Pert L. Kelton was born in 1907 in Great Falls, Montana. Her mother, Sue Kelton, was a native of Canada; her father, Edward Kelton, a native of California. Both of her parents were traveling song-and-dance performers in vaudeville; and her aunt, Jane Kelton, was also a professional actress in the late 1800s and early 1900s . In fact, it was her Aunt Jane who is credited with giving Pert her unusual name. According to Kelton family history, Jane suggested the name to Pert's mother while reminiscing about her career and describing her favorite theatrical role, that of the character "Pert Barlow" in a play called Checkers. Pert therefore, even from infancy, seemed destined to be an entertainer, and she quickly became one. In 1910, while accompanying her parents and sister on an overseas tour of shows, she debuted on stage at the age of three in Cape Town, South Africa. Upon her return to the United States with her family, Pert was enrolled in private schools for her early formal education and for extensive training in dance, voice, and drama. By age 12, after appearing for a while with her parents as "The Three Keltons", she began appearing as a solo act or "single" in vaudeville; and by age 17 she was performing on Broadway, initially as a cast member in Jerome Kern's 1925 musical comedy Sunny, starring Marilyn Miller.
Pert and her parents had moved to California to work in Hollywood films by the latter half of 1927. Her first credited movie role there was as the character Rosie in First National Pictures' 1929 release Sally, a production based on the Broadway hit by the same name. With regard to the Kelton family's living arrangements in this period, the federal census of 1930 documents that Pert was residing in Los Angeles in the Warner-Kelton Hotel and sharing room 666 there with her parents. That same census identifies all three of the Keltons as employed actors in "motion pictures".
Pert was a young comedienne in A-list movies during the 1930s, often portraying the leading lady's wisecracking friend. She had a memorable turn in 1933 as dance hall singer "Trixie" in The Bowery alongside Wallace Beery, George Raft, Jackie Cooper, and Fay Wray. Directed by Raoul Walsh, the film is based on the story of Steve Brodie, the first man who reportedly jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge in 1886 and lived to brag about it. Kelton at one point in the film sings to a rowdy, appreciative crowd in an energetic dive, using a curious New York accent to good comedic effect, with Beery and Raft arguing afterwards over her attentions.
In Gregory LaCava's 1933 pre-Code comedy Bed of Roses, Kelton plays Minnie, a witty prostitute who is a partner in crime with Lorry, portrayed by Constance Bennett). The two women in the plot are fond of getting admiring men helplessly drunk before robbing them, at least until getting caught and tossed back into jail. Kelton has all the best lines, surprisingly wicked and amusing observations that would never be allowed in an American film after the Hollywood Production Code was adopted. The movie remains realistic in terms of the interactions of the characters and features an early turn by Joel McCrea as the leading man, a small boat skipper who pulls Bennett from the river after she dives into the water to escape capture.
Kelton for the remainder of the 1930s performed in over 20 more feature films and shorts. After her appearance in the 1939 film Whispering Enemies, she redirected her career, returning again to theatre and to performing increasingly on radio and later on the rapidly expanding medium of television. She did not return to the "big screen" until 1962, when she was cast as Mrs. Paroo in The Music Man.
By April 1940, Pert had left California and was living in New York City again, sharing a $65-per-month apartment in Manhattan on West 55th Street with three other women, two of whom were employed as dancers in the theatre and the other roommate was working as a secretary. A federal census taker canvassing Manhattan that year concisely identified Kelton in his enumeration ledger as "Actress, Theatre & Movies" and recorded her given age as only 28, although in the spring of 1940 Pert was actually 32 years old. It is possible that Kelton herself, feeling the pressures to maintain a youthful profile within the image-conscious realm of entertainment, "shaved" a few years off her age when answering census questions at that time. Her documented lack of consistent employment during the previous year may be indicative of the professional pressures she was experiencing after her film career in Hollywood began to wane in the late 1930s. According to the United States Census of 1940, Kelton was employed for only six weeks during the entire year of 1939, a total time of employment far less than the weeks worked by her roommates over the same period.
Once Kelton had resettled in New York during the early 1940s, she began to work in theatre again, and she became a familiar voice on radio as well, performing on programs such as Easy Aces, It's Always Albert, The Stu Erwin Show, and on the 1941 soap opera We Are Always Young. Later, In 1949, she did the voices of five different radio characters on The Milton Berle Show. She was also a regular cast member of The Henry Morgan Show; and in the early 1950s, she performed the role of the tart maid in the Monty Woolley vehicle The Magnificent Montague.
