Monday, 6 March 2017

Aunty McKassar Goes Far

Before the Jack Bennys and Bob Hopes and Edgar Bergens and Fibber McGees migrated to California to take over the airwaves, radio stations on the West Coast developed their own stars. Unfortunately, once the big names from back East arrived around 1935, there were no more starring shows for them.

Many of them continued to find radio work, though, and some became very much in-demand as top character actors. They moved into television when radio declined. One of them was Elvia Allman.

The first time I recall seeing her was either on The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction as a snooty busybody. That became her specialty. During the heyday of network radio, she was a man-chasing spinster and appeared regularly on a string of comedies—Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello, Blondie, Jimmy Durante. But her West Coast radio career dated back to 1926 when she was hired by the Los Angeles Times to take charge of programming on its station, KHJ. She read stories, she sang, she performed in dramas and comedies, including Elvia Allman’s Surprise Party. She married the station’s organist, Wes Tourtelotte.

Here’s a profile from Broadcast Weekly of April 26, 1931. By then, she was a regular on KHJ’s variety show The Merry Makers.
ELVIA ALLMAN, KHJ’s miss-interpreter of the lighter things in life, began what-a-life in Spencer, North Carolina, September 19, 1905. To save restaurant tablecloths, we figure it out for you. She's 26 years old. From Spencer to Wichita Falls, Texas, is but a leap for a pair of long legs like Elvia's. There to her undying glory, she graduated with honors from the Wichita Falls Dramatic School, and having earned some money teaching the local banker's, minister's, and feed and fuel baron's daughters the art of the drama, forwarded herself to Chicago. At Chicago University further knowledge was acquired and ambition for a career fanned to white heat. The white heat developed enough steam in Elvia's boilers to get her to New York. But she blew up in Hoboken after a few glorious weeks in stock and a trip around the suburbs in "Smiling Through." Came the big chance. Elvia was cast as the maid in the Broadway production of "Flames." She was also understudy for the female lead. This seemed like an excellent opportunity as the lead was subject to fits and starts. But "Flames" turned to ashes the first week. And opportunity knocked but once. At this point in this career, Elvia's mother, who has been dying slowly since the day she was born, wired daughter to come to Los Angeles to spend the last days with her. Elvia hopped the first freight and arrived in time. She reports that her mother gives every indication of continuing to die slowly for the next sixty years. It was five years ago that Miss Allman burst upon radio as the program manager of KHJ. While radio then, wasn't what it is today, Elvia was very hungry and a warm place to sit looked good. When Don Lee bought KHJ it was discovered that Elvia was thrown in with the transmitter to make it a baker's dozen. It should be recorded for historians that Miss Allman's first radio appearance was over the Westinghouse Station in Chicago. She endeavored to entertain with readings from the masters. Although she returned several times, she was never asked to. But—as the count stands today, there isn't a better she-comic on the air than Elvia—nor a more distinguished impersonater—nor a more delightful interpreter of the low-down in popular music—nor a more finished actress in farce comedy. Believe it or not, a large hunk of the radio audience, recognizing her fine intelligence and vital personality, are betting that the bundle of volatile arms, legs, eyes, ears, nose and throat, known as Elvia Allman (alias Aunty McKassar, Malaria, Harriet, etc.) will go as far as radio.
Originally, network programming was piped from New York or Chicago to the west and not the other way around due to A.T. and T’s line configuration. That meant if you wanted to be a success on a network, you had to go east. That’s what Allman did. She left for New York with her characters and music scores in January 1933, started on the NBC Red network on February 27th and was cancelled May 27th. Back to the West Coast she went, claiming she returned because she missed her husband (they divorced the following year). But soon the big radio stars who had signed motion picture contracts followed. Network radio had money. Money talks. And money told A.T. and T to reverse its lines so network radio shows could originate from California. Suddenly there was lucrative work for top secondary and occasional players on these new shows, and that’s where Allman started to audition. She also fit in voice acting on animated cartoons at Disney and Warner Bros.

Here’s a chatty story about Allman from Radio Life magazine of October 15, 1944. A good portion of it focuses on Blanche Stewart, an extremely versatile actress who died on July 24, 1952 at the age of 49. She was injured in a fall in 1942 and never really recovered. Her most famous role was opposite Allman on the Hope show, but she was in Jack Benny’s secondary cast and stage show through much of the 1930s and was Mary Livingstone’s back-up. She had worked in vaudeville but her dancing career ended because of an injury. Allman, judging by the article, had an incredible amount of affection for her.
The Most Insulted Gal in Radio!
By Shirley Gordon

JACK CARSON sneered across the microphone at Elvia Allman. "When you were a girl," he scoffed, "Gravel Gertie was just a pebble!"
"That's the way it goes," said Elvia later, with a philosophical shrug of her shoulders, "I'm the most insulted gal in radio. When I ask a man, 'Would you like a lock of my hair?' he answers, 'You couldn't spare it!'
"My mother—bless her heart—is always saying, 'If they really knew you, they wouldn't say those things!'" smiled Elvia, "but I tell her I don't care what they say, as long as they pay!"
The only thing about her "insult" roles that displeases Elvia herself, is the fact that they seldom allow her any chance to characterize. "They're just caricatures," she frowned. "Seldom do they develop into real characterizations."
Nevertheless, radio-dialers have come to respect the inimitable Miss Allman for her tricky portrayals of lovable comedy characters on Hollywood's top airshows. Listeners love her as "Tootsie Sagwell" of CBS' Burns and Allen show, as Mrs. Dithers" of the "Blondie" cast, as the screeching anathema of the Jack Carson and the Moore-Durante shows, and as "Cobina" of the well-remembered team of Brenda and Cobina.
Brenda Still Ill
"Brenda," Elvia informed us, "is still in the hospital. She's been there almost two years now, with a knee injury that won't heal." Elvia told us that she is hoping the doctor will allow her ex-partner to come home soon under the care of a nurse.
"Then, perhaps, we could work together again, even if it were necessary for Brenda to work from a wheel chair." Elvia went on. "We could clown around and no one would ever know the difference. I know it would do her a world of good."
Elvia is hoping that Brenda (in real life, actress Blanche Stewart) will be allowed to do, at least, some "G.I. Journal" shows for the soldiers, on which Elvia appears regularly.
"Most of the boys who heard us as a team during the many months we were on the Bob Hope show, don't know that Brenda is ill and that the team is temporarily out of existence," explained Elvia. "They'd love to have her back.
"The other night, when I was doing a show at the Canteen," she told us, the boys shouted, 'Where's Brenda?'
"I answered, 'Oh, we went to the beach this afternoon, and somebody covered Brenda with sand.' "
'So what? Why isn't she here now?' the boys wanted to know.
"Welllll," replied Elvia, in the rasping voice of Cobina, "I forgot to mention. The sand was mixed with cement!"
The boys loved the gag, and most of them still don't know about Brenda. They'll just be glad to see her back.
Those that correspond with Elvia regularly, however, have learned the inside story. One of them—a sailor in the South Pacific—has sent Brenda a beautiful robe. "I write to a number of servicemen regularly," Elvia told us, "They're such swell boys, and their letters are so sweet."
In Person
Elvia, in person, is tall, willowy and redheaded. When she talks, she flings her arms about in wild, windmill-like gestures. She is almost always garbed in slacks.
"I like 'em," she explained, "because I can put my feet up. You should have seen us at the Moore-Durante rehearsal this afternoon. We sat around a big, round table, and everybody had their feet up on it—including me.
"In fact," she added, arching her eyebrows and adopting her Cobina-like mannerisms, "mine" were right next to Durante's!"
Returning to serious talk about her career, Elvia expressed her annoyance over being so strictly typed for comedy roles. "I'm a darn good straight character," she declared indignantly, "but nobody will call me for dramatic parts any more.
