Betty White: A Celebration

Allen Ludden and Betty White 1963 photo used under Creative Commons license.

Today, January 17th, would have been the 100th birthday of US National Treasure Betty White. A celebration was planned to be marked with a documentary to be screened in cinema across the US. Sadly it was not quite the ending we all hoped for.

On New Year’s Eve came the unexpected news that Betty had passed away just six days after a stroke, dampening many people’s New year celebrations and making it more of a fond remembering of , and gratitude for, all the times that she had entertained us, both on TV, (where she started her career in 1939, holding the record for the longest career in TV, spanning nine decades) and in very occasional films.

One of the earliest TV pioneers, Betty was greatly in-demand on television, and loved appearing before the cameras, but her behind the scenes career was even more impressive, being one of the first women to wield power behind the camera as well as in front. In this respect, it was natural that one of her closest friends was fellow TV pioneer Lucille Ball who grew her career into being one of the most important executives in TV, her company Desilu responsible for creating such timeless shows as I LOVE LUCY and its many spinoffs, THE UNTOUCHABLES, STAR TREK and MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE, to name just a few of her studio’s biggest hits.

Betty was a supporter of women breaking to the heavily male-dominated world of TV production, forming her own production company in 1952 and selecting a female director for her first projects. Further, she was also supportive of African-American talent. When affiliate stations in the Southern US complained about the regular appearance of African-American tap dancer Arthur Duncan on her show, she told them to “Live with it”. And she made sure she gave him a longer spot on her next programme.

It has been widely noted that Betty had an astonishing TV career, with armfuls of awards across the decades. But what is not so remembered is that Betty was a much-loved stage star too. “When did she have time?”, you might say.

Well, the TV “season” would last for 40 weeks of the year. During the summer break, Betty and third husband Allen Ludden, also a beloved TV face from TV’s popular PASSWORD game show, would travel the US doing one-week dates in summer stock. Details are hard to piece together from this distance in miles and time, but I’ve given it my best shot, with material drawn from several sources. People surprised at her musical appearances may not know that Betty sang on TV from the start in 1939, and Allen had his own record album released in 1963.

Their most often-reprised audience favourite summer stock vehicle together was the comedy play CRITIC’S CHOICE, whose plot concerns a theatre critic who feels obligated to give his own wife’s play a bad review to avoid charges of favouritism. JANUS was another favourite play, the one which had brought them together, in 1962.

Betty and Allen were married on June 14, 1963, and remained together until Allen’s death in 1981 from stomach cancer. Lucille Ball helped Betty through this difficult time, for which Betty stated she was forever grateful for Lucy’s friendship at the time when she needed it most. Betty never remarried in the remaining 40 years of her life, remarking “when you’ve had the best, you don’t need the rest”.

Rest In Peace, Betty, Thank You for being a strong, independent, vibrant and caring woman – a humanitarian and animal activist with a huge range of talents, a unique twinkle in your eye and someone who made the world a better place. You will be sorely missed but not forgotten.

I am donating to an animal charity to mark Betty White’s 100th birthday. Will you join me?


BETTY WHITE STAGE APPEARANCES

(Summer 1959) She acted in Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s musical, “The King and I,” in a Kenley Players production at the Packard Music Hall Theatre in Warren, Ohio. John Kenley was artistic director.

(Summer 1961) She acted in Bob Merrill’s musical, “Take Me Along,” in a Kenley Players production at the Veterans Memorial Theatre in Columbus and Packard Music Hall Theatre in Warren, Ohio with Jack Carson in the cast. John Kenley was artistic director.

(1962) She acted in Ira Levin’s play, “Critic’s Choice,” at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts with Allen Ludden in the cast.

Summer 1963 She starred in BRIGADOON in Paterson, New Jersey, with Allen Ludden in the cast (their first stage work together after being recently married)

Summer 1963 She starred in THE KING AND I in St Louis, Missouri.

(1963) She acted in Carolyn Green’s play, “Janus,” at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts with Allen Ludden in the cast. Show also played Skowhegan, Maine (TBC)

(Summer 1964) She acted in Ira Levin’s play, “Critic’s Choice,” in a Kenley Players production at the Veterans Memorial Theatre in Columbus (one week from June 16th) and the Packard Music Hall Theatre in Warren, Ohio (one week from June 9th) with Allen Ludden in the cast. John Kenley was artistic director.

(1964) In the ifrst week of August she played in MR PRESIDENT at the Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, Kansas with Allen Ludden in the cast.

Summer 1965 She starred in SOUTH PACIFIC, opened June 22nd at the Melody Top in Milwaukee (from on-air announcement)

(Summer 1965) She acted in John Van Druten’s musical, “Bell, Book and Candle”, in a Kenley Players production at the Veterans Memorial Theatre in Columbus and the Packard Music Hall Theatre in Warren, Ohio with Allen Ludden in the cast. John Kenley was artistic director. Playing the first two weeks in August (from on-air announcement).

(1965) She acted in John Van Druten’s play, “Bell, Book, and Candle,” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey with Allen Ludden and James Coco in the cast. Christopher Hewett was director.

Sometime in 1966 they definitely did GUYS AND DOLLS together, with Allen Ludden as Sky Masterson. details TBC

From 19-25 September 1966 they appeared together in BELLS ARE RINGING in West Covina, California (from an on-air announcement)

(1967) She acted in Muriel Resnik’s play, “Any Wednesday,” at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts with April Shawhan in the cast.

(1967) Allen Ludden played Sky Masterson in GUYS AND DOLLS in Atlanta, Georgia (from on-air announcement)

(1968) She acted in Harry Kurnitz’s play, “Once More, With Feeling,” at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts with Allen Ludden in the cast.

(June 24 to 29, 1968) She acted in Harry Kurnitz’s play, “Once More, With Feeling,” at the Oguquit Playhouse in a John Lane presentation with Allen Ludden in the cast. Porter Van Zandt was director.

(Summer 1979) She played Dolly Gallagher Levi in Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s musical, “Hello, Dolly!,” in a Kenley Players production at the Memorial Hall in Dayton; the Veterans Memorial Theatre in Columbus and in Akron, Ohio. John Kenley was artistic director.