For about as long as any living person can remember watching television, Betty White's been on it.
Now 97, the beloved actress has been in the living rooms of Americans in nine decades. So the title of the documentary by a Fox Cities native filmmaker, "Betty White: First Lady of Television," works on multiple levels.
Like a first lady, she commands respect and admiration. There's a touch of royalty there.
But also, long before "The Golden Girls" or even "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," White was one of the first ladies on television.
Her 80-plus year career — which began with an experimental TV shoot in Los Angeles in 1939 — and the life she's lived is at the heart of "Betty White: First Lady of Television," from Appleton native and 1978 Fox Valley Lutheran High School graduate Steve Boettcher.
The hour-long documentary will be shown at 7 p.m. Friday as part of the 18th annual Wildwood Film Festival at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in downtown Appleton.
"Someone said in the film Betty's been around longer than sliced bread. I think it's Valerie Bertinelli," Boettcher said. "I went back and looked — when was sliced bread invented? It was 1928. Betty was born in 1922, so it's actually an accurate reference."
The film, which premiered on PBS in August, traces White's career from her variety show and first sitcom in the '50s to her many game show appearances to her Emmy Award-winning roles on "Mary Tyler Moore" and "Golden Girls." It's peppered with interviews from the likes of Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore, Carl Reiner, Tina Fey, Ryan Reynolds and Georgia Engel, among others (including, of course, White herself).
It also highlights White the person, as told by those who've worked and befriended her over the years. Bertinelli, her "Hot in Cleveland" co-star, summed her up as follows: "One of the smartest, funniest, kindest, most generous women in a business that doesn't normally have that kind of people in it."
'She's been there since the beginning'
The 58-year-old Boettcher, a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, launched Boettcher + Trinklein Television in Milwaukee with partner Michael Trinklein in 1996.
They produced an Emmy Award-nominated documentary series called "Pioneers of Television," which explores various aspects of TV history, that aired on PBS. It was during production of an episode about women in comedy that White won them over.
"Betty was one of the women in the show and we were talking to her ... I was just fascinated by Betty, her career, her life," Boettcher said. "Really, she is the first lady of television. In 1939, 80 years ago, she was in high school and and was brought downtown in her graduation dress and they were shooting and testing television and they needed somebody to shoot — just to put in front of the camera as a tester.
"So really, we joke, but TV was invented just for Betty. She's been there since the beginning."
Likely helping Boettcher and his team is the resurgence White has had in mainstream entertainment in the time since that initial interview 10 years ago. In 2010, a fan Facebook campaign to get White to host "Saturday Night Live" resulted in just that — the then-88-year-old became the oldest person to ever host "SNL." That same year she made a memorable appearance in a Super Bowl ad for Snickers.
In September, the month after "First Lady of Television" aired, she was recognized at the Emmy Awards for her decades of contributions to the medium. The eight-time Emmy winner also has been in the Television Hall of Fame since 1995 (a mere 40 years after earning the Mayor of Hollywood honor).
'She's the eternal optimist'
The Wildwood Film Festival is an annual celebration of Wisconsin filmmaking, so the "Betty White" documentary is a perfect fit. Boettcher plans to be in Appleton for the screening Friday and will take part in a Q&A.
For a festival that's often highlighting independent films with modest budgets and little name recognition, a high-profile inclusion changes things up a bit. It's not every day Deadpool is in the mix.
"A lot of the ideas with the interviews is we wanted to do people who knew Betty really well," Boettcher said. "Not just worked with her, but actually are close friends of hers. Ryan Reynolds is (one). They're really close and it became that way from 'The Proposal.' … When I called Ryan to do the interview, he literally said 'Hey, let me put the red suit away and I'll be over.'"
Of course, getting the close personal friends of a nonagenarian on camera isn't the easiest thing. As she said in her "SNL" monologue, "if I want to get in touch with old friends, I need an Ouija board." The rest of the "Golden Girls" core is gone, as is her husband of 18 years, "Password" host Allen Ludden.
There still was no shortage of people willing and able to talk about the magic White has brought to the screen and to their lives. From Carl Reiner to Jennifer Love Hewitt, she's touched generations.
And Boettcher can attest to that.
"Watching her and being with her, to me she's the eternal optimist," he said. "She's tenacious but she's very genuine. I think that's what I take from this film and hopefully the audience will see that.
"I think she really embraces what life has to offer and being kind for her has never gone out of fashion."
Wildwood Film Festival
This weekend marks the return of the Wildwood Film Festival in downtown Appleton. Now in its 18th year, the festival is a celebration of Wisconsin movie-making. It runs Friday and Saturday in the Kimberly-Clark Theater at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.
The festival features more than two dozen films, each with some connection to Wisconsin. Friday offers two features, "Betty White: First Lady of Television" and "From the Furnace." Saturday includes four blocks of short films, plus a free morning panel discussion on the business of acting at the Appleton Public Library.
Tickets are $20 for Friday and $30 for Saturday. For tickets, the full schedule and more information, visit wildwoodfilmfestival.com.