Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Rise of Sara Berner

“American Idol” existed 80 years ago. Only it wasn’t called “American Idol,” and didn’t have catty judges, perma-smiling hosts or waste time with a lot of build-up-the-sympathy back-stories. It was a stripped down endeavour called “Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour” and was little more than a radio version of vaudeville houses’ amateur nights.

The major would take the ones he found he thought had talent, or were sellable, put them in units and send them performing around the U.S. Some took their talent and moved onward. One was Sara Berner, who toiled for a bunch of cartoon studios and then in network radio.

Sara’s name wasn’t really Sara Berner at all. She was born Lillian Herdan on January 12, 1912 to Sam and Sarah Herdan (Berner was her mother’s maiden name), and was the oldest of at least five children. The family was in Albany, New York in 1920 and Tulsa, Oklahoma 10 years later.

Her best-remembered radio role was when she was paired with Bea Benaderet as phone operators on Jack Benny’s show. They first appeared together on October 30, 1945. Benaderet had replaced Berner as the main female voice in Warner Bros. cartoons only a couple of years earlier. Why Berner dumped her extensive cartoon work, I don’t know.

Perhaps her agent was busy in early 1949 as a number of biographical newspaper articles about her appear. This one is from January 21st.

NEW YORK — Some of the choicest bits of comedy on the Jack Benny show are the laughs emanating tram Mabel Flapsaddle and Gertrude Gearshift, the Brooklynese-voiced telephone biddies who cut in with wisecracks on the Waukegan wit’s conversations. The names this pair sign to their income tax returns are Sara Berner and Bea Benaderet. They are two of radio’s top character actresses. In addition to her stint on the Benny show, Sara has been heard in various roles with Amos & Andy, had her voice sound-tracked into five academy award-winning cartoons, provided the squeaky tones of the animated, mouse which appeared with Gene Kelly in “Anchors Aweigh" and has appeared visually in the film “Gay Intruders” and the upcoming flicker, “The Amboy Dukes.”
Bea Benaderet was a staff member and maid-of-all-trades for a number of years on radio station KFRC, has played varied radio roles, been featured with Orson Welles, and is frequently heard on the “Lux Radio Theatre” and the “Jack Carson Show.” Her future in dramatics was presaged in high school when, as an enthusiastic actress, she played an old man with a beard and won rave notices in the school paper. She’s a native New Yorker. Following her high school graduation she studied dramatics on the West coast and served her apprenticeship in stock companies and with a number of little theatre companies. She landed in Hollywood in 1936 and has been there ever since. Her husband is screen Actor Jim Bannon and they have two children, a boy 8, and an 18 month old daughter.
Sara Berner’s career began less according to formula — to fact as a baby sitter. Her charge was her little brother. Brother loved cowboy pictures and Sara liked vaudeville. The formula became simplified when she discovered he would sit willingly through several showings of a neighborhood horse opera while she adjourned to a nearby movie and stage house. While little brother sat content among the bang-bangs, she could be enthralled by the silent drama and visiting jugglers. When the show was over she would dip off to the powder room and act out the complete show to the wonderment of the attendant. The sight was scarcely less inspiring for casual customers who would walk In to find her gesticulating wildly in the throes of heavy drama.
Before she was through high school her lather moved the family to Tulsa Okla., a locale she best remembers for the opportunity it gave her to play Mrs. Cohen in an amateur production of “Abie’s Irish Rose.” Not necessarily as a result of this appearance, but following it father moved his brood back east again and Sara got a job in a Philadelphia department store. Life was passable as long as she had time to mimic the customers, but on a certain fine day she picked the wrong customer — a main line dowager. In one manner or another she transferred her affections to a local radio station and since, the industry was yet in its infancy, managed to wind up with her own 15 minute program Bolstered by such success, she ditched the deal after a few months and moved to New York City to be close to the hub o£ airwave activities She got a job as salesgirl in a Broadway hat shop.
Selling bonnets in working hours and making the round of talent agencies during lunch produced nothing until she landed by luck on a Major Bowes amateur hour. Her five minute appearance flooded the Major with phone calls and he placed her the following morning in one of his traveling units. Eventually it reached Los Angeles. So did Sara The trip has been paying off ever since.

Here’s another one from the Associated Press.


