Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The Granny of Beverly Hills

Irene Ryan wasn’t a grizzled old woman when she made her name as Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies, nor was she a newcomer to show biz. She and her ex-husband Tim Ryan (her maiden name was Noblette) appeared in vaudeville and then in short films and on radio; in fact, they headlined a show called Carefree Carnival in 1933 that went from KECA Los Angeles to the NBC network, a time when shows rarely were broadcast from West to East. When the two split up, Irene continued on the airwaves, perhaps enjoying her greatest success in the late ‘40s/early ‘50s as one of Bob Hope’s stooges.

On Hillbillies, Granny’s son-in-law Jed Clampett became a millionaire. In real life, Ryan did, too. She was generous with what she earned, setting up a foundation two years before her death to give scholarships. The American College Theatre Festival named an award in her honour a year after she died.

Here’s what that great Los Angeles-based publication Radio Life had to say about her in its edition of October 13, 1946. It’s before she arrived on the Hope show.
Comedienne Irene Ryan, Proud of Being One of Radio's Pioneers, Returns to the Ether as Jack Carson's Newest Nemesis.

By Peggy Carter
IRENE Ryan turned the tables on us. We, who are supposed to know all about radio, found ourselves learning about radio's early days from Irene—and we couldn't have picked a better raconteuse!
The petite, blonde, and very attractive comedienne is the lady who keeps the air-lives of CBS' Jack Carson and Arthur Treacher [in photo, right of Ryan] in a constant flurry. And even if you've never seen a performance of the Carson show, you're probably still familiar with Irene. She's appeared in a score of movies and was once co-star of the Tim and Irene Show.
There were a hundred questions we were anxious to ask Irene when we met her, but she just threw up her hands and cried, "Stop! I'll start at the beginning"—and she did.
At thirteen, Irene Noblette made her debut in a professional show. "I must have been awful, but I was so stage-struck I couldn't think of anything else. Then followed years of stock companies until I met one Timothy Ryan. We were married, formed a team and joined vaudeville circuits. We were the type who stuck to the bitter end. Even while we saw vaudeville folding, we refused to believe it."
"Carefree Carnival" Days
"It was while we were living in San Francisco during the late twenties that we decided to look into this radio thing"—with a vague wave of her hand—"and they offered us a job without even an audition. "Because we liked radio, we stayed and finally landed on a wonderful show called 'Carefree Carnival.' That was the first time I'd ever heard of Meredith Willson, Tommy Harris, and Senator Fishface."
To date Irene has had several seasons of her own show, and regular spots on the Ransome Sherman and Rudy Vallee shows. "So don't look upon me as a newcomer," she grinned, "because I knew radio in the days when—"
Irene, who is now Mrs. Harold Edwin Knox, is as gay, informal, and chatty as you'd expect Irene Ryan to be. At present she's bubbling over with enthusiasm about her new home in Westwood.
"You don't know how much a home can mean to you after having been on the road for years. I love it so much, I hate to leave it for a minute."
Learning to Cook
It's a thrill to the comedienne to be able to discuss the price of meat with the butcher, and the laundry situation with the launderer. "I feel just like a bride," she giggled.
Because Irene is well known for her quivering lip, crying songs, we weren't happy until she had performed over the luncheon table for us. "I don't mind," she confided, "because strangers constantly ask me to cry. But a gal can't cry all of the time."
From where we sit, it looks as if Irene's "crying days" are over. She's a successful comedienne, a charming woman—"And best of all, a contented housewife, who likes to do her own work and is just learning to cook!"
Not all the critics were kind when The Beverly Hillbillies debuted in 1962. Granted, the first show was kind of like an extended joke about stupid yokels, with the worst laugh track in TV squawking in the background. But the Bunch from Bugtussle quickly rose in the ratings because people wanted to see the underdog beat the pretentious and/or not-terribly-honest city slickers.

