Updated: Feb 5, 2021
What does Fred Flintstone’s mother-in-law have to do with West Kootenay?
The woman who provided the original voice for Pearl Slaghoople on the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series was Verna Felton (1890-1966), who also did voiceover work for Disney, appearing in Cinderella, Dumbo, The Jungle Book, Alice in Wonderland, Lady and the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty — as fairies, villains, and elephants. That’s her singing Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo in Cinderella.
She worked extensively in radio as well, on the Abbott and Costello, Red Skelton, and Jack Benny programs, and on TV she guest starred on I Love Lucy and appeared as Hilda Crocker on the sitcom December Bride. But in her youth she starred with the Allen Players, a touring theatrical troupe that performed frequently in the Kootenays between 1909 and 1914.
As David Scott and Edna Hanic wrote in Nelson: Queen City of the Kootenays (1972), p. 95-97, “[T]he perennial Allen Players from Vancouver … spent at least two weeks of each season in Nelson, and [their] star, Verna Felton, became the darling of Nelson’s swain.”
Half-page ad in the Nelson Daily News, Christmas Day 1909.
Felton’s father was a doctor in San Jose, who died of a heart attack when she was young. Her mother Clara, left virtually penniless, decided to take advantage of her daughter’s natural performing talents and moved to San Francisco where Verna received dance and elocution lessons. She made her professional stage debut at Fischer’s Concert House in 1900 at age 10, and later joined the Jessie Shirley Company, where she was billed as “Baby Verna Felton,” and rose to fame in Little Lord Fauntleroy.
The company’s stage manager was a man named Pearl Allen who became very fond of Verna — and of her mother, who also took to acting. In 1902, Allen decided to start his own stock company at the end of a nine-week engagement in Spokane. He felt Verna’s talents had not been properly promoted by the Shirley Co. and invited Clara and Verna to join his new troupe. Thus was born Little Verna Felton and the Allen Stock Company, later to become Verna Felton and the Allen Players. Clara Felton was also later to become Mrs. Pearl Allen.
In 1903-04, they opened their season in Vancouver, the first time Verna performed in BC. Pearl fell in love with the city.
In 1908, the Allen Players were enticed to move from the US to Calgary by entrepreneur William B. Sherman who leased a theatre for them (and who would later lease the Nelson opera house as well). Following a 16-week engagement, they began alternating between Edmonton and Calgary. The following year, the company toured Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. They returned west in the fall, performing in Fernie in November and December before moving on to Nelson.
According to Fredrick Tucker’s excellent 2015 biography, Verna Felton, Pearl always hosted a Christmas Eve banquet for members of the troupe. In 1909 it was held at Nelson’s Hume Hotel after a performance of Tennessee’s Partner that drew a sparse crowd — although before long a Verna Felton performance in Nelson would be a guaranteed sellout.
January 1910 saw the Allen Players perform in Revelstoke before departing for a five-week engagement in Nanaimo, another town they returned to each year. (They spent summer vacations in Ladysmith between 1911 and 1914.) They were back in Revelstoke in October 1910, as well as Trail and Cranbrook, and then on to Fernie. (The ad seen here is from the Trail News, Oct. 15, 1910.)
Their circuit brought them back to all those places in March 1911 and March-April 1912. I am sure they played Nelson as well. The next sign I have of them there is a review in the Daily News of Oct. 15, 1912 of their performance of That Girl From Texas at the opera house. It referred to Felton as “a winsome little lady” and “Nelson’s favorite comedienne.”
Miss Felton has, if anything, improved since her last appearance in Nelson, her long and successful engagements at Victoria to crowded houses in that city has encouraged the lady to even greater efforts than heretofore, and although the play last evening was not calculated to show Miss Felton at her best, still he charming little lady quickly captured her audience and retained their interest throughout the play by her delightfully clever and pleasing acting.
Elsewhere the paper carried an anecdote that might have been true, or might have been invented to further endear her to local theatre-goers.
Miss Verna Felton, the clever and talented actress who leads the Allen Players at the opera house all this week, demonstrated her weakness of heart yesterday afternoon by promptly rescuing a small black kitten on Baker street just as a terrier was about to end the proceedings so far as the kitten was concerned. Miss Felton rushed to the rescue, captured the kitten just in time and carried it off to a place of safety, much to the amusement of the onlookers.
The Allen Players returned to Nelson in March 1913 and once again enjoyed large crowds during a two-week engagement. Felton was said to be as “amusingly clever as ever and never appeared to better advantage … She was warmly applauded last night and, as usual, carried her audience along with her all through a pleasing comedy …” They were back in Nelson that November.
With the general economic malaise that resulted from the start of the First World War, the Allen Players disbanded. Felton returned to the US to find whatever stage work she could. She made her silent film debut in 1917 in The Chosen Prince.
In 1920, the Allen Players reunited. The company returned to Nelson in May 1921. Felton, no longer an ingenue, but still playing the role of 12-year-old Pollyanna, gave an interview to the Daily News.
“This is my prize possession, or rather I should say the prized possession of the company,” she said, displaying a framed program torn and covered with deep rust-coloured spots. “It was found by Mr. Shuttleford of Revelstoke sewn in the cap of a British Columbia soldier killed on Vimy Ridge. Those dark spots are blood. We do not know who the soldier was. The program was placed on exhibition in California during the recruiting period.”
Changing the subject, she added: “Do you know that getting back to Canada is like getting back home after a long exile and mother, Mrs. Allen, told Mr. Allen that under no consideration would she leave this country again. We have made wonderful friends throughout the western part of Canada and there is never anything better than coming back after [a] long absence and finding yourself not forgotten.”
The company received “numerous curtain calls” and the Daily News said Verna “has added depth in her acting since her last appearance here.”
The company played regularly at the Empress Theatre in Vancouver through the 1920s and passed through the Kootenays for possibly the final time in 1926, performing in Cranbrook.
Although she had performed on the radio as early as 1922, Verna’s career behind a microphone began in earnest in 1932. She soon became familiar to a new generation who knew nothing about her stage work. When she died in 1966 — one day before Walt Disney — her career had spanned 65 years.
Updated on Feb. 4, 2021 to add the 1910 clipping from the Trail News.