Welcome to this week’s Wildcard Wednesday — on a Monday! We’re continuing Betty White Month here as we celebrate, in a special slot, the 100th anniversary of her birth (January 17). As you all know, this American icon had a rich history in television — and this week we’re going back to the beginning, well… almost. You see, Betty White first appeared in the developing medium on an experimental local (Los Angeles) broadcast in 1939, but her TV career didn’t formally begin until a decade later, when she sang on a Dick Haynes special and got her first regular gig on the short-lived comedy series Tom, Dick, And Harry, a carryover from radio that was shown live in the L.A. area on KLAC-TV during the 1948-’49 season. It starred three vaudevillians and was a crude early example of the sitcom, when there was less distinction between this form and the other comedy-variety shows from which the genre developed. Then, following a stint on a local game show called Grab Your Phone, White’s profile received a major boost when she was hired in late 1949 as Al Jarvis’ “Girl Friday” on KLAC’s live (five-hour) daytime show, Hollywood On Television (also known as The Al Jarvis Show). From this success, she briefly added her own evening variety hour to her many TV duties for five months in 1950, and then came along with Jarvis when he also took on a weekly primetime slot at KLAC in the summer of 1951. It was here on his evening show (sort of an amateur hour for which they were the hosts) that she and Jarvis first began appearing in a recurring sketch — by writer George Tibbles (later of My Three Sons) — casually referred to as “Alvin and Elizabeth,” which followed the relatable domestic exploits of an impish wife and her along-for-the-ride husband.
Jarvis left KLAC in 1952, ceding his responsibilities to White, who took over his primetime program in January and then succeeded Eddie Albert as the host of their long-running daytimer in June. The “Alvin and Elizabeth” sketch — which had grown into such a popular attraction that White continued it on her evening variety show with Del Moore now in the role of the husband — became its own half-hour comedy that May (much like the trajectory followed by Jackie Gleason’s “Honeymooners”). To sustain the half hour, they decided that this new series, titled Life With Elizabeth, would contain three separate sketches, or vignettes, all featuring the two characters in everyday, realistic incidents, each one usually playing in real-time and on one set. Today, there’s some debate about whether we should call this series, which KLAC broadcast live and locally once a week from a Beverly Hills theater (in front of a live audience) from May 1952 to late summer 1953, a sitcom, given that each half hour is essentially comprised of three non-related scenes. However, because it’s pursuing laughs by using the continuity of elements in a pre-established situation — specifically, the two characters of Alvin and Elizabeth, a married couple with basically consistent personalities (and a few catchphrases) — I think it meets our definition of the situation comedy and can be termed as such, if it so chooses. Indeed, co-producer Don Fedderson at least agreed that it was comparable to other network comedies, and in summer 1953 (a few months after White won a regional Emmy), a deal was struck to turn Life With Elizabeth into a filmed series for national syndication. 65 episodes of this new version — White’s first regular national exposure — were shot between summer 1953 and spring 1955 (with a single-camera setup and no live audience), entering the market in October 1953.
Having seen over half of these filmed episodes (and the only surviving live local broadcast, at UCLA), I can say that Life With Elizabeth is a benign affair that’s short on laughs, never heightening ordinary, low-stakes scenarios enough so that their humor is competitive with the era’s other husband-and-wife sitcoms (or sketches). And it avoids the cultivation of specifics in the depiction of its characters, including the eponymous Elizabeth, whose playfulness (“Elizabeth, aren’t you ashamed?” the announcer would ask every episode) is hardly bold enough to uniquely push these middling ideas. As such, there’s no meaningful link between the characters and the thin, sketch-like notions, let alone the intended but gentle comedy. (It’s a show that proves the remarkableness of I Love Lucy, which motivated everything through well-defined leads!) However, White is charming and lights up the screen — she’s more than enough reason to watch. And millions did; the syndicated Elizabeth was fairly well-received — far more than her first network comedy, a more traditionally structured multi-camera live audience show shot by Desilu and called Date With The Angels (1957-1958, ABC), which was such a bad experience for its leading lady that she didn’t even appear in another sitcom for over a decade. Fortunately, Life With Elizabeth was different — it always held value for White as the show on which millions of viewers across the country first met her, establishing her reputation as “America’s Sweetheart” (which Mary Tyler Moore would knowingly and gleefully play upon when casting her as Sue Ann Nivens in 1973). And, in terms of the form, Life With Elizabeth gave White her first long-term practice in a genre that she eventually came to dominate.
So, it was extra special when, on September 11, 1998, to mark the 50th anniversary of KLAC-TV (by then, it was called KCOP-TV), the L.A. station broadcast a local retrospective that featured White recreating her darling Elizabeth, now opposite Peter Michael Goetz as Alvin. (Jarvis and Moore had since passed.) It’s unclear who wrote the sketch — Tibbles was also long gone by then — but it’s an interesting watch, for unlike most of the filmed ’50s series’ typical vignettes, it employs two sets and discontinuous action (that is, there’s a passage of time in between setups). Also, White is clearly trying to put more of a characterization into Elizabeth, with a dash of Rose Nylund’s silliness to accelerate the part’s inherent perkiness and help fuel the increased jokiness of the dialogue (now less gentle, more sharp)… And yet, it’s still very much in the spirit of the ’50s version — original announcer Jack Narz is back too! — and this seven-minute reunion makes for a warm tribute to Betty White’s legacy as a staple of early Los Angeles television. I present this clip — of White returning, full circle, to the role that first made her “America’s Sweetheart” — in honor of the centennial anniversary of her birth.
Come back next Wednesday for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned THIS Wednesday — my schedule prefers tomorrow off — for the next post: the start of our look at Kate & Allie!