Monday, 4 November 2013

The Southern Belle and the Egg

Radio’s most popular Southern Belle is 94 today. She grew up amidst the plantations, mint juleps and boll weevils of that well-known city of the Deep South—Toledo, Ohio. That’s where her family settled not many months after her birth in Poland.

Shirley Mitchell had an incredibly prolific career as a supporting actress on both radio and television. Her best-known role to radio fans is that of Leila Ransome, the widow from Dixie who left the Great Gildersleeve at the altar, then battled for him against Eve Goodwin, played by Bea Benaderet. Mitchell and Benaderet crossed paths several times—they were the CBS phone operators on the later radio editions of the Jack Benny radio show, and Mitchell played Benaderet’s cousin on Petticoat Junction.

Mitchell eventually had so many roles simultaneously, she was featured in a Life magazine spread in 1946 as the “busiest actress in radio.”

Talent-plus-break is the operative equation in radio, and Mitchell got a break in landing the role of Ransome. A 1945 Associated Press story by Rosalind Shaffer revealed star Harold Peary wanted Dinah Shore’s secretary for the part—the article gave sole credit to Peary for developing the show—but since the secretary didn’t want to get into acting, Peary got Dinah’s roommate instead. That was Mitchell, who was very much into acting.

That was in Hollywood. Earlier, Shirley had gone to the huge radio centre of Chicago to make a career of it and was about to quit when a producer hired her for the lead in a serial called “The Living Dead” after hearing her do Katherine Hepburn at an amateur show (according to a story by syndicated columnist George Lilley some years later).

Her career was followed by one of her hometown papers, and radio columnist Mitch Woodbury penned this for the Toledo Blade of September 27, 1943.

