Joy Valderrama Abbott, a theater insider in multiple markets — New York’s Broadway, Miami, Philadelphia and Honolulu — died Feb. 8 in her Miami Beach, Fla., home. She was 88.
She was the widow of the Broadway legend George Abbott, whom she married late in life. He was 96 and she was 52 when they wed in 1983 after a 24-year courtship. He died in 1995 at age 107.
Abbott was born June 24, 1931, and her husband’s birth date was June 25, 1887, so they often celebrated jointly.
Always vibrant in attitude and dress, Abbott was diagnosed with incurable bladder cancer six months ago.
She spread the aloha spirit wherever and whenever she was in the spotlight and was known not only for her theatrical presence, but as an accomplished athlete in tennis and golf dating back to her college days at Temple University. During her annual visits to her Honolulu condo, she frequented the courts and greens.
At age 6 she was dubbed “the Shirley Temple of Hawaii” because of the music she embraced and the girly costumes sewn by her mother. She met Shirley when the child actor visited Hawaii years ago, and was driven to succeed in whatever she pursued.
“My parents always pushed us,” she frequently said of Pedro and Justina de Guzman Valderrama, who moved from the Philippines to Wahiawa. The couple eventually had four daughters (she was the second eldest). Her father named her Joy “because I came out laughing, not crying” from the delivery room, she has explained in interviews.
“She had a deep respect for the history of the musical theater, particularly as it related to her late, great husband, Mr. Abbott,” said Willy Falk, a Broadway trouper who performed in Honolulu earlier this month. “She was always excited to meet people and make them feel welcome and important, no matter who they were. She also treated her own performances, whether theatrical or athletic, very seriously and with great professionalism. She aimed to please and rejoiced in winning.”
Abbott led a storybook life, in chapters before, during and after she married the iconic Broadway and film legend, addressed as “Mr. Abbott” by his peers and followers till this day. George Abbott enjoyed a career that spanned nine decades as an award-winning producer, playwright and director of such legacy shows as “Damn Yankees,” “The Pajama Game,” “Fiorello,” “Flora the Red Menace” and “Where’s Charley?” Joy Abbott got to know the inside stories and details about most of her husband’s productions, and often shared these tidbits when she activated her singing gigs after his death.
In her last few weeks, Abbott was under hospice care in her Miami home.
Abbott, with Wahiawa roots, was a singer, dancer and fashionista in her younger, pre-marriage years. Her mother coaxed and supported her with dance and piano lessons.
As a seventh grader at Punahou School, she met Elva Uyeno Yoshihara, and they became buddies by eighth grade.
“She was commuting from Wahiawa for several years, then in junior year she lived with me (in town),” said Yoshihara, Joy’s best friend. “I knew she was talented, but nobody knew how talented till the then-called Junior Carnival was revived after the war, and Joy was the star of the variety show. She did these wonderful songs, and even as Carmen Miranda, dressed in costumes her mother made.”
Yoshihara flew to Miami a few days before her classmate died. “She was lucid when I leaned over to tell her I was returning to Hawaii,” she said. “Her eyes lit up, and she pursed her lips to kiss me goodbye. She fought a valiant fight, as only a tennis/golf champion could, but cancer is relentless.”
Abbott had been resilient, despite undergoing a round of surgeries — hip replacement, shoulder replacement, knee replacement — in recent years, earning her an affectionate nickname, Bionic Woman.
After Punahou she attended Temple University in Philadelphia, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1952. On campus she sang in a choir, acted on stage and was a cheerleader. She also was captain of the Temple tennis team and inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame in 1978.
At one point she used her Hawaiian name, Moana, to raise money for her younger sisters and family back home; as a featured dancer at the Hawaiian Cottage in Cherry Hill, N.J., she evolved in the decades later as a vocalist of Hawaiian music. Her repertoire expanded to include show melodies and jazz interpretations.
She teamed up with pianist Betty Loo Taylor, who died in 2016, and together they recorded a jazz CD and earned a Na Hoku Hanohano Award in 2008. Abbott also worked with pianist Jim Howard.
With backing from her husband, she also became a retailer, operating a boutique, Moana’s, at Cherry Hill Mall, and formulated musical fashion shows to promote sales for her clothing. Eventually, she collaborated with furrier Jerry Mirrow to enhance a ready-to-wear endeavor; Mirrow, who knew George Abbott before he married Joy, since has been a companion to Joy and was assisting in care-giving in her final days.
Mirrow said Abbott had been enduring pain for more than six months and was diagnosed with stage 4 bladder cancer.
She had chemotherapy but wrestled with pain while hospitalized, so he took her home “where she rested comfortably in her bed,” said Mirrow. “She perked up when one of her friends came over. They were able to share jokes,” he said.
When Davis Gaines, a star of Broadway’s “Phantom of the Opera” and a frequent collaborator with Abbott in concert, visited her in her final days, she was able to sing duets with him. “It was unbelievable,” said Mirrow.
Because he is 11 years younger than Abbott, “she often introduces herself as my cougar,” Mirrow laughed. “I’m happy with that; you have to be at least 10 years younger to have a cougar.”
Abbott retained a presence on the Broadway scene, with the annual “Mr. Abbott” Award gala, sponsored by the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation, honoring a theatrical figure.
A philanthropist and patron of the performing arts, she helped establish the George and Joy Abbott Center for Musical Theatre at Temple University’s School of Theater, Film and Media Arts, and she was its first tribute award winner in 2014.
She was also in the midst of cooperating with Temple to re-create George Abbott’s quaint office in the Miami home, retaining his original desk and other accouterments of his domain, for a museum-type exhibition at the university. It’s still a work in progress.
When in Honolulu, Abbott staged free concerts at the Arcadia Residence; her songfests were filled with anecdotal tales about the origin of a song in a George Abbott musical or movie, as well as jazz tunes. The senior residents adored her performances and gave her standing ovations.
Survivors include sisters Mary Ann Beamer of Honolulu and Ruth Sitjar and Grace Underhill of Los Angeles, and many nephews, nieces, grandnephews and grandnieces, plus grandchildren of George Abbott, in New York and Los Angeles. Multiple celebration-of-life programs are planned. The first is on March 13 at Indian Creek Country Club in Florida, with others in the works, dates to be announced, at Temple University in Philadelphia and Punahou School in Honolulu.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be sent to the George and Joy Abbott Center for Musical Theatre Fund, P.O. Box 827651, Philadelphia, PA 19182-7651; or online at giving.temple.edu/abbott.