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Happy Birthday, Verna Felton!

It’s a bit of a stretch, but try to imagine Verna Felton—the actress who appeared on Jack Benny’s radio/TV show as Dennis Day’s mother and later as “Hilda Crocker” on December Bride—as “Baby Felton.”  That’s the handle Verna went by in her stage days. She began her show business career as a child performer in vaudeville, and in later years she reminisced that old friends still referred to her as “Baby Felton.”  (Verna only wished it wasn’t within earshot of people unfamiliar with her performing history).  Since “nobody puts Baby in a corner,” I thought we’d take a little time today to celebrate the birthday of this exemplary character actress (she was born on this date in 1890 in Salinas, California) and the only woman formidable enough to go up against Red Skelton’s “mean widdle kid.”

Verna Felton’s decision to pursue a career in show business was a financial one.  Her father, a physician, died when she was seven years old…and though Dr. Felton had operated a respectable practice in San Jose, her mother learned that when it came to billing his patients…the cupboard was bare, cash-wise.  The manager of a theatrical road company had spotted young Verna singing and dancing at a San Jose benefit for victims of the Galveston Flood, and offered the young girl a job with his troupe to ease the family’s financial burden.  Felton would travel North America with various stock companies, honing her trade, and by 1907 she was taking on leading lady roles.  In the late 1920s, she had the leads in such productions as Stella Dallas and The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, performed at the Empress Theatre in Vancouver.  A gentleman named Lee Millar was the band director for these productions—Millar would tie the knot with Verna not long after, and the two were married until his untimely death in 1941.

In 1931, Verna suggested to her husband that the two of them look toward employment in the new medium of radio.  Millar shrugged off the suggestion: “Honey, you know radio isn’t here to stay.  Why, people will never listen to a play.  Music, yes…but not a play.”  And yet, the following Saturday, the Millars emerged from the NBC Studios in San Francisco—scripts in hand, and they didn’t even have to audition.  It was the beginning of a whole new career for Felton. She was heard on The Lux Radio Theatre , The John Barrymore Theatre, and the Yuletide favorite The Cinnamon Bear (as the mother). Verna also started making many appearances on the show for which listeners perhaps remember her best: The Jack Benny Program.

Verna Felton had been a member of Benny’s “stock company” as far back as 1937 – and when Dennis Day joined the show in the fall of 1939, she was enlisted to play his mother. It was a stroke of casting genius!  Fiercely protective of her boy, and unconvinced that his boss wasn’t trying to exploit him at every turn, Mrs. Day was an intimidating presence. She frequently dispensed with Jack’s protestations by bellowing an ear-splitting “Ehhhhhh…shut up!”  The Mrs. Day role would firmly establish Felton’s comedic prowess, allowing her to work on shows headlined by Bud Abbott & Lou Costello, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, Al Jolson, Dorothy Lamour, Jack Paar, Dinah Shore, Rudy Vallee, and Orson Welles.  In addition, Verna was pressed into service to guest star on sitcoms like The Adventures of Ozzie & HarrietThe Aldrich FamilyAmos ‘n’ AndyThe BickersonsDuffy’s TavernFibber McGee & MollyThe Great GildersleeveHap HazardThe Life of RileyMeet Mr. McNutleyOur Miss BrooksThe Penny Singleton Show, and The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.

Verna Felton’s prominent showcase on The Jack Benny Program would also lead to regular employment on other comedy programs, notably two showcasing Joan Davis.  When Davis inherited Rudy Vallee’s show (after The Vagabond Lover enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1943) and it became The Sealtest Village Store, Verna played a regular character with the moniker “Blossom Blimp.”  Felton then followed Joan to CBS (in 1945) for Joanie’s Tea Room, portraying “Rosella Hipperton III” (in keeping with her Blossom-like size, she was nicknamed “Hippy”) and later “Cousin Cornelia.”  On Tommy Riggs & Betty Lou, Verna was “Mrs. McIntyre”; she played “Mrs. Beverly Wilshire” on Blue Ribbon Town (Groucho Marx’s show); “Aunt Aggie” on The Judy Canova Show; “Hattie Hirsch” on Point Sublime; “Mrs. Shaw” on Young Love; and “Mrs. Odetts” on the radio version of My Little Margie. The most high-profile gig for Verna at this time, however, was as a cast member of Red Skelton’s program.  Felton was the grandmother to Red’s “Junior, the Mean Widdle Kid.” (He affectionately called her “Namaw.”) She would play his foil — up to a point – and then introduce the little scamp to the business end of a hairbrush.

