Listen to 8-Year-Old Betty White Play a Crippled Orphan in 1930

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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.

(Program information is available here.)

How Margarine Launched Betty White’s Career

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.]

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January 17, 2013 - 12:20pm
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