HOLLYWOOD, March 22 (AP)—You may know Sara Berner as Mabel Flapsaddle, telephone operator on the Jack Benny show. (“What is it, Goitrude?”) She also plays Jack’s old girl-friend, Gladys Zybisco.
Sara has been doing all right with a Brooklyn accent that is, for her, completely synthetic. In the new picture, “City Across the River,” she plays the proprietress of a cheap soda fountain in a tough tenement section where you’d swear the accents are home-grown.
Yet Sara was reared in Tulsa. Set on entering show business, she went to New York and got a job in a Manhattan lingerie shop. When customers from Brooklyn came in, she jotted their accents on tissue paper linings of stocking boxes. One day she played hookey from the store for an hour or so. The furious proprietor wanted to know where she had been. She had been next door to a theater and had won a Major Bowes amateur audition, with Brooklynese comedy, that started her as a professional dialectician.
Her toughest assignment on the radio was to talk with an Armenian accent. She called all the rug dealers in the phone book to find one who talked that way. The last place listed had a proprietor born, she was told, in Armenia. Sara hurried to the store only to find that the merchant that very day had had all his teeth pulled. He couldn’t speak a syllable. Sara muddled through the program with a mixture of Balkan accents.

And this was in part of an AP television-radio column by Wayne Oliver the same year. You can see how incredibly busy Sara was and also get an indication how she tested her skills.

NEW YORK, Dec. 24—(AP)—You're no doubt familiar with the voice of Mabel Flapsaddle, the telephone operator, and Gladys Zybisco, the girl plumber, on the Jack Benny program. Also Ingrid Mataratza on the Jimmy Durante show, Helen Wilson on Amos ‘N’ Andy, Mrs. Horowitz on Life with Liugi, Chiquita on the Gene Autry program. Also Crystabelle, Geneva Hafter and Aunt Nellie on the Beulah show.
What you may not know is that all these voices—each with its distinctive accent, dialect or personality — belong to one person. She is pert, blonde Sara Berner who can turn different accents on and off as easily as you turn your dial from one station to another.
How does she do it?
“Well, you have to have an ear for it,” she tells this column. “Some people have an ear for music. I have an ear for accents.”
When Miss Berner wants to test the authenticity of her accent, she goes to the region where it is most common. Then she tries her version on a store salesman, ticket seller or someone else who deals with the general public. If she gets a laugh there or is spotted as being from another section, she knows her accent is phony and there's more work to be done.
Although Miss Berner is best known for her Brooklynese on the air, she is from Oklahoma.

Berner’s Major Bowes shows went through 1936 and until about April 1937. They took her to Los Angeles in March the latter year and that may be when she landed some radio work. While her accents got her on radio, and are peppered throughout her cartoon work (the Italian mamma buzzard in “The Bashful Buzzard,” for example), it was her impersonations which originally got her into animation.

The story below from 1944 isn’t altogether accurate.

So Sara Shines
Moviedom Films Yuletide Fairy Stories of Animals
HOLLYWOOD, Dec. 23—(AP)—This Christmas season has kept Sara Berner busier than a cartoon moth around an animated lighthouse!. . .
Why? . . . because practically every studio has been filming yuletide fairy stories about animals. . . and that's where Sara shines. . .
For eight years, she has been putting words into the mouth's of animals that appear in movie cartoons. . . in fact, she once won an academy award for vocally imitating top feminine stars.
She got her first screen assignment when a film cartoon producer, after hearing her impersonate Katharine Hepburn. . . signed her for the voice of a baby panda. . .

“Life Begins For Andy Panda” was released by Walter in 1939 but she can be heard in Disney (“Mother Goes Goes Hollywood”) and Warner Bros. cartoons the previous year. Animals impersonating Kate Hepburn had made periodic animated appearances, voiced by Elvia Allman, a fine character actress, comedienne and veteran of the Los Angeles radio scene. Internet guessers who post to databases and encyclopaedias can’t seem to tell the two apart. Allman plays a Hepburnish chicken in “A Star is Hatched” (1938) but when a similar chicken appears in “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” only months later, it has Berner’s voice. Berner’s sound is a little higher than lighter than Allman’s.

Historian Keith Scott explains what actually happened. Lantz heard Berner do Hepburn on the Eddie Cantor show, then hired her to do it for “Barnyard Romeo” (1938); the Panda cartoon was, of course, later. She was then hired for the Disney cartoon, then for the Daffy cartoon.