But Verna Felton demonstrated that she was capable of handling dramatic material on radio as well.  A list of her credits on the medium’s popular anthologies and other dramatic half-hours would include The Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of Sam SpadeArch Oboler’s PlaysBig Town, The Cavalcade of AmericaDr. ChristianEncore TheatreEscapeFamily TheatreFavorite StoryThe First Nighter ProgramThe Gulf/Lady Esther/Camel Screen Guild TheatreHallmark PlayhouseHollywood Star TheatreLet George Do ItThe Radio Hall of FameThe Railroad Hour, Screen Directors’ PlayhouseStars Over HollywoodSuspenseTheatre of RomanceThis is My BestVoyage of the Scarlet QueenThe Whistler, and Wild Bill Hickok.

Verna Felton also made inroads on the silver screen, with performances in such films as Joe and Ethel Turp Call On the President (1939) and If I Had My Way (1940). Soon, she began to amass credits in movies like Girls of the Big House (1945), Buccaneer’s Girl (1950), New Mexico (1951), Little Egypt (1951), Bells on Their Toes (1952), and Don’t Bother to Knock (1952).  You might recognize the photo at the beginning of this essay from The Gunfighter (1950), a fine Western that features Felton as “Mrs. August Pennyfeather,” the head bluenose in a small hamlet that has asked lawman Millard Mitchell to run the titular gunslinger (Gregory Peck) out of town.  A better-known showcase for Verna was her splendid turn in Picnic (1955), in which she plays “Helen Potts,” a surrogate mom of sorts to William Holden’s drifter character. But her most famous movies allowed her to play to her strengths…by using her voice acting skills. She was heard in a large number of Walt Disney animation features, including Dumbo (1941), Cinderella (1950; as the fairy godmother who performs Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo), Alice in Wonderland (1951; the Queen of Hearts), Lady and the Tramp (1955; Aunt Sarah [with the Siamese cats]), and Sleeping Beauty (1959; as both fairy Flora and Queen Leah).  In fact, Felton’s final film credit was a Disney feature: she played “Winifred” the elephant in The Jungle Book (1967).

“Radio offers a pleasant existence for anyone; I like it because it gives me a chance to live a normal life,” observed Verna Felton in an interview for a 1944 issue of Radio Life.  Sadly, radio started to retreat into the wings by the 1950s, allowing its showier sibling (television) to steal the spotlight.  Still, Felton would be a small screen favorite by reprising her role as “Mrs. Day” on both The Jack Benny Program and Dennis’ RCA Victor show, and she made memorable appearances on popular series like I Love Lucy (“Lucy Hires a Maid”), I Married JoanThe Many Loves of Dobie GillisThe Real McCoys, and The Flintstones (she voiced Mrs. Slaghoople, Fred’s mother-in-law).  Verna’s most prominent TV showcase was as a cast member of December Bride, a sitcom that ran from 1954 to 1959.  Bride had its origins in radio, a 1952-53 series created by Parke Levy that he based on his own mother-in-law, who broke the mold of the stereotypical battle-axe.  Spring Byington originated the role of “Lily Ruskin” on the radio series and like co-star Felton (as her best pal and confederate “Hilda Crocker”), transitioned when the show was adapted to TV in the fall of 1954 to become an even bigger hit.  A year after Bride had left the airwaves, Verna would play Hilda on the first season of Pete and Gladys, a Bride spin-off built around next-door neighbor Pete Porter (Harry Morgan).  Verna Felton passed away at the age of 76 on December 14, 1966—just a day before her old boss, Walt Disney, would leave this world for a better one as well.

In the 1948 feature film comedy The Fuller Brush Man, Red Skelton plays a go-getting salesman who stops at a house and encounters a young hellion (Jimmy Hunt) who answers to “Junior.”  The lady playing Junior’s “Namaw”? None other than Verna Felton herself!  Make a note to catch it the next time it makes the rounds on cable…but until then, Radio Spirits invites you to check out our Red Skelton collections of ClowningMischief, and Scrapbook of Satire.  We’ve got plenty of Verna on our The Adventures of Philip Marlowe sets Lonely Canyons and Sucker’s Road, and also on Suspense compendiums Beyond Good and EvilFear and TremblingTies That Bind, and Wages of Sin.  In addition, we like to suggest that you sample our birthday girl on Big Town: Blind JusticeDuffy’s Tavern: Irish Eyes (she and Dennis Day are guest stars!), Family Theatre: Every HomeFibber McGee & Molly: Cleaning the ClosetThe Fitch Bandwagon (Phil Harris-Alice Faye): Stepping OutThe Great Gildersleeve: Family ManLet George Do It: Sweet PoisonThe Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: Smoother and Sweeter, and Voyage of the Scarlet Queen: Volume Two.  We’ve saved the best for last: you can hear Verna in our Jack Benny collections The Fabulous 50sOn the TownPlanes, Trains and Automobiles, and Tough Luck! (and on Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: The Feud).  Happy, happy birthday to you, Verna!

One Comment

  1. Lucy says:

    My goodness, she coulda played Eleanor Roosevelt!

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