Betty Rhodes was a character; as a child, she found she was gifted as a performer, the trouble was, it became her identity-marker for her whole life; if a day went by when she wasn’t singing somewhere, she felt unfulfilled. I guess we could call it ‘compulsive’. She’d had a daughter, Jan, when she was fifteen -by some Tacoma mechanic she’d dubbed Hubcap Joe, but had escaped her hardscrabble Washington-state upbringing and fled, with Jan, to Manhattan. We met when she auditioned for a revue I was doing at The Duplex in the Village, and she won me by singing a piece of special material about Huntley & Brinkley. I want to tell you a story that always amused me: Betty was booked at Freddy’s -a relatively upscale club on East 49th street…a contrast to the rather downscale dives she’d been playing. She wanted something glamorous to appear in, so she went to Saks and found a glittery, expensive dress that had been marked down, FINAL SALE. $349.00. Well, she bought it, took it home, moved a button to expose more cleavage, and appeared in it.
The show went fine and the next day she went back to Saks to have the dress credited to her account as a return. Betty saw nothing wrong in this, it was the way you survived; you could buy a dress, wear it once (or even a couple of times) and return it. “No,” she told the salesgirl, “I got it home and it just didn’t fit right.” “Sorry,” said the salesgirl, “this is marked Final Sale.” Betty took a step forward. “I’ve been a customer here for seven years,” she said “–and it’s only three hundred forty-nine dollars–“. “Look, I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do, the slip is clearly marked, Final S–” “Let me speak to your supervisor,” Betty commanded. The supervisor arrived, and -as you might predict- stonewalled the situation. The store had Betty absolutely dead to rights, the ticket had been emblazoned, Final Sale, No Returns. “Goddammit–” Betty became abusive, there was no length to which she wouldn’t go, “I always shop here, even when other stores have better prices, I’ve been a loyal customer at Saks for seven fucking years–” she threw the dress on the floor and began to stamp on it. By this time she was shouting and other customers were looking at her “–and between me and my daughter, we represent one hundred and five years of combined buying power here!” She was jumping up and down on the box.
And you know what? The supervisor knuckled and gave Betty a credit, just to shut her up and get rid of this loud, violent woman. I can’t imagine mustering this kind of energy and conviction, can you? But that’s how Betty was. Impassioned.