Kelton appeared in Henry Morgan's Great Talent Hunt, first aired January 26, 1951, hosted by Henry Morgan, and with Kaye Ballard, Art Carney, and Arnold Stang.
Kelton was the original Alice Kramden in The Honeymooners comedy sketches on the DuMont Television Network's Cavalcade of Stars. These sketches formed the eventual basis for the 1955 CBS Television sitcom The Honeymooners. Jackie Gleason starred as her husband Ralph Kramden, and Art Carney as their upstairs neighbor Ed Norton. Elaine Stritch played Trixie, the burlesque dancer wife of Norton, for one sketch before being replaced by Joyce Randolph.
Kelton appeared in the original sketches, generally running about 10 to 20 minutes, shorter than the later one-season half-hour series episodes and 1960s hour-long musical versions. However, she was abruptly dropped from her role as a result of blacklisting and was replaced by Audrey Meadows; rather than acknowledge that she was being blacklisted, her producers explained that her departure was based on alleged heart problems. In his book The Forgotten Network, David Weinstein says Kelton remained on Cavalcade of Stars through the final season of the series (1951-1952), and suggests that it may have been because Jackie Gleason had resisted attempts at having her dropped.
In the 1960s, Kelton was invited back to Gleason's CBS show to play Alice's mother in an episode of the hour-long musical version of The Honeymooners (also known as The Color Honeymooners), with Sheila MacRae as a fetching young Alice. By this time, the original age discrepancies were reversed, with Ralph married to a much younger Alice than himself. Gleason had been one of big-name celebrities who sought to end the widespread paranoia and hysteria being caused by the blacklist, as many others in the entertainment industry had also rejected the Red Scare of the 1950s.
In 1963 Kelton appeared on The Twilight Zone, playing the overbearing mother of Robert Duvall in the episode "Miniature." The next year she guest-starred on the popular family sitcom My Three Sons starring Fred MacMurray as Steve Douglas and William Frawley as Bub O'Casey. In that series' episode "Stage Door Bub", Kelton portrays Thelma Wilson, a veteran itinerant stage actress who longs for a settled domestic life but soon realizes that lifestyle is actually ill-suited for her personality. In her last years, Kelton was also strongly identified with Spic and Span because of her televised commercials on behalf of that cleaning product.
In her 1925 Broadway debut in Sunny, Kelton had played the character Magnolia and performed a song with the same title as the play. Years later, she was twice nominated for Tony Awards: in 1960, as Best Supporting or Featured Actress (Musical) for Frank Loesser's Greenwillow; and in 1967-1968, as Best Supporting or Featured Actress (Dramatic) for Spofford. Her most memorable Broadway role, however, was her portrayal of the impatient Mrs. Paroo, the Irish mother of the town librarian Marian Paroo (Barbara Cook), in Meredith Willson's The Music Man, which premiered at the Majestic Theatre in New York in December 1957. She reprised her Broadway character in the film adaptation of The Music Man in 1962.
Pert Kelton was part owner of the Warner-Kelton Hotel, built in the late 1920s, at 6326 Lexington Avenue in Los Angeles. (A February 20, 1928, article in the Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah) incorrectly identifies the hotel as the Walton-Kelton Hotel.) The hotel catered to actors and musicians such as Cary Grant, Orry Kelly, and Rodgers and Hart; and, as noted earlier on this page, Pert herself and her parents resided in the hotel during the late 1920s until at least 1930. The building had a small outdoor theatre at its rear, along with a wishing well that may have inspired the song "There's a Small Hotel" from the musical On Your Toes (1936). It also housed a speakeasy in the basement. A sign above the hotel entrance reads "Joyously Enter Here".
When away from rehearsing and performing, Kelton enjoyed art as a pastime and became a "passionate" painter. Pert was married only once, to actor-director Ralph S. Bell with whom she had two sons, Brian and Stephen. The couple remained together until her death.
On October 30, 1968, Kelton died of heart disease at age 61 in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Her body was cremated, and her ashes were given to family members. Her husband Ralph, who lived another three decades, remarried and died in August 1998.