When you hear the name George Abbott you think of many things, but romantic isn't one of them.

Abbott was the dean of American showmen, an actor, director and author who was active in the theater from 1914 until 1995, when he died at the age of 107. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for writing Fiorello. He was praised for his timing and his efficiency. His demeanor was formal and hardly anyone thought of him as a romantic.

But now it can be told that he had a 36-year loving relationship with an exotic and talented younger woman whom he eventually married when he was 96. And she is emerging as a performer of music that was written for George Abbott shows by Rodgers & Hart, Irving Berlin, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross.

Joy Valderamma was the belle of the Temple University campus in the early 1950s, a tanned and dark-haired beauty from Hawaii who excelled in tennis and swimming. Her father was Filipino and her mother's roots were a mixture of Chinese and Filipino. Joy came to Temple because it had a good program in physical education and because it would put her geographically close to her sister, who was attending Juilliard in New York. Joy appeared in Temple University Theater productions, and a pin-up, bathing-suit photo of her ran in the campus paper, the "Temple News." Shortly after graduation she met the 71-year-old George Abbott.

He was, even then, the grand old man of Broadway showmen, who had written and directed plays since Broadway in 1926. His legendary hits included The Boys From Syracuse (1938), Pal Joey (1940), Call Me Madam (1950), The Pajama Game (1954) and Damn Yankees (1955)./> George and Joy quickly fell in love, dated for 24 years, then married in 1983. He died in 1995.

Joy starred in the Temple University production of Wingless Victory in 1956 but gave up performing when she started dating George Abbott. I asked her if, during her years with Abbott, she wasn't tempted to try for a role on Broadway. Perhaps Abbott could have eased a path for her. "In those days Oriental women didn't have opportunities," she answered. "They didn't do cross-casting. No one could imagine me in Oklahoma! or Carousel." So she put her singing behind her.

When Abbott turned 100, friends and family saluted him at his golf club, the Indian Creek Country Club, in Miami Beach. Hal Prince and Jose Ferrer produced and emceed, and Joy sang. Friends who were there urged her to resume a performing career. After Abbott's death, she agreed to sing on special occasions, to honor his memory and to raise money for causes such as the theater department at her alma mater. I caught her act at a Temple University program on February 13, 2001 and was pleasantly surprised to find her in excellent voice.

The production was a tribute to the musicals of Abbott and his protege, Hal Prince. By coincidence it took place at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia, named in Hal's honor. Her co-star was Davis Gaines, who once sang in an Abbott production. George Abbott -- at age 99 -- cast Gaines as Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 1987. "Davis has the greatest voice, but at the audition all George wanted to know was if he could swing a bat," laughs Joy. "George said that Tab Hunter, in the film version, didn't know how to swing a bat and that ruined the performance." Gaines later appeared as Raoul then the Phantom in Hal Prince's Phantom of the Opera.

Songs sung by Joy Abbott in the tribute concert included "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" from Pal Joey, "Hey, There" from Pajama Game, "You're Just in Love" from Call Me Madam and "Somewhere" from West Side Story. The first three were directed by Abbott, and the last was produced by Prince.

Talking with Joy Abbott before and after the show, I asked about her relationship:

Q. How did you meet?

A. He came to Philadelphia to try out his musical, Fiorello, in 1959. My sister's friend was an usher at the theater and, through her, I was invited to a party at George's apartment after the show opened in New York.

Q. How did you address him? Actors never called him by his first name. It always was Mister Abbott.

A. They called him that out of veneration, but away from his work he didn't want or expect it. In fact, he and Hal Prince used to go out socially and he'd tell Hal: "Don't call me Mister Abbott in front of the girls." If you really knew him, he was warm. I think he was attracted to me because he had a thing for Oriental women.

Q. And what attracted you to him?

A. He had beautiful, intense grey-blue eyes. And he was in great shape, very athletic.

Q. What about the 45-year age difference?

A. We never felt it was important. He enjoyed being around younger people.

Q. How did you finally get married?

A. One day he said to me: "Joy, my lawyer just told me that I have enough money for two people to live on, so I think it would make sense for us to get married. Think about it for a day or two and let me know." He was being funny, of course. We were married one afternoon, and that very night I became a great-grandmother, when one of his grand-daughters had a baby. (He had been married twice and had grown children and grandchildren.) We divided our time between his homes in New York and Miami and my home in Philadelphia.

Q. What do you think was the reason for his success?

A. Actors always knew that he'd make them better. They'd listen to his line readings, which were precise and succinct. The Abbott touch consisted of four things: clarity, brevity, pacing and honesty.

Q. How did you meet Hal Prince?

A. He worked as a go-fer for George after he graduated Penn, and by 1959 he was producing shows himself. George and I would go on double dates with Hal and his girlfriend, Judy Chaplin, the daughter of songwriter Saul Chaplin, and now they've been married for almost 40 years. George's favorite date was going out to dinner and dancing. He was an expert at it, especially the rhumba.

Q. What else was happening in your life?

A. I owned boutiques, in Philadelphia and Cherry Hill, called Moana's. Then I started a business producing fashion shows.

Q. How were Abbott's later years?

A. When George was 96 he was golfing one day when he suddenly collapsed. I ran over to him, made him comfortable and sent for help. Cradling his head in my arms, I said: "Just lay there, George." He raised his head and corrected my grammar: "Just lie there!"
That was George, always a stickler for the exact word. Taken to the hospital, George received news that he'd need a pacemaker installed to regulate his heartbeat. The doctor told him that he was putting in the longest-lasting battery they made, guaranteed for ten years. "Damn!," said the 96-year-old; "You mean I'll need to go through this surgery again when I'm 106?!"

Sure enough, he did. And he was in good health at 106. Even at age 107 he was dictating script changes for a revival of Pajama Game. "He was re-writing the show for the London company two weeks before he died," Joy Abbott recalls. "It was a happy 36 years. We never had an argument, except maybe about my driving."

Joy Abbott is chairman of the Theater Hall of Fame and hosted its 2001 induction ceremony in New York. She is co-authoring, with Miami Herald theater critic Christine Dolen, a biography of her husband.


Key Subjects: 
Abbott, George; Joy Valderamma, Joy Abbott, Fiorello, Asians, Damn Yankees
Steve Cohen
October 2001
Joy Remembers George