“Speed it up a little!” That unforgettable line of dialogue from the classic I Love Lucy episode “Job Switching”—the one where Lucy and Ethel are working a conveyor belt at a candy factory, and resort to stuffing chocolates in their mouths and down their blouses to keep up with the endless confectionaries coming down the assembly line—might just be Elvia Allman’s entertainment legacy (she played the formidable forewoman supervising our heroines). But old-time radio fans confidently know that Elvia—born one hundred and eleven years ago on this date in Enochville, North Carolina—established a major presence over the airwaves: she worked with many of the medium’s biggest comedy stars, and performed regularly on any number of top-rated programs.
Though Allman would see later success in movies and television as a solid, dependable character actress (where her specialty was playing shrews and stuffy society matrons), it would seem that radio captivated her from the very start of her show business career. At Los Angeles’ KHJ in the mid-20s, she worked as a program arranger and children’s story reader, later adding “singer” to her resume. 1933 briefly found her working in the Big Apple, where she sang on a network quarter-hour, and then it was back to Los Angeles and KNX for what was to be a long-term contract…that unfortunately ended two years later.
But by that time, Elvia had already established herself as a performer on CBS’ successful Blue Monday Jamboree, playing characters like Pansy Pennypincher (a home economist) and Octavia Smith-Whiffen (a high-falutin’ society matron). Allman also worked on a number of programs sold directly in radio syndication, including Crazy Quilt, Komedy Kapers and The Komedy Kingdom (she was the emcee on this latter series, billed as “Elvia, the Queen of Mirth”). (She was also one of the many radio veterans who participated in the Yuletide classic The Cinnamon Bear, playing the part of Penelope the Pelican.) Her big break came as a regular on Bob Hope’s The Pepsodent Show. While she was recruited to play many, many minor characters, she’s best known for playing opposite Blanche Stewart as “Brenda and Cobina,” a pair of homely man-chasers (well, as ugly as you can get on radio) who were meant to be parodies of real-life socialites Brenda Frazier and Cobina Wright. (The real Brenda and Cobina, suffice it to say, were not particularly flattered by all of the attention.)
Working on Bob Hope’s program solidified Elvia Allman’s credentials as a supporting performer; the list of comedians and personalities that she later worked alongside includes Alan Young, Dinah Shore, Dorothy Lamour (The Sealtest Variety Theatre), Eddie Bracken, Eddie Cantor, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Fanny Brice, Frank Morgan, Jack Benny, Jack Paar, Jim and Marian Jordan (Fibber McGee & Molly), Jimmy Durante & Garry Moore, Judy Canova, Mel Blanc, and Phil Harris & Alice Faye. It was during the 1940s that Allman performed two of her most famous radio roles. On The Abbott & Costello Show, she was the battle-axe wife of announcer Ken Niles, and her comedic sparring with Lou Costello every week was just one of that series’ hilarious highlights. Elvia’s other regular gig was playing the man-chasing Tootsie Sagwell on George Burns & Gracie Allen’s show; “Tootsie” schemed constantly to march down the matrimonial aisle with announcer Bill Goodwin…but she was flexible; she’d pretty much go after anything in pants. (When Goodwin struck out on his own with a failed sitcom in 1947, Allman could be heard on that series as well, as one-half of “the Dinwiddie Sisters,” a pair of siblings who served as the announcer’s comic nemeses.)
Allman was heard on radio’s Blondie from time to time as Cora Dithers, the intimidating wife of Dagwood’s boss (played by Hanley Stafford). She also worked on such programs as The Adventures of Maisie, The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show, Beulah, Bright Star, Glamour Manor, The Life of Riley, Meet Mr. McNutley, Mr. and Mrs. Blandings, My Favorite Husband, That’s Rich, and Tommy Riggs and Betty Lou. Though primarily a comedy performer, she could branch out on occasion in dramatic parts on the likes of Broadway’s My Beat, The CBS Radio Workshop, The Lux Radio Theatre, The Railroad Hour, and The Six Shooter. Elvia also “did her bit” for the war effort by appearing on such AFRS favorites as Command Performance, G.I. Journal, and Mail Call. With the departure of radio in the 50s and 60s, Allman still kept her hand in the medium, appearing on such 70s revival series as Heartbeat Theatre, The Hollywood Radio Theatre and The Sears Radio Theatre.
To get into the movies, Elvia Allman relied on her radio resume and began as a voice-over artist for animated cartoons produced at Warner Brothers and Walt Disney. She was one of several performers who provided the speaking tones of Disney’s Clarabelle Cow, and her final show business job was reprising Clarabelle for the studio’s 1990 release of The Prince and the Pauper. Working for Bob Hope also helped her silver screen cred (if you’ve seen Road to Singapore, Elvia is the unattractive woman who chases after Bob in that romp). And she and Blanche Stewart played “Brenda and Cobina” in such films as Time Out for Rhythm (1941—which featured The Three Stooges), Swing It, Soldier (1941), and Sweetheart of the Fleet (1942). Sadly, most of her movie roles were uncredited bits, but she made the most of her assignments in films like Sis Hopkins (1941), In Society (1944), Carolina Blues (1944), The Noose Hangs High (1948), and Week-End with Father (1951). Her best known movie appearance might be that of Edwina Kelp, the mother of Professor Julius Kelp (Jerry Lewis) in 1963’s The Nutty Professor.
Television opened up a lot of doors for Elvia…though it’s interesting to note that many of the radio stars on whose programs she appeared used her sparingly, like Abbott & Costello and Burns & Allen. But her association with George & Gracie put her in good stead with one of their writers, Paul Henning, who began using her on The Bob Cummings Show (as Mrs. Montague). And he later assigned her the roles she’s best remembered for among couch potatoes: Selma Plout on Petticoat Junction (she was the nemesis of Edgar Buchanan’s Uncle Joe) and Elverna Bradshaw on The Beverly Hillbillies. Allman also reprised her Cora Dithers characterization for a short-lived boob tube version of Blondie in 1957, and was a guest star on such programs as The Andy Griffith Show, The Ann Sothern Show, Bachelor Father, December Bride (and its spin-off, Pete and Gladys), Dennis the Menace, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Gale Storm Show, I Married Joan, The Jack Benny Show, Mister Ed, Our Miss Brooks, The People’s Choice, and Perry Mason. Elvia would continue to guest on TV shows in the 1970s and 1980s until her passing at the age of 87 in 1992.
Radio Spirits has plenty of collections featuring today’s birthday celebrant—we suggest you start with her work alongside George Burns & Gracie Allen on such sets as Treasury, Burns & Allen & Friends, and Muddling Through. Elvia Allman also had a regular role as the crotchety housekeeper on Bright Star, a comedy-drama starring Fred MacMurray and Irene Dunne—which is available in a single collection and broadcasts on our Stop the Press! compilation. We certainly don’t want to leave out her appearances with such radio comedy greats as Abbott & Costello (a Yuletide broadcast on The Voices of Christmas Past), Jack Benny (Be Our Guest, No Place Like Home, On the Town, Wit Under the Weather), Fibber McGee & Molly (Wistful Vista), Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy (The Funny Fifties), and Phil Harris & Alice Faye (Hotel Harris, Smoother and Sweeter). Happy birthday, Elvia!