Sunday, 12 May 2013

Before She Was Dennis Day's Mother

She was the mother who cared so much for her son, she’d turn to his employer and bellow “Ah, shaddup!”

Verna Felton was perfectly cast as Dennis Day’s mother on “The Jack Benny Show.” So perfect, more than 20 years later she was hired to play the same kind of battle-axe mother on TV, haranguing and berating Fred Flintstone for being such a crummy husband for her daughter, Wilma.

Day was virtually a radio rookie when he made his debut on the Benny show on October 8, 1939. Benny’s show was a top-rated coast-to-coast affair, not some local music show like the kind Day had periodically appeared on in New York City. So Benny let Day grow into his role by hiring someone with experience to, basically, do the talking for him for a number of shows. Benny hired Verna Felton, who had already appeared on his programme in a variety of roles, including the mothers of orchestra leader Phil Harris and announcer Don Wilson.

Felton was a true veteran. But she wasn’t a vaudevillian like Benny. She honed her craft on the legitimate stage, travelling from town to town. She was getting top billing in San Francisco in 1900, when she was barely 10 years old. At age 13, she was billed as a “dainty” actress, a word that would never be used to describe Dennis Day’s longshoreman-like mother.

Although Mary Livingstone spent part of her childhood in Vancouver’s West End, Felton was the Benny cast member with a big Canadian connection. Her family lived for a time in both Vancouver and Victoria. Her older brother, actor George Clayton Felton, was married in Victoria in 1914 and settled in Ladysmith on Vancouver Island; Verna was a guest of the town in 1958 during the British Columbia Centennial celebrations and showed off her collection of 150 hats.

Here’s a story from the Vancouver Sun of August 2, 1952 about Felton’s early show business career, the one few fans of the Benny show probably know about.

