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.]
The stages of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, England have been graced by some of the most celebrated performers of our day. Now, the legendary theater company is giving fans a chance to own the original costumes that helped bring their characters to life. On April 17, more than 50 costumes worn in RSC productions will hit eBay to raise money for the group's Stitch in Time campaign.
With this new campaign, the RSC aims to raise enough money to renovate the aging workshop where costume designers create all the handmade garments used in their shows. Following a play's run, the costumes are either rented out to other theaters or kept safe in the company's museum collections. Designers often make duplicates of the items, which means that the RSC is able to auction off some of their most valuable pieces to the public.
The eBay costume auction includes clothing worn by some of the most prolific actors to work with the company. Bidders will find Patrick Stewart's beige shorts from the 2006 production of Antony and Cleopatra, David Tennant's white tunic from 2013's Richard II, Ian McKellen's red, floor-length coat from 2007's King Lear, and Judi Dench's black doublet from 2016's Shakespeare Live! Costumes worn by Anita Dobson, Susannah York, and Simon Russell Beale will also be featured.
All proceeds from the auction go to restoring the RSC's costume workshop. Shakespeare fans have until April 27 to place their bids.
Netflix is now producing its own version of the 1970s sitcom One Day a Time, featuring three generations of a Cuban-American family living together. While this updated go-round tackles some current issues facing such families, such as diversity and equity, it seems like the perfect time to take a look back at the original series, which was groundbreaking for featuring such then-controversial topics as suicide, premarital sex, and teen pregnancy. Here are 10 surprising facts about the show that started it all.
1. IT WAS PARTLY AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL.
Whitney Blake was an actress probably best known for her role as Dorothy Baxter on the 1960s sitcom Hazel. Blake was also the mother of three children—one of whom is actress Meredith Baxter—who left her husband after 10 years of marriage and worked several day jobs at age 26 while taking drama classes at night in an effort to achieve her long-time dream of becoming a professional actress. In her 2011 memoir, Meredith Baxter described her upbringing as unconventional—she and her siblings, for example, were forbidden to refer to their mother as “Mom” and were instructed to always address her as “Whitney”— but Blake decided that her devotion to her career while being a single mom was the perfect premise for a TV series.
2. IT WAS ONLY THE SECOND SITCOM TO FEATURE A DIVORCED MOM.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Whitney Blake married TV producer Allan Manings in 1968. Manings worked on the TV sitcom Good Times, so he had a direct pipeline to Norman Lear when he pitched Blake’s divorced single mom idea. Lear, who was known for pushing the TV envelope on such series as All in the Family and Maude, agreed that a divorcée with children might attract viewers who were in a similar situation but also press enough controversy buttons in Middle America to make another hit. Yes, it sounds ever-so-benign today, but in 1975 (when the series debuted), Bonnie Franklin’s Ann Romano was only the second-ever divorced mother to feature on a TV sitcom. Though Vivian Vance’s character on The Lucy Show was the first divorced mom character, many considered Romano to be the “first realistic portrayal of a divorced mother struggling to raise her teenage daughters.”
3. THERE WAS ONLY ONE DAUGHTER IN THE ORIGINAL PILOT.
The original pilot Lear filmed starred Franklin as a divorced nurse raising a teenaged daughter (played by Mackenzie Phillips). The proposed series was called Three to Get Ready and also featured Pat Harrington Jr. as Schneider, the apartment building superintendent, and Marcia Rodd as Romano’s neighbor and friend. That particular pilot didn’t sell, but Lear retooled it to ditch the hospital setting and added a second daughter. He also decided that Marcia Rodd wasn’t the right fit for the neighbor and hired Mary Louise Wilson instead. Now called One Day at a Time, the series got a green light from CBS and debuted in December 1975.
4. A COUPLE OF KEY CHARACTERS WENT MISSING.
Richard Masur played attorney David Kane, a love interest for the newly-divorced Ann Romano in the first season. However, the actor realized after half a dozen episodes that his character was being “painted into a corner.” In a 2016 interview with The A.V. Club, the noted character actor explained that David seemed to be constantly proposing marriage to Ann and she refused him every time. He was becoming a one-note character, and the actor became even further frustrated when Lear insisted that David and Ann’s romance be chaste; it was made very clear via the scripts that they had done nothing more than hold hands and occasionally kiss. “I said, ‘Write me off the show,’” Masur recalled of his conversation with Lear. “He said, ‘Well, I don’t really want …’ I said, ‘Yes, you do, Norman. That’s why you’re here. Write me off the show.’ He says, ‘Okay.’”
Another character who seemingly disappeared without explanation was neighbor Ginny Wroblicki, a brassy cocktail waitress played by Mary Louise Wilson. Wilson had been appearing on and off Broadway since 1962, and it was while she was appearing in a revival of Gypsy that Lear offered her the role of Ginny. Wilson accepted the job based on Lear’s track record, but she quickly decided that One Day at a Time was no All in the Family. She and Bonnie Franklin never saw eye-to-eye (pun intended: in her 2015 autobiography, Wilson described Franklin as constantly giving her a glassy, semi-cross-eyed gaze as she critiqued Wilson’s performance), and she never got comfortable with the four-camera filming process. Like Masur, she pleaded her case to Lear and was released from her contract at the end of season two.
5. THE ACTOR WHO PLAYED SCHNEIDER ADDED HIS EVER-PRESENT TOOL BELT.
Pat Harrington Jr. had an impressive television pedigree (including a stint working with Steve Allen’s comedy troupe) when he was hired to play the role of apartment building superintendent Dwayne Schneider. Harrington took his new gig very seriously and grew a Clark Gable-style mustache, since Schneider was supposed to be a notorious Lothario. He also decided—just half an hour before taping the first episode—that something was missing from his character’s wardrobe. He paid a studio electrician for his well-worn tool belt, complete with hammer, which he then slung around his hips, John Wayne-style.
6. THE STUDIO HAD TROUBLE KEEPING UP WITH VALERIE BERTINELLI’S FAN MAIL.
Valerie Bertinelli, who was cast as Ann Romano’s youngest daughter Barbara, became the breakout star of the series after just one season. With her girl-next-door face, button nose, and lush mane of hair, she was suddenly America’s Sweetheart, and—as Harrington mentioned in TV Guide’s Behind the Sitcom—the studio could barely cope with the sacks of fan mail addressed to Bertinelli. Interestingly enough, even though she was featured in almost every teen fan magazine of the era—not to mention some People magazine covers—Valerie confessed in her autobiography that for many years she felt unattractive when compared to co-star Mackenzie Phillips. Meanwhile, Phillips was secretly envious of not only Bertinelli’s media popularity, but also her wholesome upbringing and family life. Bertinelli was brought up in a closely-knit Italian Catholic family, while Phillips’s childhood (as detailed in her own book) was unconventional, to say the least. Ultimately, it was announced that her departure from the show was by “mutual decision” (though she did pop up in a few more episodes over the next few years).
7. MACKENZIE PHILLIPS LEFT AT THE HEIGHT OF THE SHOW’S POPULARITY.
Throughout the first five seasons of One Day at a Time, Phillips’s struggles with addiction were hardly an on-set secret. Though the show was a ratings juggernaut, and viewers loved her Julie Cooper character, the young actress’s erratic behavior eventually became cause for concern. In late 1979, People magazine reported that “the show’s producers, agreeing that Mackenzie was suffering from fatigue, ordered her to take six weeks off to ‘rest and put on some weight’—in brief, shape up or else.” Just a few weeks after returning to the set in early 1980, she was reportedly given the choice to either say she was leaving the show “for personal reasons” or be fired.
8. BERTINELLI AND ELTON JOHN WERE MUTUAL ADMIRERS.
Barbara Cooper was an Elton John fan on the show, just as Bertinelli was in real life. In fact, after she and Phillips sang “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” in costume as John and Kiki Dee on an episode, someone sent a tape of their performance to the rock star. He mailed Bertinelli an autographed photo that read, “You look more like me than I do!”
9. BONNIE FRANKLIN GOT DUMPED FOR ANN JILLIAN.
As happens on all TV shows that use teen actors, the kids grow up. As Bertinelli and Phillips got older and more independent, their characters did the same and eventually Ann Romano needed someone else to guide and nurture. Glenn Scarpelli joined the cast in season six as Alex, the son of Nick Handris, Ann’s new boyfriend. Nick was played by Ron Rifkin, who left after one season (once again, the producers decided it was better if Ann didn’t have a steady love interest). Nick was killed by a drunk driver and Alex came to live with Ann for three seasons. His was written out at the end of the eighth season because Scarpelli had accepted a role on the Ann Jillian sitcom Jennifer Slept Here, which ended up lasting just one season (as opposed to One Day at a Time’s nine). He also tried his hand at a singing career:
10. SCHNEIDER ALMOST GOT A SPINOFF.
After nine seasons, Franklin and Bertinelli decided not to renew their contracts. But the ratings for One Day at a Time were still strong enough that the network wanted to keep the show going somehow. Their solution was to spin off the Schneider character into his own show. The episode entitled “Another Man’s Shoes” was a backdoor pilot for a proposed series in which Schneider moves to Florida to care for his orphaned niece and nephew. That show was never picked up, leaving Harrington to hang up his tool belt for good.