Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Fall of Sara Berner

She had appeared in films (animated and otherwise), on radio, and had made the transition into television. By 1952, Sara Berner was pretty well-established. Still, she wasn’t a huge star, so she seems to have been an unusual choice to be profiled by Ralph Edwards’ emotional-ambush show “This is Your Life.”

Actually, it may have been because Berner was an easy subject for Edwards and his researchers. Edwards knew her personally. She appeared as a regular on a completely forgotten afternoon TV show that he hosted three times a week on NBC beginning January 14, 1952. And it may have been a case of Ralph Edwards knowing something that others didn’t.

Berner’s appearance popped up on December 10, 1952. Herald-Tribune Syndicate writer John Crosby had something to say about it in his column within five days. Here’s how a jaded reporter reviews what he thinks is a cynical show.

Radio And Television
The Laugh, Clown, Laugh Girl
Pathos always sold well on radio, largely dished out on soap opera. The future of the soaps on television is still pretty uncertain but the pathos vein is being worked over extensively.
I suppose the leading contender in this line of work is “Strike It Rich,” where they dig up the victims of the most heart-rending current sob stories, splash them with sympathy and load them down with money.
Close behind “Strike It Rich” in the pathos department is “This is Your Life” which is presided over by Ralph Edwards. Edwards is described at the outset of the program as “your warm-hearted host.”
Well, he’s that all right, a warm-hearted host with a keen sense of double entry bookkeeping. Early in the television sweepstakes Edwards came out with a TV version of his renowned radio show “Truth Or Consequences” where audience participants underwent the most surprising humiliations with great good nature.
THIS SORT of thing apparently either baffled or outraged the television audience, however, and “Truth Or Consequences” fell by the wayside, one of the happiest casualties in my memory.
Mr. Edwards turned to the pathos dodge. “This Is Your Life” reconstructs somebody’s life from front to back. By some manic ingenuity, Mr. Edwards lures on stage an individual who has no idea what is in store.
Let’s say the individual is (as it was last week) Sara Berner, the girl who plays most of the dialect parts on radio. Miss Berner had been enticed down there ostensibly to take part in some monkeyshines about a commercial for Hazel Bishop lipstick.
To be specific, she smothered Mr. Edwards in kisses to demonstrate that Hazel Bishop doesn’t smear. (It doesn’t.)
THAT PART of Miss Berner’s career out of the way, Mr. Edwards told her it was her life that was on the fire that night. She was, to put it mildly, overcome.
“This is a story of courage and comedy, and the tears behind that comedy,” trumpeted Mr. Edwards, overflowing with warm-heartedness. “How many of your really know Sara Berner — the ‘Laugh, Clown, Laugh’ girl — the girl who dreamed of stardom but settled for supporting roles?”
In the heartbreak department, Miss Berner’s career which was then unfolded backwards, didn’t live up to its advance billing. It seemed in retrospect a very pleasant succession of minor triumphs, marred by occasional tragedy (the death of her mother and her first husband).
Mr. Edwards, whose staff is a wizard at collecting friends and relatives of his lifers, trotted out Miss Berner’s present husband who said that “marriage is the one place where Sara is the star.” Spike Jones, with whom she recorded, her dramatic teacher in Tulsa and an old girl friend, June Robbins, whom she hadn’t seen in 10 years.
JACK BENNY — Miss Berner plays the Brooklyn telephone operator from time to time on his show — called to say how much he admired her.
Miss Berner dabbed away at her eyes during all this, exclaiming at one point: “This doesn’t happen until — God forbid — you pass on.”
The freshets of tears grew stronger as the incidents and people dredged up by Edwards receded in time, receded way back to her childhood when she was winning auditions to appear on Major Bowes amateur hour.
At the end. Mr. Edwards in his own words took her “through the archway of your life” into a replica of the kitchen of her Oklahoma home where Mr. Edwards had given refuge to Miss Berner’s brothers and sister and father who fell on her with happy cries.
“The girl that made millions laugh while she was crying,” declared Mr. Edwards.
I don't quite dig this statement, since Miss Berner hadn’t appeared to have done much crying until she got on this show where she did plenty.
ACTUALLY, Sara Berner is an awfully cute trick, a born comic, and a girl who seems to have had a heck of a good time out of this vale of tears. But the customers want pathos and Mr. Edwards, I suppose, has to manufacture it.
“The program,” says a press release, “has substantiated Edwards’ belief that truth is not only stranger but also vastly more powerful than fiction.”
Well, anyhow — it sells Hazel Bishop lipstick.
If you’re a great one for family reunions, this is your dish of tea. It isn’t mine.

But it turns out Ralph Edwards didn’t have to manufacture pathos in Sara Berner’s life. There was enough of it that was eventually played out in the public.

Sara vanished from the Jack Benny show in 1954 and her role as a phone operator opposite Bea Benaderet was taken for more than a full year by Shirley Mitchell. One might think Berner was too busy with television with its memory-work and long rehearsals, but she couldn’t have been busier than Benaderet, who still appeared with Benny while a regular on the Burns and Allen TV show. Erskine Johnson’s Hollywood column in NEA-subscribing newspapers revealed on June 22, 1955:

Jack Benny and Sara Berner, the original Mabel, the telephone operator of his shows, patched up the misunderstanding that’s existed between them for the last year and a half. She returns to the Benny show in a telefilm rolling this month.
What happened? Johnson didn’t say. And, of course, Benny never would have. But there was stuff going on in Sara’s personal life in 1954 that, to jump to conclusions, may have had something to do with it. This appeared in newspapers four years later.

Comedienne Sara Berner Is Granted Divorce
LOS ANGELES, May 8 (AP) — Mrs. Lillian H. Rosner, known professionally as comedienne Sara Berner and as Jack Benny's radio show telephone operator, “Mabel Flapsaddle,” has obtained a divorce.
She charged Milton Rosner, 36, talent agent, with cruelty, namely criticizing and dominating her. They were married at Las Vegas, Nev., in 1951 and separated March 30, 1954.
Mrs. Rosner was given custody of their daughter, Eugenie, 5, $150 a month child support and $150 a month alimony for one year.

Not only was Rosner a talent agent, he was Berner’s talent agent, before and during their separation.

But the story gets sadder, sadder than anything that Ralph Edwards would have dared to broadcast to a television audience. The wire services picked up a story from the Van Nuys News of December 27, 1959.

Actress Pleads Innocent to Endangering Daughter
Actress Sara Berner, who plays a telephone operator on the Jack Benny Show, yesterday pleaded innocent to a charge of endangering the life of her 7-year-old daughter.
A jury trial was scheduled for Jan. 25.
Miss Berner, 47, of 5448 Murietta Ave., Van Nuys, appeared before Municipal Judge William H. Rosenthal, who ordered her returned to Lincoln Heights Jail in lieu of $525 bail.
Phoned Police
Officers E.C. Hayes and George Betsworth received a call on Christmas eve to go to the Murietta Ave. address to check “unknown trouble.”
They were told Mrs. Berner had phoned the Van Nuys Police Station several times earlier asking police protection, claiming her ex-husband, Milton Rosner, 37, was on the way to kill her.
Hayes and Betsworth said they were met at the door by her daughter Eugenia.
They asked for her mother and Mrs. Berner then called from the bedroom for the officers to come in there.
They said Mrs. Berner was in her nightgown and the bedroom was littered with papers, clothing and cigarette butts.
She demanded police protection, insisting her husband was on the way to kill her.
Woman Handcuffed
When the officers tried to reason with her, she became abusive and started screaming.
The officers said it was necessary to handcuff her to restrain her as she allegedly tried to attack them.
The daughter was taken to Juvenile Hall, then turned over to her father.

The Associated Press story on the same incident revealed one other thing—there were bottles strewn over the floor. We’re left to assume they weren’t from soft drinks.

What happened next? From the News of January 26, 1960.

