I devoted this month to some of our favorite actresses from the golden age of television. This list would not be complete without Reta Shaw who popped up in almost every popular program during the fifties and sixties.
Shaw was born in Maine in 1912. She was born into the entertainment business; her father was an orchestra leader and her younger sister Marguerite also became an actress (I could only find one credit for her; it was a 1959 movie titled The Ballad of Louie the Louse.) After graduation, Reta attended the Leland Powers School of the Theater in Boston.
She then headed for the bright lights of Broadway and in 1947 was cast in “It Takes Two.” In 1954 she was Mabel in “The Pajama Game” and later appeared in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, “Picnic”, and “Annie Get Your Gun.”
Her motion picture career overlapped with her television career. She had feature roles in several big-screen successes including Picnic; The Pajama Game; Pollyanna; The Ghost and Mr. Chicken; Escape to Witch Mountain; one of my favorites as a kid, Bachelor in Paradise with Bob Hope; and most famously, the cook in Mary Poppins, as well as a maid in Meet Me in St. Louis.
In 1952 she married William Forester, another actor. William appeared in Mister Peepers and The Pajama Game movie with his wife. He was very busy with television appearances during the early sixties. They were married a decade but divorced in 1962; the couple had a daughter.
She appeared in many of the same shows as the other actresses we learned about this month. Her first television role was on Armstrong Circle Theater. Her second role was as a regular cast member of a little-remembered show, Johnny Jupiter in 1953. It was a quirky show about a store clerk named Ernest P. Duckweather who invented an interplanetary television set and developed a friendship with a puppet named Johnny Jupiter.
From 1953-1955 she would appear with Marion Lorne on Mister Peepers as Aunt Lil. She continued receiving both movie and television roles throughout the fifties. In 1958 she received another recurring role on The Ann Sothern Show as Flora Macauley.
She began the sixties with another permanent job on The Tab Hunter Show. This show as about comic strip author Paul Morgan. His comic strip was “Bachelor at Large” and he wrote about his own amorous adventures. Shaw, as Thelma his housekeeper, had a very different view of that life than Paul’s best friend Peter did. When that show went off the air, she was given another spot on Oh! Those Bells. The Wiere brothers, well-known comedians, portrayed the Bell Brothers who worked for Henry Slocum in a Hollywood prop shop. The brothers managed to create a disaster out of the most minor matters. The show only lasted two months.
Throughout the sixties she could be seen on a variety of series; although she certainly excelled at comedy she was just as accomplished in dramas such as Wagon Train, I Spy, The Man From UNCLE, and FBI. Reta also made more than a dozen movies during this time.
However, her sitcom career flourished, and she was kept very busy during the sixties with roles on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Father of the Bride, Lost in Space, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Cara Williams Show, My Three Sons, The Farmer’s Daughter, The Lucy Show, The Patty Duke Show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Monkees, That Girl, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, and I Dream of Jeannie. She had a recurring role on Bewitched as Aunt Hagatha/Bertha. She was featured in The Andy Griffith Show twice, but one of them is one of my all-time favorite episodes, “Convicts at Large” when she plays Big Maud Tyler who enjoys dancing with Barney.
The end of the decade brought her another recurring role as housekeeper on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. On May 1, 2014, Madman Entertainment interviewed Kellie Flanagan who played one of the kids on the show. It must have been a fun show to work on. When she recalled her time with the cast, she said “The set was a very happy set, with parties every Friday night, and I remember that all the ladies were swooning over Mulhare and always disappointed to find out the beard had to be applied every day. His real beard was red, was the reason I remember, and they needed that salt-and-pepper thing. Hope was extremely sweet and kind to us, though I do remember there was a period where we were not supposed to bother her – I think she may have been going through a divorce – I believe she had a daughter about my age. Hope was lovely and her voice is fabulous. Reta Shaw was a delight and Charles Nelson Reilly was hilarious. The dog annoyed me!”
