Betty White is universally loved. Best known for her work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls, she has been in show business for over sixty years. But what is it that made Betty White so famous in the first place? A recent blitz of cliché-laden profiles aggrandize about Betty's enduring television career, but rarely do they delve into detail.
Betty White was a ubiquitous show business personality long before she ever played Sue Ann Nivens or Rose Nylund. As the most prolific female of nineteen fifties television, she was consistently attacked by newspaper critics. Open war was declared on White who, with her safe exuberant demeanor, was said to represent everything that was wrong with the medium. During that first decade of television she was often dismissed as too perky, too saccharine - even vacant.
In real life she was anything but. Those critics would have been shocked to learn that she was closest of friends with John Steinbeck. Betty White was more than just a sitcom star, singer, game show panelist and television producer. She was the first woman to host a daytime talk show. She helped a struggling film student, the very un-saccharine Sam Peckinpah, obtain his first job. Twenty years later she discovered a small town weatherman she thought had potential named David Letterman. With a starring role on a program that aired five and a half-hours a day, six days a week, for four consecutive years, and all that has come since, it is arguable that she has spent more time on television than anyone else alive.
This is the early Betty White.
The majority of television personalities in the fifties got their start in radio and Betty White was no different. She describes what the scene was like in 1947. "I would go around on casting days to try and get a job ... Tuesday was casting day. And I would just go in and sit around the office. I figured if they saw me often enough they'd just think they had hired me and then they'd give me a job. So I'd go there and I'd sit there and they'd say 'No, nothing today.' Finally, a man took pity on me. He was the producer of The Great Gildersleeve ... and he said 'Come in the office and let me explain something to you. You can't get a job unless you're in the union ... tell you what ... I'll give you one word on a commercial: Parkay." Betty was paid thirty-seven dollars to announce Parkay Margarine, the sponsor of the popular radio sitcom. It led to a handful of uncredited speaking roles. "I worked on it several times, sometimes with a line or two, sometimes just to furnish crowd noise." Betty did bit parts on The Great Gildersleeve and on the radio sitcom Blondie. Most consistently she appeared on This Is Your FBI,1 a show in the Dragnet vein that J. Edgar Hoover called "the finest dramatic program on the air."
Dick Haynes was a popular disc jockey at Los Angeles' radio KLAC since 1945. When not spinning records he spent much of his time playing bit parts in motion pictures (listed in film credits as reporter, disk jockey and drunk respectively). KLAC was cautiously readying itself to enter the world of television. The plan was to transfer Haynes' morning radio program, Haynes at the Reins, to the visual format with little variation. They wanted a female personality to join him in the experiment, so viewers would at least have something to look at. "Television had started on the East Coast but really not on the West Coast at all," remembers Betty. "Dick Haynes ... was doing a variety show. They asked [me] 'Can you sing?' So I sang Slow Boat to China and Somebody Loves You ... and the nice orchestra leader, Rock Hilman, guided me through ... from that [I started on] KLAC-TV. I did a panel show called Grab Your Phone ... four girls answering phones. They'd ask a question and people would call in with the answers. I got ten dollars a week ... and they said, 'Don't tell the other girls because they're only getting five dollars but [because] you can ad-lib with the MC, you get ten." Grab Your Phone aired for a full year. White picked up another gig, singing between sketches on the comedy show Tom, Dick and Harry, which Variety noted "stars three third-rate vaudevillians." Even by 1948-49 television standards it was considered an anemic offering, whereas watching someone answer a telephone was riveting.
One viewer saw potential in the way Betty picked up the receiver. "Disc Jockey Al Jarvis saw me [on Grab Your Phone] and he [asked me], 'Would you like to be my Girl Friday? I'm starting a television show," she recalls. "It turned out I was to be his Girl Friday... Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. He was going to be on for five hours every day. That's how he did his radio show and he wanted to do [the same thing but on TV]. He said he'd pay me fifty dollars a week. Fifty dollars a week! I was in heaven!" The name of the show was Hollywood on Television. "We played records and in between the records we'd talk a little ... But while the record was on, the audience would see us moving around and talking to each other. After the first week they called in and they said, 'It's driving us crazy, we need to know what you're saying.' So they scrubbed the records and threw out the turntables and we would ad-lib for five hours. Well, there was only one other station on at the time so it was either us or the test pattern during the day. The show was so successful that after three weeks they extended it to [another] show on Saturday and stretched it from five hours a day to five and a half hours a day. We were on thirty-three hours a week - ad-lib."
Betty herself was astounded that the show became successful. Later, whenever she referred to the show in print, she made a point of placing the word "entertainment" in quotation marks. Betty says that close to one full hour of Hollywood on Television was consumed by commercials. Most of the advertisements she presented herself, but occasionally the sponsor would do their own spot. "There was Lou Slicer, who called himself by the name of the product he sold - a handy, dandy little cutting machine that could slice anything, including many of our viewers' fingers. We discovered that when the mail started coming in."
