MADISON — Before Betty White was known for her roles on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Golden Girls” and “Hot in Cleveland,” Madison-area residents came to know her in the 1960s for the several plays in which she performed at Lakewood Theater.

Susan Quinn, president of the not-for-profit group that operates the theater, said Sunday she recalled White’s time in Madison.

Lakewood Theater sits on the shore of Lake Wesserunsett and is considered the oldest continuously running summer theater in the country. It opened in 1901 and over the years, many performers, including some big names, have performed there.

Actress Betty White, whose television career spanned seven decades, performs at the Lakewood Theater in Madison. White, who died Friday at 99, is shown performing in 1962 in a production of “Critic’s Choice.” White is shown with Allen Ludden, center, and Ludden’s son, David Ludden. White and Allen Ludden married a year later. Ludden was also a television personality who hosted several game shows, including “Password.” Photo courtesy of Lakewood Theater

Those celebrities include White, a pioneer of early television who died Friday at 99. She performed in three Lakewood productions in the 1960s, according to theater records.

In those years, White was also a guest on several game shows, including “Password,” on which she met Allen Ludden, who hosted the show.

The two later came to Lakewood Theater, where they appeared in 1962 in the play “Critic’s Choice,” and their romance bloomed.


White and Ludden would have been at Lakewood for a week for the show, Quinn said. At the time, it was common for the cast of a play to arrive Sunday, rehearse that day and Monday and perform the show from Monday night through Saturday night.

White and Ludden were married in 1963, and while the local legend says they were married on the lawn in front of the Lakewood Restaurant, Quinn said, the pair married in Nevada.

Ludden was known for his work as a game show host, with “Password” being the most popular. The pair remained married until Ludden’s death in 1981, just before their 18th wedding anniversary. Although White had been married twice before her marriage to Ludden, she never married after his death.

Following the 1962 production at Lakewood, White returned in 1963, when she was in “Janus,” and in 1968, when she was in “Once More with Feeling.”

Quinn said her husband, Jeffrey Quinn, the theater’s general manager, remembers meeting White at the Skowhegan Theater and getting her autograph.

They had always talked about getting in touch with White, Quinn said and see if she would be interested in returning to Lakewood. And while Quinn never met White, she said her death felt like losing a member of the family.


Many well-known performers spent time at Lakewood, Quinn said, but when she would be asked to name a few, White always popped first into her mind because she remained so popular.

White was born Jan. 17, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, according to an obituary in The New York Times. Then as a toddler, her family moved to Los Angeles, where she grew up.

White worked in television and radio and even had her own variety show in the 1950s. Her major breakthrough came with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1973, where she played Sue Ann Nivens. She was also known for playing Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls,” which ran from 1985 until 1992.

In 2010, White was a hit when she hosted “Saturday Night Live,” and she went on to play Elka Ostrovsky on “Hot in Cleveland” until the series concluded in 2015.

White won many awards for her performances, and in recent years became popular for her spunky, positive outlook on life.

Quinn said she recently saw a rerun of White’s appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” and was impressed with how well it has held up. White had great comedic timing, Quinn said, and it was no surprise she had such a long, successful career.

“Three big shows in your career — TV shows, plus all the other things that she did,” Quinn said. “That’s pretty incredible.”

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