Walter Tetley

Posted by Eric Brightwell, September 4, 2008 11:56am | Post a Comment
Walter Tetley, who died today back in 1975, was a renowned child impersonator from radio's golden age. He featured regularly on the Great Gildersleeve and the Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show --two programs unlikely to result in even a flicker of recognition from anyone younger than 60, but very popular in their day. He also appeared on Fibber McGee and Molly, The Jell-O Program starring Jack Benny, The Pepsodent Show with Bob Hope, Suspense, The Burns & Allen Show and other radio programs.


The details of Walter's personal life are obscure and mostly drawn from one biography (For Corn's Sake), which was primarily based on his thorough scrapbooks. Walter was born Walter Tetzlaff June 2, 1915 in New York City. His career began as an actual child --appearing on The Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air in the 1930s. By the 1940s he was the most prolific child actor on the radio. His tone and cadence are immediately recognizable and helped to define the mid-20th century stereotype of a young boy. Although radio requires the listener to imagine the appearance of the players, Walter Tetley's characters, with their mixture of adult cynicism and smart-alecky childspeak invariably conjure up (in my mind, at least) images of overall-wearing, slingshot-toting, bath-hating, cowlick-sporting lil' brats.


When the popularity of TV began to overtake radio, Tetley still found work by doing voiceover work, most recognizably as the Nerdy Sherman on the Mr. Peabody cartoons. He was 44 years old at the time.  He also recorded a children's record for Capitol and commercials for Sunsweet Prunes. 

His attempts to get film work were less successful after childhood. His debut was 1938's Lord Jim. He followed with You Can't Cheat an Honest Man and Boy Slaves. As he aged, his appearance grew more strange, taking on the appearance of a wrinkled child. The official explanation was that it was due to a hormonal problem, possibly Kallman's Syndrome (the same disorder Jimmy Scott was afflicted with). Bill Scott, a writer and fellow voice actor for Jay Ward's cartoons, offered a more bizarre explanation --according to him, Tetley's mother was unwilling to let puberty end the steady stream of cash provided by her famous child actor son so she had him castrated at puberty.


His strange appearance resulted in him taking countless (usually uncredited and brief) roles as bellhops. Adding insult to injury, when RKO began making Gildersleeve movies, Tetley didn't reprise his starring role as Leroy. Instead, he was cast (once again) as a bellhop.  

Tetley, forever frozen in a quasi-childlike state, found it difficult to make adult friends and granted few interviews. Instead, he focused on charity work for handicapped children. His last film role was an uncredited one in 1945... as a grocery boy.

In 1971 he was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident and was confined to a wheelchair. In 1973, there was an attempt to revive radio drama and he found regular work on the Rod Serling-hosted The Hollywood Radio Theatre, an original program in the vein of Inner Sanctum, Lights Out, and Suspense. It ran from September, 1973 til May of '74. After it ended, Tetley's fortunes again turned downward. He sold his home and moved into a trailer in Encino. In 1975 he succumbed to gastric carcinoma.

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

Art Prints

Relevant Tags

Sitcoms (5), 1930s (19), Old Time Radio (27), Voice Actors (1), Child Actors (1), 1940s (23), 1950s (25)