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.

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