Ryan doesn’t talk about ratings, or even the show, in an interview with the Newspaper Enterprise Association not long after the programme started. She talks about how television suddenly made her a household name. This appeared in papers on March 23, 1963.
Veteran Performer a Big Star Now—Has Tax Problems

HOLLYWOOD (NEA) — TELEVISION can put you to sleep, baby sit, keep you awake and entertain visiting relatives. It also can send a gal to heaven—show business heaven.
That's where Irene Ryan is.
“How do I feel about all this?” she said. “It's like I had gone to heaven.”
She's "Grannie" [sic] of the Beverly Hillbillies. Since the age of 11, when she won an amateur kiddie singing contest, she had pursued big time fame. Then — wham! — she's co-starring with Buddy Ebsen in the nation's top television show.
Suddenly, after all those years, Irene Ryan has discovered the real meaning of those words, “There's no business like show business.”
• • •
“HONESTLY,” she said, “It's so funny I sit and just laugh. Six months ago no one cared whether I was alive or dead. Now everyone I meet asks:
“ ‘How old are you, really, Grannie?’
“ ‘Well,’ I ask, ‘how old are you?’
“So you’ll never know,” she said. “Let's just say I'm older than Shirley Temple but younger than Sophie Tucker.”
• • •
SHE WAS sitting in a booth at the Brown Derby in Hollywood. In a high fashion gown, silk scarf over her head and diamond ring glittering on a finger, Irene looked about as much like Grannie as Sophia Loren looks like Ma Kettle.
She dropped a clue about her age.
“Honey,” she said, “I’m getting letters from people who remember me when I acted with a stock company at the Empress Theater in Omaha in 1925.” She kept repeating, “It's so funny.”
Funny, that is, in a great big wonderful way.
A year ago she was doing a night club act in a Seattle spot when word came from Hollywood that the Hillbillies had been sold to television. Suddenly, as we talked, a part of what was funny made Irene wince.
“Now, at my age,” she said, “all of a sudden I have income tax problems.”
• • •
EVERYBODY wants Irene for something. Her price has gone way up for personal appearances, and the tax now becomes a problem in determining personal appearances. Still, she flies out on week-ends with Donna Douglas and Max Baer because she can't say no, and besides it's good for the show. Buddy Ebsen, who plays Jed Clampett, doesn't like to fly, so he stays at home.
“We appear in costume,” says Irene. “That's the attraction.”
• • •
IRENE SERVED in vaudeville, stock companies, radio, movies, and in television roles.
In radio there was some success in “The Tim and Irene Ryan Show.” Tim was her husband, gone now.
She was always on her toes, always giving slick performances. But never a big, big star.
“But I loved show business,” she said, “every minute of it. Why? To really love show business you have to be of it, not just in it. That's me, honey. I'm of it.”
• • •
A $500 WIG and those duds she wears are about all Irene needs to transform herself into Grannie. There's make-up, sure, but it is 90% talent that transforms chic Irene into the role.
Out of character, and wearing slacks, a silk blouse, high heels, people who work on the show sometimes fail to recognize her.
About her talent, director Richard Whorf comments: “She's fantastic. She puts facial takes on top of facial takes.”
She's been a regular on television before, in Bringing Up Buddy, with Ray Bolger in Where's Raymond? But as Grannie, Irene finally has it made. She predicted the show would click even before air time.
“It's so simple—just good old-fashioned comedy,” she explains. “No one is neurotic; we solve no world problems, and there's no message about anything.” Except, for Irene Ryan, that “there's no business like . . .”
The years took their toll on The Beverly Hillbillies. The show finally became just too silly and was practically a comedy soap opera when it left CBS prime-time in 1970-71, an era where the network was dumping any show smelling of hay and hickory switches. Ryan died only three years later. She had a stroke on stage in a production on Broadway and passed away in hospital in Santa Monica six weeks later.


  1. The "laugh track" on the Hillbillies pilot was of an ACTUAL audience being shown the program, but as you noted, the results were so loud and obnoxious, Henning switched to canned laughter for the rest of the series.

    Also. the final original episode aired 3/23/71, not 1970.

  2. Ryan also subbed as Edgar Kennedy's wife in a few World War II-era episodes of his RKO two-reeler series. which in terms of set-up and story lines, was the closest thing in the pre-TV days to the future video sitcom format.

  3. I've heard a couple of segments of a series Irene and husband Tim did back in the '30s as a summer replacement for Jack Benny. Also a couple of appearances on Rudy Vallee's show. In all of them, the pair come off as sort of a low-rent Burns and Allen.

  4. Always got a kick out of the ridiculous urban myth that Ms. Ryan was the same age as co-star Donna Dixon. I assume this started because 60-something Ryan was playing 'older' on the show and 30-something Dixon was playing 'younger.' But, still!

  5. Yikes! My slip! Of course it was Donna Douglas!