Come 1951, she started with a parallel program christened The Betty White Show. It was by all accounts irrelevant, something that KLAC put on as filler. "The Betty White Show was anything but original," she admitted. "I would read letters sent in by viewers and respond to their questions regarding romance ... I would also sing a couple of songs, although what that had to do with anything, don't ask ... I would sit there ... Al Jarvis called and said, 'You don't want to do that show." Meanwhile a man named George Tibbles was brooding.2 Tibbles was the pianist in the Hollywood on Television orchestra. Despite the program's popularity, it remained low on actual substance. Tibbles had ideas to improve things. It was he, after all, who had to sit at the side of the stage, day after day and watch the show whether he wanted to or not. While Lou Slicer demonstrated his latest product, Tibbles was at the foot of the stage conceiving sketches. Al Jarvis had recently left the show, exhausted, replaced with Eddie Albert. Albert, already had a reliable film career, and eventually decided the hectic pace with its absurdly long timeslot was unnecessary; he resigned after six months. That left Betty White as sole host and, by default, the first female host of a daytime chat show. No longer having a co-host to work off of, Hollywood on Television started to welcome guest stars to its stage. Simultaneously, Tibbles helped to erode the improvised nature of the program, as it incrementally gave way to scripts. White was grateful for this evolution. Tibbles expanded on some domestic pieces previously performed on the show in which Betty posed as an obtuse housewife named Elizabeth, gently sparring with her bland husband Alvin. Reaction to the sketches was positive and it became a recurring segment on the show. "They worked - above and beyond anyone's expectations," says Betty. "As a result [Tibbles left] the piano ... For the next several years, George wrote everything I did."
Station manager Don Fedderson approached the two with the suggestion they expand the sketch into a half-hour sitcom. He felt sponsor reaction was enthusiastic enough that it could be made into a successful show. Betty and George didn't hesitate. Although Fedderson was merely a regional producer, he had a keen instinct for the kind of junk that would resonate with a mass audience. Fedderson was the first person to give both Lawrence Welk and his fellow lounge maven Liberace television exposure. Don Fedderson, George Tibbles and Betty White formed a production company for the expanded venture, each owning equal parts. Bandy Productions made Betty the first female television producer in the industry and soon, the most successful. Bandy was named for White's dog Bandit. Betty explained, "We couldn't very well call it Bandit Productions or it would sound like we stole all our material." Once the show hit the airwaves, it became apparent that stealing material from a better show might not have been such a bad idea.
Life With Elizabeth would be Betty's most successful television show of the nineteen fifties. The press was generally indifferent, describing the series with backhanded affirmations like "inoffensive," "passable" and "good enough." Betty explains that the show was as basic as you could get. "No fancy graphics department ... [there were title] cards ... set on an easel where the camera could shoot them. If more than one card was needed, you'd see the hand of one of our stage crew pulling the card. Sometimes we would have to remind our card puller to clean his fingernails. The stagehand, working his way through film school, was Sam Peckinpah."
Jim Baker was a university friend of Peckinpah's who had been working as a stagehand at KLAC. He helped Peckinpah get hired, and Sam was assigned the illustrious task of sweeping the floors of The Betty White Show, Life With Elizabeth and The Liberace Show. "The mix of people there was curious ... people from the stage, film, all walks of life," says KLAC staffer Rudy Behlmer. "You went in knowing that if you did start out just handling scenery, if you had anything to offer and were eager, you would be able to move up." Such was the plan of Sam Peckinpah, Irwin Allen, Leonard Nimoy, Arch Obler, Regis Philibin and Natalie Wood, all of whom are said to have worked minor roles at the station during its incubation. Jim Baker felt that Peckinpah's work ethic left much to be desired. "He didn't give a shit. When it came time to move some heavy scenery, you never could find him. He'd always be hiding back in the scene shop. In fact, I got in a little bit of trouble. They said to me, 'You're the one who brought that asshole in here!' I'd find him back in some corner, writing, or he'd be on the phone." Peckinpah was allowed to use the facilities after hours. He staged a play for one hundred of his fellow students at USC and filmed it. He and his friends were granted access to camera and editing facilities at the end of the broadcast day, to experiment and figure out how things worked. After he finished one of these experimental projects, KLAC let him shoot and edit a segment for The Betty White Show. He showed the fruits of his labor to a KLAC producer who dismissed it as artsy trash and told Sam he was not being paid to think but to move scenery. Peckinpah recalled, "I told him that if that was the case, he could take the goddamned job and shove it up his ass!"
Life With Elizabeth was initially just a regional program, taped in front of a live audience. Tibbles would act as writer and director. White says they often added fake names to the credits, hoping to intimate that the show was a larger, more professional operation than it actually was. Tibbles designed the plot lines to be as inconsequential as possible. "We didn't worry about relevance in those days," remarks White. "[An episode would revolve around] Elizabeth's biscuits not turning out." In an installment retracing the characters' courtship, Alvin and Elizabeth have their first kiss on her doorstep... at the end of their seventh date.
Fedderson became ambitious after a month. He purchased advertising space in trade publications across America, offering the sitcom to individual stations. It was an early example of television syndication and the first time Betty White would be seen by viewers beyond Hollywood. "Fedderson was the [KLAC] station manager," she says. "He took Liberace and Johnny Carson and ... Life With Elizabeth [to syndication]. He sold The Betty White Show [to NBC]." Guild Films3 was the front created to handle distribution of Life With Elizabeth and to propel other regional successes to national prominence. Fedderson placed an advertisement in the classified section of Billboard in November 1953.