"In fact," she declared with exaggerated dignity, "I'm the best darn commercial reader in the business!" Then she did a double-take and exclaimed with a twinkle, "Shy little thing, aren't I ?"
Elvia has earnest hopes that a new show she has been auditioning will get a place on the networks. It's based on a character called "Hedy Hearthrob," an old maid with a heart of gold who writes a love-lorn column.
Wide Experience
Elvia Allman's background for her current comedy career has consisted of serious study of piano, singing and dramatics. At eighteen, she was studying the latter in Chicago, after which she played in stock in New York, then came to California. Here, she entered radio, doing everything from sweeping out the studio to writing and reading scripts.
In 1933, she went to New York with her own program, billed as the "California Cocktail Girl." But bad times brought the show to an abrupt halt and Elvia came back to the West Coast.
From Hollywood, she appeared on programs with Ruth Etting and Jimmy Durante, then got her biggest break on the Bob Hope show, becoming a regular member of the cast as "Cobina." Movie work has supplemented her radio roles.
When not working or writing to servicemen, the actress finds enjoyment in playing gin rummy and reading. She likes all kinds of literary matter, from autobiographies and good fiction to "Terry and Pirates" and "Dick Tracy" in the funny papers.
She likes to eat. Asked to name her favorite dish, she replied, "Anything, just so long as it's food!" She told us that if she's not hungry, her mother thinks she's sick.
"But I have such a hearty appetite," Elvia reasoned, "because I'm so long. The food has so far to go."
She expressed a passion for the leisurely life in California, explaining, "because I'm getting old."
Then she laughed, "See, I'm insulted so much, I believe it!"
Has Dreams
Nevertheless, she is looking forward to the day when she can live on a farm. "I'd come into Hollywood just often enough to do a show each week ('Hedy Heartthrob,' I hope!), and maybe, to be insulted for money once in a while.
"There's one other thing, too," she added then, her brown eyes twinkling. "I'm looking for a man! I'd like him to be a farmer that doesn't smell—an unscented one! I'd want him to be modern—a scientific farmer, not a hit-or-miss one—with money as well as a crop! He'd have to be tall, and I'd like him to have at least a little hair. I wouldn't want to have to insult him!
"Let's see now," she rasped then, a la Cobina, "how can you word that so I'll get him?"
There was one last stab at radio stardom. Allman and Bea Benaderet cut an audition record in 1948 for a show called The Simpson Twins. The networks turned it down. Radio was starting its downslide anyway, and Allman moved into television. She continued to find regular work with old friends Burns and Allen, and Joan Davis. I Love Lucy fans know her famous guest appearance on that show. When she finally retired, she devoted her time to charity work with Meals on Wheels and as a member of the Order of the Eastern Star. She was 88 when she died on March 6, 1992.


  1. She was also Mrs. Dithers on Blondie, that was the show where Penny Singleton played Blondie, 4 years before she would play jane jetson.

  2. My first memories of Allman was her character Elverna Bradshaw, Granny's rival back in " Bugtussle " on " The Beverly Hillbillies ". As time moved on I found out there was so much more to this artist than met the eye. She was literally everywhere. Movies, television, even some early " Porky " shorts. I think being a " Darned good straight performer " is what made her so employable. She will always be one of those very solid.." I know her face...I don't know her name " character actors.

  3. "Brenda and Cobina" - who took their names from wealthy socialites Brenda Frazier and Cobina Wright, Jr. - appeared in the Columbia musical "Time Out for Rhythm" with the Three Stooges.
    Bea Benaderet and Sara Berner would play Jack Benny's answer to Brenda and Cobina - the phone operators Gertrude and Mabel.

  4. Also, the only animated reference to Brenda and Cobina that comes to mind (though I'm sure there were others) is in a Lantz spot-gag cartoon, "Hysterical High Spots in American History."

    1. They're in Clampett's "Goofy Groceries" as Discontented cows.