Sara Berner: From Bowes to Benny to the Bottle

Sara Berner (Lillian Ann Herdan, 1912-1969) was better known by her voice than her face at the peak of her fame. She had been a department store clerk with a penchant for comedy dialects and impressions when she landed an audition for Major Bowes Amateur Hour in 1937 and was hired by Bowes to perform in an “all girl unit” that toured presentation houses nationally. This led to voice-over work in radio and animated cartoons.

Berner played recurring characters on The Jimmy Durante Show, Fibber McGee and Molly (1939), The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1940-49), The Jack Benny Program (1940-55), Lux Radio Theatre (1942-48), The Red Skelton Program (1944-49), The Rudy Vallee Show (1945-46), The Baby Snooks Show (1946), The Eddie Cantor Pabst Blue Ribbon Show (1947-48), Life with Luigi (1950-52), and Amos ‘n’ Andy (1950-55). Her ability to do impressions of stars like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn got her lots of work in cartoons for Warner Brothers, Walt Disney, MGM and Walter Lantz starting in the late 1930s. She supplied the original voice of Andy Panda in 1939. In 1942 she did the voice of Mabel the Camel in Hope and Crosby’s Road to Morocco. In 1945 she was the voice of Jerry the Mouse (of Tom and Jerry) during the Gene Kelly dance number in Anchors Aweigh. That same year she began doing the character of Mabel Flapsaddle the telephone operator on The Jack Benny Program, whose gossipy interplay with fellow operator Bea Benaderet became a regular highlight of the show. In early years, she also played Gladys, Jack’s plumber girlfriend. In 1950 she briefly got her own national radio show, Sara’s Private Caper, a comedy sleuth show, but it only lasted a few episodes.

Berner also amassed a small number of on-camera screen credits in bit parts, mostly in gritty noir and crime films: Backlash (1947), The Gay Intruders (1948), City Across the River (1949), The Story of Molly X (1949), Carrie (1952), The Naked Street (1955), Artists and Models (1955) with Martin and Lewis, and Spring Reunion (1957). The best known of all these is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), in which she and Frank Cady played the couple with the dog who live over murderer Raymond Burr’s apartment. As with her radio work, many of these films made use of her facility with accents: she could do Italian, Yiddish, Latin, Greek, Polish, Hillbilly, whatever a role required. Since childhood, she made a serious study of it, although as time went on, there was less demand for this vaudeville-inflected specialty. The fact that she herself was Jewish but spent a good part of her early life in Oklahoma, no doubt was an aid to this versatility. She loved to interact with a variety of voices.

Berner also appeared on television a number of times, most regularly on the TV version of The Jack Benny Program, 1952-55. Many of her last credits were voicing the cartoon character of Chilly Willy, 1953-57.

In 1958, she divorced her husband Milton Rosner, who was also her agent. Rosner continued to represent her after the split, but only seems to have found work for her (a few bit parts on television) for about a year. At this point she seems to have essentially retired to focus on raising their daughter, though the daughter was temporarily removed from her custody in 1959 due to her excessive drinking (she was charged with child endangerment). A thorough article about Berner’s “fall” may be found here.  A decade later, Berner died followed an operation for an undisclosed ailment. Only 57, she was living in a Culver City convalescent home at the time.

To find out more about  the history of sow business, and performers like Sara Bernerconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous