Angels Are The Highest Form Of Virtue:

Remembering Barbara Harris

A beat-up Honda Civic puttered into my peripheral vision, and I knew it was her. Already the Civic was a sore spot amongst the new and spiffy cars, not necessarily all expensive, but waxed to shine like a jewel in the desert. Barbara’s car mirrored the general gist of the Barbara I had spent a year getting to know from afar. Compact. Disheveled. Frumpy. Parks outside the lines. A growing excitement was firing through my nerves; I was preparing myself to meet all the Barbaras. And…I couldn’t believe she was on time.

Against a backdrop of beige and concrete, stood a lime-green plump fairy-lady wearing very large black sunglasses. She shuffled slowly over to me, as if the incurred weight on her small frame was tiring to carry, especially for a woman who had once done Pilates with “Mr Pilates” seven days a week. Her dyed hair; stick-straight and long, was a departure from the short spunky style she sported throughout most of her career which flowed in the breeze along with her pants. With her lips pinching into an adorable, shy, yet flirtatious smile–(within two seconds, her ability to communicate multiple states of being was already an effort to keep up with)–I couldn’t help darting my head around like I would at sweet child trying to hide in plain sight. “Barbar-aaaa…” I felt instantly like my heart was opening, and Jon Bon Jovi playing in an outdoor mall was suddenly very very funny, because Barbara, in her wide-eyed naiveté and lime-green outfit, stuck out from this scene like a clown.

Voice pitching high, she sing-songed. “Yoohoo…is that youuuuu?” I chirped back–“hoo-yooo!” Like two little birds we fluttered over to one another. In her eyes was that signature sparkle, that purity and innocence one would assign to a child, but Barbara’s regard was not superficial or lacking in experience. It had the breadth and depth of her range as a performer. “I was thinking…” Barbara began. “…Unless you have another idea…”

“I made a res…”

“Well, I was thinking where I know for sure, the food is great. It’s near my neighborhood just in case. It’s really fabulous. I haven’t eaten all day!”

“Me too!”

“Well, this restaurant is a taddd expensive. But we can go dutch. Look,” she stopped a little nervous, “I want to say right now. I don’t want anything written down. As of now, we’re just hanging…ok?”

I surrendered my hands. “We’re just hanging…”

As we turned to make our way to her vehicle–whose enduring survival was a miracle–I changed the tune. “Getting to know you, getting to know all about you. Getting to like you, getting to know you like me…

Her head spun round. “Do you sing? You need to sing!

“I love to sing! But I was always pretty shy about it.”

“I understand that completely. I told Alan Jay Lerner I couldn’t sing. By the way I don’t have a comb for my hair, so I gotta get a comb on the way…”

“Don’t make me feel alone with my hair!”

“Lucky dog...curly hair! Oh my god…” Folding over herself, I gingerly removed her out of the way of an oncoming car. “…I’ve been drinking stuff that’s too many fruits! That I churn up, and then I get this powder…It’s been so long since I’ve eaten. I’m sure it’ll be ok…” 

“What was todays doctor appointment about?”

“I sort of don’t wanna talk about that… it’s sorta…different things happened...and it looks like I won’t have that operation after-all. Oh, you wouldn’t believe it. I’ve got nothing but papers from these doctors, but I avoid those…”

Plopping onto our respective seats in her beat-up but won’t give up Honda Civic, it was clear with the closing of the doors, that this would be a topsy-turvy, hilarious, moving moment that would put this writer on the very crack of our human heart – what makes us both laugh and cry – our vulnerability. What I felt, instantly, was the same thing that everyone felt with Barbara Harris, instantly. I just cared about her. Simple as that. 

“Barbara…”

“Yeah?”

Picking it up from the little nook behind the stick, “I found your comb…”

“Oh! You found it! Where was it?”

Pointing to the spot, Barbara made this move with her body, like she was trying to squish herself to fit inside the nook.  

