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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Born Today: Judy Holliday

Word came down yesterday that the Broadway revival of Born Yesterday is closing next week. The play's Tony-nominated star, Nina Arianda, has been earning great reviews—and favorable comparisons to Judy Holliday, who originated the role in 1946. That spurred us to read about Holliday and, lo and behold, it turns out today would have been her 90th birthday.

Holliday was born on June 21, 1921, in Sunnyside, Queens. Her birth name was Judith Tuvim—Tuvim is a variant of the Yiddish word for holiday. She attended Julia Richman High School on the Upper East Side (a couple of years ahead of Lauren Bacall) and got her first job in show business working the switchboard at Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater.

Holliday’s first Broadway role was Alice in Kiss Them For Me in 1945. But her big break came in Born Yesterday—and it almost didn’t happen. The role of Billie Dawn had been written by Garson Kanin for his friend Jean Arthur. Arthur, however, was reluctant to take the part and during out-of-town tryouts in New Haven and Boston, Kanin was constantly rewriting the play to accommodate her needs—and to answer the critics, who were lukewarm, both in their response to Arthur and to the play.

When Arthur sat out a string of performances in Boston due to "ill health," Kanin began looking around for a replacement and found Holliday, who’d been recommended on the strength of her role in Kiss Them For Me. Kanin hired her to replace Arthur—but on the condition that she could learn the part in four days for the opening in Philadelphia. She did and it made her a star.

Holliday played Billie Dawn for 1,200 performances on Broadway and then reprised the role in the 1950 film version, winning both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award. The 1950s were rocky for Holliday: she was investigated for alleged Communism, and though cleared by the Senate committee, she found less work. In 1956, she returned to Broadway, winning a Tony for her role in Comden and Green’s Bells are Ringing.

Starting in 1953, Holliday lived at the venerable Dakota Apartments on Central Park West. She died on June 7, 1965, of breast cancer at Mount Sinai Hospital.





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