Betty White started her TV career before people had TV sets. Really.
White– who died on New Year’s Eve, 17 days shy of her 100th birthday – described that in “Here We Go Again” (Scribner, 1995).
She had just graduated from Beverly Hills High and fancied herself – incorrectly, she later said – as a possible opera singer. She and a classmate were asked to sing a shortened version of “The Merry Widow” in front of a TV camera.
“Our telecast only carried from the sixth (floor) to the ground floor,” where it was viewed by “our parents and a small handful of interested parties.”
That was in 1939, the year NBC had its first telecast – Franklin Roosevelt’s speech from the World’s Fair. It was the start of White’s TV career, which spanned 82 years.
There was a pause when she was in the American Women’s Voluntary Services and briefly married a pilot. But then she was busy, in her home town of Los Angeles, looking for radio jobs.
The first – saying a single word, “Parkay,” on a national commercial – paid her $37.50 and required $69 to join the union. There was more radio work and even a supporting role in a movie (“The Daring Miss Jones”) that seems to have vanished. And then someone nudged her toward TV.
There were few viewers in Los Angeles – “the actual number of sets in the area at the time was just under a thousand” – but some stations tried to fill their daytime line-ups. For her first job, she was simply asked if she could sing. She said yes and wasn’t asked to prove it; she did two songs live.
Next came a short-lived sketch-comedy show, “Tom, Dick and Harry.” There were just four people; she was the one who wasn’t Tom, Dick or Harry.
And then was “Grab Your Phone.” The host would ask a question, with four young women at the phones, waiting for viewers’ answers. The others got $10 a week, but she got $20, because she would sit at the end and quip with the host.
She apparently did it well, because a popular Los Angeles disc jockey wanted her to be his TV sidekick. Soon, they were doing “Hollywood on Television” five-an-a-half hours a day, six days a week. She sang and dd improvised sketches, but mostly they talked — to stars, to each other, sometimes just to passersby.
As if that wasn’t enough, she soon added a Sunday-night half-hour. That was unusual because of its:
– Name. It was the first of four shows to be titled, “The Betty White Show.”
– Its format. In addition to singing, she wrote: “I would read letters sent in by viewers and respond to their questions about romance. Wasn’t I just the person to be handing out advice?”
Definitely not. By then, her second marriage – to a sometimes-actor who became her first agent and then a furniture salesman – was ending. It would be another decade before she married Allen Ludden, her perfect match in intellience (he was a Phi Beta Kappa) and in game-show passion.
When the original “Hollywood on Television” host left, White did it with others and then became the star. At the same time, one of the sketches from the show was turned into “Life With Elizabeth,” a charming little half-hour that had three separate mini-stories.
The first season, in 1952, was done in a movie theater with an audience; the next was done in a studio. Episodes were mailed to stations around the country; it was the start of a situation-comedy career that would take White to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Golden Girls,” “Hot in Cleveland” and more.
But before that were her true loves – animals and game shows.
“Mom and Dad and I had always played games since as far back as I can remember,” she wrote. “Some we made up as we went along, … so playing on TV was a bonus.”
She was one of the best at it … and was one of the first female game hosts.
It was a far-ranging career … and in some ways it wasn’t. Those Los Angeles radio and TV stations were near White’s girlhood home. So were the studios where she did an early sitcom (“Date With the Angels”) and, later, “Golden Girls” and “Golden Palace.”
As White put it: “It seems I have been involved with a small, six-block area of early Hollywood” forever. From there, she would reach across the city, then the country, then the world.