Editor's note: "Streaming Time Capsule” (which was left out of the title because the title is already plenty long) is a semi-regular feature on The TV Professor, looking at some of the unusual and maybe worthwhile, and maybe not worthwhile, TV show oddities that you can find online. Our latest installment? Life with Elizabeth and Date with the Angels, two 1950s sitcoms starring the incomparable Betty White. (Editor's note: The timing of this post is coincidental. It went up several hours before the news of her passing. It was hoped that this post would be more or less a celebration of her centennial birthday, and not her passing. Sigh...)
If you consider yourself a scholar of the work of Betty White, you probably recall the moment the country unofficially declared her a national treasure. It was, of all things, after the airing of a TV commercial. White was featured in a hilarious Snickers ad during the Super Bowl in 2010. Suddenly, the entire nation collectively said, “Wow, who is this talented actress, and where has she been all of our lives?”
Well, that's not quite accurate. Everybody already knew of, and adored, Betty White. But her appearance in the TV ad did seem to make the country sit up and see the actress in a new light. Suddenly, there was a demand for White to host Saturday Night Live, which she did several months later, on May 8, 2010, at the age of 88. White was on a roll. The offers were pouring in, and she was soon co-starring as Elka Ovstrosky in TV Land’s sitcom Hot in Cleveland (2010-2015), which turned out to be a hit. White was fantastic, but so was the entire cast. As The New York Times put it, “This is not perhaps the most daring or avant-garde comedy on television, but there is nothing shameful about ‘Hot in Cleveland.’ It’s actually kind of fun.”
White, as we all know, has had a tremendous career, stealing scenes as Sue Ann Nivens in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) and capturing hearts as Rose Nylund in The Golden Girls (1985-1992). And, of course, she has been a guest star on numerous TV shows and has had some fun roles in the occasional movie as well (such as the 1999 horror comedy Lake Placid).
But White’s legendary career is primarily one that’s been on television, and it really began to take off with her appearances in a couple of 1950's sitcoms, Life with Elizabeth and Date with the Angels, both of which can be found on numerous streaming channels, and both of which are worth checking out, if you’re a serious student of Betty White and enjoy sitcom history.
Her two series from the 1950s may have not been nearly as influential as I Love Lucy, but they definitely had the early rhythms of a sitcom down pat – and likely nonetheless influenced sitcoms to come.
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
The Origins of Life with Elizabeth
The series aired from 1952 to 1955, but really, it had its roots in another TV series before that.
Betty White got her start in entertainment in 1939, in a sense, when she was given the chance to sing "The Merry Widow" on an experimental local TV channel. Months later, TV was introduced to the world at the New York World's Fair.
During the 1940s, White got acting gigs when she could, but she paid most of her bills by working as a secretary for a Los Angeles radio disk jockey named Dick Haynes. When Haynes did a TV special in 1949, he asked White if she’d appear in it with him. She did, and that went so well, that it led to a job offer from Al Jarvis, a radio disc jockey who was going to host a local TV show called Hollywood on Television.
White’s new job paid $50 a week. It was a five (!) hour series that ran Monday through Friday and was so popular that it was soon expanded to five and a half hours and began airing six, instead of five, days a week. White also got a bump in pay, up to $300 a week.
Jarvis left the show in 1951 to go work for another TV station, and Eddie Albert – future Green Acres star -- took his place. He quickly became exhausted by the grind, however, and quit. White was now hosting the series alone, and it was during this time that she started doing sketches about a housewife named Elizabeth.
Those were so popular that it wasn’t long before White was given the opportunity to create a sitcom, which became Life with Elizabeth. She created the series with George Tibbles, a musician on Hollywood on Television and Don Fedderson, the station manager where Hollywood on Television was shot.
Fedderson would go onto become a TV executive producer, creating shows such as My Three Sons (1960-1972) and Family Affair (1966-1971).
What was Life with Elizabeth?
Life with Elizabeth was a sitcom that focused on the day-to-day, slice of life goings-on of a husband and wife -- and basically had three unrelated plots in one episode, in ten-minute portions. So you might have a 10 minute sketch of Elizabeth and her husband Alvin playing Monopoly or maybe they would be trying to figure out their social calendar (it was always far funnier than it sounds). The somewhat short-lived CBS sitcom Life in Pieces (2015-2019) did something similar.
Betty White played Elizabeth, and her fictional husband, Alvin, was played by Del Moore. Like White, Moore hailed from the radio industry and had come up the ranks as an announcer.