Berner turns up on ‘Fibber McGee and Molly’ in 1939 and it’s almost impossible to list the network radio shows she appeared on. She appeared with Bob Burns, Burns and Allen. She was a hit with a nasal-voiced character on ‘Al Pearce and His Gang’ in 1942 which she later used on the Jack Benny show, even singing with it. She was Bubbles Lowbridge on ‘Nitwit Court’ (1944) with Mel Blanc and Arthur Q. Bryan. She showed up on Rudy Vallee’s broadcast of May 10, 1945 with Adolphe Menjou, Irene Ryan and B.S. Pulley, then sued Vallee in October, claiming he reneged on a 39-week contract to pay her $500 a week and credit on each broadcast. Then there was her role as waitress Dreamboat Mulvaney on the 1947 summer show ‘Arthur’s Place’ whose namesake producer-star, Arthur Grant, was suddenly fired after five weeks and replaced with Jack Kirkwood. Berner was a daily regular on the “Anna and Eleanor Roosevelt” daytime show on ABC in 1949, performing Fanny Price’s Indian routine on one 15-minute broadcast.

Two odd radio stories, first from the Valley News of Van Nuys from February 25, 1946.

Jack Benny had better be careful what he says to Mabel Clapsadle, one of the telephone operators on his NBC program, for there’s a real Mabel Clapsadle listening in. The two operators, Mabel and Goitrude, played by Sara Berner and Bea Benedaret [sic], have been regulars on the show all season, but it was not until this week that the real Miss Clapsadle appeared. She is secretary to the vice-president of the Security-First National Bank in Hollywood and she has been besieged with calls from friends who wonder if she really knows Jack Benny.

The character’s name on the radio was “Flapsaddle” but there was, indeed, a Mable Clapsadle. U.S government records show she was born in Illinois on August 24, 1895 and died in Los Angeles on September 23, 1972.

And Jimmy Fidler’s column of May 4, 1949 reveals:

Odd results from Hollywood fame. Not long ago, for instance, Sara Berner, the character actress, was a guest on a coast-to-coast radio program. The master of ceremonies, in introducing her to the audience mentioned the fact that she was the “voice” for Jerry, the cartoon mouse that danced with Gene Kelly in one outstanding sequence of “Anchors Aweigh.” A few days after the broadcast, Miss Berner received in the mail a present from a Wisconsin admirer. The package contained an elaborate assortment of cheeses.

The climax of Sara’s career came in 1950. Network radio did for her what it did for Mel Blanc in 1946. It gave her a starring showcase to use her various voices. It gave her a sterling supporting cast. And, like Blanc, she flopped. “Sara’s Private Caper” debuted on June 15th, immediately after “Dragnet.” The show was surrounded in uncertainty. It went through three names before a fourth was finally picked. Radio listings weren’t sure what kind of show it was. Some newspapers called it a drama. Others a comedy. Others a mystery. Others used a combination term. NBC’s publicity department should easily have straightened that out. It’s still a bit disconcerting listening to what’s supposed to be a detective show and hearing laughs. Even what one newspaper preview advertised as Sara’s natural voice sounds like one of her New York dialect characters. The opener featured Gerry Mohr as the bad guy and other voices easily recognisable are Eric Snowden (Ronald Colman’s butler on the Jack Benny show), Frank Nelson (Benny show) and Bob Sweeney of the comedy team Sweeney and March as the boyfriend of the originally-named character: “Sara Berner.” The programme seems to have ended August 24th, though NBC had made some Thursday night switches the week before.

Sara was still busy with the Benny show, television, films and even comedy records—for awhile. But her career wasn’t really the same. And we’ll look at what happened in a future post.


  1. Sara may have run into the same problem on the radio side that Bea apparently encountered in the 1950s and 60s, in that the network radio/TV workload got to be too much to continue doing the cartoon voices. It would have been interesting to see how Berner would have handled continuing to work at Warner's since she bowed out and Benaderet took over just at the time the studio entered its Golden Age (though the studio already provided her with some good bits before then, such as her Mike Maltese-penned description of grandma's malady in "The Trial of Mr. Wolf").

  2. It could have been workload, but it may not have been. Bea was also very busy on radio through the second half of the '40s but found time to track cartoons (though Warners used someone else in a few cartoons in the late '40s I haven't been able to identify). And Mel Blanc was probably busier than both of them but he was able to work his Warners schedule around his radio work.

  3. According to former AMC host Bob Dorian, she voiced the "Katharine Hepburn" camel in Road to Morocco.

  4. Bobby, that's correct. I've got some stuff coming on that in part 3 of our little series on her career.

  5. Thanks for the article. I heard her on the JB Program and wanted to know more about this funny lady. Thanks again