Betty Buckley

On singing for her supper.

Evan Smith: This summer you performed for several nights at the Blue Note jazz club, in New York. It’s easy for all of us out here in the world who’ve seen you act for so many years in TV shows and movies and plays to forget that you’re first and foremost a singer. And you’ve been one since you were a kid growing up in Fort Worth.

Betty Buckley: Oh, yeah. My two great loves are music and horses. My mother had been a singer and dancer but gave that up when she married my father. My aunt was a dance teacher, so I studied dance with her when I was three. I first started singing when I was two, in church. In elementary school I sang in the Methodist church choir and in the all-city chorus. I remember them putting me on the back row and telling me to blend in because I was so loud. And then, when I was eleven, my mom took me to Casa Mañana [the legendary Fort Worth theater]. I saw what musical theater was, and I was like, “There’s a place for me.”

ES: Was there any doubt in your mind back then that this was going to be your chosen path?

BB: When I was eleven and saw the Bob Fosse number “Steam Heat” in The Pajama Game, I had an epiphany. I didn’t know it was an epiphany at the time, but that’s what it was—a clarity of consciousness informing me that this is what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life.

ES: And your parents were supportive?

BB: My mom was. She’d take me around to these different talent shows, and she’d sneak me out of the house for my dance lessons, because my father was very opposed to it.

ES: Why’s that?

BB: He was from South Dakota. My theory is that in South Dakota, performers were like dance hall girls, you know? That was the only exposure he’d had to it, so he really thought it was not a good profession; a woman’s place was to be married and in the home and to have children. He also stressed education. My grades always had to be really good. He thought [show business] was a poor use of my mind. He felt that it was a superficial profession. He was the only person in town who didn’t want me to do it. Everybody else was supportive of my talent and wanted me to have the opportunity to go to New York. There would be great fights between my parents about this, but my mom won.

ES: Didn’t he have a point, though, about the superficiality of show business?

BB: Yeah. There is a lot of superficiality and vanity and narcissism and meanness in show business. I guess it’s like any other business. There are really wonderful people and really harsh people. But years later, while I was on a hiatus from Eight Is Enough, he came to see me in Los Angeles in a production of Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road. He came backstage afterward and was very moved by it. He said, “I was always concerned about you wasting your intelligence, and I can see now that you’re using your best intelligence in what you’re offering people.” He said, “I think you’re doing a good job.”

ES: That must have meant a lot to you.

BB: It really did. The other time he came backstage was at my first concert at Carnegie Hall, a benefit with Ray Charles and Marvin Hamlisch. He said, “World-class, Betty Lynn. World-class.” That was also a big moment in my life. He was kind of a gruff guy. I was told after he died that he was proud of me, but he had a hard time letting me know.

ES: And to think, you got there despite spending all that time as a performer at Six Flags Over Texas.

BB: At sixteen, I was in the Campus Review at Six Flags. I forget how many shows we did a week. The summer I was seventeen, I sang in the Crazy Horse Saloon at Six Flags. My job was to take a little kid up onstage with me and sing “You Make Me Feel So Young.” We did seven or eight shows a day. One day a week we’d take off, so there was another group—they did our shows when we were off, and we did their shows when they were off, meaning we’d do fourteen shows [that day]. That was insane.

ES: Let’s be honest: The roller coaster audience is not exactly a theater audience.

BB: Actually, it was fun. It was like learning to perform in a cabaret: They’re in and they’re out.

ES: Then you went off to Texas Christian University?

BB: I was at TCU by that time. I had graduated high school when I was sixteen and went to TCU when I was seventeen.

ES: What possessed you to enter the Miss Fort Worth pageant?

BB: I was recruited. It went against my grain. I was a charter subscriber to Ms. magazine, and I was very much a feminist. Especially because of my father’s take on life.

ES: He put you on the other side of the line.

BB: Yes. He was very, very strict—unnecessarily so. So of course I became a feminist, and I still am. I resented the inequity of things.

ES: And yet you were still able to enter this pageant.

BB: It was uncomfortable for me, because I never thought of myself as a pretty girl. I thought of myself as a good performer, a good singer, but I didn’t identify myself as a great beauty. I didn’t like the swimsuit competition. I loathed the idea of standing on a stage and having people compare me to other girls. It was horrible. I used to cry whenever we’d walk out the door for whatever the

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