Monday, November 29, 2021

Betty White: More Fabulous Than She Seems (Part 7)

Chapter 5:   Beginnings of a Career

“I was there when television first started,” Betty jokes. “We grew up together.”[1]

“Television and I discovered each other together,” she says. “It was a very short window to get in, timing-wise. I was blessed with that timing, because we were inventing as we went along in those first days of television. And I joined the parade.”[2]

In 1939, just after graduation from Beverly Hills High School, Betty and the class president, Harry Bennett, did a scene from The Merry Widow for an experimental television broadcast. It was the beginning of television in Los Angeles.

“I wore my graduation dress, a fluffy white tulle number held up by a sapphire blue velvet ribbon halter, which I fervently hoped would be enchanting as we waltzed and sang,” she remembers. The lighting was not very good (but excruciatingly hot), so she and Harry had to wear deep tan makeup and super dark-brown lipstick so they wouldn’t look washed out.

Only family and a few friends actually saw the performance because the telecast signal didn’t reach beyond the building they were in. Imagine that! Television still had a long way to go. It would not be impressive to anyone today, but Betty was thrilled with it. But that was not where she caught the “acting bug.”[3]

That started in elementary school. Betty’s big ambition was to be a writer, so she wrote the graduation play at her school: Horace Mann Grammar School. She wrote herself into the lead part.

“It was then that I contracted showbiz fever,” she says, “for which there is no known cure.”[4]

After her first TV performance, World War II interrupted life for everyone. Betty eagerly took on work with the Women’s Voluntary Services. She drove a PX truck that carried toothpaste, soap, candy, and such things to various places around her home in California. She also met and married her first husband. He was a P-38 pilot.[5]

 



It had been a poor decision from the beginning—a rebound relationship after Betty broke up with a fiancĂ© who was fighting in the war. Her new husband’s family ran a chicken farm. Betty was now faced with slaughtering chickens for a living. She couldn’t bear it. Betty is pretty sure this doomed marriage was her “just deserts” for dumping her fiancĂ©. The marriage only lasted six months.[6]

In 1945, when the war and her marriage ended, Betty made her move to get back into show business. She started performing on stage at the Bliss-Hayden Little Theater (where you paid them for a chance to be on stage) and went on the rounds of open auditions for anything and everything. But this was still for radio jobs, not TV, which was still just getting started.

A producer named Van Hartesveldt gave Betty her first very important break. She was allowed one word in a commercial for the radio show Gildersleeve, which also gave her the chance to earn her American Federation of Radio Artists union card and be able to get more work. Despite having sleepless nights where she fantasized all kinds of disasters around her radio debut, Betty pulled off saying “Parkay,” just as she was supposed to, twice that day. She earned $37.50. Her union card cost $69.00, but her father loaned her the difference. Betty was now officially in show business.[7]

 


Her first movie role in 1945 was in a short film called Time to Kill, promoting the educational benefits of the US Armed Forces “GI Bill,” which provided for service men returning from the war.

It does not even show up in most of her professional credits, but her second movie role was in 1947 in The Daring Miss Jones. She spent six weeks on location in the High Sierras, which is an area she loves. During the filming, Betty also served as script girl and eventually, when the trainer was having trouble staying sober, Betty took over as “bear wrangler,” managing the two adorable bear cubs used in the movie.[8] She had a chance to mix her love of animals with her love of acting.

Two months after making the movie, Betty married actor-turned-agent Lane Allan. Sadly, when her career became successful and demanded most of her time, the marriage ended. He wanted a more traditional 1940’s-style wife. Betty wanted a career.

And she got one! After landing several small roles, Betty was selected to be the “Girl Friday” when Al Jarvis moved his radio show to TV in 1949. It was a marathon five-and-a-half hour a day broadcast show, Hollywood on Television. It was all live and unscripted. Total ad-lib. She was required to be sunny and charming and witty for over five hours a day, and she did it wonderfully. The show was a huge success, and Betty’s career was off and running. She even inherited the show from him when he moved on to other work.

