Ethel Owen (March 30, 1893—February 16, 1997) was an American actress with a lengthy career on stage as well as radio and television. In her early sixties, during the mid-1950s, she had a memorable recurring TV role on The Honeymooners, playing Mrs. Gibson, Ralph Kramden's sharp-tongued, interfering mother-in-law.
Early years, marriage and three daughters
Born in Chicago, Ethel Waite started performing around the time of her fourteenth birthday in 1907. Although she is credited with appearances on a number of vaudeville circuits, her primary venue was the legitimate stage, mostly as a member of regional touring theatre groups. Following marriage, in her early twenties, to a Wisconsin physician, Raymond G. Owens, she had three daughters, and while the eldest, Mary, would move to Texas, upon deciding on a career as a social worker in Fort Worth, the younger girls, Virginia and Armilda Jane, followed their mother into show business as actresses.
While raising a family, Ethel Waite continued to maintain her career and adopted Ethel Owen, the shortened version of her married surname, as a new stage name. She continued to perform in summer stock, and Armilda Jane, born in Milwaukee in 1923, began as a child actress in her mother's plays. Well known in summer stock by her tenth birthday, she was even offered a film contract at a time when the success of Shirley Temple's first starring films in 1934 caused studios to conduct searches for other talented performing youngsters, but her mother decided against the move. In succeeding years, she became a teenage performer in musical comedy and, changing her stage name to Pamela Britton, had co-starring roles onBroadway and in a few films, including two classics, the 1945 musical Anchors Aweigh, playing Frank Sinatra's Brooklyn-accented girlfriend, and the 1950 noir, D.O.A., eventually moving to TV sitcoms as the scatterbrained title character in 1957's Blondie and, from 1963 to 1966, as the inquisitive landlady, Mrs. Brown, in My Favorite Martian.
The middle daughter, Virginia, proceeded in her mother's footsteps by retaining her own given name and likewise adopting "Owen" as a stage surname. Put under contract with RKO Pictures, she was mentioned in Louella Parsons' November 26, 1946 column, regarding "an interesting announcement" soon to be made concerning "William Hornstein, a Los Angeles business executive", but no further details were revealed until over three years later, when another story described Virginia's 1950 marriage to University of North Carolina graduate William A. Loock, Jr. During her brief 1946–48 sojourn into film acting at RKO, the sole on-screen credit she received was for playing dance-hall girl Ginger Kelly, fifth-billed second female lead in Zane Grey-based Thunder Mountain, the first of 29 entries in Tim Holt's 1947–52 B-western series.
As a New York actress, on Broadway and radio
At the start of the Depression 1930s, the Owens family left Milwaukee to settle in New York City, where Ethel Owen, now in her late thirties and early forties, found steady work in regional theatre, radio plays and even the black operetta, Africana, with a mixed cast, which had its November 26, 1934 opening night at Broadway's newly-renamed Venice Theatre disrupted by a man claiming to be the story's uncredited co-author. Saddled with negative reviews (The New York Times called it "Whimper of the Jungle"), the show closed on the 28th. Much and, eventually, most of her work came from radio, the prime home entertainment medium of the 1930s and 40s. The tens of thousands of broadcast hours, especially those featuring dramatic presentations, required a constant supply of voice professionals who were called upon to perform in multiple shows within the course of a single day, thus making the list of credits for a hard working performer such as Ethel Owen run into the thousands. One of her most-consistent regular assignments was on the long-running 1936–57 police series Gang Busters which featured listener participation in apprehending criminals.
Following Dr. Raymond Owens' death in 1942, the now-widowed actress continued her non-stop working schedule during the World War II years, while still looking after her grown daughters. In 1943–44 and in 1946, she was in two Broadway shows, the Phoebe and Henry Ephron comedy Three's a Family and the revival of Show Boat. The three-act Family, which Henry Ephron also directed, opened at the Longacre Theatre on May 5, 1943 and ran for 497 performances, transferring to the Belasco Theatre on May 28, 1944 and closing there on July 8. Show Boat, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre on January 5, 1946, eight weeks after Kern's death on November 11, 1945. The production, with 115 cast members, including Ethel Owen in the non-singing role of Parthy Hawks, the mother of Magnolia, played by Jan Clayton, counted 418 performances, closing on January 4, 1947 — the longest-running revival of a stage musical at that point in Broadway history.
In her mid-fifties, Ethel Owen remarried and moved to the home of her husband, John Hale Almy, in New York City's affluent suburb of Bronxville. It was there, in March 1950, that the wedding of Virginia Owen to William A. Loock, Jr. was held, with John Hale Almy giving his stepdaughter in marriage.
Starting in 1947–48, at the dawn of a period referenced as the Golden Age of Television, Edith Owen began appearing in the numerous live drama series emanating from New York. One of her earliest performances was in the title role of "Old Lady Robbins", the November 3, 1948 episode of NBC's hour-long series Kraft Television Theatre. Also in the presentation, in her first screen appearance, was eighteen-year-old Grace Kelly. Owen's other dramatic roles included roles in shows such as Inner Sanctum, Armstrong Circle Theatre and the two-part December 20–27, 1954Robert Montgomery Presents Christmastime production of David Copperfield, in which she portrayed Aunt Betsey. The frequent appearances she made between 1952 and 1957 on various incarnations of CBS's very popular Jackie Gleason Show, provided more recognition than any other assignment in the course of her 60-year acting career. Most comments focused on the comic timing she displayed in the show's Honeymooners sketches as Alice Kramden's insult-dispensing mother who specialized in acid-tinged putdowns of her son-in-law Ralph, especially when referring to his "fat behind".
Ethel Owen gradually retired from acting in the mid-1960s, upon reaching her early seventies. She died in the Georgia port city of Savannah, six weeks short of her 104th birthday, outliving by 55 years her first husband, Raymond and, by more than two decades, their daughter, Pamela Britton, who died in 1974 at the age of 51, as well as her TV family, "son-in-law" Jackie Gleason and "daughter" Audrey Meadows, who died in 1987 and 1996, respectively. Four days before Ethel Owen's death, a story entitled, "A Family Tradition", in the February 12, 1997 issue of the San Francisco Bay Area publication, Contra Costa Sun, reported on the local production of Brigadoon at the Contra Costa Musical Theatre. One of the chorus members, Kathy Ferber, is described as taking center stage at the final bows as a tribute to her mother, Pamela Britton, who lived in the area for over twenty years, played Meg Brockie in Brigadoon's original 1947–48 Broadway production and, between other acting assignments during the 1950s and 60s, starred in many of the theatre's musical productions. Kathy Ferber also mentioned "my grandmother, Ethel Owen, who appeared on Broadway in a production of "Show Boat" and is 103, living in Savannah, Georgia".