Toledo Actress Wins Radio Sobriquet “Radio’s Sweetheart.”
That’s what they’re calling Toledo’s Shirley Mitchell in Hollywood these days. For the comely blonde daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Sam Mitchell, 431 Islington St., very definitely has “arrived” as one of the either waves’ foremost actresses.
Usually cast as the ingénue romantic interest, Shirley is now one of the busiest performers on the west coast. Not only that, she is one of the best liked and best known. Only last week she was the subject of a two-page illustrated spread in the kilocycle publication, Radio Life Weekly. And the article by Coy Williams is very flattering in its praise of the local miss.
“There’s an ever-smilin’ blonde around town who’s gone and built herself the doggonest monopoly we’ve come across,” Mr. Williams writes. “She’s cornered the market on long term romance and won the unique title of ‘Radio’s Sweetheart’.”
Here’s the way he catalogues her accomplishments: “When ‘The Great Gildersleeve’ got himself so tangled up with love that they had to form women’s committees to get him out, who was that lady you heard him out with? The Widow Leila Ransome.
“When Rudy Vallee cooed so romantically, whose pink ear was he breathing into the whole year? Why, a giddy sub-deb named Shirley Ann. When Red Skelton buckled on his shootin’ arns and galloped off in search of western beauty, do you know what cactus-bloom he was seeking? None other than Monotonous Maggie?
“When Groucho Marx wants to borrow a cup of sugar, what loving neighbor always pops in? That flowuh of the south, suh, Cindy Lou! When Fred Brady makes sultry love to a lady taxi driver or a female piano mover or a prison warden on the distaff side, whose pulsing voice answers him across the quivering mike? It’s always Veronica.
“And when William Bendix drops in or Johnny Mercer gets another sweetheart—yep, you guessed it, different voice, same gal.
“All these assorted ladies come to you in one well rounded package,” Mr. Williams, “a good-natured, curvaceous cutie named Shirley Mitchell.”
Shirley began impersonating movie stars when she was 6 years old, her parents tell us. And when she was in the sixth grade at Longfellow School, she sang the leading role in the operetta, “Hiawatha.”
At the age of 13, she made her initial appearance before a microphone. This was on Jules Blair’s “Children’s Hour” via WSPD. She took dramatic training at the University of Toledo, the University of Michigan and the Cleveland Playhouse, appearing in stage productions at all three institutions.
During her stay in Cleveland, she was frequently heard on the air channels and finally won a contest sponsored by a daytime serial emanating from a Chicago studio. She lost out in the sectional finals, however, and this made her so angry with herself she then and there decided to invade the Windy City and make good.
Shirley had the determination and perseverance, and she realized her ambition—as you now well know. But it took a lot of time and effort before she landed on the “First Nighter” program—and remained on its weekly for a full year.
Followed regular roles in such other Chicago shows as “Mary Marlin,” “Road of Life,” “Stepmother” and “Author’s Playhouse.” Then, some 18 months ago, she landed on the Ransom Sherman network program [“Hap Hazard”] pinch hitting for Fibber McGee and Molly. With the Sherman troupe she journeyed to Hollywood and was heard with the show there until it left the air.
Unknown to the H-wood casting heads, however, Shirley found jobs few and far between and was all set to return to Chicago when a part on a sustaining program was offered her. In fact, she already had her ticket purchases for the trip back east at the time.
Shirley canceled her train reservation, took the sustaining assignment and suddenly discovered Lady Luck beaming benignly in her face. The Vallee show role turned up. So did the part of Gildersleeve’s vis-à-vis. Others followed. And with them came fame and the sobriquet—“Radio’s Sweetheart.”
In the aforementioned Radio Weekly story, Mr. Williams describes one of Shirley’s biggest radio thrills—and one of her most praiseworthy achievements.
“Once, in Hollywood,” he says, “she was called at the very last minute to substitute for Katina Paxinou, the great Greek actress, in a Greek War Relief broadcast. She dashed madly to the studio, arriving five minutes before air time without the faintest idea what the script was about. She’d thrown a bandana about her towseled hair, she’d gotten properly dressed only through the grace of God. Star William Gargan pushed a script in her hand, Producer Bob Moss whispered to play it dramatic and in a Greek dialect (she’s never been to Greece, either), and the show was on. Only then did she learn she was subbing for one of the world’s finest actresses, without time even to read the script through once, She went through the half-hour show without a bobble.”
Shirley is said to be a mistress of dialect, a girl who can talk southern, northern, western or Brooklynese upon a moment’s notice. She shares a house in the Hollywood hills, just off Sunset Blvd., with another celebrated lady of the ether channels—Dinah Shore. A year ago, when Toledo’s Helen O’Connell was in the cinema sector making a picture and appearing at the Paladium Ballroom with Jimmy Dorsey’s Orchestra, she became a resident of the same household. This summer, Kitty Katten, Jimmy’s new singer and Helen’s successor, resided with Shirley and Dinah.
It’s been a mighty pleasant summer for Shirley. For her parents have been her guests. They’ve just returned to Toledo from that western sojourn.

When “Fibber McGee and Molly” started losing cast members to military service, the show added a boarder named Alice Darling for weekly appearances for the duration. That was Shirley Mitchell. An A.P. story from June 1944 reveals Mitchell had been averaging $25 a week before almost quitting the business, but was now pulling in $350 to $450. Columnist Lilley, in 1946, put the figure at $900 a week. By then, she was featured on Joan Davis’ show; Davis raved about her timing. She married Dr. Julian Friedan on November 23th that year and moved to New York City. The Blade reported she was giving up radio, but she ended up co-starring on Mutual’s “McGarry and His Mouse” before the couple decided on a move to Beverly Hills in 1948 where Shirley could pick up where she left off on “Gildersleeve.” And I’m not attempting to list her other regular radio work.

Ageing changes one’s roles (well, being able to see someone on TV dictated roles for ex-radio actors, too), and 20 years later, Shirley went from being the romantic interest to the butt-insky neighbour. Here’s a syndicated column which appeared in papers on January 30, 1966.