“I had no way of knowing that my lifelong love affair with television had just begun,” Betty jokes.[9]

 



In 1953, after her first show ended, Betty stared on the series Life with Elizabeth (for which she won her first Emmy Award) and quickly after on Date with the Angels. Over the years, she has done guest spots on dozens of popular TV shows and been a sassy regular on game shows, famous for giving answers that were often naughty—with a sweet and innocent smile on her face.

Of all of the types of TV shows, Betty says her favorites are musical variety shows. As a triple-threat herself (singer, dancer, and actor), Betty loves the thrill of putting together numbers and trying things she had never dreamed of doing.[10] She had many chances to perform as a guest on musical shows like The Carol Burnett Show and The Sonny and Cher Show, among many others. She also continued to do live theater and musicals throughout her career, many co-starring her husband Allen.

But her real claims to stardom lay just ahead.

 {Check back next Monday for the next chapter "Sue Ann & Rose"!}




[1] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 148.

[2] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 150.

[3] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, ibid, p. 14-16.

[4] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, ibid, p. 13.

[5] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, ibid, p. 18.

[6] Hewitt, Bill. 2012. Betty White: The Illustrated Biography. New York: Life Books, p. 13.

[7] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, ibid, p. 22.

[8] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, ibid, p. 24.

[9] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, ibid, p. 33.

[10] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, ibid, p. 213.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Betty White: More Fabulous Than She Seems (Part 6)

Chapter 4: Marriage and Family 

When Betty first started filming the TV Land series Hot in Cleveland, her castmates had endless questions about her husband, Allen Ludden. She thought it was a little odd, he had passed on many years before, so she asked them why they were so curious about him. They said, “We love the look you get on your face when you talk about him.”[1]

They were seeing what everyone who knew Betty and her third husband, Allen, had known for years: their relationship was a very special one. She says he was the love of her life. But she didn’t agree to marry him easily.

 


After two short-lived and unsuccessful marriages early in her life (more on that later), Betty was not terribly interested in being married again at all. Ever. She had been single for many years when she met Allen, best known as the host of the Password game show. They met for the first time when she appeared as a panelist on the show during its third week on the air in 1960. Betty did not know it at the time, but she met Allen the same week that his much-loved wife of eighteen years died from lung cancer. In later years, she got to know Allen better when they did a summer play together on Cape Cod in 1962. “We dug each other a lot,” she says.[2]

By then, Allen was a widower with three teenage children. While she loved being a pal to them and everyone got along wonderfully, she was very hesitant to become “the stepmother.” Marrying Allen would also involve uprooting her whole life in California to move to New York. There was a lot to consider. She said no and pondered and hesitated for a year.

But Allen was determined. His first marriage was wonderful, and he knew that he and Betty could have just as wonderful a life together. So, he proposed every time he saw her. Instead of saying “Hello” when they meet, he’d say “Will you marry me?” She admits that sometimes it was funny, but often it made her angry because he wouldn’t take her “No” for an answer. He even got his children on the bandwagon to help sway her.

As she continued to resist, Allen bought a gold and diamond wedding ring and assured her that one day she would wear it. When she still said no, he wore it around his neck on a chain and refused to take it off until she would wear it. He wore it for three months.

Betty says: “What finally tipped the scale was a matter of priorities. Simple as that. I faced up to the possibility of never seeing Allen again . . . of continuing my well-adjusted single life . . . which by now, of course, he had warped out of shape altogether. I pictured what it would be like to turn on the television set, through the years, and see this man, again and again . . . realizing I had thrown something away that often doesn’t come by even once in a lifetime. Suddenly the pieces all tumbled into place . . . the obvious answer was finally the only answer.”[3]

“Easter came along. He sent me a white stuffed bunny with diamond earrings clipped to its ears and a card that said, ‘Please Say Yes?’ So when I answered the phone that night, I didn’t say hello, I just said, ‘Yes.’”[4] Allen jokes that she finally said yes because of that stuffed bunny. She has never regretted her decision.

Betty and Allen were a wonderful team. He was her best friend. She says that Allen used to leave little love notes for her around the house in unexpected places so she could find them by surprise. She still has them all.

 


When she married Allen she suddenly became stepmother to three teenagers, but Betty says she never wanted to have children of her own. Her career was so busy, and she didn’t want a child to “get the short end of the stick.”

“I didn’t think I could do justice to both career and motherhood,” she says. For some people, it works just fine, but she personally felt very strongly about it and has not regretted her choice. Suddenly becoming the stepmother of three teenagers was a major life-change, but she says they got along great. They even called her Dragon Lady, just to tease her. She still stays in touch with her three stepchildren. “Even after all these years, we love each other dearly, and I am most proud of the children this career girl inherited.” [5]

Betty and Allen were happily married until his death from stomach cancer in June of 1981. She is quite adamant about the fact she never considered remarrying, though there have been rumors over the years, even as recently as 2013. “Once you’ve had the best, who needs the rest,” she says.[6]

{Check back next Monday for the next chapter "Beginnings of a Career"!}




[1] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 162.

[2] White, Betty, Betty White: First Lady of Television, ibid.

[3] White, Betty, Betty White in Person, ibid, p. 166-167.

[4] White, Betty. April 19, 2012. www.huffingtonpost.com. “Betty White Divorce: The First Two Marriages Were ‘Rehearsals’.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/19/betty-white-divorce-the-f_n_1438384.html.

[5] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 248.

[6] White, Betty. April 29, 2014. Daily Mail Online. “‘My Two failed marriages were my fault’: 92-year-old Betty White on her romance regrets and the one she got right.” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2616125/My-two-failed-marriages-fault-92-year-old-Betty-White-romance-regrets-one-got-right.html.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Betty White: More Fabulous Than She Seems (Part 5)

Chapter 3: Animals at Home

Of course, Betty is never without an animal living in her home. She says: “Animals have always been a way of life with my family. I never thought of myself as an ‘only child’ because our pets were my playmates and confidants. I cannot remember any family high spot, or crisis, or joy, or sorrow that didn’t include whatever pets we had at the time. More than once in my life I have dried my tears on soft, silky ears!”[1]

These days she has a dog, Pontiac, a Golden Retriever. He came to her already named because he began life in a Guide Dogs for the Blind training program. Pontiac had a bad leg, so he could not complete the program. {As best I can determine, Pontiac is still with her.}

Pontiac was offered to Betty right after the passing of all three of her beloved pets in a two month time period. She was not sure she was ready to start over again with a new dog just yet. But once she met “Ponti,” as she calls him, she was hooked. She had also been concerned about adopting another pet this late in life, but she has made arrangements with friends to look after Ponti if he outlives her. With that worry taken care of, they can just enjoy each other.

 


Betty grew up with lots of pets. During the Great Depression, when Betty was young, her dad made radios to sell and make extra money. But no one had any money to buy them, so he would trade them for dogs. The family had kennels in the backyard to house all of these dogs he got in trade for radios. Not exactly a big money-making scheme, but the family hated to turn any of the dogs away. At one point they had 15 and found homes for them all, except the two they kept.

“I’ll bet I was the only kid on the block whose parents would come home with a dog and say, ‘Betty, he followed us home. Please, can we keep him?’”[2]

  


She always had a cat too. She thinks cats get a bad reputation for being distant and uncaring, but that has not been her experience. “Cats are not remote,” Betty says. “People who think cats are that way may never have lived with a cat. My Bob, for instance. If my knee was bent, he was on my lap or on my shoulder in a flash. He followed me around the house like a dog. In bed at night, I’d reach over to turn the light out and he’d be there. For eleven years I fell asleep with that purr on my shoulder. Cats love you very much—they are just more subtle about it.”[3]

Betty is confident you can have excellent communication with the pets in your life—better than anything you have with people. A dog will notice your every mood and react to the slightest change in body language.

She says the best example of this was a stray golden retriever named Sooner they took in and lived with for 15 years. “Talk about being on the same wavelength!” she says. “It got so that if I simply smiled at him across the room, he would wag his tail...but if I frowned, his ears would go down, and his eyebrows (trust me) became question marks! He didn’t always do exactly as I wanted, but it wasn’t ever because he didn’t understand...and he knew I outranked him. Once I realized that he was a smart as I was, we got along fine.”[4]

“Cats are every bit as sensitive,” she assures us, “but much more sophisticated. They are willing to pretend to cool it until there is some reason to get involved.”[5]

In 1987, she wrote about her current cat, T.K., saying, “She thinks she won’t give me the satisfaction of letting me know she is listening, but again, it is her ears that are the dead giveaway. When I speak to her she can look the other way in an elaborate show of inattention, but those black ears are turning like radar scopes, taking in everything.”[6]

  
Betty and her husband Allen Ludden,
on set with a feline friend.


Maybe stuffed animals don’t count as pets, but Betty loves stuffed animals and has a room devoted to them in each of her two homes. She really loves the exotic ones.

“Where it begins to get a little weird is that to me, these stuffed animals are almost real. They have their individual personalities—some are looking right into my eyes—and when a new member joins the group, I introduce him to the others.”

She goes in and out of the room often because her fax machine is in there, but she always says hello and goodbye to the stuffed animals when she comes and goes. “I never leave it without saying, ‘See you later. I love you.’ Out loud!”

She seems to understand this is a little bit odd, but she doesn’t care. When writing about her stuffed animal obsession, Betty says, “It shouldn’t surprise you that I don’t often tell anyone what I have just revealed. Let’s keep it between us.”[7]

Okay, Betty. It will be our secret.

In an article for Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul, Betty says: “I suppose, in the final analysis, I have invested a lot of time and love in animals over the years. But I have reaped such a great return on each investment. For through the many stages of my life, my feeling for animals has been an unwavering constant…a dependable reservoir of comfort and love.”[8]

{Come back next Monday for the chapter "Marriage and Family"!}




[1] White, Betty. 1998. “Pet Love,” Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul (large print edition). Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., p. 104.

[2] White, Betty. 1995. Here We Go Again. New York: Scribner, p. 13.

[3] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 217.

[4] White, Betty, Betty White in Person, ibid, p. 19.

[5] White, Betty, Betty White in Person, ibid, p. 18.

[6] White, Betty, Betty White in Person, ibid, p. 19.

[7] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 196.

[8] White, Betty, Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul, ibid, p. 107.




Monday, November 8, 2021

Betty White: More Fabulous Than She Seems (Part 4)

Chapter 2: Animal Friends

It is impossible to write any biography of Betty White without talking about her hundreds of experiences with animals of every shape, size, and species.

When the infamous interviewer Barbara Walters asked Betty, point-blank, if she likes animals more than people, Betty had to admit that she does. “Can you blame me? Animals don’t lie. Animals don’t criticize.”[1]

A “confirmed zoophile” and “life-long card-carrying zoo groupie,” Betty claims that her love for animals began in the womb.[2] She says her parents took her to zoos often and taught her how to tell the ones that cared for the animals from the bad zoos she should avoid. Being a zookeeper may have been a career that society in the 1930s would not allow, but that has not stopped Betty from devoting huge amounts of time and money to the welfare and care of animals, both in zoos and out.

Her animal activity work took full swing in the early 1970s when she produced and hosted a show called The Pet Set, which featured celebrities with their pets. 



Betty says, “The reason I work, the reason I do anything, is because of my love of animals.”[3] Her acting funds her ability to be an animal activist.

Since 1974, Betty has been a trustee of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA), the non-profit support organization of the LA Zoo. She also served as commissioner for eight years. And the zoo honors Betty right back. In 1981, when her beloved husband passed on, the Koala Pavilion at the LA Zoo was dedicated to him: The Allen Ludden Plaza.

Betty devoted an entire book, Betty and Friends: My Life at the Zoo, to her favorite animal experiences and in defense of zoos as a necessary tool for education and animal care. On the inside cover of the book jacket she says: This book is “a very personal love letter to zoos and to the animals in them, and to the workers who conserve the animal kingdom and educate the public about it.”




“Good zoos are critical to conservation,” she adds. “The information we have gained regarding disease, breeding, and health issues from our captive animals we can apply toward helping those in their natural habitats . . . . If it weren’t for zoos, there are many animal species that would be extinct today.”[4]

All her hard work and the love she has poured on the LA Zoo has been rewarded with experiences that give her the opportunity to pretend to be a zookeeper, like she dreamed about. Betty has had the chance to give a bottle to a newborn tiger cub, take morning strolls with Gita the Indian elephant, witness the births of a Bactrian camel and a hippopotamus, be kissed by a beluga whale, and give kisses to giraffes and gorillas. She even calls herself “close friends” with Jacob the boa constrictor.

Another of Betty’s favorites is Bruno, an orangutan. Once when she visited and was allowed to stand near some behind-the-scenes fences, she called out to Bruno in his enclosure to say hello. He got up, came over to her, and pushed his lips through the fence so she could rub his nose.

In February of 2006, Betty was presented with an honor by the Mayor of LA and the LA City Council as an Ambassador to the Animals of the City of Los Angeles. The bronze plaque, placed near the Gorilla Exhibit, reads: “In recognition of her tireless work and years of passionate dedication to promote the welfare and humane care of animals throughout the City of Los Angeles.”

Betty is a sponsor for the Farm Animal Reform Movement, Actors & Others For Animals, and Friends of Animals. She personally donates hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to help protect animals around the world. She jokes that she has to keep acting so she can afford her charitable work.

While Betty respects living creatures of all kinds, she admits that spiders give her the shudders. But after reading the book Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, Betty gained the courage to catch spiders from her house in a jar and put them outside. Then she shudders. But that’s only one creature out of the thousands that fascinate her.

And some of those animal/Betty relationships are amazing. Through her long-time friend Penny Patterson, Betty had the chance to meet the legendary gorilla Koko. Penny is Koko’s trainer and has taught the gorilla to successfully use sign language to communicate.

When Betty visited Koko, the ape asked to have the doors opened so she could bring Betty into her own room. A huge honor, indeed. The visit lasted about 20 minutes. Near the end, Koko went and got a toy alligator that was about a foot long and handed it to Betty.

“As she handed the toy to me,” Betty says, “she frowned and shivered her shoulders. I really didn’t need Penny’s explanation that I was being told that the alligator was ‘scary.’ Koko made it very clear.”[5]

Betty has visited several times since. After a couple of visits, Koko greeted her by rubbing her fingers across her own lips. Penny explained that Koko recognized Betty and had named her “Lipstick.” Not many of the gorilla’s visitors wear any lipstick, but Betty always does.

Gorillas only bother to give a name to very special humans. Clearly, Betty is one.


{Come back next Monday for the chapter "Animals at Home"!}

 




[1] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 14.

[2] White, Betty. 2011. Betty and Friends: My Life at the Zoo. New York: Penguin Group. Inside cover.

[3] White, Betty. 2018. Betty White: First Lady of Television. TV movie from PBS.

[4] White, Betty, Betty and Friends, ibid, p. 13.

[5] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 192.


Monday, November 1, 2021

Betty White: More Fabulous Than She Seems (Part 3)

Chapter 1: Hopes and Dreams


At her televised 90th birthday celebration, Betty White said she’s “the luckiest broad on two feet.” With a twinkle in her eye, she added: “To be able to spend a lifetime in the business you love, with the people you love, and get away with it, is just marvelous.”[1]

It really has been a lifetime in the spotlight for Betty. She started working in television right out of high school and has been a part of broadcast TV in one form or another for over seventy years.

