Jay Sommers Figured Out the Formula for Good Writing

I thought it might be fun to look at some unique aspects of writing for sitcoms in this blog series. This month we’ll take a look at a variety of writing subjects.

To begin this series, I wanted to learn a bit about a classic sitcom writer, and Jay Sommers came to mind immediately. He wrote more than 400 scripts.

Sommers was born in 1917 in New York City. Before veering into comedy, he attended the City College of New York and studied the not-so-funny topic of chemistry. Apparently, he had good chemistry with his girlfriend’s father who thought he was pretty funny. The dad was an executive with Bristol Myers and the company sponsored many radio shows.

Photo: rusc.com

In 1940 his relationship with his then girlfriend’s dad led to Sommers receiving an offer to write for Milton Berle’s radio show. Jay did not keep the girl, but he kept the career. He would go on to write for a variety of radio shows including The Alan Young Show, Eddie Cantor, Spike Jones, Lum and Abner, and Red Skelton.

In 1950 he became the producer, director, and writer for a show called Granby’s Green Acres. It only ran for two months, but it would inspire him to create Green Acres for television a decade later. The show was based on a book by S.J. Perelman titled Acres and Pains. The premise of the show was that a wealthy banker wants to become a farmer, so he and his wife move to the country. The banker was played by Gale Gordon and his wife was Bea Benardaret.

Gordon and Benardaret Photo: wikiwand.com

Sommers’ first job as a writer on television was for The Peter Lind Hayes Show in 1950; the episode starred Gloria Swanson. In 1951 he wrote for the Colgate Comedy Hour, along with an episode of the Buster Keaton Show.

1953 brought him recognition for an episode of Our Miss Brooks (“Clay City Chaperone”). He became busier in 1954 writing for My Friend Irma, The Red Skelton Hour, and The Great Gildersleeve.

In the late fifties, he contributed to Blondie, Bachelor Father, and The Donna Reed Show.

Sommers really came into his own as a writer in the sixties. Along with a few screenplays, he wrote for The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Jim Backus Show, Dennis the Menace, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Grindl.

Sommers enjoyed the most lucrative part of his career from 1964 to 1970, working on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. Paul Henning had created The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction for CBS. In 1965, the network asked Henning to come up with a new sitcom and said he did not have to film a pilot or give a pitch; they trusted him to develop whatever he wanted. Sommers suggested a television version of his old radio show, Granby’s Green Acres. With Gale Gordon and Bea Benardaret already committed to other shows, the hunt began for two new stars for Green Acres.

Tom Lester, last-surviving 'Green Acres' cast member, dies at 81 - National  | Globalnews.ca
Photo: globalnews.com Cast of Green Acres

In the television show starring Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert, the banker is replaced by an attorney. Oliver Wendell Douglas and his wife Lisa leave glamorous Manhattan and move to a run-down farm in Hooterville. Lisa considers their handyman Eb their son and they bond with all the neighbors including Fred and Doris Ziffel and their pet pig Arnold, general store owner and postmaster Sam Drucker, and the folks from Petticoat Junction.

During an interview with the Television Academy, Paul Henning said his contribution was casting, and he let Jay do most of the writing and producing. The show resulted in 170 episodes and was canceled in 1971 when CBS decided to do a “rural purge” and get rid of any shows that fit that theme.

In another Television Academy interview with Richard L. Bare, who directed Green Acres, he said that he was the only director, Jay was the only producer, and that Jay and Dick Chevillat did all the writing. He said that the only other person on staff was a secretary. And, he said things worked out great. He said today there are way too many people on the set and it gets confusing. 

More Hooterville favorites Photo: sitcomsonline.com

Jay continued writing in the seventies, but he did not write a lot. His shows that decade included Hot L Baltimore, Good Times, Ball Four, Alice, and Hello Larry.

Jay passed away in 1985 in Los Angeles from a heart ailment. It was very hard to find much personal information about Jay and no photos. I do know that at some point he married Barbara and they had several children. So sad that we don’t know a lot about some of the people who contributed so much to the golden age of television.

Jay Sommers left us much too early. He came out of a chemistry background, proving you don’t have to teach someone to be funny. He wrote for some of my favorite shows including The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, and Bachelor Father.