Verna Felton Is Still Tops
Veteran B.C. actress rates high in movies, radio, TV

VETERAN actress Verna Felton, an American who credits Canada with her continued success in movies, radio and television, lived in British Columbia for twenty years. During that time she toured from Victoria to Toronto annually. She knows more about Canada than about her native California.
“I spent a third of my life as a Canadian entertainer,” she relates. “Met my husband in the Dominion and gave birth to my boy in Vancouver. I’ve been drawing on my Canadian experiences ever since.”
Miss Felton is best known as the domineering mother of Dennis Day on his radio and television programs. In the twelve years she has been mothering the singer on the air, she has received hundreds of letters from fans offering advice on how to raise a son. Whether or not, she took any of it, she has been successful as the real-life mother of Lee Millar, Jr., who is active in television production.
Since the death of her husband a few years ago, Verna has lived with Lee and his wife, a cat named Veronica and four cocker spaniels known as Mike, Tracy, Hildegarde and Gus Gus. The last-named canine is called after a mouse created by Walt Disney, for whom his mistress has worked for several years. She has been the voice of such delightful Disney characters as a mother bunny in “Bambi,” an elephant in “Dumbo” and the fairy godmother of “Cinderella.”
Versatile Verna has been a regular on radio since 1932 and is one of the highest-paid performers in the business. Apart from acting with Dennis Day, she has portrayed the grandmother of “mean widdle kid,” Red Skelton. The comedian, who once kiddingly suggested that they team for vaudeville as Felton and Skelton, still calls her Grandma.
She is also known as old-time movie star, Patsy Pierce, on the Judy Canova radio show and her appearances with comedian Eddie Cantor on television. Her screen credits include important parts in such pictures as “Gunfire,” “The Fuller Brush Man” and “Buccaneer’s Girl.”
Born in Salinas, California, Verna began her career as Little Lord Fauntleroy, touring with the old Jessie Shirley stock company with her mother, Clara Allen. When she was 17, her father, Dr. J.W. Felton, organized a stock company in which her mother was featured and called it, The Allen Players. Soon after the group was formed, they journeyed to Vancouver to begin a Canadian tour of what they hoped might be of three or four months’ duration.
They were so popular they sold seats on their wardrobe trunks in an effort to accommodate crowds. Canada became their career and they travelled from B.C. to Ontario and back annually. In the twenties and thirties, they were on the road each season from August until the following spring. In between tours, they did summer stock at the Empress and Vancouver Theatres in Vancouver. The Feltons had a summer home in Ladysmith, but didn’t spend much time at it.
“We used to do a different drama every night for three weeks while we were on tour,” Verna recalls. “Our repertoire included 21 plays. We had no complete scripts, just our parts with cues. As a result, memorizing for television is easy for me.”
In 1928, the family troupe closed its trunks for the last time. Verna had married Lee Millar, an actor who had joined the company several years before, and they decided to try their luck on Broadway. In New York, Verna and Lee made a joint appearance in “Appearances,” after which he was hired as a director of Blesaco and Shubert productions. During the depression, when the stage went the way of everything else, they moved to California and, more or less in desperation, turned to radio. It proved a fortunate turn. Lee went to work for NBC in Hollywood and eventually arranged an audition for his wife.
“I’ll never forget it,” Verna avers. “After I read for a part in a broadcast of ‘Ramona,’ the producer pointed out that, while the program would be heard for many miles away, it was not necessary for me to try to reach the listeners without taking the transmitter into consideration. I had to overcome the habit I had acquired of projecting to the last row in the theatre. When I did, I was hired for a series of shows—at nine dollars per program.”
At home, in an England manor type house in North Hollywood, Verna minds her menagerie, cultivates camellias and knits. At radio and TV rehearsals and between scenes of movies, she is never without her knitting.
“It keeps me out of trouble,” she says. “When I was a teenager, an older actress once asked me what I did with my spare time around the theatre. When I admitted that I did nothing, she advised me to get a hobby that would keep my hands busy.
“All the years since, whenever I’ve wished to avoid seeing or hearing something going on around me, I’ve just put my head down and purled like mad.”
Verna still corresponds with friends in British Columbia and gets a special kick out of fan mail from Canada, particularly when someone remembers seeing her on stage.
“A letter postmarked Saskatoon, Sask., brought back memories of my most embarrassing moment,” she told me. “I was doing the death scene in ‘Camille’ at a theatre there and the curtain went down ahead of schedule, then right back up. It was one of those roll-up affairs and, when it went up, it took the wig and veil of the actress bending over me. That was the only time I ever died laughing!”

There were many mothers on network radio in the ‘40s: Harriet Nelson, Blondie Bumstead, Peg Riley, Janet Archer (Corliss’ mom), all gentle, intelligent women with loving and occasionally-firm advice for their youngsters. And then there was Lucretia Day, the boisterous former Golden Gloves boxer who verbally fought Jack Benny on the air and usually won, the mother who loved her son Dennis so much she moved away on several occasions without telling him. We can do no better than to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day. The wonderful actress who played her passed away in 1966, but Verna Felton’s best-known character lives on in the minds of old-time radio fans.


  1. Here's Jack vs. Vern from the first TV show for Benny from the 1955-56 season, which also was the first TV show after Jack ended his radio broadcasts.

    To me, the scene kind of shows the observation by Marshall McLuhan (might as well get another Canadian name in there) about TV being a 'cool' medium vs. radio being a 'hot' one. There's nothing all that different about the skit having Jack and Dennis' mom screaming at each other, but for some reason, seeing them scream at each other doesn't go over as well as compared to just hearing them do it on the radio.

    That's probably because seeing the yelling removes the ability to just set the situation up in your mind, and instead you have to see the uncomfortable actions play out before your eyes (which may have worked for Ralph-vs.-Alice in "The Honeymooners" but just doesn't seem right visually for Jack). Television likes 'cooler' personalities, which in part is why the Benny show made the transition from radio to TV so easily.

  2. If you're interested in learning more about Verna Felton's 65-year-long career and her private life, check out her biography, "Verna Felton" by Fredrick Tucker, published in 2010 and still available.