Shaw continued to take on roles during the early seventies and could be seen on The New Dick Van Dyke Show, Here’s Lucy, The Odd Couple, Cannon, Happy Days, and The Brian Keith Show. Her career culminated with her role on Escape to Witch Mountain in 1975.
Shaw lived another seven years and died in 1982 from emphysema.
An interesting note is that Shaw grew up in a family who practiced spiritualism and said she had been “brought up on a Ouija board.” However, I’m not sure if she believed in it as well.
Shaw certainly had a very interesting and successful career as an actress. Although she often took on the housekeeper role, she was not stereotyped into just that slot. She appeared in both television and movies and she took on dramas as well as comedy. It would have been fun to see what she would have been able to do if she had been given a series of her own.
Whenever I see Reta Shaw in an old show, I know I am in for a treat.
We are devoting this month to some of our favorite television actresses. If you ever watched Green Acres, you will have fond memories of Ralph Monroe, played by Mary Grace Canfield.
Canfield was born in Rochester, NY in 1924. In her late twenties, she began acting with regional theater companies. She appeared in a few Broadway plays, but they were not big successes. In 1950 she married Charles Carey Jr, but they divorced five years later.
While she continued to appear on stage until 1964, she tried her hand on television in 1954 on an episode of Goodyear Playhouse.
During the fifties, Canfield continued appearing in a variety of televised drama series and several big-screen movies, including Pollyanna.
From 1961-62 she was part of the cast of The Hathaways. She played Amanda Allison, the housekeeper, on the show. Starring Peggy Cass and Jack Weston, the series was about a couple who were raising three chimps: Candy, Charlie, and Enoch.
During the early sixties, Canfield appeared on many of our favorite shows including Hazel, The Interns, The Andy Griffith Show, The Joey Bishop Show, The Farmer’s Daughter, and General Hospital. Mary Grace showed up on Bewitched as Harriet Kravitz, Abner’s sister.
From 1965-71, she played Ralph Monroe, handyman to her brother Alf on GreenAcres. Canfield appeared in forty of the episodes of the show’s run. Ralph always showed up in bib overalls with her baseball cap on backwards, a somewhat better carpenter than her inept brother. The brother and sister team could not finish a project on time or in an acceptable condition. In one episode, Lisa gave her a makeover. In later shows, Ralph admits she is in love with farm agent Hank Kimble.
In a 2006 interview in the Bangor Daily News, she said she felt a bit bad about being remembered for Ralph, not because she didn’t appreciate the character but “only in the sense that it was so easy and undemanding. It’s being known for something easy to do instead of something you worked hard to achieve.”
In the seventies and eighties, Mary Grace made a handful of appearances on shows including Love American Style, The Love Boat, Family, and Cagney and Lacey.
About this time, she moved to Sedgwick, Maine which she fell in love with while performing in the area. Surprisingly, after more than three decades of being single, Canfield tried marriage again when she wed John Theodore Bischof; they were together until she passed away from lung cancer at age 89. Canfield had to move back to California when her health became an issue.
Although I tried, I could not find much information about Mary Grace which made me sad. I could not learn anything about her personal life other than that she had two children, so I don’t know what her hobbies were, what dreams she did not achieve in her career, or what her favorite role was. I would have loved to have seen Canfield get a part in another sitcom after life on Green Acres. However, I thoroughly enjoyed Green Acres and part of that enjoyment came from the quirky but lovable characters who inhabited Hooterville. Ralph Monroe was one of the best.
As we begin 2022, we are getting to know some of our favorite actresses from the golden age of television. Last week we learned more about Aunt Bee and today we look at another one of our favorite aunts: Aunt Clara on Bewitched played by the lovable Marion Lorne.
Like Frances Bavier, Lorne also had successful careers in Broadway, films, and television. She was born in 1883 in Pennsylvania, the daughter of a doctor. And also, like Bavier, Lorne attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.
Although Lorne had her first Broadway debut in 1905, she also had a successful stage career in London. She and her husband Walter C. Hackett had their own theater, the Whitehall. He wrote the plays and she acted in them. One source I read said none of their plays lasted less than 125 nights. She and Walter married in 1911 and were together until his death in 1944. Like Bavier, she also had no children.