This series racked up an enviable record as a live show in Hollywood before Guild Films put it on film for syndication. Show is of a type that cannot offend the most sensitive viewer, and the word wholesome might have been invented for it. Format is three totally unrelated brief episodes in the family life of Betty and her spouse, Alvin, who is played by Del Moore. Plots were humorously carried out by Miss White, who flashed an engaging personality and by Del Moore, who proved able foil. An early evening slot seems logical for this series.
In 1952 Betty won a local Emmy. "I was doing [Life With Elizabeth] and Zsa Zsa Gabor had a [dating] show ... Bachelor's Haven and she was a shoe in - Zsa Zsa was going to win the Emmy. They started saying, 'And now... for the Outstanding Actress.' Zsa Zsa had her powder puff out ... her lipstick ... she put her napkin down [and then] we heard my name ... I don't think she was too happy with me." The transition to syndication required a change in production; it could no longer be done live. Gone was the studio audience and in came a primitive laugh track. Gone was Betty's relative obscurity and in came nation-wide fame, especially among women who were said to make up ninety percent of Life With Elizabeth's audience. And in came the reviews.
Sooner or later I knew I'd have to turn my attention to Betty White, a comparative newcomer who has mushroomed almost overnight into national prominence. Miss White is now the star of a filmed show called "Life With Elizabeth," which is syndicated to 87 stations and can hardly be avoided in any major city short of Chongking [sic] ... Miss White plays the wholesome side of the street for all it's worth. While I rather hesitate to come out against wholesomeness, I think there are limits and I think Miss White transgresses beyond - well, we won't pursue that thought any further. Miss White is dimpled, fully dressed and well-upholstered. She lives with her mother, loves dogs, has a nickname of Betz, and does her own hair which looks like - well we won't pursue that thought any further either. "Life With Elizabeth," is promulgated by Guild Films, which also conducts The Affairs of Liberace, (that outfit is certainly going to have a lot answer for in the hereafter) ... "Life With Elizabeth" revolves - to quote a press release "around the spontaneous antics of a typical young American family ... They are the kind of persons one welcomes into the home as delightful neighbors." Well, maybe. On this one, Miss White exhibits her dimples, winks at the camera, and outwits her husband - a stupid played by Del Moore - three times on every half hour in what is almost a comic strip technique of TV comedy. As for the jokes: "She married an X-ray specialist." "I wonder what he sees in her." But it's all, as I remarked earlier, terribly wholesome. In fact, I suspect that if I took a bite out of Miss White I'd absorb enough Vitamin B to last all winter. And she has great warmth and charm, so much that she has been described as "TV darling of 2,000,00 [sic] fans on the West Coast." And now, if you'll pardon me, I'm off to stare at Jane Russell and see if some of this wholesomeness will wash off.
- John Crosby, New York Herald Tribune, May 26, 1954
The review did not go unnoticed.4 Betty was devastated. "I didn't just get a bad review," she remembers. "He didn't like what I wore, he didn't like my laugh, he didn't like what I looked like, he certainly didn't like what I did. And I cried for three solid days. I cut it out and I saved it. I still have the damn thing."
Fedderson made a deal with NBC for a thirty-minute, five-day-a-week, noontime show. It would be the second program titled The Betty White Show and her first network exposure. Once again it was a mix of songs, light comedy sketches and celebrity guests. "While the program would be five hours shorter every day than the one I had been doing," conjured Betty, "somehow it seemed more difficult ... everything was so much more complicated with so many more people involved." Betty would follow Home, hosted by the popular Arlene Francis. The Betty White Show was initially a big success. "We were doing so well at noon ... kids would come home for lunch ... mothers would get their work done and they could tune in ... and our ratings kept going up and up and up." Don Fedderson theorized why the newcomer had instant appeal. "Women like her because she isn't in competition with them. Men like her because she is the kind of girl they'd like their daughters to grow up to be." Betty explained to Bob Thomas what viewers could expect. "We'll have a nice, easy show. Not one of those real fast, slam-bang shows that you feel you have to sit there and watch. Women are too busy during the day to do that. They want the kind of show they can look at between chores around the house."
John Crosby observed her first week on the air less caustically this time. "Miss White's afternoon show starts with her telling us, 'We're gonna sort of relax for the next half hour and we hope you will too. We're never sure what's gonna happen next so how can you be?' That gives you a fair idea." Crosby felt it was all pretty underwhelming. "Informality is taken to extravagant lengths on The Betty White Show," he wrote. "She will sing a song, sometimes forgetting the words and breaking up into helpless laughter. She plays straight man to her musical director Frank Devol ... she will read a postcard from a vacationing friend ... she'll read a letter from a fan." Things were moving smoothly on NBC until the network started to tamper with a good thing. "Kate Smith was on in the afternoon at three o'clock and her numbers were going down," says White. "Typical network thinking: 'We'll move Betty to three o'clock.' They plucked us out of our comfortable spot and put us on at three ... and the numbers didn't do too well. 'Oh, well we better put her back on mid-day again.' But they didn't put us back at twelve, they put us back at twelve-thirty and nobody could find us. So we [had been] on a year ... as '54 wore down they [flew me] to New York to tell me the show was being discontinued. I thought it was the end of the world. I was never going to work again. I was going to walk into the Atlantic Ocean and never come up."