Photo: findagrave.com

Sommers worked on three of the most iconic television sitcoms in the 1960s: The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres. If you have been with me for a while, you know I never really cared for The Beverly Hillbillies. I really enjoy Petticoat Junction and I think it’s well written, but I think Green Acres was one of the best-written sitcoms on television. It’s not easy to write about quirky characters without them seeming unbelievable, but Jay did it. He created characters we fell in love with and truly liked. He produced and wrote brilliant scripts week after week for more than five years. They were clever, witty, and sophisticated without being over the top. His grave marker sums it up, “WRITER.” Thank you, Jay Sommers for introducing us to the good folks in Hooterville.

Verna Felton Saves the Day

We are winding up our blogs for May, and I have a confession to make. For some reason, I failed to notice that there were five Mondays in May, so when I published my blog last week, I realized that I was short one blog. While scrambling to find a topic that still fit in with the other shows we learned about this month, it occurred to me that this week’s actress appeared on The Ann Sothern Show and I Love Lucy. She was also part of the cast of December Bride and Pete and Gladys. So, today we will learn about the woman behind Hilda Crocker: Verna Felton.

Photo: imdb.com

Verna Felton was born in Salinas, California in 1890. Verna entered show business at the young age of nine. Her father died just before her ninth birthday. He was a doctor, but he kept no records of payments due, and there was little cash in his account. Verna had performed at a local benefit for flood victims, where she caught the attention of a road show manager. He offered Verna a job, and after the death of her father, her mother accepted the job on her behalf. Verna grew up involved in theater community.

Photo: agecalculator.com

She was called “Little Verna Felton, the Child Wonder. By age 13 she was performing with the Allen Stock Company that toured the western United States and British Columbia in Canada. By age 20, she had a play written specifically for her by Herbert Bashford called “The Defiance of Doris.”

Photo: wix.com

She continued building her stage resume, acting in a variety of plays.

In 1923 Verna married Lee Millar who conducted the band in the acting troop. He was also a movie actor in the thirties and forties. Verna and Lee were married until his death in 1941. Their son Lee Carson Millar was born in 1924 and would also go on to become an actor who appeared on many of the most popular shows in the fifties and sixties.

From about 1930-1950, Verna could be heard on the radio. Her voice could be detected on a variety of shows including Red Skelton, Hattie Hirsch on Point Sublime, Dennis Day’s mother on his show, and a regular on both The Abbott and Costello Show and The Great Gildersleeve.

Photo: wiki.com

After transitioning from stage to radio, it was no surprise that Verna’s career in the forties and early fifties was spent on the big screen.

Television was a natural progression, and, in 1951, Verna had her first tv roles: as a nurse on Amos and Andy and as Mrs. Day on the Enzio Pinza Show. She continued her radio role as Dennis Day’s mother on his television show in 1952.

With Lucille Ball

During the early fifties, you could catch her on many of the most popular shows: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, I Love Lucy, Burns and Allen, The Bob Hope Show, The Halls of Ivy, I Married Joan, and Where’s Raymond?

Verna would become best known as Hilda Crocker. She played that character on December Bride from 1954-1959 and again on Pete and Gladys during the 1960-61 season, a total of 182 episodes. She was nominated for an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in 1958 and 1959. In both years, she lost to Ann B. Davis for Love That Bob.

With Spring Byington on December Bride
Photo: pinterest.com

Between the two series, she made appearances on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Real McCoys, The Ann Sothern Show, Miami Undercover, and The Jack Benny Show. She also accepted roles on a handful of shows after her life as Hilda, including My Three Sons, Wagon Train, and Dennis the Menace.

Felton had voiced several animation characters for Disney including the fairy godmother in Cinderella, the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, Aunt Sarah in Lady and the Tramp, and Winifred the Elephant in The Jungle Book.

After voicing these fun characters, it was only natural for her to find a television animation character to play, and she found the perfect one in Pearl Slaghoople, Wilma’s mother on The Flintstones. Pearl looked a lot like Wilma but not as young or slim. She originally had red hair like her daughter which later became gray. She did not care for Fred and didn’t think he was good enough for Wilma and often nagged him to do better.

In 1966 Verna passed away from a stroke. Walt Disney would die a few hours later. About 25% of the movies Verna made were for Walt. Jungle Book, the last movie she made for him would debut a year after the two stars died.

Fred has a hard time loving his mother-in-law. Hence the phrase he said  repeatedly 'I love my mother-… | Flintstones, Classic cartoon characters,  Flintstone cartoon

Although Verna’s television career only spanned fourteen years, she appeared in many of the era’s best shows.  She did Broadway, radio, cinema, and animation as well and had a very full and successful career. It was fun getting to know Verna Felton a bit better.

Today, I Get to Introduce You to One of My Very Favorite People, Blanche Morton, via Bea Benadaret

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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