Moore had already played Alvin in sketches on Hollywood on Television. Tibbles, the musician turned Life with Elizabeth scriptwriter worked with Moore and suggested him as a foil and husband.
Incredibly, White didn’t give up her day job hosting Hollywood on Television. She kept doing her gig six days a week. She would wake up and have breakfast with her parents (she still lived with them) and go off to work. Most of the week, she was doing her thing on Hollywood on Television. Five and a half hours a day, six days a week, of ad-libbing for the camera. Small wonder she became such a natural in front of the camera.
White rehearsed for Life with Elizabeth on Friday evening and Saturday morning. Then Saturday night, Betty White and Del Moore performed the show live for a studio audience.
She told a TV journalist, years later, "We were a little light on our lines. We sort of knew them, but we weren't rock-steady as you would be if you had a week's rehearsal--like you do today."
The first year the show aired, in 1952, Life with Elizabeth only appeared locally on a Los Angeles TV station. The show was performed in Music Hall Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills for Channel 13 audiences and shot live on kinescope, a process that involves recording what’s being seen in the camera to film, which was a cost-effective of producing a TV show but produced a grainy, inferior product.
White missed performing in front of an audience but having the series on actual film, which started in 1953, is the reason that there are episodes one can watch today.
In 1954, White finally stopped her work on Hollywood on TV, and instead, hosted a morning daytime talk show on NBC called The Betty White Show.
How Does Life with Elizabeth Hold Up Today?
Mostly, really well. There is an announcer who offers narration that would never work today. It’s cheesy. The narrator was Jack Narz, and he would have a long career, with his big break probably hosting the syndicated game show Concentration in the 1970s. No knock on Narz, but the narration itself comes off as kind of hokey.
For instance, after many of the sketches, when White's character did something that the show apparently felt was bold, Narz would say, "Elizabeth, aren't you ashamed?"
White would grin and say, "Nope!"
The harp music that plays between sketches also feels out of place in today’s TV landscape.
But, everything else – once you get into the banter between Betty White and Del Moore and the light plots – it’s still charming and often very funny.
For instance, in one sketch, Elizabeth is trapped in her closet – because Alvin has been varnishing the floor. And now they have to figure out how to get Elizabeth out of there without destroying his work.
“I've already got it figured out,” Elizabeth says. “I'll tell you what you do. Go get me a rope and a mop and a jack handle and a gallon of kerosine.”
“What do you want with all that junk?” Alvin asks.
“Well, nothing,” Elizabeth says. “While you're out looking for them, I'll just walk across.”
Watching Life with Elizabeth does take a little getting used to, of course – seeing Betty White in action, sounding just like Betty White but no longer the senior citizen we’re accustomed to but an up-and-coming actress in her very early 30s. It’s easy to see why America fell in love with her.
Meanwhile, Del Moore reminds me of a young Bob Hope. His mannerisms, voice, profile – they could at least be cousins if not siblings.
Many of the jokes on Life with Elizabeth work better in execution than how they may sound in print. For instance, in another episode, when the husband and wife duo are about to embark on some more home improvements, Elizabeth cracks a joke, and Alvin says, “Oh, brother. This is going to be joke day, huh?”
“No, we’ve got too much to do,” Betty says.
"Well, I thought I'd work on the sink first,” Alvin says. “It's going to take some time. I've got to clean out the pipes."
“See?” Elizabeth asks, mischievously.
“See me not telling a joke about the pipe cleaner?
“What pipe cleaner?” Alvin asks.
“You want to hear it?” Elizabeth asks, looking pleased. “See, there was this plumber, and he smoked a pipe... and when his wife said he wanted a pipe cleaner, she didn't know what kind of pipe cleaner he meant.”
It’s far more amusing to see Betty White perform this than read it.
Plenty of jokes on the series are cornball, but kind of clever nonetheless. When a piano tuner says that Elizabeth’s piano is locked and asks for a key, she quips, “There are 88 keys inside.”
And Elizabeth and Alvin were often sparring verbally, with White usually getting the best of Moore.
Alvin asks Elizabeth to not "talk like an idiot," and she replies, "I have to talk like an idiot, so you'll understand me."
When they discuss the weight of a spare tire, Elizabeth says to Alvin, "I just don't understand how something filled with air can be so heavy. Then again, you weigh 180 pounds."
But, really, what works so well is the chemistry between Elizabeth and Alvin. They come off as partners and an actual married couple, who truly love each other and enjoy each other's company. In many ways, Life with Elizabeth foreshadowed Laura and Rob on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Jamie and Paul on Mad About You and Jim and Pam on The Office.
