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Betty Hutton, energetic star of '50s musicals, is dead at 86

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Betty Hutton, the actress and singer who brought a brassy vitality to Hollywood musicals such as "Annie Get Your Gun," has died in Palm Springs, Calif., at age 86.

The death was confirmed Monday by a friend of Hutton who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, citing Hutton's wishes that her death be announced at a specified time by the executor of her estate, Carl Bruno. The friend refused to provide further details including the time and cause of death.

"I can neither confirm or deny" the report, Bruno told The Associated Press from Palm Springs. "I'll be happy to talk about it tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon."

Hutton was at the top of the heap when she walked out of her Paramount contract in 1952, reportedly in a dispute over her demand that her then-husband direct her films. She made only one movie after that but had a TV series for a year and worked occasionally on the stage and in nightclubs.

Unlike other actresses who have been called "blonde bombshells," Hutton had a screen personality that had more to do with energy and humor than sex.

Time magazine wrote in 1950: "Betty Hutton, who is not remarkably pretty, by movie standards, nor a remarkably good singer or dancer, has a vividly unique personality in a town that tends to reduce beauty and talent to mass-produced patterns. Watching her in action has some of the fascination of waiting for a wildly sputtering fuse to touch off an alarmingly large firecracker."

It said she had "a bellicose zeal and a tomboyish winsomeness that suggested a cross between one of the Furies and Little Orphan Annie."

Hutton could be brash behind the camera, too, telling The Associated Press in 1954: "When I'm working with jerks with no talent, I raise hell until I get what I want."

Several of her films were biopics: "Incendiary Blonde," about actress and nightclub queen Texas Guinan; "Perils of Pauline," about silent-screen serial heroine Pearl White; and "Somebody Loves Me," about singer Blossom Seeley.

"Annie Get Your Gun" (1950) was the Irving Berlin musical biography of Annie Oakley, with Hutton playing the part Ethel Merman had made famous on Broadway. Hutton got the movie role part when Judy Garland dropped out of the production.

Another notable film was "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek," the 1944 Preston Sturges satire that rattled the censors with the story of a young woman who gets pregnant after a spur-of-the-moment marriage and can't quite remember who the father is.

Sturges called Hutton "a full-fledged actress with every talent the noun implies. She plays in musicals because the public, which can do practically nothing well, is willing to concede its entertainers only one talent."

She returned the compliment, saying in a 1971 interview that "I am not a great singer and I am not a great dancer but I am a great actress, and nobody ever let me act except Preston Sturges. He believed in me."

She recalled years later how she got through one challenging scene -- five minutes of rapid-fire dialogue -- perfectly on the first try. "Preston was delighted, and he asked how I could do it. I said I memorized it like a song, learning the lines rhythmically."

In 1954, she announced to a Las Vegas nightclub audience: "This is my last show and I'm retiring from show business."

She backtracked the following year, saying, "I was wrong and I admit it." She said her mother told her, "God gave you a gift and it's not right to hide it from people."

But her only movie after 1952 was "Spring Reunion" in 1957.

In 1959-60, she starred in the TV series "The Betty Hutton Show" (also called "Goldie"), about a brash manicurist who suddenly inherits the estate of a wealthy customer and becomes guardian to his three children.

But her personal life was rocky at times, including four failed marriages, financial problems and difficulties between her and her three daughters. In a 1980 AP interview, Hutton said she had kicked a 20-year addiction to pills. "Uppers, downers, inners, outers, I took everything I could get my hands on," she said.

She credited a Rhode Island priest, the Rev. Peter Maguire, with befriending her and turning her life around. She converted to Roman Catholicism. In 1986, she earned a liberal arts degree from Salve Regina College, in Newport, R.I., commenting that she liked college because "the kids studying there accepted me as one of them."

"Practically all the stars are in trouble," she recalled telling the priests she met in Rhode Island. "You happen to see me talking honestly to you. It's a nightmare out there! It hurts what we do in our private lives."

When Maguire died in 1996, she said, "It was just so painful to me, I couldn't handle it. My kids all live in California, so I decided to come back here."

Coming out of her shell somewhat in recent years, she gave occasional performances and interviews, including an appearance in 2000 on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel.

But she told The Associated Press in a 2000 interview that she didn't like to see herself in her old movies.

"It isn't the movie I'm looking at. Professionally, my career was great," she said. "But never was the scene offstage great for me."

She was born Betty June Thornburg in Battle Creek, Mich., on Feb. 26, 1921, but she never knew her father. She began her career at age 5 singing with her sister, Marion, in their mother's speakeasy.

"When I mentioned that I wanted to be a star, my mother thought I was nuts," Hutton recalled. "I thought if I became a star and got us out of poverty, she would quit drinking. I didn't know (alcoholism) was a disease; nobody did. There was no A.A. then."

Her first real show business success was as a singer in Vincent Lopez's band. It was he who gave her the name Hutton. (Her sister eventually adopted the surname Hutton, too, and was a vocalist for Glenn Miller.)

Her mugging and wild gestures, tackling the microphone got her dubbed "America's No. 1 jitterbug." ("As a matter of fact, I couldn't jitterbug," she said.)

Then came a Broadway revue, "Two for the Show," and the stage version of "Panama Hattie" before getting her start in Hollywood. She became a protegee of Buddy De Sylva, famed songwriter then working for Paramount.

Her marriages to manufacturer Ted Briskin, dance director Charles O'Curran, recording company executive Alan Livingston and jazzman Pete Candoli ended in divorce.


Associated Press Writer Polly Anderson in New York City contributed to this report.