KANSAS CITY, Mo.--Brad Moore, president of Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions, gave the cue. As America's favorite octogenarian turned around, the Hallmark Gospel Choir, a volunteer group of employee serenaders, tore into their version of "Birthday" by the Beatles.
We know it's your birthday! Your 89th birthday! We know it's your birthday! We hope you have a good time!
Let the record show that Betty White was having a very good time indeed.
"What more can a girl ask?" she told the VIP gathering at Crown Center as confetti fell from the ceiling.
It was a surprise party, though perhaps not too much of a shock to White, who was in town to attend a special screening of her upcoming "Hallmark Hall of Fame" movie, "The Lost Valentine." After all, she is in the midst of a weeklong, coast-to-coast celebration that caps off a remarkable year for the person one tastemaker called "the new 'it' girl."
She was feted earlier this week in New York, following her appearance on several talk shows there. And there will be more celebrations awaiting her when she goes home to Los Angeles.
Betty White is an overnight sensation more than seven decades after she first stepped in front of a television camera.
"I've been embarrassed all week," she said. "I keep telling people, I haven't gone away! I've been working steady for 63 years."
But she has never been as in demand as she is now. At 89, White has become more than a Hallmark feel-good story. She is showing the world what old age can be like for anyone lucky enough to live as long as she has.
"It's wonderful to see exemplars of later life like this," said David Ekerdt, director of the gerontology center at the University of Kansas. "But lots of people can be the Betty Whites of their families as well."
Born Jan. 17, 1922, Betty Marion White broke in professionally through radio, then moved to TV in 1949. Other than the occasional movie part--playing a young senator from Kansas in the 1962 movie "Advise & Consent"--she has worked in TV, in many game shows, dramas and sitcoms.
On "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in the 1970s she developed the character of the sweetly smiling she-devil that audiences couldn't get enough of. "The Golden Girls," which began in 1985 and has been in reruns ever since, added to her popularity.
"I've been lucky that the young people have grown up with me," White said. "Of course, some of them are now grandparents."
Shortly after her 88th birthday, White was featured in a commercial that aired during the Super Bowl. And that's when things began to happen.
In the TV ad, a clever bit of special effects put White in the middle of a pickup football game, where she was tackled and driven face-first into a mud puddle. It was widely judged the Super Bowl's best commercial and inspired a 29-year-old Texan named David Matthews to start a Facebook petition.
Matthews, who knew White mostly from "The Golden Girls," titled his petition, "Betty White to Host SNL (please?)!" Half a million signatures and an avalanche of publicity later, Matthews got his wish.
That appearance earned White an Emmy Award nomination, her 20th dating to 1951, and her seventh win.
As the Facebook campaign picked up steam, producers of a new sitcom, "Hot in Cleveland," added White in a recurring guest role.
White stole the show and won a SAG Award from the Screen Actors Guild--which gave her a Life Achievement Award the year before.
In September, White was featured on "Inside the Actors Studio." In October she was the female headliner, alongside George Clooney and Tom Hanks, at a gala fundraiser. In December, Barbara Walters selected White as one of the "10 Most Fascinating People of 2010."
And Hallmark came calling.
"The Lost Valentine" is about a widow who learns what happened to her husband since he vanished in World War II. She's helped by a TV reporter played by Jennifer Love Hewitt.
The "Hall of Fame" executive producer, Brent Shields, said White was contacted after the Super Bowl commercial.
"Who else would you cast?" Shields said.
She has been fortunate with her genes. The majority of people don't make it to 89 -- and, very likely, most people never will, despite advances in medicine, say experts. So instead, researchers are investigating ways that the elderly can enjoy optimal health for however long they live.
"The principle is to delay as much as possible the onset of chronic illness," said Ekerdt. "And the only anti-aging drug I'm aware of is exercise. It's universally good under all circumstances for man or beast."
White gets plenty of that.
"I have a two-story house and a very bad memory," she said. "So I'm up and down those stairs all the time."
A prominent animal advocate, White also spends quality time with her golden retriever--another factor that may extend life, studies suggest.
Her director on the Hallmark movie, Darnell Martin, observed that White engages the world around her.
"When Betty wasn't in scenes, she was there (on the set). The whole time," Martin said. "The only time she left was to go across the street to pet someone's dog. If you want to talk to Betty, get a dog."
So, does White enjoy good health because she loves animals, has purpose and is optimistic?
Ekerdt cautions that it's impossible to know. The reverse could be true.
As she prepared to blow out candles on yet another birthday cake, White made a wish for the year ahead.
"Just to keep working," she said. "That's the best thing."
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