Actress Shirley Mitchell Only Acts Nosy on Video
HOLLYWOOD — Shirley Mitchell isn't really nosy. She just acts that way.
"I keep playing nosy neighbors," admitted Shirley, who portrays Marge Thornton on "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" Tuesdays. Shirley has made a career out of sticking her neighborly nose into other people's business.
"I played Cara Williams' neighbor on 'Pete and Gladys,'" she elaborated. "I've played lots of neighbors on television and in radio. I can't even estimate the number any more."
Shirley doesn't feel she measures up to her roles — in real life.
"I'm really not a good neighbor, by TV standards," she said.
"I chat with my neighbors, but I don't drop in, unannounced."
Her neighbors, who must appreciate this un-TV-like trait, know her as the wife of Dr. Julian Frieden, a general surgeon in private practice.
The Friedens live in Bel Air, an elegant suburb of Los Angeles, with their daughter, Brooke, 15 and son, Scott, 10.
"I still remember what one of our neighbors did for us when we first moved in," Shirley recalls appreciatively. "She came and offered to throw a welcoming party so the children could meet each other. It was the sweetest thing. I learned how important these gestures are." Shirley, in turn, has made an effort to make newcomers feel welcome, by calling on them. Ask any of her neighbors and they'll tell you there's more to Shirley Mitchell Frieden than her career as an actress.
She's a dedicated worker for SHARE, an organization aimed at helping exceptional (mentally retarded) children.
She has one other great commitment.
"I collect everything I can about John F. Kennedy," she said. "I don't even know whether I should talk about it — but it's true. It started — with the assassination.
I don't know why exactly. Perhaps because the magnetism of the man got to everybody — child and adult alike.
Perhaps because he represents all the feelings we ever had about hope. Perhaps because he aroused in us a feeling that ideals could become realities — that it could be done. Perhaps we're all trying to hold on to that."
These more serious concerns have replaced such lighter pastimes as collecting China animals and music boxes which Shirley gave up years ago because "they were dust collectors."
She likes acting, having acted since she was six years old, and she likes portraying Marge Thornton.
"I like her better than other neighbors I've played," Shirley said. "She's warm whereas most of the others have been kind of giddy. She's more down to earth, the others were kind of duncy."
As for the difference between Marge Thornton and Shirley Mitchell?
Marge is nice, but nosy.
Shirley's nice.
Chances are the neighbors would agree.

Some of you are probably wondering when I’d get to Marion Strong. Shirley played the character a grand total of three times. The part received no attention at the time. But that was before rabid “I Love Lucy” fans turned the show from a TV perennial to an almost holy television monument. She remarked in an interview not long ago that people still come up to her and shout out Lucy Ricardo’s almost-60-year-old line to Marion about waiting ten years for her to lay an egg.

We can safely say in 70-plus years of show business, Shirley Mitchell has laid very few of them.


  1. I love Shirley Mitchell's voice, Tralfaz! Did she do any cartoon voice work?
    Mark Kausler

  2. Yes, but after the golden days and I don't think Yowp will happily "Yowp"...H-B's Roman Holidays as wife Laurie and Mendelson-Melendez's ugly (but the strip was anyway) Cathy,m the feminist strip'ms supporting character the mother. Not exactly my favourite, but on a yogurt ad when the characters advertised them, I recobized the voice. Did some WB voices, I think...."Easy peckins" as a hen named Henrietta and probably Walt Disney's Daisy Duck. Art Clokey's Gumby episode "Grub Grabber Gumby" seems to have Shirley Mitchell as Gumby';s mother, but if true, only a few lines.(I'm warning Gumby not to eat my peanut butter sandwich in that voiced by Dallas McKennon.)Steve

  3. Mark, I know she did 'The Roman Holidays.'

  4. She has died.

    It brainblastingly sucks when people croak.

    Is 94 considered a "ripe old age"? I wonder....