Wednesday, 5 October 2022

Radio's Mrs. Terwilleger and a Cartoon Parrot's Mother

There’s an undeniable link between the Golden Ages of Animation and Radio. The big stars of radio were the subject of caricature and parody in cartoons from a number of studios, from Disney to Mintz. And the lesser stars of radio found employment providing voices for cartoon characters.

Mel Blanc was front-and-centre on the list. In 1934, he was appearing at a store opening in Salem, Oregon. A year later, he found work on KFWB on Johnny Murray’s Variety show. KFWB was owned by Warner Bros. which, as we all know, housed the Leon Schlesinger cartoon studio.

But there were many, many others who came up from the ranks of radio (including quite a number from KFWB) to voice cartoons—Arthur Q. Bryan, Sara Berner, Bea Benaderet, Frank Graham, Marvin Miller and, of course, June Foray, are just a few.

There was another cartoon actress who was a big star on radio—that is, until vaudevillians came west to make movies and started taking over the airwaves in the early ‘30s. Radio on the West Coast bloomed in 1922, with more stations in Los Angeles than New York, and created its own star system and chains of stations from Seattle to Hollywood.

One of those stars was Elvia Allman.

She, too, was on KFWB’s Johnny Murray show. But she was big enough to have her own show, Elvia Allman’s Surprise Package on KHJ in 1929. She got a shot at the big time in 1933—a 13-week contract for a 15-minute show of satiric songs broadcast on NBC Red from New York. At the end of it, she came back to Los Angeles. When the big stars settled in California and filled the network programme slots, Allman became a supporting actress, one in great demand. She even made some films. One was Melody For Hire (1941) that also included Irene Ryan. The two would work together in the 1960s as frenemies on The Beverly Hillbillies.

The Los Angeles Times profiled her in the “Ether Etchings” column of December 16, 1934.

Sent to get a story about Elvia Allman, this scribble arrived on the Merrymaker stage at KHJ yesterday, hoping to find the elongated comedienne at rehearsal . . . the Stage was deserted except for one old gal who was busy rocking in a chair . . . “Hey, lady,” we heyyed, “do you know anything about Elvia Allman?”
“Do I know anything about Elvia Allman? Does Mrs. Terwilleger know anything about Elvia Allman? Young man, I know everything worth knowing about her—and a lot that's not worth knowing either, but I wouldn't want you to mention that.”
So Mrs. Terwilleger said she'd tell everything, but for me not to tell, but If I did tell, to tell whomever I tell not to tell—so, maybe, I better not tell . . .
That Elvia was born in Spencer, N. C., but moved to Texas before she found out what the Governor of North Carolina said to the Governor of South Carolina—or vice versa.
“In fact," said Mrs. Terwilliger, “she moved to Texas just in time to help Davy Crockett at the Alamo. Not that I am one to talk about another girl . . . Texas steered her to Chicago at the age of 18.
“Her first stage job was with the ‘Merchant of Venice,’ though I’m not the one to say she was in the original production! . . . also played in ‘Smilin’ Through’ . . . bet she got the job because she had such a big grin . . . went to New York and they say (not that I'd believe gossipers) that the dern near starved to death—that's why she's so skinny . . . she was too tall for an ingenue, too young for second business roles and too light for heavies . . . just seemed to be misfit, if you know what I mean, young man.
“She came to California with the gold rush, or maybe it was only eight years ago, got a job with KHJ . . . knowing nothing about radio she was made a program director . . . she also read children's poems (with gestures) . . . then Don Lee bought the station--and the same gestures . . . she was a staff artist for six years, doubling as off stage screamer and tragedienne.
“In 1932 she went to New York to join N.B.C. for a thirteen-week series . . . missed earthquake out here but got there in time for the bank closing, which probably meant nothing to her anyway . . . she sings a pretty fair tune, too, though I have watch her very closely . . .”
You've probably guessed that Mrs. Terwilleger is Elvia’s favorite person (seeing as they're the same person) so we’ll continue without quotation marks . . . Elvia likes to go to the beach--as long as she doesn’t get wet . . . likes a kayak (a boat—not an animal) . . . her favorite performers are Fanny Brice and Beatrice Lillie . . . her favorite radio folk are John Charles Thomas, Mary Eastman, Gladys Swarthout and a singer named B. Crosby.

There’s a little sidebar, of sorts, courtesy of the Los Angeles Evening Post of August 11, 1934.

