America meets Betty White
By Don Stradley
On the night of May 17, 1952, an audience of 400 crowded into the Music Hall Theater on Wilshire Blvd. They’d come to Beverly Hills to see the debut of Life With Elizabeth, a new show from KLAC-TV, channel 13 in Los Angeles. The station was gambling that the program’s star, 30 year-old Betty White, could carry her first sitcom.
She was already quite popular in L.A. for co-hosting Hollywood on Television, a daily talk show with a whopping 5-½ hour timeslot. That’s where the Elizabeth character had been introduced in a recurring sketch. As the bright eyed young housewife with a penchant for cornball jokes, Betty had proven herself to be a charming and charismatic actress. When the idea was expanded into a half-hour program for primetime, Betty’s life became hectic. Not only was she enlisted as the new show’s co-producer – Betty was one of the first female TV producers in Hollywood - but she was still hosting the afternoon program. The heavy workload paid off, however, for within a year she would win her first Emmy, and Life With Elizabeth would go from being a cut-rate production seen only in California to nationwide syndication.
The show had seemed destined to break out of L.A., and the limitations of KLAC-TV. Domestic comedies were the hot new thing – I Love Lucy had premiered to great acclaim on CBS in October of 1951 – and Guild Films, a distributor that had recently hit pay dirt with The Liberace Show, hoped to capitalize on the trend. During the summer of 1953, with Guild Films agreeing to distribute 39 new episodes, Life With Elizabeth began sneaking into living rooms across America.
Betty drove the show with her comic talents, but she always gave credit to her production partners, George Tibbles and Don Fedderson. Tibbles later wrote such TV fare as My Three Sons and Love American Style, though his real claim to fame was co-composing “The Woody Woodpecker Song,” which earned him an Oscar nomination in 1949. Tibbles would often discuss plot ideas with Betty, hastily writing scripts based on quick conversations they’d had while riding into work together. This speedy, almost slap-dash way of creating helped give the show its kooky atmosphere. Performers on the program, including Betty, often forgot lines and had to ad-lib their way back into the script. It was live television at its friskiest.
“We had the guts of a burglar,” Betty said of those days.
In her memoir, Here We Go Again: My life in Television, Betty recalled the show’s innovative “three-incident” structure, which still seems ahead of its time today:
“For the format, we opted to go for three separate situations, on the premise that when you or your friends tell a funny anecdote about something that happened, the stories last no more than five or six minutes - eight, max. My contention was that if you try to stretch that anecdote into a half hour, the joke wears thin.”
The three-scene gimmick was just one of the ways Life With Elizabeth challenged the limits of the new small-screen medium. Shows usually ended with the cast involved in an argument, only to break the fourth wall and wave goodnight to the home viewers before resuming their squabble. The show’s execution was also novel, filmed with no studio audience, and then shown at the Music Hall Theater for customers whose reactions would be recorded for a laugh track. There was also a narrator (the droll Jack Narz) who often interrupted the action to scold Elizabeth after one of her misadventures. With his deep, radio announcer’s voice, he’d bellow what amounted to the show’s catchphrase: “Elizabeth, aren't you ashamed?” To which Betty would just shake her head, ‘No.’
Life With Elizabeth also differed from most early sitcoms in that Elizabeth and her husband Alvin, played by Del Moore, weren’t always yelling at each other.
”Both Alvin and Elizabeth had a tendency to be a little flaky and they may have had almost one good brain between them, but they suited each other just fine,” Betty recalled in 1995. She added that there was a natural chemistry between her and Del Moore. “Maybe the reason I felt so comfortable with Delsy right off the bat was that both he and I were a little flaky.”
By 1954, Life With Elizabeth was airing on more than 100 TV stations around the country, with piles of fan mail coming in each week for Betty. The show and its dimpled star was a major success story.
Betty was in demand. When she was hired to host a half-hour morning slot on NBC, Hollywood gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, dubbed her, “the Cinderella girl of television.” Unfortunately, The Betty White Show was short-lived.
Life With Elizabeth was also in trouble. Guild Films was concerned that too many episodes would saturate the market. And just like that, the show was discontinued. In 1955, feisty Elizabeth told her last joke.
Betty White, of course, was just getting started.
She has worked constantly since then, winning numerous awards for her roles on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Golden Girls, and many other programs, plus an Emmy for hosting Saturday Night Live in 2010 at age 88. Still, Life With Elizabeth remains a touchstone for Betty’s older fans. For decades, people approached Betty on the street to say, 'Elizabeth, aren't you ashamed?' which always delighted her.
“Not so much because of the show," Betty said, “but that at their age they can remember. Anything.”
Join The Film Detective for a marathon showing of Life With Elizabeth on January 17th, which happens to be Betty White’s 99th birthday!