Beatrice Pons: From MacLeish to “Mother’s Day”

In the mid ’80s, I was briefly diverted by the charmless charms of a low-budget independent horror movie called Mother’s Day (1980). I am not ordinarily a fan of graphic horror, nor was I then, but something about this appalling exercise captured my attention for a few weeks. Somehow, I had acquired the VHS tape, I think, back when my personal library was quite small, or else I taped it off of television, although it’s hard to imagine a TV network at the time, even a cable one, showing it. But I watched it several times — as camp, mind you, camp. This was a time in my life when, thanks to the wonders of cable TV and home video I was able to finally get my hands on certain notorious films I had long read about but not seen, things like Roger Corman’s original Little Shop of Horrors (1960). and Nicholas Webster’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). And so I watched Mother’s Day in that spirit, although it was hard to do so in quite the same way. I watched it as a “bad movie”, and was full of mockery about the script and the performances, but doing so was a bit of challenge, because the movie was full of violent, twisted scenes and situations sufficient to make one lose one’s lunch. In one memorable scene, among all the slashings and stabbings and beatings and torturings, a girl pours Drano down a man’s throat (worst of all, he deserves it). I’d seen some contemporary horror films like Motel Hell (1980) and Scanners (1981), and this was more in the vein of those kinds of movies. An agenda to SHOCK. Some of the humor was clearly intentional, though, and in retrospect we learn that it was written, directed and produced by Charles Kaufman, brother of Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman (and not the same as Charlie Kaufman of 2008’s Synecdoche, New York. Robert Ebert called the latter film the best movie of the decade, whereas he had given Mother’s Day ZERO stars). Some critics now say they perceive satire in the movie, due to its relentless consumer product placement and the fact that one of the assailants gets a TV smashed over his head. That’s giving them all the best of it.

You have no idea where I’m going with this, do you? You can’t possibly. At any rate, the titular Mother in Mother’s Day was played by a woman billed as “Rose Ross”. The character is a shrill, shrieking old bat who has turned her two inbred, mentally defective sons into monstrous rapists and killers, and the picture is one of those by-the-numbers excursions about a trio of college girls who get lost in the woods and are terrorized by these horrible people. Our post is about this Rose Ross, who actually turns out to have been the somewhat better known Beatrice Pons (Beatrice Posner, 1906-1991). Pons clearly adopted a different name for crediting because she didn’t want it widely known that she appeared in this film. For at the time there actually was an audience who would have known who she was, though this was back in the day when there was little danger of them discovering that she was in Mother’s Day, a movie most of them would never see or even know existed. Pons had a track record in night clubs, on Broadway, radio, and television, and had played a supporting part in a film that was nominated for multiple Oscars. Amongst her previous credits, Mother’s Day would not be deemed a high point, although four decades later we make it our jumping-off-point. Because, after all, she starred in it.

Pons had initially studied to be a teacher, and had worked as one in New Jersey. But she was gifted at impressions and singing, and loved performing as well. Her professional name seems a pretty clear tribute to French soprano Lily Pons. As it happens, Beatrice would play a French coquette in her fist Broadway play Mahogany Hall (1934) with Olga Baclanova. This was followed by chorus parts in several Gilbert and Sullivan revivals, and a role in Archibald MacLeish’s Panic with Zita Johann, Richard Whorf, and a young Orson Welles. At around this time she also performed a nightclub act called “Your Face is Familiar”, in which she did impressions of Beatrice Lillie, Lynn Fontanne, Helen Hayes, and others.

In the mid ’30s she also began working in radio drama, where she met her husband, announcer David Ross, whom she married in 1937. Pons’ best known radio credit is the show Dick Tracy, on which she played every female character except Tess, the female lead, from 1938 through 1948. She also appeared on The Goldbergs, establishing a friendship with its creator and star Gertrude Berg. She was later to guest star on the TV version of The Goldbergs as well, and to appear on stage with Berg in a 1957 production of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (later adapted into the musical Hello, Dolly!).

After a hiatus of a few years during which Pons raised her young son, she began acting in television in the early 50s. And it is in this medium that she attained her greatest fame, playing the wife of Joe E. Ross (no relation to David) on two Nat Hiken series: You’ll Never Get Rich a.k.a. The Phil Silvers Show a.k.a. Sgt Bilko (1956-59) and Car 54, Where Are You? (1961-63). As Emma Ritzik on the first show she was shrill and shrewish; as Lucille Toody on the second, she was more exasperated and sympathetic (“I went to Hunter College but I married a nut!”). At any rate, these are the parts she would have been best known for by Mr. and Mrs. America, very few of whom I can picture going to see Mother’s Day a decade and a half later.

