Susanna Foster, a singer and 1940s leading lady whose most famous role was the terrorized prima donna in the first talking version of "Phantom of the Opera," died Saturday of heart failure at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, N.J., according to publicist Dale Olson. She was 84.
Foster costarred with Claude Rains and Nelson Eddy in the 1943 Academy Award-winning remake of the 1925 silent screen version of the macabre melodrama that starred Lon Chaney. It was one of a dozen films Foster made before virtually disappearing from the screen in 1945.
After leaving Hollywood, she performed on stage, including a 1948 Los Angeles Civic Light Opera production of "The Naughty Marietta," one of composer Victor Herbert's best-known operettas. Foster performed opposite her soon-to-be husband, popular baritone Wilbur Evans.
Foster was born Suzanne DeLee Flanders Larson on Dec. 6, 1924, in Chicago and grew up in Minneapolis. When she was only 3, she won attention for her ability to mimic popular performers, such as vaudevillian Eddie Foy and actresses Bebe Daniels and Jeanette MacDonald.
At 5 she was performing regularly on radio, helping to support her family during the Depression with her earnings of $5 a week.
At 12 she landed a contract with MGM, where studio chief Louis B. Mayer viewed her as a potential successor to singing sensation Deanna Durbin, who was leaving the studio. Foster was groomed for stardom alongside Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
She was offered the lead in "National Velvet" but turned it down because she wanted only singing roles.
MGM soon dropped Foster, and the part eventually went instead to the young Elizabeth Taylor, whose luminous performance became Hollywood legend.
After losing her MGM contract, Foster signed with Paramount, where at 14 she made her film debut opposite Mary Martin and Allan Jones in "The Great Victor Herbert" (1939), a biopic about the renowned composer.
At 19 she jumped to Universal to star in "Phantom of the Opera." New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote that she played and sang "quite pleasingly" and considered her performance one of the few bright notes in the movie.
"She had a kind of open quality, a warmth and a vulnerability and sweetness, that came through in addition to the beauty of her voice," Miles Kreuger, president of the Los Angeles-based Institute of the American Musical, said Monday.
She made several more pictures at Universal, including a horror movie called "The Climax" (1944) with Boris Karloff, but quit Hollywood in 1945 to raise her two younger sisters and take them away from their alcoholic mother.
After marrying Evans, Foster performed with him in musicals and operettas. They had two sons, Phillip and Michael. She is survived by Michael and two grandchildren.
Kreuger, who knew Foster for many years, described her as a bright but emotionally fragile woman who struggled to raise her sons on her own after her marriage to Evans ended in divorce in 1956.
She held a succession of low-paying jobs, including switchboard operator and receptionist. At one point she was homeless and lived in her car.
She dreamed of a Hollywood comeback but made only one film after 1945, appearing in a 1992 remake of the 1945 cult classic "Detour."
Foster was cremated, and plans for a memorial service are pending. Donations in her name may be sent to the Actors Fund, 729 7th Ave., New York, NY 10019.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun