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Meet the Other Betty Whites!

Six famous women prove that 90 may be the new 39

By John Stark

It used to be that a female star’s career was pretty much over at 40. A few gray hairs and she was considered to be past her prime. But have you noticed? That prime number keeps changing. I’m not just talking about Betty White, who’s 91. As it’s turning out, she’s not an anomaly. Here are six other female performers over the age of 80 who are still in the spotlight:
Carol Channing, 92
The Hello! Dolly star has never been one to let the parade pass her by. On the contrary, she leads it. Just last fall she recorded True to the Red, White and Blue, a CD of her favorite patriotic tunes. As a bonus she included “Before the Parade Passes By.” In 2011 she starred in the documentary all about her, “Bigger Than Life.” Channing still makes TV appearances, including one on Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List. Johnny Depp just announced he wants to play Channing in a movie, noting that he used to dress up as her as a kid.
On Aug. 24 Channing will be doing a question and answer session at the Grove Hotel and Ice Palace on New York’s Fire Island. To help publicize the event she did an interview with Michael Musto for Out magazine. He asked Channing, whose last husband died 18 months ago, what she credits her amazing longevity and resilience to. “I think the love I sent out to an audience is returned twofold and the love I have been receiving has had a healing effect on me as well, which may be why I recover so quickly,” she told him. “Of course, I’m also very stubborn. You know if you miss a show, you’re missing what may have been your finest performance.”
Musto also asked Channing to comment on her gay following. “In San Francisco they made me their queen,” she said. “They have a new empress every year, but a queen is for life. Isn’t that wonderful?”

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Cicely Tyson, 88
In TV’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Cicely Tyson played a 110-year-old Louisiana woman who recalls her life, which dates to slavery. She won two Emmys for that performance in 1974. They should have given her a dozen. In 1972 she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Sounder, and in 1994 picked up a third Emmy for playing a house slave in the TV movie version of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Last June, at age 88, she won her first Tony Award for playing a Texas widow in The Trip to Bountiful.
Tyson is the oldest person to ever win a Tony. She said in her acceptance speech that it had been 30 years since she was in a play on Broadway and that she didn’t think it would happen again. But, she said, “I had this burning desire to do just one more great role.” Her dream came true — eight times a week. I suspect when she’s 110 she’ll be saying the same thing.

Angela Lansbury, 87
If you only went to the theater, you’d know Angela Lansbury as a great stage actress, whether doing Shakespeare or playing the lead in such iconic musicals as “Mame,” “Gypsy!” and “Sweeney Todd.” She has won five Tonys, tying for the most wins with Julie Harris. If you only went to the cinema, you’d know her as a charismatic movie actress, having launched her Hollywood career in 1944 with “Gaslight.” When she wasn’t playing the lead, she stole every film she was in, including “Samson and Delilah,”  “The Manchurian Candidate,” and even “Beauty and the Beast,” where she played Mrs. Potts, a singing teapot who delivers the Oscar-winning title song.
And if you only watched TV, you’d know her as the writer and amateur detective Jessica Parker, a role she played for 12 years on “Murder She Wrote.”
When that series was killed, Lansbury devoted herself to doing theater. After a 23-year Broadway absence, she returned in a two-character drama, “Deuce,” set at a tennis match, followed by “Blithe Spirit” and  “A Little Night Music,” where she was Catherine Zeta Jones' mother. Last year she was in Gore Vidal's “The Best Man,” where she played an influential women’s advocate.
Lansbury just finished a tour of Australia in “Driving Miss Daisy,” opposite James Earl Jones. This fall she’s back to Broadway, starring in “The Chalk Garden.”
Whether she’s doing movies, TV or stage, she’s show biz’s most comforting presence, like a teapot.

