This week I’m excited to learn more about one of my favorite entertainers—Bea Benardaret. Bea had a long and successful career in radio and television, as well films. Nick-named Busy Bea, she would get credit for making more than 1000 radio and television appearances.
Born in 1906 in New York City, she was raised in San Francisco. Her first radio appearance occurred when she was 12 years old in Beggar’s Opera. While still in high school, Bea went to work for radio station KFRC where she acted, sang, wrote, produced, and announced. She went on to the Reginald Travis School of Acting.
She married Jim Bannon in 1938. Their marriage would last until 1950 and produce two children, Maggie and Jack. She later married Gene Twombly in 1958 and remained married until her death. Jack tells a story about when his mother was very pregnant with his sister. While exiting a cab, she fell and broke her pelvis. It was so traumatic that her brunette locks turned white. At that time, she began dyeing her hair the blonde color we would all recognize once she transitioned to television.
Bea’s son Jack became an actor who has 91 credits for television and movie work. He appeared on Petticoat Junction 15 times, but was best known for his role of Art Donovan on Lou Grant. He was married to Ellen Travolta and passed away in the fall of 2017.
Bea could probably win the award of most-often misspelled name. You can find her name spelled Benardaret correctly or Benederet or Benadaret. On several episodes of Burns and Allen, you can even find credits spelling her first name “Bee.”
After graduation, she entered the radio business full time. She moved to Hollywood in 1936 and found work on The Jack Benny Show and shortly after with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater in 1937. She was featured in 36 different radio shows with her most famous roles being Gertrude Gearshift on The Jack Benny Show, Eve Goodwin on The Great Gildersleeve, Millicent Carstairs on Fibber McGee and Molly, Gloria the maid on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and Iris Atterbury on My Favorite Husband. She received a starring role in Granby’s Green Acres, the forerunner of the Green Acres Show.
In 1943, she became one of the primary voices of Warner Brothers Merrie Melodies and Looney Toons cartoons. She met Mel Blanc during this time and they remained friends for life.
Bea also received roles in six films including a government clerk in Notorious (1946), one of two women Gene Kelley and Frank Sinatra encounter on the subway in On the Town (1949), and Tender is the Night (1962).
Bea’s first television role was my favorite character—Blanche Morton on the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. Bea had appeared on their radio show and when the duo transitioned into television, she made the move with them. From 1950-1958 she was Gracie’s best friend and long-suffering wife of Harry Morton. Bea credited George Burns for teaching her about comedy. Bea was awarded two Emmy nominations for her portrayal of Blanche.
Not long after she was obligated to play Blanche, Lucille Ball offered her the role of Ethel Mertz on her new show I Love Lucy. Bea had to decline, but she did make an appearance on the show in 1952. Her “husband” on My Favorite Husband and Granby’s Green Acres was Gale Gordon. He, too, was approached to play Fred Mertz; however, similarly to Bea’s situation, he had already agreed to transition from radio to television on Our Miss Brooks. He too would costar on the show and later he was able to work with Lucille Ball again on her other television shows.
In 1960 Bea accepted the role of the housekeeper on Peter Loves Mary. That same year she agreed to provide the voice for Betty Rubble when The Flintstones debuted on Friday nights. She would provide voices on The Flintstones for 112 episodes.
Paul Henning was one of the writers for Burns and Allen. He and Bea became friends in the 1940s, and in 1962 he created a show called The Beverly Hillbillies. He brought in Bea for the role of Granny, but when Bea saw Irene Ryan’s audition, she told Paul he had definitely found his Granny. He then created the role of Pearl Bodine for Bea. She would appear in 22 episodes. Donna Douglas, who played Elly May, said that “watching her timing is like watching a ballerina. She’s so effortless.”
When Henning created a spin-off in Petticoat Junction, the role of Kate Bradley was written specifically for Bea. She appeared in 179 of the episodes of the show that aired from 1963-1969. Henning’s wife’s family ran the Burris Hotel in Eldon, Missouri that catered to salesmen traveling by railroad, and those stories became the basis for Petticoat Junction. Kate, a widow, runs the hotel with help of her Uncle Joe who is often busier trying to avoid work than helping out. She has three daughters Billie Jo, Bobby Jo, and Betty Jo. (During the show’s run, there would be three Billie Jo’s, and two Bobby Jo’s but only one Betty Jo, who was portrayed by Linda Kay Henning, Paul’s daughter.)
Charley Pratt and Floyd Smoot run the Cannonball, a train that enables the Bradleys to travel to Pixley and Hooterville. Cut off from the main railroad twenty years earlier in a trestle demolition, the train caters to local residents, often stopping to move cows or let someone visit a neighbor between official stops. Sam Drucker runs the general store in Hooterville and is always the center of local society. Though it was never made too obvious, Kate and Sam had a special relationship, and we always assumed that once the girls were grown and gone, and Sam was ready for retirement, he and Bea would end up together. The old-fashioned hotel offers home cooking and a nostalgic feel. Other titles considered were Ozark Widow, Dern Tootin’, and Whistle Stop. When Steve Elliott, the crop duster, came to town, he dated Billie Jo. They made a glamorous couple, but a season or two later, he realized he truly loved Betty Jo, the youngest and the tomboy who helped in repair his plane. They married and had a daughter, Kathy Jo.
In 1967 Smiley Burnette (Charley) passed away. In 1968 Bea became ill and died that year from lung cancer and pneumonia. Bea’s second husband, Gene Twombly, passed away four days later from a heart attack. June Lockhart was brought on to the show as Dr. Janet Craig to help be a mother figure to the girls. Ratings declined in season 6 with the loss of Bea; however, the network renewed the show for another year so there would be five years of colored episodes for syndication. Ratings increased during the last year, but in 1969 when the new administration cancelled all the rural shows, Petticoat Junction received its walking papers too.
There were always rumors that there would be a reunion from the show, but that never happened, although the cast did take on both the Brady Bunch and Leave it to Beaver crews on Family Feud in 1983.
Bea was known for her laugh. By all accounts, she was a kind woman and extremely professional in all her roles. While I enjoy Petticoat Junction, I adore Gracie Allen, and am always happy to indulge myself watching Burns and Allen Show episodes. Bea holds her own on the show and makes a wonderful practical counterpart to Gracie’s illogical logic. If I had a time machine, one of the first visits I would make would be back to 1950 to enjoy a cup of coffee with Gracie and Blanche.