Like millions of others, I am mourning the passing of actress, animal activist and all-round purveyor of good cheer Betty White. Yes, I can verify that she was as nice in person as she seemed to be on television.
She was also a pioneer in the video medium, starting in 1949 and continuing for the next five decades. She even wrote a book about her experiences called Here We Go Again. While plugging its publication on a local morning show here in Los Angeles she was asked to name the most memorable people she’d ever worked with in TV. To my astonishment the first person she cited was Buster Keaton, whom she’d encountered in the earliest days of L.A. television. I couldn’t let this rest, so I pursued Miss White and asked her for more details. She was happy to fill me in.
“I was doing the Al Jarvis show, Hollywood on Television, and we were on five and a half hours a day, six days a week, live. He was also doing a disc jockey job and he had all these friends, so his friends would be our guests. They would come on and one day, Buster Keaton walked in. We went on the air in November of 1949 and Buster had in 1950, a half-hour show of his own. He came over to visit with Al one day and oh, I was just so fascinated seeing him, because even then—I mean, you don’t see that kind of comedy talent, it was just different.
“We had a zillion commercials, always, and even at five and a half hours we were always late, so Al interrupted the interview with Buster just long enough to say, ‘Excuse me, Betty, would you do the Thrifty Drug commercial?’ Thrifty was on twice a day on our show and they were a big sponsor for us. They had an easel there with nine billion little products all tacked to it, and somehow they expected you to mention them all. Of course, there was no time limit on time for commercials, but I knew that they wanted to get back to the Keaton interview, so I just went over and started to buzz through as fast as I could.
“Well, all of a sudden–you feel some presence there, you know–Buster had gotten up and shambled over. He didn’t say a word, he was just looking at the easel so closely… Of course, I was having a struggle to keep it together. Every [product] I would mention, he’d take it out and examine it and he’d try to make it work if he could. The commercial must have gone on—it seemed like it went on for an hour, it probably lasted ten minutes. Then he went back over, never said a word, continued his scheduled interview with Al. Oh God, if they had tape in those days…
“After Al left the show, I inherited it. So I took my courage and invited Buster back over. I told him that we wanted to do something kind of impromptu, if that was all right. He said, ‘Sure, whatever you want to do.’ So I set up a toy store, a little one in the corner. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we set up this whole thing against a flat, like a little store counter. In the interview I said, ‘Incidentally, you always knock me out the way you can improvise. Does that come naturally?’ He said, ‘I don’t know…’ And I said, ‘Well, let’s see what happens if… come on over here a minute.’
“I took him over to the toy store and then I just left him there. He was there, ‘in one,’ and Leonard, to watch what he [did]… I mean, he just used everything in the set, and I can’t explain to you why it was funny. It was the imagination. If his head was made of glass, you’d be able to see the wheels go around, you know?
“Later when I went over to ABC and was doing shows there, I invited him and we did a silly thing with a trampoline. Those were the only three times that I worked with him. He was so nice; at the end of either the second or third time he brought me in a present. It was a little wishing well about two inches high. God knows where he found it. It had no significance, but he gave it to me as a present. Needless to say, I still have that wishing well.
She then apologized for not having more to say! Even brief encounters with Buster left people with warm and happy memories. “He wasn’t playful in the sense that somebody comes out and clowns for a talk show,” she said in summing up. “He just participated because it interested him at that point, and he couldn’t help but be funny.”
How kind and perceptive she was… but then, that savvy and self-awareness are what kept Ms. White in demand, a heroine to several generations of fans.