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At the end of October our "Golden Girl," actress Betty Scott Smith, turned 90 years young by donning her pink boa and belting out a throaty song.
"I'm in the mood for love …" she torched during a recent interview at her downtown condo in Chicago. "I have always wanted to be a lounge singer my entire life. It seemed so normal for me to finally get to go to acting school, which I had wanted to do for 40 years. Once there, I knew that is where I was supposed to be, and then, finally finding a place to act in a place like Oak Park, which embraced me with open arms, was a dream come true."
Yes, folks, there was a Village Players Theater back then, and 2001-2009 was Betty's heyday. Those were the years when an octogenarian stormed onto the local stage and made it her home for nearly a decade.
In 2010, due to financial difficulties, the 50-year-old theater company decided to lay off its staff, and pull its curtain for a short time. After that, the board of directors reorganized with a new business plan, reopening as Madison Street Theatre, in the same location, 1010 Madison St., and incorporating two other local theater groups, Circle and Festival theatres. But back to Betty, and that remarkable string of 30 shows she did with Carl Occhipinti, who was artistic director for six years of her run.
With Smith looking on, Occhipinti recalled how in 2001 the friends first met at a reading of Arsenic and Old Lace in Oak Park. He was cast as Teddy Brewster; Smith played his spinster aunt, Martha Brewster, one of two sweet little old ladies with a predilection for poisoning lonely little old men.
"If you got to see The Trip to Bountiful or Driving Miss Daisy," muses Occhipinti, who threw a 90th birthday bash for her on Oct. 28, "you see this woman living her life on the stage. Yes it was acting, but Betty has lived a long life, and had enough courage to step onstage, to step out and do it at her age. Betty touches that core inside all of us, the place that says, don't ever stop living your life in this place. It's a source within us all that is stronger than any fear, stronger than any doubts, and stronger than what anybody says. That is what makes Betty Scott Smith special."
In 2003, at age 80, Betty was cast as Rose Gordon, the domineering mother in Flowers for Algernon. Occhipinti was Charlie Gordon, a developmentally disabled 32-year-old man who is chosen by a team of scientists to undergo an experimental surgery designed to boost his intelligence.
During her nearly decade-long run with Village Players, Smith played roles in a long list of shows, including Shadow Box; Harvey; Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus; and The Women. Then at age of 83, she landed a role that seemed to be written for her, Carrie Watts in Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful.
Thanks for the memories
"I started acting in my 40s and thought I was too old then," says Occhipinti, who is now 60 and a filmmaker. "Well, she proved to all of us that age doesn't matter."
In 2009 at age 87, she was cast as Daisy Wertham in Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize-winning Driving Miss Daisy, a part usually played by women of a much younger age, says Doug Deuchler, Wednesday Journal theater critic and historian. That same year, she was cast as Aunt Ruth in Red Twist Theater's production of Marvin's Room, and received critical acclaim from the Chicago Tribune, Deuchler notes.
"Betty's is an amazing story," says Deuchler. "She was born in 1922, and always wanted to do theater, but because of raising her family and everything, she really didn't get to it until she was older, and I think that is so exceptionally thrilling. She jumped into it rather late in life, and pursued her dream with such a passion. She is always ready for a new joyful experience, and giving and loving, and that came through in her performances."
Jack Crowe, an Oak Park attorney who, with Occhipinti, turned Village Players' fortunes around during a particularly difficult period, has acted numerous times with Smith. At her advanced age, she skillfully — and with ample mirth — sang, danced and acted in several musical reviews he wrote, including a virtual opera.
"I'm on stage," Crowe recalls, "and in back of me Carl comes out in a tutu, and shortly after that Betty comes out in a tutu. They do a kind of a Rite of Spring dance number. To see Carl with the belly hanging out and Betty, 80-plus years old, in a tutu doing a ballet dance together, well, that pretty much summarizes it."
Another holiday fundraising spoof he wrote, Chad Morton's TV Christmas Miracle, featured Betty as Hildegard, an ancient, ghost chanteuse.
"We had to keep Betty working," explained Crowe, who is the COO and general counselof the Cristo Rey schools and a Wednesday Journal columnist. "You know, it's kind of hard to find plays about 80-year-old women. It's a pretty short list — we worked hard and found most of them, and made Betty do them. I was always being typecast as Betty's son. That was the closest thing I could do so she could be my mother again."
Born in Hebron, Ind., the youngest of four kids, Betty had stars in her eyes from an early age, but didn't have the nerve, verve, and voracity to pursue it until her golden years.
"I was 76 years old when I began to act," she sings to the familiar trombone tune made famous by Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. "I lived in Aurora at the time, so I got in my car and enrolled in some classes at Act One Studios in Chicago."
A year or so later, her big break loomed when, on the acting school's bulletin board, the hopeful senior citizen saw a notice publicizing auditions for The Gin Game at Village Players Theatre in Oak Park.
She wasn't called back — but the next year they called her. At age 79, it was her big break.
"The thing about acting with Betty, is the whole thing about 'never go on stage with dogs or children,' because they will always upstage you," quips Crowe. "I have seen Betty literally do a 30-second walk-on in shows, and the minute she walks onstage, all eyes are on her when she strikes a pose, ala Marlene Dietrich, or whoever she is channeling at the time."
As Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful, says Crowe who played — what else? — her son, audiences were moved. They saw Betty "at age 85 or so, getting down on her hands and knees in the theater, summing up her life by putting her hands into the dirt. There were no words, and the theater was silent."
Still ready for any role that comes her way, Smith has a speaking role in Occhipinti's new film, If Only I Knew, and this summer, when she was only 89, she played Molly in the comedic radio play Fibber McGee and Molly at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.
Now at 90, she credits all of this to the "genes she inherited from Grandma Gibbs," and laughs, adding that she has always known that on stage is where she was supposed to be all along.
Occhipinti, a late-blooming thespian himself, sums it up like this: "Betty is almost this poster child of 'It's never too late to live your dreams.' What an inspiration she is for all of us."