Book Excerpt: When Women Invented Television by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong | Characteristics

Sometimes these two goals conflicted, especially when Jarvis’ friend Buster Keaton stopped by for occasional appearances. Keaton, a genius of the silent film era, combined physical comedy and deadpan expression to brilliant effect. (Critic Roger Ebert would later call him “the greatest actor-director in movie history.”) Keaton, too, had a syndicated half-hour show in 1950.

Once, as he and Jarvis chatted and joked and chatted a bit more on camera, the required commercial spots, to be delivered by White, kept piling up. The men seemed oblivious. White grew nervous. After all, the show existed thanks to the charity of Thrifty Drugstore. The commercials were the real point of the program; the “entertainment” parts were incidental. “As our audience grew, our commercial load grew proportionally, and if an interview went a little long or if Al got carried away on a subject, or if we started having a little too much fun, we knew that we had to pay for it,” White wrote. “Once we fell behind, we had to do three or four spots in a row to catch up.”

Eventually, time had passed, even as Jarvis and Keaton chatted. White cut with his pitch for Thrifty, showing the products available at the store. Keaton, sensing comic opportunity, wandered in place.

He first watched from the touchline. Then he entered. As White was talking about toothbrushes, he picked one up and mimed brushing his teeth. With each product, he followed her, miming with the pharmacy items one by one.

Committed to professionalism, White continued, touting the wonders of each product and allowing Keaton’s comedic genius to run its course. She knew she was the straight woman with her deadpan physique. For ten minutes, Hollywood on TV became high art. Luckily, Thrifty executives loved every minute of it.

White ran numerous commercials on the show, and there could be nearly sixty in any given five-and-a-half-hour episode. (The show’s longer format required multiple sponsors, unlike shows lasting sixty minutes or less.) Adding to the challenge, she and Jarvis refused to read a script on camera or even use cue cards. They memorized what they needed to know about the products and delivered as best they could while delivering.

It didn’t always go well. Once, White glanced at some new ad copy and walked to her spot in front of the camera to tell viewers about a handy kitchen sink accessory. “You put the soap here, then press this little button, and…and soapy water comes out of your…out of your…” She couldn’t remember the word ‘tap’. She still tried to get it over with: “and soapy water comes out of your contraption”. Jarvis and cameraman Bill Niebling cried and shook themselves with laughter – the shaking was a much bigger problem for Niebling, who was holding the camera. Soon, White was convulsing with laughter as well.

Karl M. Bailey