With frozen fingers and warm hearts, Betty White fans gathered Saturday to celebrate the comedy icon’s long life in her birthplace of Oak Park. The Betty White centennial celebration, which captured headlines across the globe, went off without a hitch. People stood side-by-side outside Classic Cinemas Lake Theatre, reveling in mutual adoration for the golden girl. Though masks covered noses and mouths, they failed to conceal the unbridled joy visible on many faces.
“It was just a feel-good event,” said Lourdes Nicholls, senior media strategist for Growing Community Media, the owner of Wednesday Journal and sponsor of the event.
The “Be Like Betty” centennial event was presented by GCM with sponsorship support from Byline Bank, as well as Classic Cinemas, Turano Baking Company, 99 Haus Balloons, Alpha-Lit, Red Vines and Prime Party.
Nicholls, along with Oak Park Eats Editor Melissa Elsmo, organized the event, which was originally planned as a small community affair in honor of White’s 100th birthday on Jan. 17. Interest in the event exploded after news spread of White’s death on New Year’s Eve. Some 500 people braved the cold Saturday morning for the event.
“It was a huge success,” said Nicholls.
There were roses, slices of cake and cardboard cut outs of White next to the lectern where organizers and local figures paid their respects to White before the crowd. A beautiful display of balloons encircled the giant, illuminated words, “Thank you for being a friend” – a nod to the song that played with each episode of “Golden Girls,” one of the beloved sitcoms White starred in.
Cindy Fee, who sang the theme song for the show and lives in River Forest, gave a moving rendition of “Thank You for Being a Friend.” She sang the song a second time, inviting the crowd to sing along.
“When Cindy Fee sang, there were a lot of teary-eyed people in the crowd,” said Elsmo. “It was a special moment for Oak Park, that’s for sure.”
Illinois Senate President Don Harmon and Village President Vicki Scaman spoke, as did Growing Community Media publisher Dan Haley. Scaman read aloud the in-memoriam proclamation for Betty White that she first read at the village board’s Jan. 10 meeting. Local historian Frank Lipo shared stories about White’s early years in Oak Park. Nicholls and Elsmo also shared their jubilant remarks.
Zack Hudson informed the crowd of the first-ever Golden Girls convention, which he is co-producing with brothers Brad and Brendan Balof, both of whom were in attendance. Tickets are going quickly for the convention, which is being held in Chicago this April. Hudson told Wednesday Journal 1,700 tickets have been sold to date.
One of the most exciting parts of the event — that White would surely have loved — was the Animal Care League pop-up adoption at Byline Bank, across from the Lake Theatre. Event attendees were able to meet five puppies and two cats in need of homes. All of those animals have now been adopted, said Kira Robsen, executive director of the Animal Care League. And, she said, there are appointments scheduled this week with others who attended the Betty White event.
Between the event and the “Betty White Challenge,” a grassroots campaign to donate to animal shelters in memory of White, the Animal Care League has now raised more than $15,000. The shelter also benefited from the event’s extensive media coverage.
“We would never have been able to do this without tapping into our community resources; it was such a thrill to see it all come together,” said Elsmo.
On behalf of Growing Community media, to all those who showed up on Saturday: Thank you for being our friend.