Portia Nelson

Who did she play in The Sound of Music?

Sister BertheThe Sound of Music was Portia Nelson’s first movie. After having sung ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ during her first audition, she was then asked to return for a second time where she read a scene from The Sound of Music. She did so amazingly well that director Robert Wise, said to one of his colleagues “Have you been coaching her?”

One hour later, Portia Nelson was hired.

Nelson played the part of Sister Berthe, who has been described as the disagreeable nun, believing that Maria was not suitable to become a nun. Even though she felt this, Sister Berthe still adored Maria and helped her and the von Trapp family to escape from the Germans by disconnecting the distributor in Herr Zeller’s car.


Before The Sound of Music

Portia Young SingerPortia Nelson was born on May 27th 1920 in Brigham City, Utah, and was the youngest of nine children. She was named Betty Mae Nelson, but was called Portia by her friends. Nelson taught herself the piano, then moved to Los Angeles, where she met The King Sisters. They gave her a job as their secretary during which Portia wrote some vocal arrangements for them. This was Nelson’s first step to becoming a singer, songwriter, actress, cabaret performer, vocal coach and lyricist, not to mention an author, painter and photographer.

Nelson once said of herself:

“I always do about ninety things at once”.


Portia Golden AppleDuring the 1950s, she became one of the most popular cabaret singers of her time, and recorded three albums, Let Me Love You, Portia Nelson Sings Bart Howard and Love Songs for a Late Evening. She also played Minerva in the 1954 Broadway Musical ‘The Golden Apple’ (see photo right), a musical adaptation of Homer’s 'Iliad and the Odyssey'.


“She was one of the great stars of Café Society in New York”
- Deborah Tranelli


After The Sound of Music

Portia in AngelsIn the sixties she inadvertently became an actress who specialised in playing the roles of nuns! Nelson appeared in various films and TV shows, some of which are listed below:

The Sound of Music (1965) – Sister Berthe
The Trouble with Angels (1967) – Sister Elizabeth (see photo right)
Doctor Dolittle (1967) – Sarah Dolittle
The Mystery of the Chinese Junk (1967) – Gertrude Hardy
The Other (1972) – Mrs Rowe
Can’t Stop the Music (1980) – Law Office Receptionist
Rage of Angels (1983) – Receptionist
The Doctors (1981)
All My Children (1983-1991)
TV commercials

She wrote music and lyrics for TV films and songs, writing in particular for the Carol Burnett Show. Portia Nelson’s most famous song that she composed was ‘Make a Rainbow’, which was performed at the inauguration of President Clinton in 1993 by Marilyn Horne.

Jane Russell once said of her good friend Portia Nelson:

“Her lyrics were sung with such understanding that you felt you’d heard a poem sung”.


Portia BookPortia Nelson was also a writer. She wrote and published a book called ‘There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk. The Romance of Discovery’. This book includes a poem ‘Autobiography in Five Short Chapters’. It is written in a wonderfully simple way, and has been used by many self help groups and individuals worldwide:

Chapter I
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

Chapter II
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
My eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter IV
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V
I walk down another street.

This thought provoking poem has been praised by many psychotherapists. It explains in a very concise way, how life works, and how we can instigate change.

It was later made into a musical and was performed at the York Theatre, Manhattan, where Nelson wrote the music and lyrics and took part in the production.

Portia Nelson OldIn 2000 the award winning cabaret show celebrated Nelson’s songs in ‘This Life: The Songs of Portia Nelson’ which was performed at Don’t Tell Mama in New York.

Even though Portia never smoked she suffered from throat and tongue cancer, blaming the smokey nightclubs that she spent so much of her time singing in. The singer died on March 6th 2001 at 80 years old.

Tom Anderson from Don’t Tell Mama said about Portia Nelson:

“Not only was she amazingly talented, she was just one of the nicest people in the business”.


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