Valley Actress Forfeits Bail
Actress Sara Berner’s bail of $525 was forfeited when she failed to appear in Los Angeles Municipal Court for trial on a charge of endangering the life of her 7-year-old daughter.
Judge Gerald C. Kepple was informed Miss Berner, 47, who played the telephone operator on the Jack Benny show, has been committed to a hospital in San Mateo County.
The actress, of 5448 Murietta Ave., Van Nuys, was arrested Christmas Eve when officers went to her home after she telephoned the Van Nuys station and said her ex-husband was on the way to kill her.
The daughter Eugenia Rosner was taken to Juvenile Hall and later turned over to her father, Milton Rosner, 37.

How long she was in hospital and even why is not known. She likely was moved to the Bay area because she had a sister living in Hillsborough.

Sara’s career through the 1960s was virtually non-existent, at least by a glance of available TV listings. She got good reviews in 1961 as the comic relief, hired as a last-minute emergency fill-in, on the Grammys (the telecast of which, in those days, was way down on the food chain of awards shows), appeared in a dramatic role on “CBS Playhouse” in January 1967 and likely promoted it a month earlier when she dropped in on Gypsy Rose Lee’s daytime show. But that’s all I’ve been able to find.

The News of September 7, 1969 reports Sara in fair condition at Community Hospital of North Hollywood but her father wouldn’t tell the newspaper why, though he mentioned she suffered from arthritis. The News did a follow-up on October 14th.

Sara's Mabel Flapsaddle Bedded by Own Phone
The story was of actress Sara Berner and it ran in a series of supporting players. It was on Page 43 and the magazine was the old Radio Life, now Radio-TV Life. The year was 1943. And of the publication, there’s no one in the world who could top Sara’s quip that this radio actor’s bible “sold at the time for 3 cents.”
Of course this would be if Sara felt up to any kind of gag concerning the old mike days or even the present nonradio nowadays.
For Sara, known to million of both radio and television listeners in those nostalgic days as Mabel Flapsaddle, feels little inclination now to very funny about anything.
Questions Answered
The versatile little actress, whose home is Van Nuys, today is confined to a convalescent home following major surgery. It’s not as funny a place as Jack Benny’s studio where Sara not only convulsed the “39-year-old” comedian at the microphone, but all who worked on the set as well. Sara’s Mabel Flapsaddle had ‘em in the aisles both on and off the air.
And this tribute to the spunky little trouper is in part an answer to uncounted queries as to her present whereabouts and “when is she going to be heard again?”
Sara’s address is Jefferson Convalescent Home, 5240 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. The telephone, just waiting to ring, is 391-7263.
Sara, as the oldtimers will remember, is the girl who made hash out of Benny’s attempts to get the right telephone number. As the operator who tangled, literally, with more wires than are pulled by politicians, the actress gave new, electronic meaning to the word “boner” and had fan clubs coming out of the mike.
Now Convalescing
As dialectician par excellence, the little gal from Oklahoma did her stuff regularly on all the top shows and gave 20 of the best years to Benny and Miss Flapsaddle.
She’s now giving a few to herself and the goal is good health again and then, back to work. As for Mabel and her tangled prefixes and loused-up connections, she will never be forgotten. The same goes for Sara.

But she was forgotten. Berner died on December 19th, according to on-line death records, but the wire services never reported it. Her family placed a memorial in the News the following November. And then there was this ad placed in November 1972:

One can only imagine what John Crosby would have thought.

Well, I can’t end this post on a downer. I’ve always been a big fan of Sara’s work in cartoons and on Jack Benny’s show. Here she is in a TV broadcast from October 25, 1951 as Slim-Finger Sara. Her scene starts just after the 13:30 mark.


  1. Didn't know about the spousal abuse problems. If it had gotten to the point where Sara was not reliable for work, that may explain the riff with Benny (Bea, meanwhile, had a decent set-up in the first few years of Jack's TV show, since the filmed episodes were done by George Burns' McCadden Productions. No problem for Blanche to just waltz over to a neighboring set and do a little telephone operator duty for a moment or two).

  2. I find it sad that people that have a fine talent like Miss Berner had couldnt keep their personal life in order..

    1. Talent lands upon anyone, even those who are unable to deal with its effects on their lives.

    2. Tim That's a very naive comment

  3. I was mildly curious about Sara after seeing her short but memorable performance as the maid in a B noir movie 'Backlash' -1947 (on youtube). A shame that her private troubles were made public.