Sunday, September 19, 2010

Happy birthday, Elvia Allman!

Apologies for the late birthday shout-out—I spent the night over at the ‘rents again, drinking sangria, scarfing up chili dogs and watching WVU beat Maryland 31-17.

One of my favorite character actresses was born on this date one hundred and six years ago in Enochville, North Carolina—a talented performer who worked alongside some of the marquee names in the business: Bud Abbott & Lou Costello, Lucille Ball, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis and many, many more. From her humble beginnings on Los Angeles radio in 1926 she would become a much-in-demand presence on television and movies as well.

Elvia’s early acting roles would be heard on a number of syndicated radio shows like Crazy Quilt, Komedy Kapers and The Komedy Kingdom before she landed a plum part on CBS’ Blue Monday Jamboree in 1935, playing character parts ranging from beauty experts to home economists. She’d hit the big time three years later as one of the regulars on Bob Hope’s The Pepsodent Show—again, portraying any number of wacky characters but becoming most associated as one-half of Brenda and Cobina, two homely man-chasers who were loose parodies of real-life celebrity society debutantes. The two characters (Brenda was played by Blanche Stewart, Cobina by Allman) even turned up in feature films…notably 1941’s Time Out for Rhythm, but also Swing It, Soldier (1941) and Sweetheart of the Fleet (1942). Elvia’s radio resume continued to grow with her exposure on the Hope show, gravitating to the semi-regular role of Cora Dithers (the wife of Dagwood Bumstead’s boss, J.C.) on Blondie and also appearing on Jack Benny and Phil Baker’s broadcasts. (She also one of the many radio veterans who participated in the Yuletide classic The Cinnamon Bear, playing the part of Penelope the Pelican.)

The 1940s would spotlight the two radio roles for which Allman remains famous: the battleaxe wife of announcer Ken Niles on The Abbott & Costello Program, and Tootsie Sagwell, the man-chasing gal pal of Gracie Allen on Burns & Allen. (Most of Elvia’s roles can be boiled down to three types: man-chasers, shrews and stuffy society matrons.) On the Burns & Allen 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.) Elvia also had roles on the comedy shows of Alan Young, Dinah Shore, Eddie Bracken, Eddie Cantor, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Jack Paar, Jimmy Durante & Garry Moore, Judy Canova, Mel Blanc and Ray Bolger. She also worked on such programs as The Adventures of Maisie, The Amos 'n' Andy Show, The Baby Snooks Show. Beulah, Fibber McGee & Molly, Glamour Manor, The Life of Riley, Meet Mr. McNutley, Mr. and Mrs. Blandings, The Sealtest Variety Theatre and Tommy Riggs and Betty Lou. Though primarily a comedy performer, she could on occasion branch out in dramatic parts on the likes of Broadway's My Beat, The Lux Radio Theatre, The Railroad Hour and The Six Shooter. With the departure of radio in the 50s and 60s, Allman still kept her hand in that medium, appearing on some of the 70s revival series such as Heartbeat Theatre, The Hollywood Radio Theatre and The Sears Radio Theatre.

Because of her film background, Elvia easily made the transition to television—though it’s interesting to point out that many of the radio stars on whose programs she appeared used her sparingly, like Abbott & Costello and Burns & Allen. Her association with Paul Henning—one of George & Gracie’s scribes—would prove fruitful in that it provided for her the two boob tube showcases for which she remains recognized—Selma Plout on Petticoat Junction, and Elverna Bradshaw on The Beverly Hillbillies. Allman also made the rounds of the sitcoms headlined by Andy Griffith, Ann Sothern, Bob Cummings, Dick Van Dyke, Gale Storm and Jack Benny—as well as guest shots on Bachelor Father, December Bride (and its spin-off, Pete and Gladys), Dennis the Menace, I Married Joan, Mister Ed, Our Miss Brooks, The Peoples’ Choice and Perry Mason. Most television fans will probably mention her famous guest appearance on the classic I Love Lucy episode “Job Switching,” in which she plays the candy factory foreman who makes Lucy and Ethel’s candy-wrapping experience a nightmare for them…and side-splitting comedy for the rest of us. So happy birthday, Ms. Allman—rest assured, your contributions to the art of mirth-making are not forgotten here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

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