By Cate Toups Atkinson
The yellow-brick house at the southeast corner of Chevy Chase Parkway and McKinley Street NW has long been a curiosity. More California Coast than Cape Cod, it is singled out in walking tours and guides for its unfamiliar genre: Hollywood Moderne.
“I get a lot of comments,” said Marsha Gentner, working in her tranquil backyard recently. “Some people stop me and say, I love your house. Others ask, is it a dentist office?”
They don’t know the half of it.
The house at 5535 Chevy Chase Parkway NW was built in 1948, designed for the most part by the lady of the house, Nettie Madigan. “She was a chorus girl, not the Radio City Rockettes, but something like that. She used to mow her lawn in her negligee and high heels,” laughed Marti Goldstone, who has lived across the street from the Hollywood house since 1970. “She was a character.”
What the neighbors knew that is largely forgotten beyond the block is that the Hollywood house produced a true Hollywood star: Nettie’s daughter, Betty Madigan — a torch-singing vocalist from the 1950s and ‘60s who became an overnight sensation when she recorded the hit song “Joey” (reaching #12 on Billboard in May 1954). Trained in classical music from youth by a determined mother, Betty Madigan graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School and flew into pop stardom.
She recorded for M-G-M and Coral Records, landed nightly gigs on sophisticated nightclub stages, and was a sought-after guest by Ed Sullivan, The Dick Clark Show, The Red Skelton Hour and many others. She was also an actress who won rave reviews for her versatile talent and glamorous Elizabeth Taylor looks. She was best known for a spirited 1958 recording of “Dance Everyone Dance,” a takeoff of the Israeli song “Hava Naglia.” Listen to it now and you’ll be hooked. Here’s also a sampling of 70 of her greatest hits.
In tracing what became of starlet Betty Madigan, I found … Betty Madigan Brandt, age 92, picking up the phone in her highrise overlooking the ocean in Bal Harbour, FL. She cued to the unexpected call like a performer, warming to the subject and reaching back into her prodigious memory to talk about her mother, her home in Chevy Chase DC, her life before and since her stardom, which she voluntarily dropped for marriage in 1961 at age 32.
“I wanted a house, I wanted to get married. I was kind of tired of my mother and I always traveling together, of being (chaperoned). It was overkill. It was very, very confining to be in my 20s like that,” she said. “But here’s what really happened. My husband gave me an ultimatum: ‘If you don’t marry me now, I’ve bought fixed tickets for a cruise to Europe and back, then that’s the end.’ ”
“Singing Star, Showman are Married,” the Sept. 16, 1961 Washington Evening Star headlines shouted in reporting her marriage to Louis Brandt, a theater-hotel entrepreneur. True to his plan, the story reported that after a reception at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, the couple “embarked on the French liner Liberte for a month and a half honeymoon in Paris.”
“I have never regretted it,” she said of her marriage and the show business left behind — nor of the young man to whom she was engaged at the time Brandt claimed her. She has had a life filled with music, culture, and world travel interrupted only by Covid. “I have gone to every opera that was available, in all the fabulous opera houses in the world. Each is more beautiful than the one before.”
Widowed when her only son was a teenager, she eventually settled in southern Florida when the culture scene was nearly nonexistent. “We had to set up folding chairs to hear a concert,” she recalled. She has devoted herself through the decades as an art patron and philanthropist, frequently celebrated at society galas. A product of the restricted mores of her era, Betty Madigan Brandt also spent a lifetime concealing her true age. “I didn’t go beyond 29,” she laughed. “But I’ve been outed. My friends gave me a 90th birthday — that’s when I stopped lying about my age. Now I’m kind of proud of it.”
She credits her mother with much of her young success. There were years of early classical piano training and voice lessons starting at 14. She studied at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore and went into drama and voice at Catholic University. Nettie Madigan had pushed both Betty and her younger brother to perform in children’s amateaur shows and theaters. She then became the adult-Betty’s manager, relentlessly booking auditions at hotels, clubs, Army bases, anywhere to get exposure for her daughter’s honey-smooth voice.
One night after performing at Lounge Riviera at Hotel 2400 (the old Meridian Mansions on 16th Street, now gone), she had crawled into bed at her parents’ home with her hair in pin curls, when the phone rang. “Joe,” her mother was quoted as saying to the slumbering husband at her side. “I think we’d better get our lawyer. That was an agent who’d been in to see Betty’s show. He wants her to come to New York.”
Thus was her proverbial Big Break. Hotels from shore to shore opened to her. At age 21 she recorded “Joey,” a jukebox favorite. Road tours ensued and then the popular television hosts started calling. She was described as versatile, both sultry and wholesome, and could do Jerome Kern like no other. And although her singing career was relatively short lived, her fan base has kept up with her. In 2018, Jasmine Records released a two-CD compilation of 58 of her singles recorded between 1953 and 1961.
But back to Betty Madigan’s memories of her home: They were conjured like it was yesterday although she hasn’t seen it in decades. Her fond memories included the “wonderful porch on the first floor, the second floor aluminum railing, the lower level completely walled in knotty pine, exterior round corners of glass brick.”
“They were all my mother’s ideas. She had a great imagination into the future. I know the interior was a big problem (with the builders) … my mother did not want 90-degree angles in some corners, she wanted rounded corners. She caused such a commotion! I remember the ruckus.”
While Nettie Madigan took obvious pride in her daughter’s meteoric success, the shrine she nurtured — until death finally forced her out — was the house. Nothing about it was ordinary. The closets were curved inside. The open kitchen was completely paved in white subway tiles — from walls to ceilings. The roof was mid-century flat, unusual in snow-prone climates. A laundry chute cascaded down two floors. Rounded metal nook shelves were everywhere in the kitchen. The entrance featured a dramatic brushed-aluminum staircase that floated toward the door reminiscent of Gone with the Wind.
