Broadcast Pioneers member Betty Kellner Davis, 96, formerly of Chestnut Hill, a retired bank officer and a longtime community volunteer, died March 2nd, 2017 at Foulkeways in Gwynedd where she had resided since 2004.
Raised in Erdenheim, PA She was a graduate of Springfield High School and received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1942.
Late in 1941, Betty was in her senior year at The University of Pennsylvania and a member of the “Penn Players' Dramatic Club.” The group was approached by WPTZ/W3XE stage director Ernest Walling for volunteer actors who would be interested in performing in a type of radio play, written by Claire Wallis, in front of a static camera and a room full of equipment.
Utilizing a new technology that could “televise” these images, developed in Philadelphia, by a company called Philco, the concept was to add pictures to the sound of radio. The studio was in the Philco building at C and Tioga streets and the signal was received at special locations for public viewing, often in bars!
Betty signed up and participated in several productions, including one called “Last Year’s Nest” which has been recognized as the first episodic dramatic program on television. It would later become commonly known as a “soap opera.”
Betty described working on several programs, including “Twenty Stars” about a diamond heist and also doing several Public Service Announcements about saving paper and metal refuse in the home, to contribute to the war effort during World War II.
Betty created her own special effects make-up to age herself from 21 to ca. 40 for her role as the mother in “Last Year’s Nest,” which got the attention of a photographer for the Philadelphia Bulletin who documented her transformation.
Betty’s adventure in early television ended in the Spring of 1942 when Philco’s television equipment was commandeered or “donated” for the U.S. war effort. There was no recorded copy of these early transmissions except what was infrequently filmed directly off the live monitor called a kinescope and Betty never actually saw herself on television, nor did any of her friends, since women generally did not frequent bars in that era. Therefore little record or fanfare of her achievement exists, except for production stills, a camera title card, rescued and preserved by Broadcast Pioneer member Dave Abramson and the interviews and presentations she gave late in life.
After Betty graduated, with further work in television impossible with the broadcasts at Philco suspended indefinitely, she pressed on in to the working world, completing an executive management training course at Bamberger’s Department Store in Newark, NJ.
Betty landed an advanced position for that era, at Bamberger’s, as an assistant buyer, working there until marrying in 1945. Later returning to Philadelphia, Betty continued in retail management, working for Strawbridge and Clothier, then as a researcher at the Securities Research Bureau in Philadelphia and as a senior trust officer at Girard Bank in Center City, until her retirement in the 1990s.
Betty was also a nature enthusiast, an avid home gardener and a volunteer working in the gardens at The Morris Arboretum.
From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Bio written by Phillip Todd
Photo courtesy of Phillip Todd
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