Barbara Cook, 85
In the mid 1950s Barbara Cook was in her prime. The svelte, lyric soprano from Atlanta had starred on Broadway in Plain and Fancy, Candide, and The Music Man, in which she won a Tony for playing Marian the librarian. But by the 1960s her illustrious career seemed over. She battled weight gain, depression and alcoholism.
But on Jan. 26, 1975, her fortunes changed when she put together a solo concert at Carnegie Hall, which resulted in a best-selling album. In 1981 she had another hit album, It's Better With a Band, in which she sang songs from the Great American Songbook. The new Barbara Cook was confident and radiant. As for losing her youthful looks: “Get over it,” she seemed to be saying. “I’m a singer. I sing.” Few singers of any age can put as much subtlety, honesty and musicality into a song as Cook does. No wonder she has been hailed as the definitive interpreter of Broadway show tunes, especially ones by Stephen Sondheim.
The Kennedy Center honoree never stops working — besides a new album, she just did a week’s run at 54 Below in Manhattan. On Sept. 19 she’ll be at the Bass Concert Hall in Austin, Texas. Her voice has changed with age — it has improved. In the last few years it has gained a dark timber that allows her to sing pop-jazz-blues. New York Times critic Stephen Holden said that her rendition of “Lover Man,” which she performed at 54 Below, “challenged Billie Holiday’s matchless original in beauty and honesty.”
“I think my approach to a song has gotten deeper and deeper and deeper,” she told NPR’s Jeff Lunden. “I think I’ll sing a song better five years from now than I do now. Because I’m really a work in progress, there’s no question. This ain’t the finished product here.”

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Annie Ross, 82
When she was in her early 20s, jazz singer Annie Ross was asked to write lyrics to a blues improvisation by saxophonist Wardell Gray. In one night she turned out “Twisted,” a classic in the vocalese genre. “My analyst told me that I was right out of my head,” the song begins. From there it goes on to reveal a rich,  funny portrait of a free-spirited woman who is only crazy by society’s definition. It was on Bette Midler’s second self-titled album in 1973 and Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark.  
Few, if any, were cooler than Ross in the late 1950s and early 60s. The Scottish-born performer recorded albums with such legendary jazz musicians as Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Zoot Simms and Tommy Flannigan. From 1957-62 she was part of the vocal group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. They recorded seven albums together, including the Grammy-award winning Sing a Song of Basie. She acts, too, playing eccentrics in such films as Throw Momma From the Train and Short Cuts.
In 2009 a play about her life opened in London called “Twisted: The Annie Ross Story.” It starred singer/actress Verity Quade. It examined Ross' stormy relationship with her mother, Broadway legend Ella Logan, her affair with Lenny Bruce and her heroin addiction and recovery. She is the subject of the 2012 documentary No One But Me.
Ross performs regularly at the Metropolitan Club in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood and just got back from a gig in London. She has also just released a new album, Let Me Singwith such standards as “Speak Low,” “Lush Life” and “Isn’t It a Pity?” She’s still the coolest person in the room. I didn’t need my analyst to tell me that.
Rita Moreno, 81
As ABC’s “Person of the Week,” Rita Moreno told Dan Harris in June: “I wake up humming. This is the prime of my life at 81.” The TV segment juxtaposed two clips. The first was Moreno dancing to “America” in the 1961 film version of West Side Story, for which she won an Oscar. The second showed her today dancing to the same song —  only in in her living room in Berkeley, Calif. Although more than 50 years had passed, who could tell the difference?
It’s a good thing Moreno has so much energy. She needs it, what with all the awards she has to walk on stage to accept. She is only one of eight living performers who’ve won the grand slam of show-biz honors: Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Emmy (actually two Emmys). Moreno also has a Golden Globe and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Last month she was inducted into the American Songbook Hall of Fame. Wonder how her bowling is?
Moreno is currently filming a feature, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, that also stars Cheyenne Jackson and Gena Rowlands, who's 83 and making a permanent comeback, one hopes. You can also catch Moreno in the Nickelodeon film, Nicky Deuce, where she plays an Italian grandmother, and in the TV Land series Happily Divorced, as Fran Drescher's mother. She's also starring in a one-woman autobiographical stage show called Rita Moreno: Life Without Makekup. The best words to describe her, she told Harris, are “perseverancia y esperanza — perseverance and hope.”

John Stark is a veteran writer, editor and journalist who lives in Palm Springs, California. He can be reached at [email protected]. Read More
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