The Origins of Date with the Angels
Even though Life with Elizabeth was a hit, it stopped filming in the waning weeks of 1954, although new episodes aired throughout 1955.
The studio that made the series was having financial troubles, and so it ended Life with Elizabeth and focused on producing some of their other shows that were also generating revenue. Right about the same time, White’s daytime talk show, The Betty White Show, also concluded.
It was likely a crushing disappointment, but before long, White had a new prime time TV series, one that was also produced by Don Fedderson.
This one was called Date with the Angels, and it was based on the 1945 Broadway play, Dream Girl, by playwright Elmer Rice. Or it was supposed to be based on that.
Dream Girl was about a young woman who (badly) ran a bookstore and was an over-imaginative daydreamer, sort of a Walter Mitty type. Date with the Angels was not going to be a sitcom featuring any actual angels, but like it's source material, it was supposed to be about a newlywed who had elaborate daydreams and fantasized about how she would redo disastrous situations for better outcomes.
Let’s assume that if Betty White had gotten what she wanted, it would have been fantastic. Unfortunately for her and the television audience, the series' sponsor, the Plymouth Dealers of America, didn’t like the fantasy elements and just wanted a TV series about newlyweds. White wound up stuck in a domestic situation comedy that wasn’t any different from what she had done before – or what was currently airing.
That might have been fine, if the scripts had been better, but audiences found the show lacking. And by all accounts, White enjoyed the experience of working on Date with the Angels but wasn’t too happy with how the scripts turned out. She wrote in her memoir, Here We Go Again, "I think I can honestly say that that was the only time I have ever wanted to get out of a show."
How Does Date with the Angels Hold Up Today?
Honestly, I didn’t think the episodes I sampled were bad. Maybe it’s one of those rare shows that has gotten better over time. At least, as a time capsule showcasing entertainment in the 1950s, it’s interesting.
For starters, if you check out any of the episodes, you’ll find far more guest stars on Date with the Angels. Life with Elizabeth had funnier scripts and better chemistry between White and her co-star husband, Del Moore, but Date with the Angels had a bigger budget. It could afford to have numerous actors appear on the series; Life with Elizabeth was often only allotted one guest star per episode.
In Date with the Angels, Nancy Kulp is a semi-regular and plays a friend of Betty White’s, who played Vickie Angel. Kulp would famously go onto costar in The Beverly Hillbillies as Miss Jane Hathaway. Richard Deacon, who would become well known as Mel Cooley, the sad sack producer on The Dick Van Dyke Show, also appears regularly on the series, as a neighbor. Burt Mustin is Deacon’s father and lives with him; Mustin was a semi-regular and guest star in numerous TV sitcoms throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, including Leave It to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show, All in the Family and The Brady Bunch, in which he played the son of a murder victim of Jesse James.
Hope Summers – Clara, one of Aunt Bee’s friends in The Andy Griffith Show – turns up as a doctor’s office receptionist in two episodes.
As for the show itself – the plot and dialogue and characters – it holds up fairly well. It isn’t a laugh out loud comedy, but it's a pleasant show and often amusing and clever.
Instead of sketches and 10-minute slice of life scenes, Date with the Angels focuses on the minor misadventures of Vickie and Gus Angel. Gus is an insurance salesman; Vickie is a housewife.
One episode starts off with Vickie and Gus preparing to have guests come over, apparently a coworker of Gus’s and his wife, who becomes a friend of Vickie’s.
Gus apologizes that this is a last minute visit, and that Vickie had to run out and get a coffee cake. She says she doesn’t mind.
“It's a handy thing to have around. Nobody stays 20 minutes past coffee cake,” Vickie says.
The two guests, Dolly (Nancy Kulp) and Carl (George N. Neise) come over, and Carl, snooping on the coffee table, spots a notice from the city that the Angels received earlier in the day – the city is going to remove a palm tree from their front yard. The Angels are unconcerned until Carl starts going on about how first it’s a palm tree, and the next thing you know, the city is going to be tearing down their yard and house to build a freeway. Before long, Vickie has agreed to go out and circulate a petition to save the palm tree, which is sickly and stunted.
And it really is amusing to see how worked up Carl gets both Vickie and Gus, who at first, are completely unconcerned and somewhat grateful about the city removing their tree.
The next day, Vickie goes off to circulate this petition and soon has the entire neighborhood panicked, inspiring everyone to write up and circulate their own petitions. Gus has three neighbors drop by while Vickie is out collecting signatures.
