Sole Focus

News, Views, Rantings & Ramblings by Carey Parrish

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Location: Georgia, United States

Sunday, April 26, 2009

...And Then There Was Bea

Bea Arthur died. That saddens me. I’ve been watching this woman on television since I was kid. I loved her. The way she could deliver a line, with deadpan timing, made millions of Americans laugh hysterically for years. Whether as Maude or as Dorothy on The Golden Girls, she was a presence that was beloved and emulated and someone who commanded attention in anything she did. She was a true legend.

I remember being a kid and watching Maude every Monday night. She came on at 9:30, right after All In The Family, the show from which she spun-off. Maude was always a lot of fun to watch because she was an absolute riot and so was everyone else on the show. Her maids never failed to cause hysteria and my favorite was Mrs. Naugetuck. The way Maude could hold her own against anybody made her something of a heroine to me and I thought she was the strongest woman I’d ever seen. That was the child in me thinking that but now, as an adult and with other heroes, I still remember Maude as someone who influenced me through the strength of her own example. I can even recall every line of the show’s theme song and sometimes find myself humming or singing it to this day. “And then there’s Maude…” Timeless.

As I got older, and developed my voracious appetite for reading and for knowledge, I learned a lot about Bea through bios and articles. I have always considered it a real feat that she went from a medical technologist to a Broadway star in just a few years. Her real name was Bernice Frankel and her parents ran a women’s clothing store in Cambridge, Maryland. Having been born in New York City, the family moved to Cambridge when Bea was twelve to get away from the forlorn conditions in New York during the Depression. Bea always said that she reached her full height of five feet nine inches by the time she was twelve and that she was always self conscious about her height. That’s why she started in comedy; to give herself something to make her popular instead of gawked at because she was so tall. She had a lot going for her and she realized it too. She attended the now kaput Blackstone College in Blackstone, Virginia, and then went back to New York to work on her real goal, which was to become an actress.

What an actress she became, too. Her work in stage productions on and off Broadway made her a popular attraction with theater goers. She also turned up frequently in television shows in the fifties as a guest star. Even with this exposure, she would continue to call Broadway her home for many more years. She was the original Yente The Matchmaker in Fiddler On The Roof and she is immortal as the sassy Vera Charles in Mame, a role that earned her a Tony. In the nineties she and Angela Lansbury actually reunited in a Broadway special where they performed "Bosom Buddies" to an adoring crowd. Bea’s booming voice and imposing height gave her a leg up onstage and she used it for all it was worth. The results spoke for themselves.

It was Maude that made her a star though. This groundbreaking character took Bea into the stratosphere and she never came down again. I remember seeing an interview with her on You Tube where she laughed about people calling her the “new girl” when she began playing Maude on All In The Family. Her amusement came from the fact that she was nearly fifty years old by then and had already been on Broadway for over twenty years. Yet that was just the first phase of her career and with her own series she was soon the talk of the nation.

There had never been a woman like Maude on TV before. She was a totally liberated female and she wasn’t afraid of anything. She became the face of the women’s lib movement and she tackled every social issue of the day; everything from menopause to politics to alcoholism to manic depression to abortion. Maude was the first prime time character to have an abortion and she drew equal amounts of protest and praise for the two part episode of Maude in which she finds herself pregnant at age forty-seven and both she and her husband Walter realize that having a baby at their age would be a tragic mistake. Yet Maude didn’t consider abortion an option until her daughter Carol pointed out to her that it was legal. This was in the year after Roe vs. Wade had been passed by the Supreme Court. Maude went through with the abortion and the rest as they say is history. Before the series’ end in 1979, Bea would win an Emmy for Maude.

Bea never saw herself the way the rest of the world did though. She knew that her character of Maude Findlay was a trailblazer but she was just having a blast with a character that had been written especially for her. In later years, she fondly recalled the ground she broke for women as Maude, but she didn’t claim the glory for it. She just enjoyed what it, and she, became.

By the time The Golden Girls came along in 1985, Bea had been back to Broadway in Woody Allen’s The Floating Light Bulb and she had also had a riotous cameo in Mel Brook’s History of The World, Part 1. A short lived 1983 sitcom for ABC called Amanda’s was also in the can but it was as Dorothy Zbornak, a divorced substitute teacher, on The Golden Girls that Bea found her next breakthrough role. The Golden Girls was an instant hit and I remember when we had to get home by nine every Saturday night because nobody would miss a minute of the show. The fact that Dorothy bore a heavy resemblance to Maude didn’t concern Bea. She said in an interview: “Look, I’m five feet nine inches tall and I have a deep voice. So does Maude and so does Dorothy.” And that was how she felt about it. Nobody else minded either. Dorothy was a fitting sequel to her opus as Maude, and she won a second Emmy for it.

I was so disappointed when The Golden Girls went off in 1992. That show had kept me entertained and laughing for years. I remember reading that Bea wanted to leave GG and I was shocked by her decision. She had left Maude in the same manner. It seemed that once the glitter wore off these projects for her, and they became possibly formula to her, she was ready to go on to other things. Now I can applaud that kind of resolve but it was little comfort to me when The Golden Girls went out of production. I followed Bea through her other endeavors afterward. I thought she was sensational in Malcolm In The Middle and her one woman show, And Then There’s Bea, was a success of major proportions. I never got to see it but I have the CD and it is a total pleasure every time I listen to it.

What Bea Arthur represented to me was strength and what one can accomplish through sheer determination and a lot of talent. She didn’t compromise herself and she didn’t bow to pressure from others. This was a woman who married and divorced twice, raised two sons, and all the while conquered every venue she graced. Two Emmy awards, a Tony, roles in such memorable films as Lovers and Other Strangers, Maude, Dorothy, her one woman show, those unique appearances on everything from Curb Your Enthusiasm to Malcolm In The Middle. This lady did it all and she did it with class, style, and more talent in her little finger than most casts have in their entire ensembles.

Back in 2000, after The Golden Girls had become a hit all over again on Lifetime, I was enjoying watching the repeats and I located Bea’s address on the internet. I sent her a fan letter and a few weeks later she actually wrote back to me. She sent me a lovely card, on her own personally embossed stationery (from Tiffany’s, no less) and I was so touched by her thoughtfulness that I make it a point to take the time to write back to anyone who contacts me now. Bea made me realize that without the public’s support you’re nobody, and if a big star like her could take the time to write to a simple guy in Georgia who she’d never heard of, then I can certainly let the people who write to me know how much I appreciate them too.

I will miss Bea Arthur. I’ll miss knowing she is out there and wondering what her next move will be. I loved her appearance with Rue McClanahan and Betty White last year when they accepted the Pop Culture award from TV Land. It was wonderful to see them together again. Estelle Getty’s death a few weeks later was a blow to Golden Girls fans and now they’re going through it again as they grieve for Bea. I thought Bea Arthur was one of a kind; a real dame! She could do it all. Sing, dance, act. You name it. She did it. And with gusto too.

Bea died of cancer early on April 25, 2009. She is survived by her two sons, two granddaughters, a sister in Montreal, and legions of fans the world over. Her legacy and the wealth of her work will live on far into the future, but just having Bea always in the wings, ready to make another glorious comeback, is what kept her so special and always a favorite with the public. There was nobody else like her.

“…and then there’s Maude…”

“Thank you for being a friend…”
Thanks for all the memories, Bea. We love you.

And that is my sole focus for now.