Today I Learned: Betty White Gave Arthur Duncan His Start

Betty White, Queen of the American People and High Priestess of Television, is a national treasure who has had very few public missteps for someone who’s been in the public eye for the past 80 years. She’s a feminist pioneer who loves animals and the gays, so what else could you really ask for?

How about Civil Rights ally?

Arthur Duncan is a tap dancer most famous for appearing on the Lawrence Welk show off and on for almost two decades, from 1964 to 1982.

He was the first Black person to be a regular on a variety television program, and he’s been listed as an inspiration for countless entertainers from Savion Glover to Sheryl Underwood. Lawrence Welk’s show made him famous, but that’s not where he got his first big television break.

By the 1950s, Betty White had already built quite a resume in entertainment. She got her first job on television right after high school graduation in 1939, but other parts were had to come by because White was told she wasn’t photogenic. However, radio was still popular at the time, and White took her talents there. She eventually got her own radio show, which proved to be successful enough that another radio host, Al Jarvis, hired White to co-host his new TV show, Hollywood on Television, a live 5-hour variety show airing 6 days a week. When Al left in 1952, White hosted on her own. Sometimes she had guests, sometimes she sang, and sometimes she just talked into the camera, but it was enough to earn White her first Emmy nomination.

The same year Al Jarvis left, Betty White co-founded a production company with a writer and a producer, and the three of them built a new show partly based on some of the sketches that appeared on the variety show. Hollywood in Television was phased out, and a new sitcom took its place. With the creation of Life with Elizabeth (where Betty played the lead role), Betty White was one of the only women in television with creative control both in front of and behind the camera.

In 1954, NBC gave Betty White another television show, this time a talk/variety show called The Betty White Show where she again had creative control, and she hired a female director — a rarity at the time. She also booked Arthur Duncan, a young tap dancer who had been honing his skills touring the country with the Jimmy Rodgers show. Before The Betty White Show was expanded nationally, NBC received criticism from Southern stations over the inclusion of Arthur Duncan. It wasn’t uncommon to see Black performers in white movies (especially dancers), however many writers and producers wrote featured parts for Black entertainers that weren’t connected to the rest of the story so they could easily be edited out for Southern audiences. Cutting Arthur out of a television program wouldn’t be as easy because of the runtime to be filled in a television spot, so Southern stations threatened to boycott the entire show and air something else instead. Faced with backlash over Arthur Duncan, Betty White said

“I’m sorry. Live with it.” And she gave Duncan even more airtime.

(You can FF to around 8:10 for Arthur’s segment.)

The Betty White Show was canceled later that year, most likely due to multiple changes to its timeslot, and Betty and Arthur went their separate ways, but they remained fond of each other. In 2016, Betty White surprised Arthur Duncan on Forever Young, the spin-off of Little Big Shots for talented senior citizens.

Arthur Duncan credits Betty White for giving him television exposure that resulted in a lifelong career. Last year, he had this to say to the Sioux City Journal:

“She is probably one of the nicest, grandest and greatest of all people I’ve had the chance to meet throughout my life. Whenever she walked into a room, it lit up. She was very thoughtful and very helpful. She launched me into show business.”

Long live the Queen of Television.

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