The first neighbor comes by with a petition, demanding that the city not widen the streets.
The second neighbor is protesting the eight-lane freeway coming through the neighborhood.
A third neighbor has a petition objecting to the new municipal airport that will be constructed.
Calls from worried citizens flood city hall, and before long, the mayor is visiting Vickie In the end, of course, the city just wants to remove and replace a sick tree.
In another episode, one called “High Fever,” Gus gets sick, and Vickie can only find an obstetrician to treat him – and make a house call. Vickie doesn’t want Gus’s manhood to be threatened, being treated by a “baby doctor.” So she asks him to keep things on the down low and not mention his specialty.
There are a couple of clever lines in this one.
In this age before texting, Vickie comes up with a way for Gus to reach her if he needs anything, while he lies sick in bed:
“Sooner or later, you get to use all of your wedding presents,” Vickie says. “Now, if you want anything, just ring Aunt Miriam's bell.”
When Vickie talks to the obstetrician, he wants to know things like Gus’s temperature. The doctor also asks: “How are his eyes?” “They’re blue,” Vickie responds.
Still, generally, the series gets by mostly on Betty White’s charm – and the talents of her costars. While critics and audiences seemed to feel that the chemistry wasn't quite there between Vickie and Gus, the actor who plays him is perfectly likeable. Bill Williams played Gus. Before Date with the Angels, he was best known for his role as Kit Carson in the TV series The Adventures of Kit Carson (1951-1955).
And here's a possibly interesting piece of trivia. Betty White offered some narration for the show, but Date with the Angels also had an announcer who would open the series. His name was Tom Kennedy -- but he was born James Narz. He changed his name because he was always getting confused with his brother, Jack Narz -- who narrated Betty White's previous sitcom, Life with Elizabeth.
After Life with Elizabeth and Date with the Angels
No, don’t worry – I won’t recount Betty White’s entire career after the 1950s. We’d be here all day. But there’s a nice epilogue to all of this.
In January 1958, with lackluster scripts and apparently nobody too thrilled with how Date with the Angels was going, ABC cancelled the series, and since Betty White was still contracted to do 13 more episodes, the network gave her the chance to do a live comedy and variety series called The Betty White Show.
White brought back Del Moore from Life with Elizabeth to do sketches with her – he appeared in 11 of the episodes. And there were no hard feelings, apparently, between Williams and White. He came back for an episode, too. There were also some big name guest stars like Buster Keaton and Boris Karloff.
After The Betty White Show ended, Betty White was kind of adrift, work-wise, for over a decade until she became a regular on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. That isn’t to say that she didn’t work. White was always busy and in demand; she just wasn't starring on a TV series.
For instance, White landed a role in the 1962 dramatic feature film Advise & Consent. That same year, she appeared in an episode of Candid Camera. She was a panelist on the TV game show To Tell the Truth, Password and The Match Game. For years – from 1963 to 1972 – White hosted the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day with Bonanza star Lorne Greene.
And after The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and long before The Golden Girls, Betty White was even given the chance to start in her own sitcom. The name of that show? The Betty White Show. Of course.
This was the third time a show was named The Betty White Show, but in this case, the third time wasn’t a charm. Viewers found the sitcom lacking – White played TV actress Joyce Whitman, star of a police detective series – and didn’t tune in. Only 14 episodes aired.
That The Betty White Show aired opposite ABC's Monday Night Football probably didn't help ratings any.
But if White took the rejection of her series personally, she sure didn’t show it. She just moved onto her next project, which happened to be a part in a TV movie. She would do a number of TV movies and guest starring roles on TV series. The Golden Girls wouldn't come for another seven years.
In fact, looking for the next thing to do may have been the secret to Betty White's success and longevity. As she put it in her book, If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won’t), “Everybody needs a passion. That’s what keeps life interesting. If you live without passion, you can go through life without leaving any footprints.”
Where you can watch Life with Elizabeth and Date with the Angels (at the time of this writing): You can find both shows in a lot of places, though you'll probably have more luck finding Life with Elizabeth episodes. Two places to try: Both of Betty White's early sitcoms can be found on TubiTV.com, a free (with ads) streaming TV service. That said, you'll find far more episodes of Life with Elizabeth (but not of Date with the Angels) on PlutoTV.com. The Betty White Show, alas, in any of its forms, doesn't seem to be available on streaming channels, though you can find random episodes and parts of episodes on YouTube.com.
The previous "TV streaming capsule": Bloodlust, a schlocky horror film starring The Brady Bunch’s dad, Robert Reed.
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