Elvia Allman received a phone call the other morning.
“Hello Mrs. Terwilliger,” said a masculine voice, “this is Mr. Dinwiddie. I’ll be glad to come over on your porch any time you say.”
Elvia for once was speechless. The name “Mr. Dinwiddie,” had been applied to one of her characters without any knowledge that there was such a name in real life.
Elvia’s caller was quite nice about it. He admitted that he got a terrible ribbing from the boys in the office on Monday morning following Elvia’s act on the KHJ Merrymakers Sunday night, but said that he didn't mind because he enjoys the skit himself.

Allman was given another chance at stardom. She was the m.c. for a syndicated series called “Komedy Kingdom.” You know how funny it’s going to be when comedy is spelled with a “k.” It did have a few good acts, including Bob Burns, Morey Amsterdam and Allman herself doing comic monologues in character. The show seems to have debuted in late 1936 and was broadcast on stations in the U.S., Canada and Australia.

For the most part, after enough discs were cut to make the series profitable, Allman supported big-name comedy acts. Here’s a short piece from Noel Corbett’s “Valley Voices” column in the North Hollywood Valley Times, May 11, 1943.

Elvia Allman is not the kind of actress who needs mood music or five minutes of silent home thought to get herself into character. Not Elvia. The tall, slender red head, who is considered one of radio’s top actresses, is more likely to be found engrossed in a game of gin rummy till time to say her lines.
“Tootsie Sagwell” on Burns and Allen, Mrs. Niles, on “Comedy Caravan,” Cobina, of the famous “Brenda and Cobina”—all Elvia. Most of her theatrical career has been confined to radio with occasional flings in the movies; Elvia doesn’t know where she got the inclination for a stage career, since none of her family has ever been remotely connected with things of the theatre.
“Started out with elocution lessons,” grins the actress, “when I was attending a convent school in Wichita Falls, Texas.” (And here might be a logical place to point out that the girl with the variable voice was born in a town in North Carolina—the name of which she cannot recall! “Couldn’t have been very important,” she frowned, “or I'm sure I’d remember it.”)
After graduation from school, Elvia moved to California where she soon found radio work as mistress of ceremonies on a show called “Surprise Package.” This led to a stint in New York on a show where, she confesses wryly, I was known as the California Cocktail Girl—why I don’t know.”
After the New York session, California Cocktail Girl returned to the West Coast to pick up her radio career and become one of Hollywood’s top radio comediennes.
Actress Allman likes to play gin rummy (and that’s an understatement), wears slacks and reads all types of books. She is always willing to oblige autograph seekers, but confesses that after all these years, she never knows what to write!

By this time, Allman had given up her cartoon work. She was never credited on screen. I first noticed her when, close to 60 years ago, I was watching I Wanna Be a Sailor (1937) for the umpteenth time when Petey Parrot’s mother started talking and I suddenly realised “That’s Elverna Bradshaw!” Allman played the character on The Beverly Hillbillies.

The cartoon was directed by Tex Avery, who cast her as Kate Hepburn-sounding characters in I Only Have Eyes For You and Little Red Walking Hood (both 1937).

Jerry Beck’s “Cartoon Research” site says Columbia/Mintz hired her for The Foolish Bunny (directed by Art Davis, 1938), Window Shopping (Sid Marcus, 1938) and Lucky Pigs (Ben Harrison, 1939), but I don’t hear her in the first two and doubt she’s in the third. On the other hand, it sounds like her as Miss Cud in I Haven’t Got a Hat (Friz Freleng, 1935), especially the way she says “Porky Pig.”

Allman’s Hepburn voice shouldn’t be mistaken for Sara Berner’s Hepburn, which is lighter and higher pitched than Allman’s.

This is not a list or a filmography, but I should point out one of Allman’s most famous TV roles was the bossy chocolate factory manager on I Love Lucy.

After retiring, she devoted herself to community service. She volunteered with Meals on Wheels and taught English to underprivileged children. A little sadder is when broadcaster Chuck Schaden interviewed her about her career, she couldn’t recollect all that much.

Allman was 88 when she died in Los Angeles in 1992.

Note: this post was written months ago before the release of Keith Scott’s book on voice actors. He says Allman is not the “Cobina” voice in Goofy Groceries (1941) or Eatin’ on the Cuff (1942). It’s Sara Berner doing her best Allman imitation.


  1. A pretty familiar face for us " Boomers ". My first primetime exposure to Allman was in the late sixties as Granny's nemesis " Elverna Bradshaw " in " The Beverly Hillbillies ". Over the years, I would discovered her hundreds of early television appearances, radio, then animation voice work. Extremely talented and well rounded performer.

    1. Paul Henning must have liked her from when the two worked with Burns and Allen on radio. Allman ended up on both the Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction.