March 29, 2011
The Night That Liz and Dick Sang with Sammy Davisby Rebecca Paller
No one could possibly be surprised by the flurry of articles and news stories that continue to be published and broadcast nearly a week after Elizabeth Taylor’s death. Stories, stories everywhere—even the rather august “Week in Review” section of the Sunday New York Times published not one but two separate Op-Ed pieces on her (here's one of them).
Everyone, it seems, has a Liz Taylor story to tell. My aunt remembers the day in the mid-1960s when she saw Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in The Russian Tea Room. (“Her eyes were really violet.”) My husband recalls the time in 1980 when he was in the chorus of the Broadway-bound revival of Camelot and Burton’s then-wife, Susan Hunt, saw to it that a picture of Liz and Dick in Cleopatra was ripped out of every single souvenir program at Toronto’s OKeefe Center (we’re talking tens of thousands of programs!) and replaced with a much less interesting photograph of Burton, Rex Harrison, and Roddy McDowall from the same film.
I have two favorite memories of Elizabeth Taylor. The first is from the 1981 Tony Awards when Taylor (who at the time was starring on Broadway in The Little Foxes, for which she received a Tony nomination) was presenting an award and bungled the name of the producer James Nederlander, calling him “James Needleheimer.” She drew laughs but somehow managed to charm us all and have the last laugh herself. A year later, a new ice cream parlor opened in the theater district. Its name of course was Needleheimer’s.
My second memory is of a Friday evening in January ’66 when my mom and I watched the premiere of The Sammy Davis Jr. Show—a short-lived weekly variety series that ran for only three months on NBC (in part because of a prior commitment that Davis had to ABC). The premiere featured singer Nancy Wilson, the dance team of Augie and Margo, and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor appearing together on TV for the first time! Burton made his initial appearance—solo—rather early in the show, reading from the dictionary. (No kidding! He read the definition of the word “friend” in his mellifluous voice.) He came back 34 minutes later to movingly perform the final scene from Camelot (“Don’t let it be forgot…”).
Afterward, Sammy walked over to Burton with The Question of the Night: “May I ask how to introduce her—a big movie star like that?”
Burton responded, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is my wife,” and suddenly there indeed was Liz Taylor—big-haired, bejeweled, and stunning in a low-cut dress (“I’m wearing red for Wales,” she announced to Sammy). After a few minutes of lighthearted conversation, she and Burton sang a charming Welsh folksong.
Then came the pièce de résistance as all three stars launched into “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” from Camelot—complete with whistling and even a bit of dancing (the twist..or was it the frug?). Never mind that Liz’s warbling on this particular tune—rhythmically trickier than the Welsh folksong—sounded more like Lina Lamont than Julie Andrews. It didn’t matter because Elizabeth Taylor was breathtakingly gorgeous. She was fun. She was game. And she was madly in love in Richard Burton.
No wonder we can’t stop talking about her.
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Before joining the Paley Center in 2000, Rebecca Paller was associate editor of Where Magazine in New York and Northern Ohio Live in Cleveland. She has written about the arts for publications including Opera News, American Theatre, Vogue, and Playbill.Interests:
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