On December 31, beloved television actress Betty White passed away at the age of 99. For more than 80 years, she charmed audiences with her quick wit, sly smile, genuine warmth, and wicked sense of humor. White’s expert comic timing and understated reactions often stole the show, whether in a situation comedy, game show, or television commercial.
What is often forgotten, however, is that White helped birth American television as one of the first women producers, devising a show playing to her strengths and capturing the realities of American life.
Born January 17, 1922 in Oak Park, Illinois, White and her parents moved to Beverly Hills when she was two, where she grew up with a deep love of animals and dreamed of being a zookeeper. Graduating from Beverly Hills High School in 1939 after performing lead roles in plays, White intended to become an opera singer. She studied at Bliss Hayden Little Theatre to develop her voice and acting skills before being stricken with strep throat that grew into a serious infection. Bedridden for months, White discovered that the illness had stolen her voice.
White loved performing, deciding to move into acting after taking part in an experimental television transmission in 1939. She auditioned for radio parts after getting turned down at movie studios, landing one line in a radio commercial. Persistent and confident, White continued getting radio jobs, never giving up, telling her mother, “The secret is to hang on when everything seems to be going against you.” To augment her income, White started working as a secretary at KLAC-TV (now KCOP) in Los Angeles while doing odd jobs, then began pinch-singing on a television show for $5. Though she had married twice, White realized she longed for the thrill of show biz and work, giving her life to entertainment.
Station performer Al Jarvis recognized her bubbly personality and sharp talent would work great as Girl Friday on his five-day-a-week, five hour live TV show Hollywood on Television. White worked first doing jobs around the set like collecting records, answering phones, and organizing commercials before Jarvis put her in the show. The two ad-libbed virtually the entire production, from sketch comedy skits to singing songs to cracking jokes to local celebrity interviews to multiple commercials throughout 1950 and 1951. When Jarvis moved on, producer Don Fedderson acknowledged White’s talent by keeping her on, bringing Edward Albert on for a time as a co-star before leaving her to carry the show under the name The Betty White Show. She worked with writer George Tibbles on song numbers, and began ad-libbing dialogue, one of the first variety shows.
White developed the idea of riffing on a married couple’s domestic joys and troubles for what started as a short skit around the songs called Alvin and Elizabeth. Tibbles moved on to direct and write the show, while White joined forces with Del Moore as husband Alvin to ad-lib scenes. The occasional act grew into a regular, popular bit on the long show. In 1951, White earned her first Emmy nomination as Best Local Actress.
Audiences fell in love with White’s sparkling smile, dazzling dimples, expressive eyes, and wholesome girl-next-door personality. They instinctively recognized that her teasing and sizzling bite hid a sweet, gentle nature, inherent in her deep love of animals and generous outpouring to others. White remained happy through troubles, smiling though honest with her emotions. Her mother called this “Courage in the face of obstacles” in a 1955 TV Radio Mirror story.
Shrewd and ambitious, White played to her strengths, creating a production company named after her dog Bandy. In this way, she would control the ideas she created after the station agreed to film a half-hour series called Life With Elizabeth based on her original concept from Hollywood on Television. In so doing, White became one of early television’s first women producers. Each episode consisted of three separate situations between the young married couple, winsomely underplayed by the two stars, giving them added realism.
Running at night beginning May 17, 1952, Life With Elizabeth quickly became a hit. In January 1953, White won the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Emmy award as best new personality, leading Sears to become a sponsor of her show and leading Fedderson to begin syndicating the show nationally that summer. White left her safe home at KLAC in fall 1953 to become a NBC television star as the program exploded in popularity nationally.
By 1954, the effervescent “hot Coast personality” White not only starred in her own syndicated television series, she also hosted her own live daily day time talk show on NBC. Replacing the shows Glamor Girl and Breakfast in Hollywood, the February 2, 1954, Variety called her daily 9:30 am show “a variety styled kinnie klatch from the Coast… .” While describing her as “ingratiating, wholesome looking gal who can handle a song,” they reported her as unsure of how to interview guests, whom she interviewed while they sat on a sofa. The show combined skits, songs, and talk, with Frank DeVol leading the small studio orchestra backed up by the local instrumental-vocal combo the Four Jokers. While not the first talk show, it was one of the earliest talk shows hosted by a woman, helping to set the mold for what would follow.
To accomplish filming two shows, White woke up at 4:45 a.m. at her Brentwood home, dressed and washed her hair before driving through Coldwater Canyon to NBC Burbank, arriving at 7 a.m. to go over lines and planning. Rehearsal began at 8 a.m., followed by shooting at 9:30 a.m. Upon completion of the show, White resumed rehearsing until shooting Life With Elizabeth.
TV Guide in 1954 recognized her blend of innocence and smarts, stating, “her elusive girl-next-door quality, while wholly genuine, is nevertheless covered with a protective layer of sophistication that has enabled her to move into the big-time circle without getting ruffled.” A NBC photographer told them, “She’s like Dinah Shore – she’s hep, but she’s a lady. It’s a rare breed in this business.”
Popular in Hollywood, White joined eleven other local personalities including Lawrence Welk, Tennessee Ernie Ford and to run for the position of Honorary Hollywood Mayor in fall 1954. Getting her fans around the country to write in, White handily won the position that November.
Though both shows would soon end, White maintained her popularity with American audiences, bouncing from one type of television show to another over the next seven decades. Moving between wide eyed innocents to saucy dames with bite, White demonstrated impeccable timing and skill to the end. Besides demonstrating great acting talent, the beloved woman also worked to honor and recognize the importance of pets and animals. Sharp and ambitious, White also possessed a great heart.