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MUSIC Cosmic Cowgirl

Betty Buckley’s big voice is drowning out the "Memory" of "Eight Is Enough."
By Michael Pellecchia |

WEARING TIGHTS AND A WHITE

sweatshirt, hair pulled back into a barrette, Betty Buckley radiates grandeur as we walk through the narrow passages leading to the patio of Joe T. Garcia’s restaurant. Some diners recognize the Fort Worth native and Broadway star of Cats with glances but choose to let her pass. Ordering a vegetarian plate, she begins to talk about the life of a Broadway star, film actress, and singer of songs, all rolled into one.

If diverse credits and consistent accolades are what becomes a legend, then Buckley is one, Her success is built around a voice-a singing voice that touches people’s hearts and quells distraction. It is a voice that people either love or hate. Even in spoken form, it’s a voice that mesmerizes: The recent release of the cassette version of Larry McMurtry’s Buffalo Girls, narrated by Buckley as Calamity Jane, is a tour de force of a talking book, neither completely dramatized nor merely read. It’s somewhere between the two-and represents yet another fork in the road for this multifaceted talent.

Now she is mesmerizing me, her eyes rarely leaving mine for a full two hours.

“I had a vision at 11-my mother took me to see The Pajama Game at Casa Mariana, and it had the original Bob Fosse Choreography. . .I remember having this whole transcendent experience. It was the same consciousness I have now, only I was 11.”

Buckley didn’t even know it was called “musical theater,” but she knew she wanted to do it. “At 13, I knew I was going to Broadway. I had another vi-sion. I was listening to Michael Jackson singing with his brothers and sisters on the radio, in my bedroom. I thought his voice was beautiful.” Jackson’s voice had the purity of a child’s, she remembers, and she wanted her voice to have it too.

Buckley immediately set out to fulfill her dream. Like many a would-be star, she started with beauty pageants. As Miss Fort Worth, she was second runner-up in the 1966 Miss Texas Pageant, foiling to qualify for the Atlantic City extravaganza. But the Miss America producers, taken with her voice, asked her to sing on the national telecast.

And that’s when Fort Worth lost Betty Buckley-in spirit, at least.

During the Sixties, recalls Fort Worth orchestra leader James Davis, Buckley showed off her big voice for any crowd that would have her. In hospital wards, at proms and supper clubs, after leading cheers at TCU football games, she would “paste people to the wall” with her singing, he recalls.

Buckley was a whirlwind of activity, covering the teen beat as a columnist for a local newspaper, the Fort Worth Press, looking after her quarter horse, even barrel racing in rodeo competitions. An acquaintance from Arlington Heights High School remembers her as “the salt of the earth, a great human being, lots of fun, and everyone wanted into her pants. A real beauty queen.”

And so much more, as the years would prove.

“My mom is like the original positive thinker,” Buckley says. “She used to say to me, ’Betty Lynn, always ask for what you want, because all they can say is no. And don’t take no for an answer.’”

In a side trip to Gotham before her Miss America TV debut, Buckley used her fort Worth Press credentials to get appointments with producers, for whom she would then demonstrate her huge, belting, singing voice. The big Broadway break came her first day in New York after signing with the Ashley Famous agency in 1969: She auditioned for 1776 and won the part of a singing Martha Jefferson.

From that point, the voice of Buckley’s muse blended with her mother’s advice. That duet made for a demanding path toward stardom.

“I would take risks. I would try things. I would say things if I wanted to meet someone, if I wanted to get in somewhere,” Buckley recalls. “I picked the hardest song to sing for the Promises, Promises audition, and when I didn’t get a call-back, my inner voice told me to go over to the Shubert theatre between my last number in 1776 and the curtain call, and beg for another try.”

It worked. Buckley got the call to go to London as Fran Kubelik in Promises, Promises. Her career was launched. She replaced Jill Clayburgh in Pippin-and in 1977, she got the call to play Abby Bradford in television’s “Eight Is Enough.” Her character was created to fill the void left by Diana Hyland, who had died of cancer. Devastated by Hyland’s loss, much of the show’s cast cold-shouldered Buckley, and as she told People magazine, “Before I did the show, I had a flawless complexion. Now it’s lined.”

Those days had a dark tinge for another reason. Staying at the exclusive Chateau Marmont in Westwood, near UCLA, Buckley exorcised her TV demons by doing social drugs with bicoastal pals such as John Belushi. According to Bob Woodward, who interviewed Buckley for his Belushi biography Wired, Buckley eventually saw the destructiveness of cocaine, managed to quit cold turkey, and kept after Belushi to do the same.

“TV is like working in a factory,” Buckley says. “It’s very dependent on who you go to work with, that you like your co-workers, and everyone is mutually aligned.” Much of the time, she felt she wasn’t on the right track in the popular sitcom. Producers and agents told her she would be stuck playing American mothers for the rest of her life.

The naysayers were wrong. Buckley eventually found her way to Broadway in the blockbuster hit Cats, and that show put her on the map. Initially spurned for the lead role, Buckley summoned her mother’s persistence. She kept after director Trevor Nunn, who believed she lacked the necessary vulnerability for the role of the aging courtesan Grizabella. She eventually got the part and turned it into a Tony Award-winning performance, making “Memory” her signature number. The number had stopped the show in London, where it was sung by Elaine Paige, and to promote Cats in America, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber asked Bar-bra Streisand to record it. “So two great singers had already sung it before it got around to me,” Buckley recalls.

When she heard the results of her own recording of “Memory,” Buckley knew that she had finally, at age 35, achieved the voice quality that had blared from the radio speakers in her bedroom more than 20 years earlier, “I realized that with “Memory” I finally had a piece of material to put into action all that my voice teacher Paul Gavert had taught me.”

Now 43, Buckley has enjoyed a career of contrasts. A student of yoga and world religions, Buckley says her “inner voice” has gotten her much of what she wants. She was able to quit drugs in 1980 and then quit alcohol in 1984. In the 1986 Broadway run of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in which she played a boy, People magazine called Buckley “the most beautiful and biggest-voiced transvestite in New York.” Finally, Buckley had done it all.

By the time she was hired to replace Barbara Cook as Margaret White, the Bible-crazed mother in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1988 musical version of Carrie (her 1976 film debut was the gym teacher role in that Brian De Palma film), Fort Worth’s sweetheart of the 1960s was calling many of her own shots. Writing in The Nation, critic Thomas M. Disch complained that Carrie’s epilogue “seems to exist simply for the sole purpose of letting Buckley have the last word musically.”

Buckley considers herself to be as important a character as any she has played. She once told an interviewer, “I dream about walking on stage as myself.

“I’ve had lots of deep hurts and deep crises, because I’m a dramatic kind of girl.. .I’ve experienced a lot of despair,” she says. “I had a drug problem and an alcohol problem. I’ve been through that. The 1960s was a bill of goods that we sold ourselves. The essential problem is this quest for spirituality.”

She spent Christmas performing at the Ganeshpuri Ashram, a Hindu religious retreat an hour outside Bombay, singing holiday songs and meditating. And there are always plenty of calls to sing “Memory,” which led to her meeting President and Mrs. Bush at the Presidential Inaugural Gala at the Kennedy Center.

It’s unlikely she’ll ever let go of the cosmic cowgirl in her. “I really believe thatthe universe honors your deepest committeddesires and yearnings for yourself. Butwhat most people don’t realize is it mighttake years to be up to that vision that youhad for yourself.” Betty Buckley is well onher way.