“Arthur, did you have a nice weekend?” Betty White asked Arthur Duncan. The entertainer, in her early 30s at the time, was center stage, speaking to the young Black tap dancer seated on her right.
“Oh, wonderful,” White said. “Are you going to go house to house?”
His reply to her — that they would be performing at local hospitals and orphanages — was as wholesome as the beloved actress and entertainer, who died this week at 99.
White made a career playing sweet characters with hidden — and hilarious — grit, and that quality goes all the way back to her first televised variety show, where, as the host and producer, she defied racist demands to get rid of Duncan because he was Black.
“Live with it.”
This was in 1954. As in, the year the Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. Board of Education decision banning segregated schools. As in, before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Little Rock Nine and the Greensboro, N.C., lunch-counter sit-ins.
Television was still a new medium, but White was already a veteran performer of stage and radio, had acted on a sitcom and had co-hosted a Los Angeles daytime talk show.
So on her nationally televised “The Betty White Show,” she sang, interviewed guests, performed in skits and read the commercials live. There was even a regular children’s segment.
And there was Duncan. At 21, the California native had been performing in a dance quartet for years and was looking for his big break.
White gave it to him, he recounted in the 2018 documentary “Betty White: First Lady of Television.”
“The first TV show I had ever been on, and I credit Betty White for really getting me started in show business, in television,” he said.
“And all through the South, there was this whole ruckus,” White remembered in the doc. “They were going to take our show off the air if we didn’t get rid of Arthur, because he was Black.”
“People in the South resented me being on the show, and they wanted me thrown out,” Duncan agreed. “But there was never a question at all.”
“I said, ‘I’m sorry, but, you know, he stays,’ ” she said. “‘Live with it.’ ”
Duncan appeared on the show at least three times. On another episode, White interviewed a Black child during the children’s segment.
It’s unclear whether her decision to keep Duncan affected the show’s fate, but it was repeatedly rescheduled for different time slots before quietly being taken off the air that same year.
White went on to game shows, the talk-show circuit and eventually mega-stardom as Rose Nylund on the 1980s sitcom “The Golden Girls.”
Duncan later toured with Bob Hope and appeared on “The Lawrence Welk Show” for nearly two decades. Decades later, in the doc, he was still in awe of her.
“She was just magnificent,” he said.