In 2012, a poll showed that Betty White was America’s favorite and most trusted famous personality. 86% of those surveyed put her at the top of the list. Her Snickers candy bar advertisement during the 2010 Super Bowl, where a crabby Betty is tackled into a mud puddle, was considered the most entertaining, most unique, best liked, and most talked about ad during the whole program, which is known for its super commercials as well as super football.[2]

When she was little, Betty never planned on being a big TV star. There was no such thing as TV! She wanted to be a zookeeper or a forest ranger. But in those days (back in the 1920s and 1930s) a girl was not allowed to be either one. Boys only. That may have kept her from making a career out of the things she loved, but it did not dim her enthusiasm for interacting with nature and living things, especially animals.

As a child, Betty and her parents took annual camping trips that involved days riding on horseback and weeks in total wilderness. Since Betty was an only child, it would just be the three of them. They went to the High Sierras and Yellowstone National Park. When it was time for one of these trips, her dad would put on a forest ranger hat. That was the signal. It was her favorite time of the whole year. She says she counted the days until the next trip like most kids count the days until Christmas. 

“In those days, we would never see another human during the whole three weeks—it was true wilderness. Heaven.”[3]

She says, “The three of us nature nuts would have a glorious time investigating this lovely planet together...something that has proven a constant source of wonder and joy to this day!”[4]

One of her childhood dreams came true after all. After hearing Betty talk about her youthful desire to be a forest ranger, The United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service proclaimed Betty an Honorary Forest Ranger. At a public ceremony on November 9, 2010, Betty got a hug from Smokey the Bear and her own ranger hat, just like the one her father always wore on their summer vacations. She says it was like her father was right there with her. 

“He’s been gone all these years, but as the memories washed over me, I would swear my dad was standing right there. It is a moment I continue to replay in my mind.”




She says, “It truly was one of the greatest moments of my life.” She assured everyone present: “I shall continue to work my hardest to spread the word that not only must we protect our wilderness areas—we must appreciate them. They are an endangered species.”[5]

Betty’s other dream was to be a writer. As a child, she wrote poems and short stories, and she kept journals. To this day, Betty still does all of her writing in longhand and absolutely loves stationary stores. She buys loose-leaf paper at the grocery store all the time, whether she really needs it or not. Though it is not one of Betty’s main claims to fame, she has written and published several books over the years, including two in 2011 alone. They are mostly autobiographies (and are the main source of the information about her life for this book).

Her big introduction to performing was actually a play she wrote in elementary school. Of course, she wrote a lead role for herself. That role played a huge part in launching her dreams off in a new direction that she could not have even begun to anticipate. Television still didn’t exist. She just discovered that she had the ability to entertain.

Three months after her high school graduation in 1939, Betty would start out on a career in comedy and acting that would continue, without any serious down time, for over 70 years. Most people retire well before they are 70 years old, but Betty is still going strong in her 90s. She may even be more popular now than she ever has been, though the last few years she has performed less and less. A pandemic didn't help.

But more on that later. What Betty would really want to talk about first is her love for animals, her charity work, and her experiences with amazing animal friends. Fabulous things you probably know nothing about.

{Come back next Monday for the chapter "Animal Friends"!}




[1] White, Betty, Betty White’s 90th Birthday: A Tribute to America’s Golden Girl, NBC, January 16, 2012.

[2] Ipsos.ca. 2012. Betty White is America’s Favorite and Most Trusted Personality, and the Most Prone to Driving Brand Purchase. www.ipsos-na.com/news-polls/pressrelease.aspx?id+5306.

[3] White, Betty. 2011. If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won’t). New York: Penguin Group, p. 108.

[4] White, Betty. 1987. Betty White in Person. New York: Doubleday, p. 114.

[5] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 110.