Betty White Too Busy in TV for Romance
She's pretty, she's single and she can cook, but better yet she has such a successful career she doesn't have to cook. That's Betty White, one of television's own stars who came up by the celluloid network route in the filmed "Life With Elizabeth" and for the past several months has had her own "Betty White Show." Betty is one of TV's unsophisticated beauties, a la Dorothy Collins, who shuns plunging necklines but whose high necked sweaters still attract admiring male attention. Miss White insists she's unattached romantically because she has been so busy "there's no time to meet anybody" but friends say her single status isn't for lack of suitors.
"Life With Elizabeth" is shown on over 104 stations and has 75 different sponsors. Miss White was signed some weeks later for the "Betty White Show" Monday though Friday on NBC-TV. It's being dropped, at least temporarily, at the end of the year, however, in a reshuffling of NBC's daytime schedule.
While it lasts, Betty has a schedule that would make a strong man shudder. She's usually up by 5:45 am and at NBC's TV studios for makeup by 6. She's on the air at 9, has breakfast at 9:30 and 45 minutes later is back rehearsing the next day's show. On Wednesdays she rehearses two of her shows and then runs through her weekly filmed show, she starts about 11 am on the shooting of "Life With Elizabeth" and often doesn't finish until after midnight, and must be up again at 545 am Friday. But she still has managed to leave Saturdays and Sundays free. Betty lives with her parents at a comfortable home in suburban Brentwood.
- Associated Press, December 19, 1954
Betty found other inoffensive outlets. She had been persuaded back in September to host the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year's. NBC convinced her to do it so she could promote The Betty White Show. "Now I was left with a parade, but no show to promote," she said. "As it turned out, I would spend every New Year's morning in Pasadena for the next twenty years - nineteen for NBC, and my last one for CBS ... The Rose Parade actually takes place in Pasadena [but] that first broadcast we did from Burbank. Bill [Goodwin] and I were seated next to each other, facing a couple of television monitors ... Our instructions had been bare bones - 'Pretend you are actually there at the parade, describe what you see, and don't talk over each other.' The viewers could [pretty much] do that for themselves."
Guild Films made a great deal of money from the syndication of Life With Elizabeth and realized that with one hundred episodes in the can, it could air in perpetuity and turn a large profit without spending another dime. The decision was made to cease production and syndicate the surplus. Suddenly, Betty was out of work. Unemployed, she received the bittersweet notification that The Betty White Show had been nominated for an Emmy. Life was slow. To fill the void Betty took her first job in a genre that would preoccupy her career for decades. She joined the panel of Make the Connection, a new game show from the assembly line of Goodson-Todman, creators of the successful What's My Line and I've Got a Secret. Several months prior, Mark Goodson asked Betty if she could host the program, but that was when Life With Elizabeth and The Betty White Show were still in production. She regretfully explained she was too busy to host yet another show. Ironically, by the time Jim McKay5 was named the master of ceremonies Betty was on the dole.
Away from the spotlight, White and Fedderson were calculating a new sitcom they thought would stand out. The planning process took two years. Fedderson procured the rights to a play called Dream Girl. Its facile premise revolved around a woman constantly daydreaming of a better life. Plymouth was brought on as a sponsor and the new show, A Date With the Angels, would replace The Ray Anthony Show in May of 1957. White and Fedderson reiterated several times that the planning phase was meticulously drawn-out in order to ensure absolute success. They set out to hire a bright, new production staff. John G. Stephens was brought on board and he remembers being baffled why. "Don Fedderson [brought] me into the office for a meeting with George Tibbles and Betty White. I'd never heard of either of them ... Betty and George are very cordial. Betty asks, 'What will John be doing?' 'John will be in charge of everything.' I'm thinking, what does that mean?' I've never really been in charge of anything. I have no idea what to expect ... After we finished casting, I had to hire a crew. I really didn't hire them; I had to approve them. Jim Paisley was the assistant production manager ... I'll never forget the first man he brought into my office ... His face is as red as a beet and to say he's drunk would be putting it mildly. Jim Paisley says, 'This is your first assistant director, Sid Sidman.' I'm thinking to myself, do I have a choice ... About an hour later Jim returns to my office with a property man, Carl Nugent. It was almost the same situation; Carl wasn't quite as inebriated as Sid but definitely full of the sauce. Most of the crew members that come in are like this." Fedderson was optimistic the eve of the premiere: "Betty White is the most underrated comedienne in Hollywood. Life With Elizabeth never got the big network push it deserved, but this time she is getting the full treatment." Bill Williams, former star of The Adventures of Kit Carson, now co-starring as Gus Angel said, "Betty White should come out of this series as one of the biggest stars in the business." However, in a TV Guide preview, Betty was sending out mixed messages. "We've already finished the first 13 films," she said. "Some of them are pretty funny. Others I'm not so sure about."
There is nothing sensational about a Date With the Angels, but that doesn't particularly disappoint ... Betty White. She and producer Don Fedderson pretty much planned it that way. The show was in the works for two years. You might think that in two years of intensive work, something with more originality would emerge. "But we decided to stick to the tried and true," says Betty. "The Angels are designed for audience identification - cliché situations which the audience can appreciate, since they're real and normal and believable." So Gus and Vickie Angel are people you've met before. What gives this ABC-TV show its appeal is the very familiarity of the situations."