Nettie Madigan had plans, lots of them. The blueprints for them were ceremoniously dumped in the middle of the table at closing when Donna and Stephen Bower bought the house in 1992 after Nettie died at age 84. Stephen Bower describes it as a “dramatic farewell” from Nettie’s son, who appeared both reluctant to sell and eager to offload. “He threw a huge bag of plans, clippings, all house-related, onto the table with a shouted, ‘I never want to hear anything about this place again!’ We complied.”
They were fascinated by the house, a time capsule suffering from delayed maintenance. “The fact it was an oddity in terms of architectural design was a non issue,” Stephen Bower responded to an email about the house. “We were actually drawn to it as something a bit different. We knew it was going to take a lot of work to minimally bring it back to a more finished state. That was fine, we liked that.”
For the next 12 years they did just that, preserving its quirkiest features while modernizing and making upgrades. They scoured antique shops to replace missing handles for the vintage Geneva metal kitchen cabinets. They built a fence to echo the roofline. While other kitchens were going the way of granite, they put in Formica to be true to the era. Although still functional, the original air conditioner — one of the first in the neighborhood (“it made you feel like you were at the airport, it used to rattle and shake”) earned awed admiration from repairmen.
“We simply loved the place, even the casement crank-out windows in aluminum — one glorious house put together by a character. We secretly hoped she was happy in heaven as we did our best to preserve and cherish,” he said.
The stack of plans was her “wish bag,” he said. She had clipped pictures of things she wanted, making lists. Some of them were checked off as accomplished, such as the metal kitchen cabinets (“like Hillwood,” was scrawled beside this, referring to the Marjorie Merriweather Post mansion), and a dramatic marble fireplace surround (“like this”).
There was the jewel safe. Two all-tiled monocolor bathrooms (one pink, one baby blue, tiled floors, walls, ceilings) with a mystery window opening between them. Art deco sinks. A giant glass mirror etched with exotic maidens. An entire basement of knotty pine. Outside, English boxwoods “were trimmed to Marine-haircut length that took 10-plus years” to recover, he said, adding that there was also “a huge garden that was supposed to be the site of another house, all planned, never executed.”
It would be nice to know more about Nettie Madigan, but there is little to go on. I could find no record of her as a dancer. She was born in 1906 in Baltimore as Anntonietta Merando to Sicilian immigrant parents. She had six sisters and one brother. She was married twice, and her second husband, who spent 40 years as owner and operator of the Acme Locksmith Company, was referred to as Betty’s father. But Betty’s biological father was actually Nettie’s first husband, Terzo Lugaresi, an accomplished musician who played clarinet in the U.S. Marine Band. He later played for the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York. Given what we know of Nettie, no one would think it out of character for her to dramatically kidnap her then-8-year-old daughter from the father who had been granted custody four years earlier.
While it ended in Nettie’s favor, the whole sordid tale can be read in the June 24, 1936 Evening Star. Although there is no explanation for why he was granted custody of the child at age four, it could have been because he quickly remarried and provided a more traditional custodial home than could a single mother. As soon as she remarried, she petitioned for, and was granted, full custody of Betty. The problem occurred when she whisked her away before the court papers arrived, leading to her arrest.
After her locksmith husband Joseph F. Madigan died in 1969, Nettie had a longtime boyfriend who the neighbors referred to as “the Colonel.” Her youthful, free-spirited manner became neighborhood legend. “A friend of mine whose family owned a Cadillac dealership told us as a teen he delivered a car to her house, and described a ‘Mrs. Robinson’ moment where he was not sure he could escape back to the dealership fully clothed,” Stephen Bower said with a chuckle and good-hearted devotion.
When the Bowers retired, they decided the house’s increasing maintenance was too much. They put Nettie’s house on the market, hoping for buyers who would preserve it. They, too, handed off Nettie’s wish bag at closing. The current owner, Marsha Gentner, remembers being flummoxed by the papers. When they handed them to their architect, he was baffled, too. “There are 20 separate plans and none of them are this house,” he told them.
When Gentner, an intellectual property lawyer, and her late husband Joseph M. Berman, a Realtor, bought the Hollywood house in 2004 they were living nearby on Livingston Street. They often passed the house, admiring its unusual exterior architecture. But it was the double lot that clinched it for her — she wanted a large yard.
She disclosed right away that the house of Nettie Madigan’s creation is gone. They gutted it after taking stock and deciding that her style was not theirs and brought in renowned architect Robert Gurney to obliterate the eccentric and create crisp, open, flowing spaces with floor-to-ceiling windows.
“Some of it was art deco, but most of it wasn’t very true to art deco,” she said, noting that the interior and exterior were a mix of styles and eras — likely because of Nettie Madigan’s impulsive constant redesigns. There were arched doorways, glass-block corners, curved front stairs, a colonial bay window teetering off the front. Other than the mostly-preserved exterior, the living room/dining room footprint is about all that is the same, she said.
That, at first, was hard for the Bowers to swallow. The house had attracted hundreds of curiosity seekers when it hit the market in 2004 and a bidding war ensued. He recalls thinking Marsha and her husband loved the house for what it was.
“However, within months it was a radical re-do. For maybe two years we were really angry,” he said. “One day I bumped into the owner and he asked if we wanted to see what they had done. I talked with Donna, and we buttoned our lips. When we went over we were WOWED! Such a transformation — beyond our ability to envision. It was like a weight taken off us….5535 had undergone yet another transformation. We were happy for them, we felt our 12 years were not wiped out/wasted, and we hope the ghost of Mrs. M. feels the same way.”
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