Shortly before her husband died, the couple returned to the United States, but it wasn’t until 1951 that she dipped her toe into the silver screen pool. She appeared in Strangers on a Train, the Alfred Hitchcock mystery. She would appear in several other big-screen films including The Graduate.
The following year she was offered a role as Mrs. Gurney the English teacher on Mister Peepers. She would continue in the role until the show went off the air in 1955. In 1957 she appeared with Joan Caulfield in the sitcom Sally. Lorne played a widow who owns a department store. Before and after these two shows she appeared on several series including Philco Theater, Suspicion, and The DuPont Show of the Month.
In 1964, she took on the role Aunt Clara, Samantha’s aunt on Bewitched. Clara was a witch who was losing her powers due to old age, and her spells often resulted in very different outcomes than she planned. Clara was known for her doorknob collection on the show and, in real life, Lorne also had a collection of doorknobs. She appeared in 27 episodes of the show from 1964-1968. Lorne died of a heart attack in 1968 at age 84.
Lorne was nominated for an Emmy for her role as Clara ten days before she died. When she won, Elizabeth Montgomery accepted the award on her behalf. Lorne had also been nominated for her Bewitched role in 1967 (beat out by Frances Bavier for The Andy Griffith Show). In addition, she was nominated for an Emmy in 1954 and 1955 for Mister Peepers (won by Vivian Vance for I Love Lucy and Audrey Meadows for The Honeymooners) and in 1958 for Sally (won by Ann B Davis for Love That Bob).
From 1958-1964 she also made 147 appearances on The Garry Moore Show. That was an amazing cast including Carol Burnett. Carol said that it was a happy, happy show. When she got her own variety show, she took everything she learned and ran her own show the same way.
I think Marion was born to play Aunt Clara. She and Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur were two of my very favorite characters on almost any 1960s sitcom. When she discussed her career, she said that “In my long, long career, I have played everything, but comedy has always been my favorite.” Fans may have loved her delightful but zany roles, but that does not take anything away from her acting skills. Hitchcock said it was hard to compare Marion to an American actress in her younger days. He said “Miss Lorne might have been compared during her London days to Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Katharine Cornell . . . all of them put together—and more. She was more than an actress in England; she was an institution.”
Her Bewitched costars also adored her. Bill Asher, Montgomery’s husband and show producer, said “I try to arrange it so we always have a script for her to do. She’s a big, big part of our show.” Montgomery complimented her saying, “The contribution she makes to the show is incredible. When the character of Aunt Clara came into being, she was the only one we even thought of.” The director, Paul Davis, succinctly said, “I love her.” When she passed away, her character was never played by anyone else. That’s high praise considering Gladys Kravitz, Louise Tate, and Darrin all had several people play their role during the show’s run.
Considering the fact that she spent 63 years in show business and only 17 of them were on television, she certainly made her mark. She was only in six television shows ever but in three of them she was a regular cast member, and she was nominated for an Emmy for each one of them. That is a pretty impressive record. So, did Lorne have any regrets? Just one. She said “My favorite programs are westerns, and I have never been in one.” I like to think she has starred in a few westerns during her time in Heaven. I wish I was able to see one of her stage performances from London or the skits from Garry Moore’s show. I had a lot of fun learning a little more about Marion Lorne, one of my all-time favorite actresses from the classical age of television.
We are kicking off the new year learning about some of our favorite women from the golden age of television. Today we learn about an actress who was often described as difficult to work with personally but a consummate actress. Today let’s meet Frances Bavier, everyone’s favorite aunt.
Born in a traditional brownstone in New York City in 1902, Frances planned on becoming a teacher and attended Columbia University. However, she felt drawn to the stage and found herself enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Graduating in 1925, she received her first Broadway role the same year, appearing in “The Poor Nut.” Her big break came in the production of “On Borrowed Time.” Her last Broadway appearance was in 1951 with Henry Fonda in “Point of No Return.”