- Newspaper Enterprise Association, June 19, 1957
Just when I felt reasonably sure that we had all the husband and wife comedies the human system could reasonably stand, ABC-TV comes along with a new one called "Date With The Angels," which has all the worst qualities of all the other husband and wife comedies without, as near as I can find out, any of the virtues. "Date With the Angels" teams up Betty White, an aggressively feminine young lady who has dimples that ought to be against the law, and Bill Williams, who is very much the straight man of the team. They resemble every married couple you've ever met about as closely as a Mack Sennett cop resembles Jack Webb. That is, hardly at all. Their conversation is a series of two line jokes and pretty bad jokes. She smiles more than any wife since the dawn of time and there is more plot in two minutes of the Angels' marriage than the average couple has in a lifetime. We are all familiar with canned laughter but not in my memory has it been so conspicuously misplaced as in "Date With The Angels." It sounds, in fact, as parts of The Congressional Records reads, those parts with the built-in stage directions (laughter) and (applause) ... I remember in the dear departed days of radio comedy when there were a lot of complaints about the idiotic audiences who laughed on cue whenever someone would hold up a card advising laughter. But, by George, those people were laughing. Frequently the reason they were laughing was terribly obscure to those of us at home. But there was no gainsaying the fact that Eddie Cantor got the laughs credited him. No one else did.
- John Crosby, New York Herald Tribune, May 17, 1957
TV Graphic reported "Betty will soon record an album of tunes in connection with Date With the Angels, each with the word angel important to the song. To be included are Got a Date With an Angel (the show's theme music), I'll String Along with You and Angela Mia." It was enough to make John Crosby vomit. Half of each episode was to be a dream sequence, allowing the typical husband and wife to appear in atypical situations. "Much as we enjoyed the concept of dream sequences," says Betty, "Plymouth did not share our enthusiasm. Making the sweeping generalization that 'fantasy never works with an audience' they gradually leaned on us to phase out the imagination segments in favor of at-home situations ... Without our dream sequences, our show flattened out and became just one more run-of-the-mill domestic comedy, but without Del Moore's impeccable comedic timing. Bill Williams was a lovely man, but he simply didn't think funny ... I think I can honestly say that was the only time I have ever wanted to get out of a show." Fedderson decided that wrangling famous guest stars would boost ratings. He asked John G. Stephenson to track down Tallulah Bankhead. Stephenson contacted her people and set up an appointment. He remembers the meeting with Tallulah vividly. "I walk in and close the door. 'Who are you?' 'I'm John Stephenson with the Date with the Angels show.' 'With what show?' 'It's a show with Betty White.' 'Who the fuck is Betty White?' I turn quickly and leave. I go back to Don Fedderson's office. 'Miss Bankhead says she'd love to do the show, but she's not available."
In an attempt to salvage what was now widely regarded as a disaster, Betty commandeered a complete architectural restructuring of the broadcast. "The fun was gone. We still had thirteen weeks to go on our firm year's contract when we opted to do some major surgery on the remaining shows. We changed the format completely ... The title had to go ... so for the next thirteen weeks we were known as The Betty White Show ... we would do sketches, we would have guest stars... Boris Karloff and Buster Keaton and Charles Coburn, great and good fun, Basil Rathbone." It was the third program titled The Betty White Show in six years.6 The new version got going the first week of February 1958. The planned Date With the Angels record album was canceled. Variety had nothing good to say about the revamping. Neither did columnist Jack O'Brian.
Her ABC filmed series this season was a bit duller than most on air, so ABC decided to switch to a live variety format and it arrived Wednesday night about as dull as it was before. We have no idea why Miss White insists on being a comedienne, except of course like the joke about the psychiatrist, she can't quit now - she's a star!
- Jack O'Brian, International News Service, February 6, 1958
White was in limbo as the fifties came to a close. Despite her occupational free fall, there were certain job offers she could not accept. Betty was offered a great deal of money to be a spokesperson for Kimberly-Clark. As a television personality widely perceived as wholesome, the company thought she could be a pitchman the audience would trust. "I was offered a lot of money to do a TV commercial for Kotex sanitary napkins. They were going to test the idea to see if the public would accept it, and according to them, they wanted to do it in a low-key, dignified fashion ... there wasn't enough money in the world for me to do any such thing."
As the decade ended she took on the role of "a professional guest." She was a regular on To Tell the Truth when panelist Polly Bergen took a leave of absence. She helped moderate the 1959 Miss America Pageant and participated on the panel show Masquerade Party. She became a frequent participant on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar - at least once every two weeks - over seventy guest spots in all and "hosting the show twice when Jack was out of town." The Jack Paar shows were a highlight in a period of doldrums. "It was a wonderful relationship. If [Jack Paar] felt comfortable with someone he'd want them to come back on the show. [On other talk shows] staffs of people would interview the guests and then they would write down the questions for the host to ask and it was all sort of predigested before you got on the air. Not with Paar ... You'd go out ... and whatever came into his volatile mind ... you'd answer and pretty soon a conversation would strike up and he might go off on a tangent to the left or the right ... It was exciting television." Fun or not, even without a show to call her own, the critical animus continued unabated.
I switch over to Jack Paar. And guess who's on the Paar show - Betty White! There's a girl who hasn't stopped smiling since she was three ... somebody told her she had pretty dimples ... She hasn't closed her face since. When I was a kid there was a movie going around called The Man Who Laughs and, as I recall the story, it was about a kid who gets caught by gypsies who carve a smile on his face, so he has to go through life with a perpetual laugh on his puss. Well, sir, I think the gypsies are still operating.
- John Crosby, The New York Herald Tribune, July 15, 1959
To Tell the Truth remains one of our viewing circle's favorite programs [but] there are times when one panelist or another annoys me. Frequently it's Betty White whom I find too saccharine.
- Janet Kern, Chicago American, August 4, 1959
The sixties featured Betty as the prolific television habitué. She appeared on hundreds of talk, variety, novelty and game shows, although nothing of her own. After so many failures and disappointments she was not about to tackle a new variety or comedy series and certainly nothing that might contain the cursed name of The Betty White Show, nor were the three networks particularly eager to court her. Still, it was her face that appeared in American living rooms more often than not. She was a regular on the new game show Password, debuting in 1961. Host Allen Ludden saw to it that White was booked as a celebrity panelist immediately. She was to appear on an episode of Candid Camera, posing as a movie theater ticket vendor that forces theater patrons to sign an oath stating that they won't give away the movie's ending, but the segment was cut. "Reactions of the ticket buyers were hilarious but when it came to get their permission to use the film ... nothing but frightened refusals," said Candid Camera's Allen Funt. An unusual but welcome job came from Otto Preminger's 1962 political picture Advise and Consent, based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. The casting of the picture was inspired, featuring several blacklisted actors as McCarthy-esque characters. Betty put out a rare dramatic performance as a Kansas Senator, her first ever role in a motion picture and her last until a Troma exploitation film in 1985.7
Fortunes seemed to be improving when Betty was offered a job as the female face of The Today Show. Discussions went on for several weeks with White's agent playing hardball. He lined up a great deal for her. But Betty wavered, much to her agent's chagrin. She was reluctant to move from California to New York where The Today Show was filmed. "They kept trying to tell me how much it would mean to my career, where it could lead," she says. After weeks of arm-twisting from NBC and her agent alike she said no. "Where I live has always been [more] important to me." Newcomer Barbara Walters got the job instead.
White found gratification performing outside of television, taking on a series of starring roles in popular summer stock productions. One was a 1962 performance of Critic's Choice, in which she co-starred with the host of Password, Allen Ludden. Allen had designs on Betty although she didn't care about him one way or the other. "At the end of the play there was a big kiss ... well [at one performance] the kiss went on and on and I was trying to keep in character ... for a year Allen kept asking me to marry him. I'd get mad, I'd say 'No! No, way!" One night, while he and Mark Goodson were inebriated at Toots Shor's Lounge, Ludden unbuttoned his shirt and exposed a chain with a locket around his neck. Goodson asked what it was and Ludden revealed an engagement ring he'd been carrying inside. In a tone that was either terribly sweet or awfully creepy he explained, "I'm going to wear this ring ... until Betty White says yes to me." Ludden flirted with Betty throughout the run of Critic's Choice and remained smitten even after a disastrous exchange. "At one point in our conversation, Allen said something - damned if I can remember what it was - something about what he and his kids did," she recalls. "Anyway my joking response was, 'I'll bet your wife loves that!' There was a long beat before he said simply, 'I don't have a wife. She died last October."
Foot in the mouth notwithstanding, Betty and Allen were married June 14, 1963.8 Viewers of Password tuned in with greater interest to watch what must have seemed like the squarest couple in all of show business. The wholesome image was shattered for some conservative devotees when much was made of Betty's refusing to take the name of Ludden. "I feel as though I'll always be Betty White," she would explain. "I'm proud of my new name but I'm not really Mrs. Ludden. There once was a woman [before me] with that name." They got hitched in Vegas. The marriage introduced Betty to a new selection of friends. Ludden had been classmates at the University of Texas with Elaine Steinbeck. "Allen took me to [John and Elaine Steinbeck's] apartment to meet them ... it was hard not to be a little in awe of John at first. It didn't help my state of nerves that at the moment we walked in John was scratching out his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize. After a brief introduction, John suddenly asked us to help him think of a synonym for a word he wanted to replace. We should help John Steinbeck think of a word?" A signed copy of that speech became one of Allen and Betty's prized possessions. They remained close friends with the novelist until his death five years later.
Mark Goodson once again approached Betty with the offer he had extended to her back in 1955. Yet another panel show was coming down the Goodson-Todman track. He wanted Betty to host Get the Message. Betty taped a pilot for ABC. Network executives lined up to watch a special screening. They liked the game, they thought the show could succeed and they bought it. But they asked that Goodson-Todman make one change before they would green light the series. "They were convinced," says Betty, "that the audience would not be comfortable with a woman driving the show - they must have a different host." Betty White was rejected because women can't host game shows and Robert Q. Lewis came in to pick up the slack. The same aggressive sexism that kept White from hosting reared its ugly head in an Associated Press description of Get the Message following its premiere: "The show seems mildly diverting and probably will help a lot of housewives get through a big pile of ironing quite painlessly."9
The remainder of the sixties had Betty on a familiar path. Chain Letter, Match Game, Snap Judgment, What's My Line and Your First Impression were among the many game show appearances, while Girl Talk, That Regis Philbin Show, The Mike Douglas Show, The Steve Allen Playhouse and The Merv Griffin Show had her charming the host and audience alike. One unique gig, perhaps her most intriguing of the decade, was a 1967 syndicated radio show called Ask Betty alternately known as Dimension of a Woman's World. The program had previously been hosted by television personality turned consumer advocate Betty Furness. White replaced her namesake when Furness was lured away to work in the consumer affairs department of the Lyndon Johnson White House. The show had a political bent under the auspices of Furness. With White it gradually changed format and name. As Dimension at Home, Allen and Betty acted as co-hosts handing out "tips on hand cream for men" and "the amazing innovations that are on the way for the stove." The husband and wife team were inseparable, touring together in stock productions of Any Wednesday, Bells Are Ringing, Brigadoon, The King and I, Once More with Feeling, Who Was That Lady and several others. They went on a midwestern publicity jaunt to help promote their radio program, making personal appearances at the stations that carried it. One was WNTS Indianapolis, employer of David Letterman. Letterman was hosting an afternoon call-in show at the time. Ludden and White found the bearded unknown that was interviewing them quite amusing. They promised that if he ever moved to Los Angeles, they would try and assist his aspirations. Unfortunately for David, when he cashed in on the offer a few years later, all Betty was able to get him was a game show appearance or two, which was about all she could muster for herself.
Betty got to know Rod Serling when his career was on the decline. The whiz kid behind The Twilight Zone had been reduced to hosting the syndicated game show Liar's Club. "We didn't live far from each other, and every so often we would get together for dinner at our favorite neighborhood restaurant," she says. "I loved Rod's attitude concerning television. He believed in it. He felt that though much of it was admittedly dreck, some of it was good and occasionally fine. He was also convinced that it aimed at being better. Liar's Club, of course, had nothing whatsoever to do with [that] ... Rod was not a comfortable host, but oh, he was delightful to observe - especially when he fell apart. He was fine at running the game, where there were written words on cue cards, but if at any time he had to ad-lib, the ever-present deep tan would drain from his face and he would be struggling. Rod was a writer, not a glib on camera talker. [For] Rod ... it was desperation time ... glazed eyes ... like a cornered animal."
Betty's last gig of the sixties was her first time on a sitcom in a decade. Betty played a librarian in a 1969 episode of Petticoat Junction. The installment felt like an anachronism that would have been more at home in the era of Life With Elizabeth than in a time when much of America seemed to be burning to the ground. There was no Vietnam War, no inner city rioting, not even a Black person in the Petticoat Junction villa of Hooterville. In 1969, the sitcom seemed just as irrelevant as Betty White herself. By the time 1970 hit, White's career was utterly crestfallen. Game and talk show appearances kept her in the public eye, and she was charming to be sure, but no longer was she offered anything of substance. Her only significant engagement was hosting a show she had created called The Pet Set. While draft cards burned, Attica prisoners rioted and the National Guard shot down unarmed students at Kent State, animal lover Betty White welcomed aging film stars to sit on a bail of hay and talk about their pets. Betty even convinced Rod Serling to bring in his Irish setter for twenty-four minutes of unlikely banter. Betty and Rod discussing their pets on a low-budget, syndicated television show paints an accurate picture of where their careers were at.
As drastic as the ascent and descent of Betty's showbiz experience had been, some things never changed. Game show outfit Barry-Enright Productions contacted White in 1972. They asked her if she would be interested in hosting a new game show. She would star in the pilot of Hollywood's Talking. The network suggested that they tape two pilots - one with Betty White and one with Al Lohman, just in case Betty White turned out to be a woman. The network executives assembled to watch them both, discovered that Betty White was estrogen charged, and dismissed her without further comment.10
In 1973, Betty got a phone call that turned everything around. Allan Burns, head writer of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, asked if she would be interested in a guest appearance as a sarcastic cooking host on their hit sitcom. What was supposed to be a one-shot turned into a memorable recurring role. Newspaper and magazine profiles followed suit, praising the come back of Betty White. Displaying a sharp, satirical acting ability, hitherto unknown to many fans, Betty White revitalized her career, and completely subverted what had been her established public persona. What Betty did not know was that when Allan Burns had offered her the part, he had already auditioned over ten different women, none of which made the grade.11 The character of Sue Ann Nivens had been described in the audition scripts as "an icky sweet Betty White type."
2Tibbles would work on countless, well-known, sitcom dullards over the next twenty years. My Three Sons and Family Affair are two of his better-known projects.
3Guild Films had great success syndicating The Liberace Show and Life With Elizabeth. Their other productions are mostly forgotten: The Florian Zorbach Show, Lash of the West and Captain David Greef.
4John Crosby had made a name for himself chastising the lowbrow nature of radio in the nineteen forties and he wrote with the same attitude when television came into play. He wrote in The New York Times "A radio critic is forced to be literate about the illiterate, witty about the witless, and coherent about the incoherent." When Edward R. Murrow's current affairs program on CBS television was canceled, Crosby was disgusted by the dismissal of one of television's few intelligent programs. "See It Now is by every criterion television's most brilliant, most decorated, most imaginative, most courageous and most important program. The fact that CBS can not afford it but can afford Beat the Clock is shocking." Crosby was granted his own TV show in 1957 called The Seven Lively Arts, showcasing the latest in jazz, ballet, novels and theater. The cerebral minded program won an Emmy for "Best New Program of the Year" but was canceled after one season. One of the staff writers on the show was Ernest Hemmingway. Crosby's review of Life With Elizabeth didn't just make Betty White cry, but resulted in numerous letters to the editor. Here's one that was written to the Modesto Bee, a California paper that carried Crosby's syndicated column:
Who is John Crosby? And what is behind his gripe with television? His recent article in regard to the Betty White show was disgusting. Will someone please tell him that on most TV sets there is a button, usually on the lower left side of the picture screen, which turns very easily to the left and eliminates all sound, picture and even Betty White. Or if that doesn't work just miss one payment and the bank will do the rest.
- A BETTY WHITE FAN
6It would feature Irene Ryan of eventual Beverly Hillbillies fame and a most hilarious character actor named Frank Nelson, best known for his bitchy trademark catchphrases "Oooo-ooooo!" and "Yeehh-ssss?"
7Watch Betty in Advise and Consent, dubbed into Spanish here.
8Allen Ludden recorded an LP of loving serenades dedicated to his wife in October 1964, pressed by RCA Victor. Allen Ludden Sings His Favorite Songs understandably showcased Love is Here to Stay, I Wish You Love and The Nearness of You, although I Hadn't Anyone Till You was perhaps an odd choice in wake of his previous wife's death. Inclusion of the song Call Me Irresponsible, presumably, had to do with Ludden's aversion to using condoms.
9The show only lasted nine months. A competing quiz program, debuting the exact same day, fared a bit better: Jeopardy.
10Perhaps they felt the same way about Al Lohman. After taping his pilot, he was ditched and replaced with Geoff Edwards. Hollywood's Talking lasted three months.
11It was relayed to Betty later that casting director Renee Valente suggested to Burns they get Betty White to play the role in the first place. He had rejected the idea because Mary Tyler Moore and White were friends and if it didn't work out it would be uncomfortable. "After reading a dozen girls," Betty says, "no one was sickening enough. Renee said, 'Call Betty' and they did!"
ARCHIVE OF ARTICLES WRITTEN BY KLIPH NESTEROFF
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Al Jarvis was asked to write a guest column in Billboard's October 7, 1950 issue. Here are the parts that pertain to the series Hollywood on Television:
FOLLOWING THE ELEPHANTS by AL JARVIS
- Hollywood's pioneer disk jockey drops a few whimsical words of wisdom from the vantage point of the spinner who doubles between AM radio and TV -
In a recent UP interview, a reporter asked me precisely when my "career" started ... Without a moment's hesitation I answered, November 7, 1949. Now less than a year doesn't seem like a long time for a guy who is credited with being the first disk jockey and a record of 18 years of spinning records. I'll admit that almost two decades of wax whirling hewed out of the life span of a guy who is only 28 years old (I'll be 42 next July 4) is quite a slice, but let's face it, men, just what kind of a career do you call sitting on your big fat, and selling vacuum cleaners that nobody ever sees?
At least now I can show 'em the vacuum cleaner nobody ever sees! Please don't misunderstand me. I love my weird profession, all phases of it! What's that? Did anyone say, "Wait a minute, you jerk!" I'm sure someone did. That sense of "feel" I tell sponsors of mine informs me that some of you guys resent my using the word "weird" to describe a profession with so much imagination, so much artistic approach, so much savoir fair, so much bull. If any disk jockey, including myself, feels himself so essentially a talented part of the world of entertainment, then let him try and get along without records ... So, when on November 7, 1949, my boss, Don Fedderson, gave me the challenge of a lifetime, to conduct a five-hour daily television show without records on KLAC-TV, I jumped out of my nice soft chair and plunked it down again on a much harder, swivel variety with a "thing" called Hollywood on Television.
H.O.T. is that "house by the side of the road," the observer of the Hollywood scene. And if you read your newspapers, you know that Hollywood has a lot to be seen. On that show, we not only interview that one guy in a thousand who made it, but the other 999 as well. My job is to keep the parade moving rapidly, to keep the watchers wondering just what is coming behind the elephants (besides 42 commercials). A recent radio article came out with this bit of pleasantry and I quote, "Frankly, I don't understand the Jarvis show. For that matter, I don't understand Jarvis. He has no talent. All he does is make money!"
If They Move... Kill 'Em! by David Weddle (1994, Grove Press)
Here We Go Again by Betty White (1995, Simon and Schuster)
Archive of American Television Interview with Betty White (1997)
From My Three Sons to Major Dad: My Life as a TV Producer by John G. Stephenson (2004, Scarecrow Press)
The Women Who Made Television Funny by David C. Tucker (2007, McFarland)
The Google News Archives (2010, The Internet)