Friday 16 December 2011

Sara Berner and the R Word

The at-times rancorous debate whether all exaggerated impressions of non-white people are racist (and, conversely, why exaggerated impressions of white people are not) is nothing new, as the article below will show.

Sara Berner was an actress who specialised in exaggerated accents, both on network radio of the Golden Age, and in animated cartoons of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Dialect and ethnic humour was perfectly acceptable (and wildly popular) in vaudeville. Exaggeration equals comedy. But eventually questions were raised about whether the humour was really at someone’s expense or, worse, bigotry. It’s a debate that continues to this day, one that will never result in an agreement. And I certainly don’t propose to debate it here.

What I will do is give you Berner’s take on it, from a United Press story of June 15, 1950.

13 ‘Voices’ Put Sara Berner in Demand for Show Parts
HOLLYWOOD. (UP) Sara Berner, who makes her living with 13 “voices,” said today she’s won her fight to keep rattling her comedy dialects.
“It’s been tough,” the brown-eyed comedienne explained. Radio bosses didn’t like it. They thought I was fostering racial prejudice.”
Miss Berner thinks different. She thinks she’s breaking it down by cracking wise in Jewish, Italian, Southern, and what-have-you.
So do a lot of top comedians who pay fancy prices for her talented vocal chords.
Jack Benny's had her on for years as “Gladys Zybisco,” his gum-chompin’ telephone operator. She’s “Mrs. Mataratza” with Jimmy Durante, “Helen Wilson” on the “Amos ‘n’Andy” show, “Mrs. Horowitz” on “Life with Luigi” and “Mrs. Jacoby” with Dennis Day.
She's also Gene Autry’s “Chiquita,” Fanny Brice’s “Phoebe” and Eddie Cantor's “Ida” (on the air, that is.)
Sara can switch her tonsil tones from Greek to Polish to French without a quiver from her vocal chords.
She’s pretty good at it, too. Good enough, anyway, for NBC to hand her her own half-hour show, “Sara’s Private Caper.”
But for a while there she sure had the big boys along radio row quaking behind their desks.
“Then a columnist had an item about my dialects being in bad taste,” Sara said, “and they ordered me to stop getting laughs with an accent.
“I argued and argued and finally convinced them. Golly, what’s all the fuss about? Dialects are a natural part of American speech.
“And the sooner people stop being on the defensive about them the sooner we can wipe out all that silly prejudice.”
Every time somebody bring up the battle Sara points to “Amos ‘n’ Andy” as the classic example.
“They laugh with Negroes—not at them,” she says. “And that’s the secret with dialects. You have to do them sympathetically. Otherwise you can cause trouble.
“But I know I haven't offended anybody because in all the years I’ve been doing them I’ve never, not even once, got a nasty letter.”
And she’s dead sure she’s getting her negro dialect across okay—the maid in the powder room at Ciro’s won’t ever let Sara tip her.

MacPherson’s made a slight factual error Gladys Zybisko was not one of the phone operators. That was another of Berner’s characters. Zybisko was Jack’s occasional girl-friend on radio.

Berner’s own radio show suffered from a variety of trouble, not the least of which was revealed by columnist Erskine Johnson of the NEA on October 9. He said the show started out as “Sara’s Private Eye,” then became “Sara’s Private File,” was changed to “Sara’s Private Crime” then “Sara’s Private Caper.” By then, it had long been off the air. The final show was broadcast August 24, replaced the following Thursday with ‘Folk Songs of the Menhaden Fishermen.’ It lasted 11 weeks, short even by summer replacement standards. The biggest problem was much like the one Mel Blanc had when he was handed a starring show in 1946—being adept at voices means nothing unless you do something funny or interesting with your characters. And even radio editors had trouble discerning whether “Caper’s” format was a comedy or a drama.

Unfortunately for the gifted Sara Berner, the R Word when it came to her big network break was “replaced.”


  1. 1950 was also the time Sarah Berner and Spike Jones collaborated on, and got in trouble with Jewish groups, for a take on Patti Page's "Tennessee Waltz" [J.R.Young, "Spike Jones: The Man Who Murdered Music", 1994].


  2. Who cares about a silly accent? I don't watch or listen to comedy to find out if the characters are really who they pretend to be. If you don't like how this person imitates you, then turn the fuckin' dial!