Bea Benaderet and the Path to Petticoat Junction

Ironically I only came to Bea Benaderet’s (1906-1968) biggest, best and best-known role only recently. Instead, I discovered her in a series of satisfying revelations over the years. She is the voice of Betty Rubble on The Flintstones — that’s handily the first place I ever encountered her. She’s Gracie’s next door neighbor and best friend Blanche Morton on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. And she played Jethro’s mom Cousin Pearl on the first couple of seasons of The Beverly Hillbillies. When I first saw her in these live actions parts I immediately went, “I KNOW I know that voice!” and that’s when I first became interested in her. Her fans already know her biggest part, I am going to tease you by saving it until the end.

With Gracie on the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show

Benaderet has an interesting, somewhat surprising background. Her father was a Turkish tobacconist. By that I do not just mean he sold Turkish tobacco. He was a Sephardic Jew from Turkey who immigrated to the U.S. Originally the family lived in New York City, but in 1915 Bea’s father went out to work the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. He liked it in California, so he moved the rest of the family to San Francisco that year. His tobacco shop was a going concern there as recently as 1980. It actually outlasted Bea by over a decade!

Bea studied acting, singing and piano from childhood, and was already acting professionally in radio and theatre when still a teenager. By age 20 she was already a staff member at local station KFRC, where she worked for close to a decade. She worked on many shows, but it was on a variety program called the Blue Monday Jamboree where she developed her knack for a wide variety of dialects, accents, and character voices. Her cast mates included Meredith Willson (best known for writing The Music Man), future I Love Lucy producer Jess Oppenheimer (who would come to be a handy contact), and Elvia Allman, who would later work on many of the same shows with Benaderet.

In 1936 Benaderet moved to Los Angeles station KHJ, and this became a springboard to national radio. Something about her voice resonated with radio audiences. People found her funny. She was to play recurring or regular roles on most of the top radio comedy shows of the 1940s: The Jack Benny Program, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Great Gildersleeve, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, My Favorite Husband (the show that morphed into I Love Lucy, hence the Oppenheimer connection I mentioned above), and Granby’s Green Acres, which later became adapted for tv as Green Acres. Granby’s Green Acres was Benaderet’s one starring role on a radio series. She played opposite Gale Gordon, who had also been her counterpart on My Favorite Husband. The pair were among Lucille Ball’s favorite colleagues. She badly wanted both of them for I Love Lucy, but neither ended up being available. Benaderet was busy at the time on the television version of the Burns and Allen Show. (Happily Lucy later got to cast Gordon in The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy. As we’ll see, Bea had other stuff going on when Lucy launched those shows).

Like many radio performers, Benaderet also did cartoon voiceovers. Her best known early work in this area was providing the voices of Witch Hazel and Granny in the Tweetie cartoons for Warner Brothers before June Foray took those parts over in 1955. Staring in 1960, she was the voice of Betty Rubble on The Flintstones (fellow Warner Bros performer Mel Blanc played her husband Barney). She also did voices on The Jetsons, Top Cat and Yogi Bear.

As Cousin Pearl, one of her broadest, most slapstick characters

At the very same time, she was becoming even more prominent in live action sit-coms thanks to her old colleague Paul Henning, who had written radio and tv scripts for the Burns and Allen Show in which she had appeared. In 1961 he created The Beverly Hillbillies. Benaderet had originally read for Granny, but Irene Ryan nailed that part coming out of the gate, so Henning created the role of Cousin Pearl especially for her.

After two years of monster success, Henning created a spinoff that revolved around Benaderet: Petticoat Junction. And this of course is the part I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Folks who grew up watching this show know her principally as hotel owner Kate Bradley for Petticoat Junction. She also played the role in a few of the early episodes of Green Acres, yet another spinoff, based on the radio show we mentioned earlier.

Sadly her time in the sun was to be short. In 1967 she developed lung cancer; within months she was dead. So much for the benefits of tobacco! Petticoat Junction soldiered on her absence until 1970.

Benaderet ought to be better known and celebrated in the annals of comedy. One reason she might not be better remembered is that in addition to being a character actress, she was a real ensemble player. She liked being part of the team, and it seemed to have no ego about it. One very good example is the well known anecdote about when they were casting The Flintstones. The part of Wilma could well have gone to her if she’d fought for it. But she was just as happy playing Betty. She was big enough and smart enough to know that the machine don’t work without your Bettys. And it’s just as fun to play them, too.