More than a half-century after starting her show business career, Fort Worth’s Olyve Hallmark Abbott is still entertaining
By Jackie Ferguson
Photography by Ron Jenkins
Wearing a green bathing suit with white flowers, the petite soprano hit high C as she dove into the onstage pool, swam underwater and climbed out the other side, emerging while continuing to sustain the incredibly high note.
The year was 1954, and Olyve Hallmark Abbott was performing in Wish You Were Here, a popular show at Dallas’ Starlite Operettas and its indoor successor, State Fair Musicals.
“Fair Park had a swimming pool, and the kids would go swimming before rehearsals,” Abbott, a Juilliard-trained opera singer, recalls. “But I would use that time to practice my dive.”
The astonished audience loved her performance. Today, audiences can still take her in. Looking much younger than her 95 years, Abbott has continued to entertain through the years, from appearing on national television to singing with the Fort Worth Opera and area musical theater and — more recently — writing books. “There is always something to do,” she says.
Abbott has published six books in a variety of genres, including mysteries, Texana paranormal and a historic western based on the letters of her greatgrandmother.
She’s working on a seventh book and wrote a chapter in “Cinderellas of West 53rd Street,” released in April, and about living in New York’s legendary Rehearsal Club with other Broadway aspirants. All of her books are for sale online.
“I’m concerned I have too much to do before I leave the building,” she laughs.
Abbott’s start in showbiz began in her hometown of Wichita Falls.
“My grade school teacher told my mother that I should take singing lessons, because I had a very large voice,” she says.
Starting private voice lessons by age 11, she was soon entertaining at Lions Club meetings and Sheppard Air Force Base.
By age 15, she was off to New York for lessons with famed operatic voice coach Frank La Forge.
During the summer of 1944, she lived at the Three Arts Club, a hotel for young women. Despite the requirement that residents be 16, the hotel’s assistant director waived the rule since they were both from Texas.
After graduating from high school in Wichita Falls, Abbott returned to New York to attend Juilliard, then was off to Southern Methodist University to study vocal performance.
By 1948, she was performing at Starlight Operettas with some of the major celebrities of the day, including Don Ameche and Imogene Coca.
She graduated from SMU in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree in music. The same year, she met Tom J. Abbott Jr., or “Tom Terrific” as she calls him, and they married in 1951.
The newlywed continued to perform at State Fair Musicals at Fair Park. During her fourth season, she appeared in One Touch of Venus.
Director Franz Allers offered her the same role in a New York production of the show in a “spectacular” to be aired live for one week on NBC, one of three television networks at the time.
By then, her husband was stationed in San Antonio at Brooke Army Medical Center. He was very supportive of her career and encouraged her to pursue it.
Moving to New York, Abbott soon found lodging at The Rehearsal Club, two brownstones on West 53rd Street that “provided housing for women chasing their dreams of Broadway.”
Abbott paid $19 per week for room and board. Famous alumnae include Blythe Danner, Diane Keaton and Kim Cattrall. Carol Burnett, yet to be discovered, also lived at the club, and Abbott has a framed, handwritten note that the now-legendary comedian once wrote her.
The 1937 film Stage Door, starring Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball, was based on the camaraderie of the women at the club.
After appearing on national television, Abbott assumed she’d be returning to Texas, but a talent scout suggested she audition for Caesar’s Hour, the sketch comedy and variety show starring Sid Caesar.
After appearing in one episode, Abbott was offered a yearlong contract to sing and dance on the NBC hit. “It was really kind of remarkable to be there less than a week and get a job,” she says.
Caesar’s Hour aired live on Saturday nights and featured major stars of the day. The show’s writing team has since become a who’s who of comedy legends including Caesar, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Carl Reiner.
Caesar’s Hour and the comedian’s previous hit, Your Show of Shows, are consistently ranked by critics as among the best-written television shows in American broadcasting. Modern series such as Saturday Night Live often credit Caesar with pioneering the way for the sketch comedy shows of today.
Abbott appeared in about 60 episodes of Caesar’s Hour from 1955 through early 1956 as one of a trio of female singers. Her husband was able to watch her on television every Saturday night from the recreation room at the Army hospital in San Antonio.
By 1956, her husband was done with his military service and was ready to move to Fort Worth for a job as a pharmacist.
While Abbott had callbacks for a number of Broadway shows, including My Fair Lady, and was offered the role of Flora in a New York production of La Traviata starring Beverly Sills, she turned them all down to return home.
Recalling the personal sacrifices of making it in show business, one of the girls staying at The Rehearsal Club later wrote, “I married Broadway instead.”
Says Abbott of her decision to leave New York for Fort Worth: “The thing was, I was already married.”
Instead, she found opportunities to perform locally and never regretted her decision. Coincidentally, when Sills later came to sing in Fort Worth, Abbott was again offered the part of Flora in La Traviata.
“Gosh, I didn’t do it in New York,” Abbott says, “but I did it in Fort Worth.”
Abbott continued to sing with the Fort Worth Opera and to teach drama at Casa Mañana. A few years later, she and Tom had two daughters, and she began other creative pursuits, including jewelry making, woodworking and writing. Their daughter Devon Mihesuah is a historian and writer, and their daughter Taryn Wilson is a Realtor.
Abbott still performs today. She and some of her fellow contestants from the Ms. Texas Senior America Pageant perform as part of the Texas Cameo Club, made up of alumnae of the pageant.
Abbott was a contestant in the pageant for women age 60 and older in 2011, 2012 and 2013; she was named a runner-up in 2011 and 2012 and won Ms. Congeniality in 2013.
Abbott’s current Cameo Club program features country songs and a bit of choreography. Curiosity and keeping active might be the secrets to her longevity, she says.
“You know how it is,” she says. “You do one thing and then you do something else. You just like something and you want to know more about it.”