Sunday, after my little breakdown while attempting to write about K. Callan, I made the decision to treat myself to a new book and went to our local Half Price Books Outlet. There, I acquired a book that had long been on my Amazon list, ten years or more—Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945-1970. It doesn’t cover all of them, of course; the history of such films is ephemeral, and there were far too many of them to cover in one book of only 238 pages. However, many of the ones known and loved by thirty years of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans are covered in it, including “Cheating” and “The Home Economics Story.” And “Mr. B Natural.”
Until I read this book, I had not realized that Mr. B was played by a woman whose stage name was Betty Luster. She did a little theatre, a little television. One minor career in an industry full of them. She married a man named Edmund Astley “Ned” Prentiss III, and according to the article Wikipedia quotes, “joined him at becoming an expert in big-game fishing, big-game hunting and world-class croquet.” He, in fact, appears to be in the croquet hall of fame, which appears to be a thing that exists. Very little about her life is online, honestly, the same as for most women of her generation.
Except for thousands upon thousands of screen captures of her gadding about the screen in a powder-blue Peter Pan-style ensemble emblazoned with black musical notation. Her Broadway appearance in an obscure Irving Berlin musical (Louisiana Purchase, a satire on Huey Long), has nothing on this, a short made by C. G. Conn to sell musical instruments. I literally don’t think I know any of the songs from Louisiana Purchase, but I can chirp out “Knew your father, I did!” with the best of them.
Most of the people from these shorts started and ended in obscurity. Dick York is the only actor I can think of who went from working for the likes of Centron and Castle to working for actual studios, and of course the shorts wouldn’t cast people you could recognize, because how to make the characters believable if you were thinking, “Hey, I saw that guy on Bonanza last night!” The best you’d get is sometimes having the short narrated by Hugh Beaumont or having Sonny Bono preach at you or similar. The industry thrived on the likes of Betty Luster, and it tells you something about it that I don’t know anyone who’d known her name before I did.
Did Betty Luster (I don’t even know if this was a stage name, but I assume it must have been) ever take a break from big game hunting and think, “I could have been a star?” I don’t know. And probably she took the role of Mr. B because she needed the work; I can’t imagine any other reason for taking the job. She actually died in 2011, and I’m kind of surprised not to have found a dozen articles from people who sought her out to ask her about her most iconic role. Clearly, she didn’t embrace the fans the way Beverly Garland did.