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She's Got Bette Davis Ties

Paolo Vescia

Margo Channing came to dinner . . . Baby Jane stayed for breakfast!"

That tantalizing teaser only sounds like a terrifying advertising come-on for one of Bette Davis' horror movies from the '60s.

In reality, it's a line of dialogue from Me and Jezebel, a reality-based play about the legendary actress by Valley author Elizabeth Fuller. In a nutshell, it's also the inspiration of a cottage industry that began 16 years ago when two-time Oscar winner Davis showed up for dinner at Fuller's home -- and didn't leave for a month.

The drama-drenched debacle began innocently enough on May 23, 1985. That's when Fuller -- then living in Weston, Connecticut, with her husband and preschool-age son -- invited her neighbor Robin Brown over to share a barbecued chicken dinner. Brown asked if Fuller minded if she brought along an old girlhood chum who happened to be staying with her because of a hotel strike in New York City.

Informed of the guest's identity, Elizabeth Fuller became an instant nervous wreck.

"What would you do if you suddenly found out Bette Davis was coming to your house?" asks Fuller, little dreaming the havoc the star's visit would wreak on her life. An "adrenaline junkie" who thrived on turmoil, Davis reportedly transformed Fuller into a 24-hour errand girl, made Fuller's son into the world's youngest Bette Davis impersonator and almost ended a marriage when Fuller's husband issued an "either she goes or I go" ultimatum.

In the process, Davis also allowed Fuller access to a previously undocumented chapter in the actress's life that is by turns as funny as anything in the comedy All About Eve -- and, if Fuller is to be believed, as inexplicably weird as anything in the spooky Burnt Offerings.

If the rest of this story isn't history -- when Davis' friend was called away on an emergency, the star wound up moving into Fuller's home "for one or two nights" that stretched into more than four weeks -- it isn't for lack of trying on Elizabeth Fuller's part.

More than a decade after that memorable supper (although Davis praised Fuller's pie, she recalls that her guest crabbed, "The chicken was so raw it almost pecked me!" ), the harried hostess is still dining out on the tale.

To date, Fuller -- who lives in Mesa during part of the year while her teenage son attends Skyline High School -- has parlayed her 32-day encounter with the Houseguest from Hell into a publishing/theatrical annuity that includes a magazine article, a book, chapters in several other books she's authored, a lecture tour and a short-lived off-Broadway play that has since taken on a life of its own in stock and regional theater.

Last month, Fuller's run-in with the popeyed icon even led to an art show at Scottsdale's ZED gallery. Hyped by invitations jokingly "written" by Davis on behalf of "my dear friend Liz," guests were urged to see a series of kitschy ceramic dioramas and wall hangings inspired by Davis, as well as a knit dress dotted with cigarette burns that the actress left in her home more than 15 years ago.

Sitting in a Scottsdale cafe near the gallery, Elizabeth Fuller doesn't look much like the star-struck hausfrau you might imagine after reading her 1992 book, also titled Me and Jezebel. In repose, she's almost a dead ringer for Gilligan's Island star Tina Louise.

But once she starts talking and her theatrical mannerisms take over, it's not hard to believe that she's the little girl from Ohio who grew up worshiping Bette Davis, thanks to the tutelage of a like-minded grandmother who helped her draft fan letters to the star.

"As long as I can remember, I've always loved Bette Davis," confesses Fuller, explaining that, as a teenager, she wore a replica of Davis' Jezebel gown to a high school dance and performed a parody of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in a talent contest. "And now this woman I'd idolized forever is coming to stay in my home? Well, you can just imagine how I felt.

"The whole thing was just like The Man Who Came to Dinner," continues Fuller, referencing the 1941 Davis film about a pompous celebrity who takes over an Ohio household after he slips on some ice outside their home, and is forced to stay there until his broken leg mends.

When the 77-year-old Davis arrived at Fuller's riverfront home with 18 pieces of luggage, a broken leg was one of the few infirmities not on her medical chart. Despite having been recently hospitalized for a broken hip, a mastectomy and a series of strokes that had frozen her mouth into a permanent sneer, the near-skeletal Hollywood vet soon triggered a series of events that, as described by Fuller, played out like a marathon-length I Love Lucy episode.

 

"It's a Bette Davis no one would expect," promises the jacket copy for Fuller's book, in a rare moment of hyperbolic understatement. "Attending a neighborhood séance, river rafting, signing autographs at the McDonald's, and remaining every inch the superstar while riding shotgun in a Toyota."

That doesn't even begin to touch on high jinks like the time Davis, while delivering yet another rant about archrival Joan Crawford, accidentally set the curtains on fire with her cigarette. Or the time when Fuller's grown stepson dropped by the house after everyone was asleep and climbed into the guest room bed without realizing Davis was sleeping there. Or the actress's wacky run-ins with a smitten handyman who began leaving love poems on her pillow. And on those rare occasions when the actress was holed up in the guest room, Fuller's 3-year-old son could be counted on to keep the momentum going by mincing around the house while reciting "What a dump!" in a clipped accent.

After all this time, one might suspect that Elizabeth Fuller would be sick to death of talking about Bette Davis. One would be wrong.

"I think this has been one of the important parts of her life," says Fuller's friend David Weller, co-owner of the ZED gallery. "She's very resourceful -- she's just taken this thing and run with it."

To prove the point, he produces a piece of handicraft Fuller made especially for her art show opening. "She couldn't just bring a wonderful simple tray," he says. Instead, Fuller created a handmade ceramic platter with a dead rat painted in the middle, surrounded by Davis' quote, "The only thing I regret is that I didn't slap Crawford around more in Baby Jane."

"She had to bring something spectacular."

The Me and Jezebel project, concedes Fuller, is "the only thing I've ever done that's taken on a life of its own."

The project's life began in 1987, when Fuller sold a highly sanitized, expletive-free version of Davis' visit to Women's Day magazine. "Bette was still alive, so I had to leave out certain things," explains Fuller of the kinder, gentler Davis that bares scant resemblance to the self-absorbed eccentric ego who emerges in her subsequent retellings.

Following Davis' death in 1989, Fuller expanded that article into a full-length book published by Berkley in 1992. Although the opus received positive reviews as a good "beach read," Fuller now says she was never altogether happy with it.

"I think my husband John nailed the problem," she says. "After he'd read it, he said it was okay -- but it wasn't nearly as funny as listening to me tell the story. That's when he told me I should do it as a play."

A natural ham, Fuller put together a one-woman show that was basically nothing more than a structured version of the ad lib shtick with which she'd been entertaining people for years. "Every time someone would come over, it was always, 'Do Bette, do Bette!' So I'd get up there and do all the characters myself -- Bette, my husband, my son, myself -- even me doing Bette." Although her animated monologue was a crowd-pleaser on the women's club luncheon circuit, Fuller still felt something was missing.

She finally realized what that was when she happened to see a newspaper photo of performance artist Randy Allen, then appearing in a show called PS Bette Davis -- "PS" standing for "Post-Stroke."

"This piece was crying out for a Bette, and Randy was her!" exclaims Fuller. "He had the drooping mouth, the drool, everything was perfect. I looked at that picture and realized that he was the Bette that I had known."

Workshopped "for years" in the backwaters of show biz, Fuller's two-person comedy was finally about to open off-Broadway in November 1994. But just days before the première, Allen collapsed during rehearsals; the 38-year-old performer died of complications from AIDS the following spring.

"His death was just devastating to everyone," says Fuller.

Allen's death cast a definite pall on the proceedings, but after all, the show must go on. After an APB for any Bette Davis impersonator on the Eastern seaboard, the role was recast with comic impersonator Louise DuArt. But Fuller's theatrical memoir was shot down by a tepid New York Times critic who opined that the play should have remained an after-dinner entertainment in Fuller's living room.

Fuller begs to differ. "Louise was fine, but this play just doesn't work unless you've got a man playing Davis," she contends. "You need someone really strong so there's some conflict there, and two women just can't do it. Sure, having a man play Bette adds a campy note -- but this play is about Bette Davis and it is a comedy."

 

Optioned numerous times for a yet-to-be-produced movie (most recently by cable TV's American Movie Classics), Fuller's work shows signs of being a theatrical evergreen. In addition to the play's inherently intriguing premise and the simplicity of the production, the show has an added plus -- no matter who appears in it, it's always got a built-in "star."