Going to and from her favorite Arizona hangouts, at a speed that would give a snail the hope of winning the race, we would spend four days navigating in any which direction the wind would blow her discourse; her life, career, and the confusing state of her health. Houston’s Steakhouse. “That spot with the lamb chops.” All the consignment stores. Doctor’s offices. Her small, bright apartment, tucked behind an expensive hotel and spa. Her songs served as the soundtrack throughout; her voice somehow beating the hot and humid air with the delicacy and fragility of its talent. At every turn, Barbara Harris elevated every situation to a theatrical scale, so that life itself became a moving epic that was both tragic and comedic. And this precious feather of a creature didn’t even seem to notice.

*

First we tried Houston’s–the classy joint. Barbara dashed to the bathroom, to comb her hair–“I gotta, my hair…is such a mess…”– as I quickly brushed across the scene. Tuesday night at a Houston’s in Scottsdale, Arizona:

Crimson leather booths. Blond wood. Art Deco pine cones as chandeliers. Fake blond hair in its total form, or in highlight. The occasional tray, with steak and salad finding a place at the table, together. The same black purse. Couples, that probably had a kid, or closing in on the deal. That guy at the bar, who cashed in big at a good age, with a martini, flashing pearly whites in my direction. A peppering of after-workers of pretty much a pale color. Jazz.

I weaved through suburban complacency towards the host stand. A fine young woman greeted me with ashy blond hair, who clearly did not come from the pool of fancy that ruled Houston’s this evening–snowbirds–Barbara called them. I never found out why they were snowbirds, but I guessed that they came to the desert to escape the snow. In any case, there was an hour wait ahead of us for a table. Ashy offered me standing room by the bar to wait for a seat, or at the high tables, neither of which were conducive for an eighty-three year old woman who was stiff, and not in tiptop shape, even if she wouldn’t admit it. My attempts to communicate this to Ashy–with decorum–slid off her face as if I were speaking a foreign language. Blank, she reached out her arm once again, towards the high chairs.

I stood for a moment, waiting as anyone would for their friend to return, but then I jerked when I remembered who I was dealing with.

In a Second City performance, and I cannot say for sure which one it was, Barbara Harris was in a scene with Severn Darden and Paul Sand. In the bit, Sand was about to tell his parents that he was gay. Before he revealed his secret, the mother–Barbara Harris–would excuse herself, so she could leave Sand alone to come out to his father first. Then Barbara in her beloved muddleheadedness would reenter and together, they would conclude the scene. One night, Barbara Harris exited the stage as was expected with apparently enough time to smoke a cigarette, because she was out back doing so when she noticed that the show across the street featuring her friend Zohra Lampert had just broken for intermission. Delighted she could catch the second act, Barbara put out her cigarette, and crossed the street. 

Meanwhile, Sand and Darden had been standing on stage, improvising to a breaking point, waiting for Barbara Harris to come back on. Darden had to invent some excuse to get off-stage to figure out what had happened. And she was nowhere to be found. Darden came back onstage. 

“Mom’s dead.” 

Blackout.

I swiftly moved towards the bathroom.  

 

 

Inspiration

Scottsdale, Arizona with Barbara Harris.

 
 

Barbara Harris in her television debut–Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1961)

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"Comedy From the Second City," Original Cast Album, on MERCURY Records, 1962, Mono.

Clip from A Thousand Clowns (1963)

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Severn Darden–as Professor Walter von der Vogelweide

Excerpt from Herb Gardner’s play–A Thousand Clowns

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Clip of Barbara Harris from The Apple Tree on the 1967 Tony Awards.

 

Clip from Nashville (1975) Barbara Harris sings - It Don't Worry Me

Barbara Harris/Alfred Hitchcock on set for Family Plot (1976)

 

Clip of Barbara Harris from the 1971 film "Who is Harry Kellerman And Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?" She was nominated for an Oscar for this scene.

Barbara Harris switches bodies with daughter Jodie Foster in the original Freaky Friday (1976)

 

 
 

 

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