Celebs

Sally Ann Howes, star of ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,’ dies at 91

The English-born grande dame of American and British musical comedy captivated children as Truly Scrumptious in the 1968 film.

Sally Ann Howes with her husband, Broadway composer Richard Adler, in 1961. AP, File


Sally Ann Howes, an English-born grande dame of American and British musical comedy who captivated children as Truly Scrumptious in the 1968 film “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” featuring a magic jalopy that floats and flies into fantasy adventures, died Sunday in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. She was 91.

John Lloyd, a manager of Northwood Funeral Home and Crematory in West Palm Beach, where Howes had a home, confirmed the death, in a hospital. He said he did not know the cause. She also had a home in London.

Born into show business, the daughter of a popular London comedian and his singing-actress wife, Howes was cast in her first movie at 12 and had a stage, screen and television career that spanned six decades. She starred in some 140 productions — musicals and plays in New York and London, and Hollywood and television movies and miniseries.

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She toured Britain and America in musicals; sang at the White House for Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson; was a frequent guest on television game and talk shows; became a Barbie doll; sang operettas; and later in life lectured, made documentaries and raised funds for AIDS research and other charities.

Howes had starred in a dozen British films and several American musicals, including “My Fair Lady,” “What Makes Sammy Run?” and “Brigadoon,” when, toward the end of 1968, a tumultuous year of assassinations, a divisive war in Vietnam and widespread political protests, a madcap movie opened in Britain and the United States as a zany antidote for the troubled world.

Based loosely on a children’s book by Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond spy tales, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” a British production, starred Dick Van Dyke as a widowed nutty inventor and Howes as the love interest, Truly Scrumptious. Together, with his two children and his marvelous flying-boat car, they journey to the land of Vulgaria to battle the nasty tyrant Baron Bomburst.

Critics were mixed about the film, directed by Ken Hughes with a script by Hughes and Roald Dahl, but children were ecstatic. Its popularity spawned mass marketing phenomena on both sides of the Atlantic, with Truly Scrumptious Barbie dolls, lunchboxes and toys, and a revival of Edwardian fashions worn by the cast.

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Film critic Roger Ebert called “Chitty Chitty” “about the best two-hour children’s movie you could hope for.” Renata Adler, in The New York Times, said: “There is nothing coy, or stodgy or too frightening about the film. And this year, when it has seemed highly doubtful that children ought to go to the movies at all, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ sees to it that none of the audiences’ terrific eagerness to have a good time is betrayed or lost.”

While it lost money initially, the film became a perennial children’s favorite and made Howes an international film star, her fame renewed every Christmas in videos and DVDs. It was nominated (though not chosen) in 2006 for the American Film Institute’s Greatest Movie Musicals.

Howes moved to New York in 1958 when she married composer and lyricist Richard Adler and made her Broadway debut in Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady.” She replaced the original star, Julie Andrews, in the role of Eliza Doolittle, the smudged Cockney flower girl who is transformed into a radiant lady by the demanding speech lessons of Professor Henry Higgins.

Audiences and most critics adored her as George Bernard Shaw’s gamine.

“Sally Ann Howes, the current Eliza, is a strikingly beautiful young lady with a rapturous voice that sounds like Julie Andrews,” Brooks Atkinson wrote in The Times. “Radiating intelligence and guile,” he went on, “she is an alert and versatile actress.”

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Howes returned to Broadway in 1961 for “Kwamina,” a musical written for her by Adler. An interracial love story set in Africa with an almost entirely Black cast, it was apparently too controversial in the turbulent early civil rights era, closing after 32 performances.

In 1962, Howes starred in a limited-run City Center revival of “Brigadoon,” a fantasy about two American boys who stumble upon a Scottish village that comes to life only one day every century.

“Sally Ann Howes has grown accustomed to Lerner and Loewe songs,” Milton Esterow said in a review for The Times. “She has grace, beauty and a lovely voice.” Since “Brigadoon” was soon to vanish, Esterow suggested, “Broadway should hurry and find a new show for Miss Howes. Otherwise some smart gentlemen in Scotland might decide to nominate her for public office.”

In 1964, Howes joined Robert Alda and Steve Lawrence in Budd Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run?,” a Broadway musical about a ruthless young man who betrays friends and lovers to scheme his way to the top of a Hollywood studio. The show ran 540 performances, although Howes, pressed by other engagements, left after a year.

Throughout the 1960s, she turned increasingly to television, appearing on the Perry Como, Dinah Shore, Jack Paar and Ed Sullivan shows, and in roles on “The Bell Telephone Hour,” the “Kraft Music Hall” and “United States Steel Hour.” She also had roles in “Mission: Impossible,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “Bracken’s World.”

Howes toured Britain in 1973 in “The King and I,” and the United States in 1978 in “The Sound of Music.” In the 1970s and ’80s, she sang operettas like “Blossom Time” and “The Merry Widow” in U.S. regional theaters. In 1990, she joined a New York City Opera staging of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” in the role of theater actress Desiree Armfeldt; the production was shown on public television’s “Live From Lincoln Center.” And a half-century after her triumph as Eliza Doolittle, she toured the United States in “My Fair Lady,” in 2007, playing Mrs. Higgins, the mother of Henry Higgins. It was her 64th year in show business.

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Sally Ann Howes was born in London on July 20, 1930, to comedian Bobby Howes and actress Patricia Malone. Her maternal grandfather, Capt. J.A.E. Malone, directed stage musicals; an uncle, Pat Malone, was an actor. Sally Ann and her older brother, Peter, a musician, grew up in a prosperous household with nannies and visits by her parents’ theatrical peers. During World War II, the family moved to its country estate in Essendon, 20 miles north of London, for the duration.

Howes’ acting in school plays and her family connections attracted an agent, and in 1943 she appeared with Stewart Granger in her first movie, “Thursday’s Child.” It launched her career. She played children’s roles in “Dead of Night” (1945) with Michael Redgrave, and “Anna Karenina” (1948) with Vivien Leigh. At 18, she appeared with John Mills in “The History of Mr. Polly” (1949).

Howes began taking stage roles in the 1950s. With singing lessons to lower her high-pitched voice, she performed in West End musicals, including “Paint Your Wagon,” with her father, and in the stage drama, “A Hatful of Rain.”

Howes’ marriage in 1950 to Maxwell Coker ended in divorce in 1953. She divorced Adler in 1966. Her marriage in 1969 to A. Morgan Maree III, a financier, also ended in divorce. In the 1970s, she married literary agent Douglas W. Rae, who died this year. Information on her survivors was not immediately available.

In 2012, Howes joined 1,500 film fans on a Turner Classic Movies cruise that featured “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and she discussed her life as an entertainer.

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“The moment you hit 45 — now it’s 55 — your career changes,” she said. “You have to rethink everything, and you have to adjust. I was always aware of it because of the people I was brought up with. We saw careers go up and down and be killed off. I’ve never prepared for anything. I’ve always jumped into the next thing, and therefore it’s been a strange career. I enjoyed experimenting.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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