Betty White is celebrating her 91st birthday today. Eight decades ago as a little (Golden) girl, she made her radio debut. Later, a collaboration with a radio disc jockey would help launch her into television stardom. Here's a look back at the highlights of her radio career, with some clips provided to us by the Old Time Radio Catalog.
Early Radio Debut
Betty White's earliest radio work found online is from an early 1930s drama called Empire Builders, sponsored by the Great Northern Railway Company. The program dramatized stories, often with travel and American landscapes in the background, and lots of evocative train sounds. Betty White starred as a young crippled orphan who befriends a wealthy bachelor at the hospital in time for a happy ending at Christmas. She was just eight years old.
On another episode, she played a baby abandoned on a train. In both tales, she charms those she meets and ends up adopted.
Today she may be known for her Snickers commercial, but it was another food that helped White get her start. In the mid-1940s, she went from audition to audition hoping for that first break. Producer Fran Van Hartesveldt took pity on the young Betty. One day, they were both in the elevator and he said, “I’ll take a chance and give you one word to say in the commercial on this week’s Gildersleeve…Think you can say ‘Parkay’ without lousing it up?”
The union membership would cost her more than the $37.50 she would earn, but it was well worth it. Despite fears of saying “parfait” instead of “Parkay,” she succeeded in her debut, and as she says in her biography, “I was in show business!”
The radio program was the comedy The Great Gildersleeve, starring Harold Peary and sponsored by Kraft Foods. A sampling of Great Guildersleeve episodes are available here.
White went on to read more commercials and play bit parts in The Great Gildersleeve, Family Theater Radio, and Blondie, a program based on the popular comic strip.
Turning to Crime
She also played leads on the air. Betty White became the voice of some of the FBI’s most wanted in episodes of This Is Your FBI. Produced and directed by Jerry Devine and endorsed by J. Edgar Hoover, the program dramatized actual cases ripped from FBI files.
She acted in such shows as the 1949 episode “Larcenous Bride.” We hear glimmers of Rose Nylund’s innocence in the naïve newlywed who becomes entangled in major scams.
From Turntables to Television
As the television industry grew, radio broadcasters were getting into the mix. In 1949, Al Jarvis, one of America’s first radio disc jockeys, made the shift by launching the program Hollywood on Television on KLAC—essentially a televised broadcast of his radio show. He called up Betty to recruit her as his “girl Friday.” She ended up being on the show every day, earning a whopping $50 per week, which soon increased to $300. Over time, they played fewer and fewer records, focusing instead on variety segments and commercials.
With over five hours of airtime per day, she and Jarvis had a lot of space to fill, giving her a chance to play with ad-libbing and singing. The improv would lead to future sketches and she went on to sing on the short-lived Betty White Show and elsewhere.
In 1952, she took over the reins of Hollywood on Television, becoming the first woman to host a daytime talk show. She and the program’s pianist George Tibbles began to incorporate more sketches into the show, including comedic spats between a married couple—Elizabeth and Alvin. This turned into a new sitcom venture Life With Elizabeth, a program that led to her first Emmy. Here’s the first episode of that show:
Happy birthday to a pioneer across the media platforms!
[This story first appeared last year, for Betty White's 90th birthday.]
Tiny Star Wars Fans Can Now Cruise Around in Their Very Own Landspeeders
BY Kirstin Fawcett
July 20, 2017
Some kids collect Hot Wheels, while others own model lightsabers and dream of driving Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder through a galaxy far, far away. Soon, Mashable reports, these pint-sized Jedis-in-training can pilot their very own replicas of the fictional anti-gravity craft: an officially licensed, kid-sized Star Wars Landspeeder, coming in September from American toy company Radio Flyer.
The Landspeeder has an interactive dashboard with light-up buttons, and it plays sounds from the original Star Wars film. The two-seater doesn’t hover, exactly, but it can zoom across desert sands (or suburban sidewalks) at forward speeds of up to 5 mph, and go in reverse at 2 mph.
The vehicle's rechargeable battery allows for around five hours of drive time—just enough for tiny Star Wars fans to reenact their way through both the original 1977 movie and 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. (Sorry, grown-up sci-fi nerds: The toy ride supports only up to 130 pounds, so you’ll have to settle for pretending your car is the Death Star.)
Radio Flyer’s Landspeeder will be sold at Toys “R” Us stores. It costs $500, and is available for pre-order online now.
Magnum, P.I. was appointment television in a world before peak TV made that sort of thing commonplace. Starring Tom Selleck and set against a lush Hawaiian backdrop, the series was a triumph thanks to its tense action, humor, and eclectic cast of characters. Selleck’s Thomas Magnum shed the typical action hero mold for something far more relatable, and for eight seasons, the series was among the most popular on the air. To bring you back to a time when all you needed was a Hawaiian shirt and a Detroit Tigers cap to be a star, here are 12 facts about Magnum, P.I.
1. THERE'S A STRONG HAWAII FIVE-0 CONNECTION.
Magnum, P.I. made its premiere on CBS in 1980, the same year the network’s long-running Hawaii Five-0 was taking its final bow. Magnum’s location was picked because the network didn't want to let its Hawaiian production facilities go to waste, so the Tom Selleck-led show filmed many of its indoor scenes on the old Hawaii Five-0 soundstage.
The two shows are even set in the same universe, as Thomas Magnum would make references to Detective Steve McGarrett, who was famously played by Jack Lord on Hawaii Five-0. Though Lord never did accept the offer to make a cameo, the link between the two shows was never broken.
2. PLAYING MAGNUM COST TOM SELLECK THE ROLE OF INDIANA JONES.
Can you imagine Indiana Jones with a mustache? Or Tom Selleck without one? Well one of those almost became a reality as Selleck was the top choice for the swashbuckling archaeologist when production on Raiders of the Lost Ark began. Unfortunately, the actor’s contractual commitment to Magnum, P.I. prevented him from taking the role.
In a cruel twist of fate, a writers strike subsequently delayed filming on the first season of Magnum, theoretically freeing up Selleck for the role—if he hadn’t already dropped out of consideration. Though the part will forever be linked to Harrison Ford, the ever-excitable George Lucas described Selleck’s screentest as “really, really good.”
3. THE THEME SONG MADE THE BILLBOARD CHARTS.
If you think the Magnum, P.I. theme is a miracle of network television, you’re not alone. The song, composed by Mike Post, reached number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1982—a rare feat for a TV theme. Post is also the man behind hit TV songs like The A-Team, The Rockford Files, Quantum Leap, The Greatest American Hero, and plenty of other ‘80s and ‘90s staples. He’s probably best known as the man behind the ubiquitous “dun, dun” sting from Law & Order. (The Who's Pete Townshend actually wrote a song about Post's theme work, title "Mike Post Theme," which was released on the band's 2006 album, Endless Wire.)
The Magnum, P.I. tune you’re bopping your head to right now wasn’t the original opening song, though. For the first handful of episodes, including the pilot, the series had a much less memorable intro song.
4. THE SHOW FEATURED SOME OF ORSON WELLES’S LAST PERFORMANCES.
Orson Welles’s final years were a blur of voiceover work and jug-o’-wine commercials, and one of his last jobs was acting as the voice of Robin Masters—the mysterious author who lends Magnum his guesthouse in exchange for security services. Masters is only heard, never fully seen, in the show, leading to plenty of conspiracy theories over his actual identity (some fans still think he was Higgins all along).
Occasionally Masters would be seen only briefly and from behind. For those rare moments, actor Bruce Atkinson would provide the necessary body parts for filming. Though his voice was only heard rarely during the series’ first five seasons, Welles was scheduled to play the role for as long as the show was on the air, but the actor’s death in 1985 brought a premature end to his tenure.
5. THERE WAS ALMOST A QUANTUM LEAP CROSSOVER.
Donald Bellisario’s TV empire is one of the industry’s most impressive feats, resulting in multiple top-rated shows and critical favorites. But getting two of his most popular series to cross over proved to be more trouble than anyone would have anticipated.
In order to secure a fifth season for Quantum Leap, Bellisario suggested that Scott Bakula’s Dr. Sam Beckett character “leap” into the body of Thomas Magnum in the final moments of season four, leading to the following year’s premiere. But there was a snag with securing Selleck; his publicist even claimed he was never formally approached about the subject, saying, "We’re hoping. It’s on hold. We don’t have an answer.” The idea was soon dropped, and a fifth season of Quantum Leap went on without any help from Magnum.
Magnum, P.I. was off the air at this point, so Selleck was already on different projects. Some test footage of Bakula as Thomas Magnum was shot and shown at a Quantum Leap fan convention, but that’s as far as viewers got.
6. CROSSOVERS WITH MURDER, SHE WROTE AND SIMON & SIMON DID HAPPEN.
VINCE BUCCI/AFP/Getty Images
A crossover between Magnum and Murder, She Wrote? That did happen, oddly enough. The event took place in the Magnum, P.I. episode "Novel Connection" during season seven and Murder, She Wrote’s “Magnum on Ice.” In the story, Magnum is arrested for murder, and the only person who can clear his name is Jessica Fletcher, played as always by Dame Angela Lansbury.
During its third season, Magnum also crossed over with his fellow CBS private investigators on the show Simon & Simon. Both series ran simultaneously on CBS for almost the entirety of the ‘80s, and in this episode the trio banded together to secure a Hawaiian artifact that supposedly had a death curse attached to it.
7. THE SMITHSONIAN PRESERVED MAGNUM’S SIGNATURE HAWAIIAN SHIRT.
If you’re not old enough to appreciate what a phenomenonMagnum, P.I. was, consider this: Selleck’s iconic Hawaiian shirt, Detroit Tigers hat, and insignia ring from the show were all donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
The objects joined other culturally significant TV relics from over the years, including Archie Bunker’s chair from All in the Family, the Lone Ranger’s mask, and a Kermit the Frog puppet. Perhaps just as big of an honor, Selleck found himself in the Mustache Hall of Fame for the memorable lip fuzz he sported throughout the series. His digital plaque reads:
“Throughout his acting career, Selleck’s charismatic grin, unflinching masculinity and robust, stocky lipholstery have made him the stuff of legend.”
8. IT PRODUCED A FAILED BACKDOOR PILOT.
The first season of Magnum, P.I. was about more than just establishing Tom Selleck as a household name; CBS executives also wanted an episode to act as a backdoor pilot for an action series starring Erin Gray. In the episode “J. ‘Digger’ Doyle,” viewers meet Gray as the titular Doyle, a security expert that Magnum calls on to help thwart a potential assassination attempt against Robin Masters.
Though the episode went off without a hitch, the spinoff never materialized. In fact, Gray never reappeared on the series after that.
9. MAGNUM DIES IN THE PREMATURE SERIES FINALE “LIMBO.”
By the time season seven rolled around, it seemed that Magnum, P.I. had run its course—so much so that the network had planned for that to be the show’s sendoff.
In the season’s final episode, “Limbo,” Magnum winds up in critical condition after taking a bullet during a warehouse shootout. The episode gets Dickensian as Magnum, caught between life and death, drops in on all his closest friends (and supporting cast) as a specter no one can see or hear. He makes peace with everyone around him before he apparently walks off into heaven, punctuated by the John Denver song “Looking For Space.”
To the surprise of the cast, crew, and fans, the series was renewed for a shortened eighth season, meaning Magnum had to come back from the beyond and continue his adventures for another 13 episodes.
10. THE REAL SERIES FINALE IS ONE OF THE MOST-WATCHED OF ALL TIME.
When Magnum, P.I. actually ended, it ended with one of the most-watched finales of all time. It currently sits as the fifth most-watched series finale, not far behind the likes of Cheers, M*A*S*H, Friends, and Seinfeld. The grand total of viewers? 50.7 million.
11. SELLECK AND TOM CLANCY FAILED TO GET A MAGNUM MOVIE OFF THE GROUND IN THE ‘90s.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Rumors of a Magnum, P.I. movie have been rumbling since shortly after the credits rolled on the series' final episode (and likely well before that). It got close in the ‘90s when Selleck teamed with famed novelist Tom Clancy to pitch a Magnum movie to Universal.
Clancy was a big fan of the show and was ready to crack the story with Selleck, but nothing ever came of it. Selleck later recounted:
"We got together, and I went to Universal, and I said ‘It's time we could do a series of feature films.’ They were very interested, and I had Tom, who wanted to do the story, and I had this package put together, but Universal's the only studio that could make it, and they went through three ownership changes in the '90s, and I think that was the real window for Magnum."
12. WE MIGHT SEE A SEQUEL SERIES FOCUSING ON MAGNUM’S DAUGHTER.
The time for a Selleck-led Magnum, P.I. movie may have passed, but there’s still hope for the franchise. In 2016, The Hollywood Reporterbroke the news that ABC had a pilot in the works for a Magnum sequel, which would put an end to the constant reports of a full-fledged reboot or movie adaptation of the show.
According to the site, the show would follow Magnum's daughter, Lily, "who returns to Hawaii to take up the mantle of her father's PI firm.” It remains to be seen whether or not the project will ever come to fruition.