Hollywood, California, and they had no children. In 1992, the town of Henryetta proclaimed “Alice Ghostley Day” and named the high school auditorium in her honor.
Alice Ghostley died on September 21, 2007, at her California home. At the time of her death, she had been battling colon cancer and the effects of several strokes. Relatives say her ashes were scattered beneath an orange tree her husband had planted at their home. Some were also interred with her parents and sister in Arkansas’s Oak Hill Cemetery at Siloam Springs. There, she shares a headstone with her sister, inscribed “The Ghostley Girls.”
In 2009, a collection of photographs, playbills, and memorabilia from the life and career of Alice Ghostley was donated to Special Collections at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County).
For additional information:“Alice Ghostley.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0315933/ (accessed August 23, 2016).
Alice Ghostley Materials. Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
McLellan, Dennis. “Alice Ghostley [Dies]; Best Known For Roles on ‘Bewitched’ and ‘Designing Women.’” Washington Post, September 24, 2007, p. 6B.
Wilson, Linda D. “Alice Margaret Ghostley.” http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=GH003 (accessed August 23, 2016).
Nancy Hendricks Garland County Historical Society
Last Updated 8/26/2016
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