Bavier would be part of the Broadway scene for a few decades before moving into films. Perhaps her best-known silver screen role was Mrs. Barley in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Bavier would continue to appear in movies throughout her career including her last performance which was in Benji in 1974.
In 1928 Frances married Russell Carpenter, a military man, and they divorced in 1933. During WWII Frances toured with the USO to entertain the troops. Frances reflected on her marriage later in life and said that he was a very charming man but did not understand her need to be an actress. She said as much as she loved him, she loved acting more.
Her first television roles were in drama series such as Ford Television Theater, Chevron Theater, and Pepsi Cola Playhouse among others in the early fifties. The mid-fifties found her in a variety of series, including Duffy’s Tavern, The Lone Ranger, Dragnet, The Ann Sothern Show, Perry Mason, and Wagon Train.
Frances would be offered two recurring roles in sitcoms during this time. From 1954-56, she was one of the cast members of It’s a Great Life as Amy Morgan who ran a boarding house. When that show ended, she was cast on The Eve Arden Show as Nora, Eve’s mother and housekeeper.
In 1960 she happened to be cast as Henrietta Perkins in an episode of Make Room for Daddy with Danny Thomas. That particular show featured a little town called Mayberry where Danny and his boys were pulled over for speeding and met Sheriff Andy Taylor. When that episode became its own show, Henrietta Perkins transitioned to Aunt Bee.
Aunt Bee was a major character in The Andy Griffith Show, and Bavier continued with the show when it became Mayberry R.F.D. with Ken Berry as the star. Bavier was nominated and won the Emmy for her role in 1967.
Fans loved the relationship Andy and Aunt Bee had, although in real life Andy and Frances were not close. The entire staff was cautious in their approach when working with her because she was easily offended. Ron Howard, always tactful, was pressed on his relationship with her and just replied that “I just don’t think she enjoyed being around children that much.” Producer Sheldon Leonard commented, “[She] was a rather remote lady. Highly professional and a fine comedienne, fine actress with very individual character. She was rather self-contained and was not part of the general hi-jinks that centered upon Andy on the set.”
Producer Richard Linke commented that “She was very touchy and moody due to her age, and you had to be very careful how you treated her and what you said around her. I think Andy offended her a few times, but they became very close friends.”
“I think Frances thought I was a gentleman,” mused actor Jack Dodson, who played Howard Sprague on the show. “I’m not, really, not any more so than anybody else. Since I had fewer scenes to do with her, I had fewer opportunities to swear in front of her, which is why we never had any difficulties. Frances was temperamental and moody, but she kept 99 percent of that to herself. Once in a while, she would get mad at someone. She was the only person in the whole company whose feelings you had to be careful not to hurt.”
Pop culture historian Geoffrey Mark, wrote, “She was a very talented lady, but she was very difficult to work with, and nobody could really figure it out. Eve Arden had trouble with her on The Eve Arden Show. That’s the earliest I can point to where Frances was already getting to be persnickety. I can only repeat what I was told, but on The Andy Griffith Show, Howard Morris, who played Ernest T. Bass on the show and directed episodes of it, said that directing Frances was like stepping on a landmine. If you would ask her to move three inches to the right to get in the proper frame, or, ‘Could you stand up when you say that line?’, she’d blow a fuse and refuse. It was, like, ‘I’m an actress and I know what I’m doing. How dare you try to tell me when to walk and where?’ It’s like yes, you are an actress, but an actress takes direction from the director. Why in the world would you make what is already a stressful situation more stressful?”
However, Andy mentioned during a Larry King interview that Frances phoned him four months before her death and apologized to him for being difficult to work with. Perhaps being alone and reflecting on her past behavior gave her some perspective on the situation, because she told a reporter with the Times Record in Troy, NY that “I don’t have a lot of friends. I don’t see how anyone my age working as hard as I do can have a big social life. I get very annoyed with people and the older I get, the crankier I am. This work has had an effect on my personality. I’m impatient with people and oriented to action.”
In 1972, Bavier retired. She bought a home in Siler City, North Carolina. The stately house is a three-story brick home with stone accents and located at 503 West Elk St. The house was built in 1951 by a local doctor. When asked about her choice of retirement, she said that she “fell in love with North Carolina, all the pretty roads and trees.”
It must have been a bit of a lonely life though. She was pretty much a recluse and lived with 14 house cats. She had no children, and there was no family living nearby. She promoted both Easter Seals and Christmas Seals and often wrote letters to her fans. In an interview with the San Bernardino County Sun, she talked about one of her hobbies: launching imaginary expeditions to remote corners of the world via her collection of maps. During the production of TheAndy Griffith Show, Frances mentioned in an interview in the Charlotte News that when she felt lonely, she went to a supermarket and somebody would always look at her and smile and say “Why, hello, Aunt Bee.”
Frances realized the 3700 residents of Siler City had a difficult job relating to her as well. As she put it during a local TV interview, she was “a 70-year-old lady that probably wants to be alone and they’re having a problem with trying to be friendly and show their friendliness, and at the same time not intrude. That makes it very difficult for them. Living here has been a difficult adjustment for me. I have a great deal to learn from Siler City and North Carolina. It’s an entirely different and new way of life.”
When she passed away in 1989, she left a trust fund of $100,000 to the police department in Siler City that would provide an annual bonus to all police personnel. Most of her $700,000 estate was left to the hospital foundation. She was buried in her adopted hometown, and her tombstone reads “Aunt Bee. To live in the hearts of those left behind is not to die.”
Frances mentioned in several interviews that she loved the character of Bee, but it was hard to be stereotyped in one role. She told The Charlotte News that “Once in a while I get a hankering to play a really bad woman. . . I was really vicious in a Lone Ranger episode, but so many people wrote in outraged at what I was doing, I guess it was a mistake. Sometimes it gets me down to think I’ve lost my own identity as an actress. But other times I get a lift when I realize that I’m really doing quite well.
I can’t imagine having to become another person for so much of my life and always having to be that person to so many people that you would feel like people didn’t really know you as you. The Andy Griffith Show is one of those shows that you read about where the cast truly had a special bond and formed close ties, and Frances must have felt bad that she was not part of that group even if it was her own choice to be excluded. She must have developed a love for Mayberry since she decided to find a small town similar to it where she could live out the rest of her life. Even though she says she never got over her homesickness for New York, she chose to be buried in Siler City as well. I’d like to think she finally found her own Mayberry where she could live and bond with the community as Frances instead of Bee, but it sounds like that continued to be a struggle for her. I hope she realizes how many people loved her character and the joy she has brought to so many fans in the past six decades.
With the passing of Betty White, I wanted to provide some information about Betty’s earlier career. We hear so much about The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Golden Girls, and Hot in Cleveland, with good reason. However, White was a pioneer in the early days of television and was a great role model for women working in the field in the 1950s.
Life with Elizabeth debuted in 1952, one of the first sitcoms. It was on for three years, two of them in syndication. Like many early sitcoms, it revolved around a couple, newly married. Each episode was composed of three, independent sketches. In this same era, George Burns often talks directly to the audience but he is the only character who can do so; on White’s show, different characters broke the “fourth wall.”
White played Elizabeth and Del Moore played her husband Alvin. Jack Narz was the on-camera announcer. Dick Garton showed up as Richard on many episodes. One of my favorites, Frank De Vol, was also part of the cast as were Loie Bridge and Ray Frienborn.
Elizabeth was a character Betty White had created on the variety show Hollywood on Television which she co-starred on with Al Jarvis. The talk show was on the air from 1949-53. The show was on six days a week. White would sing songs on the show. Betty would sing a popular song and then she and Al would go into improvisations and a variety of sketches like Alvin and Elizabeth.
George Tibbles had been the piano player for the orchestra on Hollywood on Television. He had a lot of time to sit and watch what was happening on the stage and thought of ways to make it better. Al Jarvis left the show and was replaced by Eddie Albert. Albert quicky realized the hectic pace and long hours was nothing he wanted to do and left the show after six months. White then became the only host. Tibbles began to offer suggestions and scripts. George had liked the Elizabeth and Alvin sketches and began to write new ones, eventually making the couple a regular feature which he continued to write.
However, Betty reminded him that the reason “it was funny is that it’s just little short skits like you would tell an anecdote, in an evening if people were over visiting, but it would never hold up for a half hour.” When she was asked how she learned comedic timing in front of a TV camera for the sitcom, she reminded the interviewer that when she and Al Jarvis did the variety show, they were on for about five hours a day, six days a week. Her timing came from that work.
Don Fedderson suggested that White and Tibbles expand the sketch into a half-hour sitcom. Don was the station manager and he had three stars he was promoting: Betty White, Liberace, and Johnny Carson. Don, George, and Betty formed Bandy Productions, each a one-third owner. The company was named for White’s dog, Bandit. She thought Bandit Productions sounded like they were stealing material, so Bandy it became.
Fedderson purchased advertising space across America, offering the then-regional show to individual stations. He created the syndication of the show which led to a national audience. However, the show could no longer be done live, so the studio audience was out and a canned laugh track was in. Eventually it would be on 104 channels with 75 different sponsors. Betty White said that the way they did the filming caused problems. They would show the already-filmed show to the audience and get the laugh track from them watching the show. Unfortunately, the actors didn’t anticipate laughter, so the laughter at one joke would be so loud, it would cover up the next line or two of dialogue.
Most of the episodes were written by Milt Kahn and George Tibbles. Betty said George would pick her up and on the way to the studio they would ad-lib skits in the car for future shows. A beautiful harp song would precede the episode. A typical script occurred in episode 19: Elizabeth and Alvin read mystery books at night and then are frightened by every sound they hear; in the second sketch, Alvin makes a slingshot while Elizabeth tries to make him jealous by flirting with their neighbor; and in the third part, they take their car to Elmer’s Garage to have the horn fixed and Alvin is hypnotized. You can tell what the shows are about based on their title descriptions: Balance Checkbook, Late for a Party, and Piano Tuner; Ping Pong, Leaking Roof, Vacuum Cleaner Salesman; or Black Eye, Momma for Breakfast, Missing Receptionist. Betty White recalled an episode where Elizabeth decides to make lobster for Alvin. She went to buy it and only when she got home, realized that it was live. She just could not kill it, so she kept it as a pet and it became a kitchen pet which the couple never ate.
Elizabeth is smarter of the two newlyweds, but she’s patient with her loving, sometimes slow-witted husband, played by Del Moore. The announcer also talked to the cast. For example, when Alvin would get frustrated and say, “I shall leave you at this point Elizabeth,” the announcer would say, “Elizabeth aren’t you ashamed?” Then Betty would nod yes but with a mischievous grin, shake her head no at the audience. Betty said because things were so new and the audience was not used to any specific processes, they could throw double entendres into the scripts and if the viewers got them, it was great and if they didn’t, there was no harm offending anyone.
The show is unlike modern sitcoms in that this couple doesn’t make snide or mean-spirited remarks to one another; they love one another. But, like any marriage, life presents problems, and even simple problems can become complex. It is these situations between the couple that present Betty with an opportunity to teach her audience, especially her female audience, ways to handle marriage, patriarchal attitudes, and how to survive the fifties as a woman in America.
In Life with Elizabeth, Elizabeth, when faced with a problem, relies less on playing dumb, and more on her ability to think things through analytically, get ahead of a situation, and simply get things done. The simple act of watching a woman really think through a situation was a feminist act in the early 1950s. Betty White also has an uncanny ability to use facial expressions to convey her female subjectivity, or that of her characters.
While the show and other shows of this era are often criticized for their gender stereotyping, things were beginning to change. After the war, many women were happy to be back home with their husband as the breadwinner again. However, many women enjoyed the chance to work and earn money and wanted to explore new opportunities.
The show was not loved by all the critics at the time either. John Crosby from The New York Herald reviewed the show in 1954. He said “newcomer who has mushroomed almost overnight into national prominence. Miss White is now the star of a filmed show called ‘Life With Elizabeth,’ which is syndicated to 87 stations and can hardly be avoided in any major city short of Chongking [sic] … Miss White plays the wholesome side of the street for all it’s worth. While I rather hesitate to come out against wholesomeness, I think there are limits and I think Miss White transgresses beyond – well, we won’t pursue that thought any further. Miss White is dimpled, fully dressed and well-upholstered. She lives with her mother, loves dogs, has a nickname of Betz, and does her own hair which looks like – well we won’t pursue that thought any further either. ‘Life With Elizabeth,’ is promulgated by Guild Films, which also conducts The Affairs of Liberace, (that outfit is certainly going to have a lot answer for in the hereafter) … ‘Life With Elizabeth’ revolves – to quote a press release ‘around the spontaneous antics of a typical young American family … They are the kind of persons one welcomes into the home as delightful neighbors.’ Well, maybe. On this one, Miss White exhibits her dimples, winks at the camera, and outwits her husband – a stupid played by Del Moore – three times on every half hour in what is almost a comic strip technique of TV comedy. As for the jokes: ‘She married an X-ray specialist.’ ‘I wonder what he sees in her.’ But it’s all, as I remarked earlier, terribly wholesome. In fact, I suspect that if I took a bite out of Miss White, I’d absorb enough Vitamin B to last all winter. And she has great warmth and charm, so much that she has been described as ‘TV darling of 2,000,00 [sic] fans on the West Coast.’ And now, if you’ll pardon me, I’m off to stare at Jane Russell and see if some of this wholesomeness will wash off.”
Betty was devastated. “I didn’t just get a bad review,” she remembers. “He didn’t like what I wore, he didn’t like my laugh, he didn’t like what I looked like, he certainly didn’t like what I did. And I cried for three solid days. I cut it out and I saved it. I still have the damn thing.”
One critic, Mr. Vernon, liked the show better than Crosby: “It is refreshing in that the situations are all true to life and could happen in any couple’s wedded years. After seeing Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy get covered in paint, hit with pies, or using costumes for laughs, it is nice to see some realism.” Vernon also liked Del Moore. She said “he keeps his role very true to life; you may even see some of your own foibles exploited capably in experiences you may have had.
Although one reviewer stated that “the shows themselves are corny, forced and not very funny,” it’s not too surprising if the show was not a high-quality show. When I say it had a shoestring budget, I am stressing that might be a literal description: each episode was allotted $1.95, which would be less than $20 today! Betty said they had no fancy graphic department. There was an easel set up with cards on them for the camera to shoot. She said if more than one card was needed, you would often see the hand of the stage crew pulling the card from the easel. One of those stagehands who was working his way through film school was Sam Peckinpah. As a comparison, I Love Lucy got about $200 an episode.
When the show was live, you never knew what might happen. Mike Pingel relayed a story that there was “a funny moment in Life with Elizabeth where Betty and Del Moore forgot their lines and it was live TV. Del got up and left Betty at the restaurant scene alone, and she filled her time building a little house with forks and knives. Del finally arrived back with a line and the scene continued.
In 1952 Betty was nominated and won an Emmy for the regional show. As she tells the story, “I was doing Life with Elizabeth and Zsa Zsa Gabor had a show Bachelor Haven and she was a shoe-in.. . Zsa Zsa was going to win the Emmy. They started saying ‘And now, for the Outstanding Actress,’ Zsa Zsa had her powder puff out . . her lipstick . . . and she put her napkin down and then we heard my name. I don’t think she was too happy with me.”
After 65 episodes, it was canceled because Guild Films, the series production company, thought too many episodes would make the show less profitable in its second-run syndication.
It’s hard to find the show on DVD though some copies do exist. Decades will air it as part of the Lost TV programming.
White certainly deserves to be praised for her hard work and determination in the business. According to the documentary, Pioneers of Television, “White was the first woman to produce a national television show, the first woman to star in a sitcom, the first producer to hire a female director, and the first woman to receive an Emmy nomination.” I might argue the point that It’s also hard to remember that while she was doing this pioneering work, she was all of 27 years old.
