Happy Birthday, Bea Benaderet!
One hundred and seven years ago on this date in New York City, Samuel and Margaret Benaderet welcomed one of radio and TV’s finest supporting comedic talents into the world. Their daughter Beatrice—or Bea, as she was better known—would use her vocal gifts (including a one-of-a-kind giggle) on shows headlined by major radio-TV personalities like Jack Benny and George Burns & Gracie Allen…and eventually would receive her moment in the star spotlight as well.
After graduating from St. Rose’s Academy in San Francisco, CA (where the Benaderets moved shortly after Bea’s birth), Bea began her show business career by getting work at various local radio stations. She eventually ending up at KFRC—where future NBC-TV wunderkind Sylvester (Pat) L. Weaver was employed as the manager. Benaderet later moved to Los Angeles and began appearing on network radio programs, notably The Campbell Playhouse—the sponsored version of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air. Although Bea is best remembered for her contributions to radio comedy, she was also adept at dramatic roles, with performances on such shows as The Adventures of Sam Spade, The Cavalcade of America, Family Theatre, Lights Out, The Lux Radio Theatre, Mayor of the Town, Suspense and This is Your FBI.
It would take nearly a lifetime to list all of the radio comedy shows on which Bea appeared as a regular. She played the adenoidal maid Gloria on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (as well as Mrs. Waddington), and took over for Isabel Randolph’s upper crust Abigail Uppington as Millicent Carstairs on Fibber McGee & Molly. Benaderet also emoted as Eve Goodwin, a girlfriend of radio’s beloved water commissioner, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve (Hal Peary) on The Great Gildersleeve, and tut-tutted as Bertha Bronson, mother to the titular working gal of Meet Millie. She menaced Dennis Day as dragon (land)lady Clara Anderson on A Day in the Life of Dennis Day, palled around with Marie Wilson’s Irma Peterson as Amber Lipscott on My Friend Irma, and was a one-time mom to Judy Foster on A Date with Judy. Bea also worked on shows starring Red Skelton, Mel Blanc, Ed Gardner (Duffy’s Tavern), Jimmy Durante and Freeman Gosden & Charles Correll (Amos ‘n’ Andy).
Old-time radio fans remember Bea Benaderet for three programs starring Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, and George Burns & Gracie Allen. Bea played Gracie’s best bud Blanche Morton on Maxwell House Coffee Time—though she wasn’t always cast as Blanche; surviving shows also have her playing other parts as different actresses took over as Blanche. On The Jack Benny Program, Benaderet also essayed multiple parts…but her most famous was that of Gertrude Gearshift, the telephone operator who – along with her chum Mabel Flapsaddle (Sara Berner) – occasionally went out on dates with the star when she wasn’t poking fun at him. On Lucille Ball’s My Favorite Husband, Bea started out as Lucy’s character’s mother-in-law before settling into the part of Iris Atterbury, Liz Cooper’s confederate and confidante…and wife of Liz’s husband’s boss, Rudolph (Gale Gordon). Both Benaderet and Gordon played Atterbury-types on a short-lived series entitled Granby’s Green Acres…which would also play a small role on Bea’s TV future.
When Lucy began laying the groundwork for Husband’s eventual transition to TV as I Love Lucy, she wanted Bea to be Lucy Ricardo’s boon companion, Ethel Mertz…but Bea was too busy working on George and Gracie’s TV show (with occasional appearances on Jack Benny’s program as well). In addition to her radio and TV commitments, Benaderet supplied voices for many of the cartoons from Warner Bros’ Termite Terrace (notably “Granny” in the Tweety & Sylvester shorts). It was that work which led her to be hired by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, who brought TV’s animated primetime series to life with The Flintstones. Working with radio veterans Alan Reed, Mel Blanc and Jean Vander Pyl, Bea supplied the voice of Betty Rubble, a gig she worked until 1964.
During her Burns & Allen days, Bea became close friends with one of the show’s writers, Paul Henning—and when Henning was putting together what would become the monster sitcom hit The Beverly Hillbillies, Benaderet lobbied hard for the role of Granny. After seeing Irene Ryan’s screen test, however, Bea knew that Irene was all right for the part…and instead, settled for a consolation prize as Cousin Pearl, a relative of the family Clampett. For the 1963-64 fall TV season, CBS gave Henning a half-hour on their schedule to create any show he wanted (on the strength of Hillbillies’ phenomenal success)…and that’s when Bea Benaderet finally got her chance for top billing.
Henning borrowed a bit of background from his wife Ruth (whose family ran a hotel that catered to salesmen traveling by railroad) to create Petticoat Junction. This sitcom starred Bea as widowed innkeeper Kate Bradley, who oversaw a small inn called The Shady Rest in a rural hamlet affectionately known as Hooterville. Aided (though some might say hampered) by Uncle Joe Carlson (Edgar Buchanan), Kate attempted to keep the hotel going (along with her three comely daughters) despite the constant threat of the closure to the railroad spur line that brought most of her clientele. Junction became such a smash that CBS agreed to air a semi-spinoff in the form of Green Acres beginning in the fall of 1965. Acres was an updated take on the radio sitcom that Bea had appeared on with Gale Gordon - and because both shows were set in the same town there was a great deal of interaction between the two series.
Sadly, Bea Benaderet passed away in 1968, though her signature series would stay on the air for two more seasons. She’s inarguably a favorite here at Radio Spirits…and we’d suggest checking out some of her work on collections like Wit Under the Weather (Jack Benny), Stick Around, Brother (Red Skelton), As Good as Nuts (Burns & Allen), That Ain’t the Way I Heared It! (Fibber McGee & Molly) and A Day in the Life of Dennis Day.