As admirers shared their appreciation for late actress Betty White, some recalled how the iconic star hit back at racists who protested because she had Black tap dancer Arthur Duncan on her 1950s “The Betty White Show.”
“The Golden Girls” actress died “peacefully in her sleep at her home” on December 31, about three weeks shy of what would have been her 100th birthday (January 17). Her career spanned eight decades, and took on new life after a 2010 Super Bowl commercial.
As crestfallen fans took to the internet to remember the resilient star, some shared funny clips of her various television performances. Others, however, also recalled White’s anti-racist actions linked to her popular, but short-lived, eponymous ‘50s TV show.
What Was The Betty White Show?
“The Betty White Show” was a daytime variety program that aired on a California TV station from 1952-53, before being picked up by NBC. NBC began broadcasting “The Betty White Show” nationally in February of 1954.
White served as both host and producer of the show, and had a recurring supporting cast. The show often saw White sing, partake in humorous banter with her team, read letters aloud, introduce musical performances, and so forth.
White’s team of talent included Black performer Arthur Duncan, who was about 21 at the time and looking for his big break. It’s been claimed that Duncan’s fixed role on “The Betty White Show” as a singer and dancer meant he was the first Black American to have a regular appearance on a TV variety show. However, that claim to fame may have been solidified when he began working on an even more popular TV show a decade later.
Who Is Entertainer Arthur Duncan?
Arthur Duncan is an African American tap dancer most popularly known for his regular performances on “The Lawrence Welk Show” between 1964 and 1982. Duncan was the only Black performer on the show, for which he appeared in almost 200 episodes. His prominence on such a high-profile program just a decade after the start of the nation’s Civil Rights Movement had its challenges.
According to PBS, “Duncan was often seen standing in the background, trying very hard not to look like he was ‘with’ any of the [White] women on the program.”
About 10 years before landing on “The Lawrence Welk Show,” however, Duncan had a few regular appearances on “The Betty White Show.” In October 2020, Duncan credited White with giving him his first major break. The IMDB.com suggests he only appeared in three episodes of “The Betty White Show,” from November through December of 1954 — right before the popular program was canceled. Yet, according to White, Duncan “did a number almost every day.”
You can see White and Duncan interact during an episode of “The Betty White Show” at about 05:00 in this video.
Not everyone was a fan of Duncan’s regular appearance on the show.
Betty White Rejects Racist Viewers’ Demands
Though her show had been enjoying continued success as NBC took “The Betty White Show” national, the actress eventually faced criticism from the Jim Crow South.
The host’s Southern viewers were incensed that White had Duncan on her program as an equal doing performances, and threatened a boycott if she didn’t drop him.
Racist Whites weren’t comfortable seeing Black performers with dignified roles at the time, so Southern stations vowed to cut “The Betty White Show” from their lineups.
While Southern viewers’ demands made NBC executives nervous, White was defiant.
“I’m sorry, but, you know, he stays. Live with it,” White recalled saying when she learned of the uproar.
She later recalled the controversy in her 2010 book, Here We Go Again: My Life In Television:
“It came as a frightfully ugly surprise, one day, when a few of the stations that carried our show through the South notified us that they would, ‘with deep regret, find it most difficult to broadcast the program unless Mr. Arthur Duncan was removed from the cast.’ I was shocked, and it goes without saying that Arthur continued to perform on our show as often as possible.
“To its credit, the network backed us up. I was livid—this was 1954, for heaven’s sake! I wanted to tell them what to do with their stations, but wiser heads prevailed. To no one’s surprise, that was the last we ever heard of the matter. They continued to carry us without another word on the subject.”
NBC went on to change the show’s time slot several times before eventually cancelling it on December 31, 1954.
How Did Duncan Respond to Racists’ Rejection?
After “The Betty White Show,” Duncan went on to pick up other gigs here and there, before eventually landing a regular spot on “The Lawrence Welk Show.”
His parting with White’s show was apparently amicable, as Duncan had no idea that racists had been threatening to boycott the program. The performer said it was news to him, until White later wrote about the experience in her book.
“She just stood up for her beliefs. That solved everything at the time,” he said during the filming of a PBS documentary on White.
Duncan and White were reunited on Steve Harvey’s “Little Big Shots: Forever Young” show in 2017, in which he recounted the controversy.
The two appeared friendly, with White joking at the time that Duncan never writes or calls her.
Watch coverage of the episode here if it isn’t unavailable below.