After Life with Elizabeth was canceled, Betty moved on to Date with the Angels. Fedderson wanted to find a new sitcom for Betty. He got the rights to a play called “Dream Girl” by Elmer Rice about a woman who is daydreaming of a better life. The dialogue was more sophisticated and the production quality was better; could it have gotten worse? The show was on the air from May of 1957 to January of 1958.
Again, she plays a new bride, Vickie Angel, married to Gus, an insurance salesman played by Bill Williams who had starred in The Adventures of Kit Carson. One of the best parts of this show were the great character actors cast on the show. There were a few characters who had a one to four appearances including Natalie Masters and Roy Engel as their neighbors Wilma and George Clemson, Maudie Prickett and Richard Reeves as Mr. and Mrs. Murphy, Burt Mustin as Mr. Finley and Richard Deacon as Roger Finley. Jimmy Boyd as nephew Wheeler, Russell Hicks and Isobel Elsom as Mary and Adam Henshaw, Gus’s boss and his wife; George Neise as Carl Koening, Joan Banks as Dottie, and Nancy Kulp as Dolly.
Also similar to Life with Elizabeth, George Tibbles wrote most of the scripts. The non-dream sequences were the same typical plots on other shows: they are invited to a fancy dinner party and Vickie makes a bunch of faux pas or Vickie goes with a friend for her baby appointment and a friend assumes Vickie is now pregnant. The city decides to remove the oak tree in front of the Angels’ home, so Vickie starts a petition to have the tree stay where it is.
There was an announcer on this show also, but this time it was played by Tom Kennedy, someone many of us would get to know in the game show world.
In this sitcom model, half the show was a dream sequence, which allowed the couple to appear in situations most couples never got in. White also sang a song on each show with the lyric “angel” in them. There was a plan for her to record an LP which was later canceled. The theme song was “Got a Date With an Angel” from 1932, a standard played by the Hal Kemp Orchestra.
The sponsor, Plymouth, did not like the dream sequences. When the show did not do as well in the ratings against The Thin Man and The Schlitz Playhouse, Plymouth put a lot of pressure on the producers to replace the daydreaming with more typical at-home situations. White said without those dream scenes, the show became just one more run-of-the-mill sitcom. She also thought Williams did not have the same skills as Del Moore had. She said Williams was “a lovely man, but he simply didn’t think funny . . . I can honestly say that was the only time I have ever wanted to get out of a show.”
And another echo from the past show? John Crosby didn’t like this show either. He said “Just when I felt reasonably sure that we had all the husband and wife comedies the human system could reasonably stand, ABC-TV comes along with a new one called Date with the Angels which has all the worst qualities of all the other husband and wife comedies without ‘as near as I can find out, any of the virtues.’ . . .their conversation is a series of two-line jokes and pretty bad jokes. She smiles more than any wife since the dawn of time and there is more plot in two minutes than the average couple has in a lifetime. The canned laughter . . is conspicuously misplaced.” However, there was still thirteen weeks of shows to finish in the contract. It then became The Betty White Show; they did sketches and featured guest stars including Boris Karloff, Buster Keaton, and Basil Rathbone.
If you decide to watch an episode or two, you might want to start with the Christmas special. The 1957 episode is summarized on imdb.com as “In this episode, Vickie gets an elderly neighbor to play Santa at a department store. Nancy Kulp also appears in this episode. Things are fine until he believes he’s Santa Claus and starts giving toys away to the children. A sweet, memorable episode. Another viewer mentioned that “the funniest moment arrives at the start of the episode. The elderly character Mr. Finley, played by the perpetually aged Burt Mustin, sings the popular Christmas carol “The First Noel” with only one lyric: the single word ‘noel.’ I love this moment so much, I frequently find myself at holiday time singing “The First Noel” exactly as Mr. Finley does! I also love this episode because it not only includes veteran TV actor Burt Mustin but character actors Nancy Kulp and Richard Deacon as well.”