Corpus Christi has turned out its share of celebrities, but one personality who doesn’t get mentioned often is actor and game show royalty Allen Ludden. The younger audiences, however, will recognize the name as Betty White’s beloved husband.
Though born in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, Ludden spent his adolescence in Corpus Christi. He moved to the city with his parents, Homer and Leila Ludden, and brother, Frank, in the early 1930s when he was 14 years old. He got his first tastes of theater when he performed in the senior play at Corpus Christi High School, where he also served as the business manager of the student newspaper, La Gaviota. He graduated from CCHS (now Miller High School) in 1934 and worked in sales briefly at the Jack Bonner Co. and both Lichtenstein’s and Perkins department stores before heading off to college.
Ludden attended Sul Ross Teachers College before transferring to the University of Texas at Austin and earning a bachelor’s and then master’s degree in English. He worked as both a high school and college English instructor before briefly returning to Corpus Christi, working at radio station KEYS before enlisting in the Army in 1942. In October 1943, Ludden married Margaret McGloin, a native of Corpus Christi. (Her father, Gilbert McGloin, was the postmaster and killed by his assistant in a murder-suicide inside the federal building in 1939. Ameta McGloin, Gilbert’s wife and Margaret’s mother, was appointed the postmaster and served until her retirement in 1963.)
Ludden rose to the rank of captain, and during his service he worked with Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans, producing entertainment for the troops. Ludden ended up producing and directing more than 40 shows during that time, eventually replacing Evans as the head of shows for the Pacific theater. After Ludden’s discharge, he worked as Evans’ manager ahead of a national tour of “Hamlet,” then took a job in broadcasting in Hartford, Connecticut.
Allen and Margaret, with their three children, eventually moved to New York in 1953 where Ludden served as the moderator for the radio show “College Bowl.” Six years later, it became a television show and moved to CBS, keeping Ludden as the moderator. National audiences enjoyed Ludden’s easy manner, and in 1961, he landed the job that cemented the spotlight: host of the new game show “Password.”
Sadly, the early October premiere of the show coincided with Margaret’s death from cancer on Oct. 30.
Ludden became a household name with the popularity of the daytime game show, but kept performing in summer stock theater, a passion left over from his earlier days (he served as the director of the Austin Little Theatre after college). In 1962, Ludden performed opposite actress Betty White in a performance of “Critic’s Choice.”
The two had previously known each other through White’s appearances on “Password,” but in interviews, both credited the appearance in “Critic’s Choice” as the moment they fell in love. The couple married in June 1963.
Ludden continued to come back to Corpus Christi to visit, and several times performed at charity functions. One such time was in June 1964, when Ludden moderated a Corpus Christi version of “Password” at Del Mar College as a benefit for the Corpus Christi Museum, and appeared in a local telethon benefiting cerebral palsy research.
On another visit in April 1975, White accompanied Ludden and both sat for an interview with the Caller-Times. White talked of her work on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” as Sue Ann Nivens, for which she had just received an Emmy nomination for best supporting character (she won).
“I’m having such a good time working with dear friends in that role,” White told reporter Norma Sosa. White mentioned she based the performance on women she’d known who are “just like that,” perky and sweet on the surface and back-biting man-chasers behind the scenes.
“The only difference between Betty and Sue Ann is Sue Ann can cook,” joked Ludden.
“Oh stop, Allen, I’m a perfectly nice person,” White retorted in a perfect imitation of her Happy Homemaker character.
Then in 1980, local theatergoers got a thrill when Harbor Playhouse announced Ludden would star in a local production of “Critic’s Choice” as a fundraiser for the Gulf Coast Humane Society. He would play the lead, Parker Ballantine, which he described as “his favorite role” in a Caller-Times interview because he and White had connected during that 1962 production.
“It was a direct result of (the performance) that summer,” Ludden recalled, “that I married Betty White.” Though the two stopped appearing in the same productions after a few years, Ludden continued performing the role in different summer stock productions for years.
But the performance wasn’t meant to be. Ludden underwent surgery unexpectedly in late April, and the performance was delayed until September. When September arrived, Ludden again had to back out at the last minute due to illness. Though he cited an ongoing back problem, what most of the world didn’t know was Ludden had been diagnosed with stomach cancer the previous year.
In October, news came out Ludden had suffered a massive stroke while on vacation and slipped into a coma (according to recent biographies, he didn’t have a stroke but instead had experienced severe complications from chemotherapy). He eventually emerged from the coma and seemed to be on the mend. But in May 1981 he was back in the hospital, his cancer diagnosis public now. Ludden died June 9, 1981, and was buried in his family’s plot in Mineral Point, Wisconsin.
But Ludden didn’t forget his roots. In his will, he left $5,000 to Harbor Playhouse.
“Allen believed Harbor Playhouse was doing some wonderful things,” White told Caller-Times reporter Eleanor Mortenson following the reading of the will. “He was so sorry he had to back out.”
Allison Ehrlich writes about things to do in South Texas and has a weekly Throwback Thursday column on local history. Support local coverage like this by checking out our subscription options and special offers at Caller.com/subscribe