In the meantime, Pons of course continued to work: she understudied in two Broadway shows, and played some small roles in film and TV. Her most notable credit from these years was an appearance in the 1968 film Rachel Rachel, directed by Paul Newman and starring Joanne Woodward, Estelle Parsons, and James Olson. This was a prestige production, nominated for multiple awards, a far cry from her next film!

Yep, same woman

David Ross died in 1975, else I’m not sure we would have seen his widow star in Mother’s Day. There is a stunt casting element to her appearance in the film — after all, Pons had previously been associated with noisome harpies on the screen. Is this what happens to Mrs. Ritzik? But as we say, she went under the name Rose Ross, and back then it would have been a rare person who would connect the woman’s various incarnations, as we have had the luxury of doing.

At any rate, though Mother’s Day did Pons’ reputation no credit, it didn’t end her career either. In 1981 she was in a thing called Rent Control (1981) starring a pre-StarTrek TNG Brent Spiner and Elizabeth Stack (Robert Stack’s daughter, who appeared with her dad in Murder on Flight 502). This chestnut was directed by the Italian Gian Luigi Polidoro, perhaps best known for directing a 1969 version of Satyricon that is NOT the Fellini one. We’re already into fairly jaw-dropping territory but there’s more! I’m looking at the credits for the film and who else do I see but off-Broadway playwright Leonard Melfi (a La MaMa and Theater for the New City stalwart) and Robin and Abigail Pogrebin. I had to rub my eyes at those last named. Robin Pogrebin writes about cultural institutions for The New York Times — I knew her in that capacity when I was doing p.r. for The New-York Historical Society back in the day. Abigail is also a writer and podcaster. Their mom was one of the founders of Ms. Magazine. How these two teenaged girls wound up in this movie is a story I would very much like to hear.

Still not the end! In 1986 she played a fortune teller in Amos Kollek’s Forever Lulu, with Debbie Harry in the eponymous role, alongside Fassbinder star Hanna Schygulla, Annie Golden, a young Alec Baldwin, Paul Gleason, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and Charles Ludlam! Pons is onscreen for less than a minute in this one, but it’s fun and not a bad note to go out on. By then she’d been entertaining audiences for over 50 years.

And this seems not to have been her final credit either. Our old friend Bob Greenberg says he worked with her on a project after this. Says Bob:

She played my mother in a live pilot (staged reading) for Viacom (Paramount) called Instant Justice. It was intended as a game show for MTV I think. It was scripted where I had some grievance against my mother, Bea, and it resulted with the Judge deciding in my favor. I recall her reminding me and all that she had done Shakespeare. Also, when the Director asked me to ad-lib it threw her off and she started to yell at me and the Director explained that I was told to by him. She apologized immediately but later asked me to make my ad-libs soto vocce not to throw her off. At some point I grabbed the Bailiff’s cop hat, put it on, and said, “Bea, who does this remind you of, ‘OOH-OOH’ ” And she said take that off, “You are nothing like him, YOU ARE AN ACTOR, he was no Actor!” I then asked her what do you mean and she continued on Joe E. Ross, “The man never listened to you, I would have to step on his foot for him to say his lines!” And she added, “That Nat Hiken was a genius except at finding real actors, if a waiter made him laugh-he hired him!” I recall that she was proud of Mother’s Day, especially about being on the poster for it. Also the sexy bailiff who’s hat I had borrowed was Camille Donatucci who would eventually marry Kelsey Grammer.….She was a trouper, just very old. I’m trying to remember the year. Post Mother’s Day/ pre-Camille Donatucci meeting Kelsey Grammer. I don’t recall the director’s name but one day he came in and said that he just came from a Friars Roast of Milton Berle and was I so envious. I do recall Nick-At-Night started showing Car 54 at the time and I was gonna try to get her a VHS of some shows. I think she lived on the Upper East Side… Anyway, for some reason we never connected after that but I’m real honored to have worked with her. Hey, she said I was an actor! Must confess that when I was introduced to her I had to excuse myself and go to the bathroom to laugh because I almost said, “I thought you were dead!” Great memories…

Care to support the voluminous and variegated work of Travalanche? Please do so by joining our Patreon Posse here. As little as $1 a month gets you all sorts of extra content over and above what we do here, including our Daily Digest; lots of old time movie, radio, TV and record clips; and exclusive audio and video presentations by Your Humble Servant. Hither to the 411.