"With most writing, you get a moderate advance and that's it," says Fuller. But this thing just keeps going and going. I'm not getting rich like Neil Simon, but I do get my regular checks from the Dramatists Guild." In addition to its abbreviated off-Broadway run, the play has been staged more than a dozen times in such cities as Chicago, Fort Lauderdale and Sydney, Australia.

After playing herself in several earlier productions of Me and Jezebel, Fuller is content to leave her brain child to the pros, like former Room 222 star Karen Valentine (who played Fuller in a Kansas City dinner theater) and a string of (mostly male) Davis impersonators, including female illusionist Jim Bailey and, in a recent Long Island run, Ed Dennehy, brother of the more well-known actor Brian.

This latter casting forces Fuller to smile uneasily. "For Bette's sake, I only hope that Ed doesn't look like his brother."

If any Bette Davis film parallels Elizabeth Fuller's own life, it's the 1978 Disney pic Return From Witch Mountain. That's the kiddy sci-fi epic in which Davis, cast as mad scientist Christopher Lee's evil sidekick, spends most of the film tormenting two telekinetic children from outer space -- via a mind-control machine.

"Looking back, I guess I've always been psychic," comments Fuller, who claims she once coaxed a reluctant Bette Davis into a Ouija board session. "To what extent, I didn't really know until I became an adult. But as a child, I was always able to find things."

While she was working as a flight attendant in the '70s, that gift proved handy finding herself a husband -- and a new career as a writer.

A successful author of speculative nonfiction, John G. Fuller was best known at the time for The Interrupted Journey, the "true" story of UFO abductees Barney and Betty Hill's ordeal on an alien spacecraft. Perhaps fittingly, Fuller met his future wife 5,000 feet in the air while en route to interview witnesses for a new project involving the eerie aftermath of an Eastern Airlines jet that crashed in the Florida Everglades in 1972.

When she learned there was a writer onboard who was investigating "the ghost of Flight 401" (as the book was subsequently titled), Elizabeth Fuller's psychic radar went into overdrive.

"I had to meet him," she says. "I knew all about the ghost of Flight 401!" But when the other flight attendants refused to point out the author ("For some reason, they didn't want me bothering him; maybe they were jealous, who knows?"), Fuller looked into the cabin and was instinctively drawn to her future husband, mentor and, for a time, employer.

Hired as a research assistant for the Flight 401 book, Fuller was taken to the crash site, where she reportedly surprised even herself by divining all manner of personal detail about the 101 passengers and crew members who lost their lives in the disaster.

"Somehow, I knew everyone who had died," says Fuller, who immediately enrolled in a course to further develop her psychic powers. "After that, I was able to communicate with dead pilots."

When not chatting up cockpit commandos from beyond the grave, Fuller spent her time tracking down flight attendants who'd worked on planes equipped with parts salvaged from the wreck -- like the anonymous stewardess who, while preparing dinner in the galley, swore she'd seen the image of a crash victim's face in the glass door of a microwave oven.

A best seller, The Ghost of Flight 401 was turned into a 1978 made-for-TV movie starring Ernest Borgnine as the phantom pilot, as well as a future Oscar winner in an early career role.

"Kim Basinger, that was me!" exclaims Fuller, who later penned a paperback sequel called My Search for the Ghost of Flight 401. "I was the psychic stewardess!"

Davis' visit was nothing if not amusing; even the actress's detractors will get a chuckle out of the book's description of the screen legend delivering an anti-gun lecture to shoppers prowling the fake firearm section of a Toys "R" Us. Still, a closer examination of Fuller's chronicle will leave some Davis fans wondering where fact leaves off and fantasy begins.

Despite a curious author's note that prefaces the book version of Me and Jezebel ("All the events on the following pages take place exactly as written. . . . Every incident and character is real without distortion"), a number of incidents Fuller describes simply could not have occurred within the time frame in which her tale is set.

 

For instance, in both book and play, during their initial meeting in late May 1985, Fuller asks Davis about her role in the TV series Hotel. In truth, Davis had appeared on that series just once, leaving the program even before the première episode aired in September 1983.

Later, much is made of an unflattering cover story in the latest issue of People magazine that contains excerpts from a Mommie Dearest-like exposé written by Davis' daughter. In reality, that issue of the weekly publication was on newsstands in late April, a full month before the two women even met.

Asked about these and other discrepancies, the former psychic stewardess is temporarily flummoxed.

"It says that in the book?" she asks incredulously. "It shouldn't." Pause. "The book isn't 100 percent accurate," she confesses. "I may have fudged or embellished a little, but most of it is exactly what happened."

Grover Mills, a contractor who was working on Fuller's home that summer, verifies that Davis did indeed stay there. But as the only still-living adult mentioned in Me and Jezebel (John Fuller and neighbor Robin Brown have since died; Fuller says her son Chris, now 18, only remembers the episode through the play), Mills recalls a kinder, gentler Bette Davis than the chain-smoking gorgon Fuller describes.

During a conversation from his home in Weston, Mills recalls, "Liz always imitated her as being cantankerous, but I didn't see that. If she was, we didn't see it. She was frail, that's the word. When she showed up at our house [for dinner], I remember hearing her grumbling that she wasn't half the woman she used to be or some such thing. Still, she was a survivor."

And a good thing, too. During the course of Davis' monthlong visit, the long arm of coincidence receives such a workout that it's a wonder that the overused limb isn't torn from its socket.

For instance, according to both book and play, shortly after arriving at her hosts' home, the aging actress -- still flinching from the publication of the tell-all penned by her born-again daughter -- is in the midst of a tirade against organized religion. Who should show up but the subject of a book Fuller was then working on -- a woman faith healer named Grace, who immediately presents Davis with a Bible, a Jesus pinkie ring and a book called God Wants You to Be Happy. ("Young lady," the frog-eyed actress allegedly croaked, "your book, Bible and Jesus pinkie ring will have to find another home.")

Over the course of events, Davis fans are also treated to descriptions of the actress exploring a role she never got around to tackling on-screen: Action-Adventure Heroine.

During a river-rafting trip, the feisty survivor narrowly cheats death when the rapidly deflating craft almost goes over a dam.

Later, in a vignette that might have been called "Bette Davis Meets Cujo," a raspberry-picking expedition is cut short when Fuller and the cronish thespian come face to face with a snarling Doberman. Undaunted, the doddering Davis saves the day with the aid of her cane and a few well-chosen expletives that send the cowering beast running for cover.

Sighs Fuller, "Here was Bette Davis about to end her distinguished career as lunch meat for some animal named Gunther."

In the end, though, it was Fuller and her family who were almost done in, not the indomitable Davis.

"It was an exhausting experience," says Fuller in hindsight. "And it almost cost me my marriage."

Now able to laugh, she describes how Davis egged her on during an argument she was having with her husband. "Tell him, 'You make me want to vaaaaahmit!'" Fuller recalls Davis whispering to her in the heat of a spat. "Once she asked me if my husband beat me. When I told her he didn't, her eyes lit up and she proceeded to tell me about all these battles she'd had with [fourth husband] Gary Merrill. Lord, that woman loved a good fight."

Whether Fuller's postmortem parlay at her guest's expense would get Davis' dander up is anyone's guess. Except for the 1987 Women's Day article, the actress never lived to see the various permutations of the visit Fuller has produced.

Elizabeth Fuller, who has hopes of conducting a séance at Davis' family crypt in Forest Lawn, thinks the actress would approve of her campy tribute. If not, why would Davis' ghost continue to linger in her Connecticut home away from home?

 

"Bette's still in the house," Fuller, who's since remarried, says matter-of-factly. "My family has all felt her presence." Although she avoids specifics, Fuller adds, "She's always up to something."

Like ghost, like haunted-house owner.

After reeling off a list of upcoming productions of Me and Jezebel (she's hoping that Stagebrush Theatre will stage a local run), Elizabeth Fuller is flabbergasted to hear that she shares a startling bond with Christina Crawford, the daughter of Bette Davis' worst enemy.

Learning that the Mommie Dearest author now operates a bed-and-breakfast in Idaho, Fuller nearly chokes on her latte.

"Christina has a bed-and-breakfast?" she gasps. "Get out! I wonder if she has wire hangers. I've got to send her a book . . ."

In the immortal word of Fuller's former houseguest, "Kee-ryst!"


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