Celebrating Bea Arthur

I have never felt the necessity to attend a memorial service for any celebrity or theatre star. With most actors and creators I admire, I usually recall their work and appreciate the legacy that is left behind. In most cases, I have never encountered the person except through their work, so I don’t generally feel a personal connection.

However, today was different. This afternoon at the Majestic Theatre, the theatre and TV community gathered to celebrate the life of the one and only Beatrice Arthur. The actress, who died this past April at the age of 86, was more than actress and comedienne; she was an icon. Her statuesque presence, her incisive cutting way with a line or glare and that baritone voice were part of the unique package that make an unlikely star of the working actor at the age of 50.

As a child I knew who she was. She was that really funny one on The Golden Girls. I think I may have seen an episode or two around the time I was ten, but in all honesty the show didn’t hold much ground with me then and I carried on with my life. My appreciation for Bea Arthur started around the time I was fifteen years old and TV Land started airing reruns of Maude, the landmark show featuring the staunch eponymous character that propelled the respected New York actress into television stardom.

Watching these reruns of this daring, controversial series, I began to appreciate what it meant to be funny. Bea could be funny without doing much of anything. One lengthy glare was a enough to reduce the studio audience to gales of unstoppable laughter. Maude Findlay was the greatest feminist of Tuckahoe, NY and liberal to a fault. She took on every cause imaginable, with the show tackling alcoholism, drugs, menopause, plastic surgery, infidelity, the difficulties of marriage and homosexuality. Oh, and of course that famous episode where Maude decides to have an abortion. One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life was Bea Arthur throwing an overcoat at Adrienne Barbeau in the episode “Nostalgia Party.” (It has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Unfortunately five seasons of the series remain unreleased on DVD). When I finished with Maude, I moved onto The Golden Girls when I was about 16 going on 17. And of course, there were the original cast albums of Mame and Fiddler on the Roof.

My comic sensibilities were shaped by two individuals: my father and Bea Arthur. I learned from Bea that sometimes doing nothing was funnier than a quip and even dared to hold an extra couple of beats for impact, and while I will never be as funny as she, I certainly learned how to get a laugh. Upon hearing that there would be a memorial service, I figured that she was such an important part of shaping my interests that I would really like to go.

I arrived at the Majestic Theatre around 10AM, mildly surprised to find myself about thirtieth on line. That soon shrunk a bit as it turned out there were several tourists who thought it was the queue to purchase tickets for Phantom (boy, would they have been in for a surprise…). We were informed the house would be opening at 12:30. As that time approached, the line for the public stretched from the Phantom marquee to Shubert Alley (possibly farther, but I wasn’t about to step out of line to see). After they let in those with invitations, they opened the doors to the public.

We were led down into the lobby and handed a Playbill that sporting a sketch of Bea from Just Between Friends on the front. On the press line, I caught the vivacious Tyne Daly being interviewed. I also caught sight of Karen Akers, Charles Busch and Julie Halston. The seating was general admission with various seats reserved for VIPs and press. I managed to snag a really nice seat in the center orchestra, at about Row M. (One of the most interesting things about the orchestra section at the theatre is the unusual rake in the seating). Onstage was a large projection screen with a large publicity shot of Bea that was seen in the advertising for Bea Arthur on Broadway. There were two podiums on each side of the stage, as well as grand piano center stage. Easy listening favorites of Sinatra were piped into the theatre as people were seated.

The house was abuzz with theatre folk conversing with one another – total strangers around me sharing their favorite Bea moments. Most talked of The Golden Girls, but I overheard some talk of Maude and Fiddler. Friends and VIPs milled about in the front orchestra section. About 1:10PM, the house lights are dimmed and applause started and grew in intensity before anything happened. (I’ve officially conquered the Majestic. Take that, POTO!). Suddenly Dame Edna was heard over the PA, as they played the pre-show recording made for the Australian run of Bea’s one woman show.

Immediately following, the afternoon’s host and Bea’s closest friend, Angela Lansbury, emerged from the wings in a sophisticated white pantsuit and to a full house standing ovation. The five time Tony-winner was very gracious, but quickly calmed the audience down. After a beat she began to speak, “I have a little secret I’d like to impart that I hope doesn’t give you too much of a start…” Ms. Lansbury then stepped center stage where she proceeded to sing her pal’s signature song from Mame while a slideshow of photos was presented on the screen behind her. After a brief introductory, in which she welcomed everyone and joked how Bea would likely disapprove of the whole event, she presented Norman Lear to the audience.

Lear, the groundbreaking producer of practically every important sitcom of the 1970s, talked about seeing Bea Arthur in the 1955 off-Broadway Shoestring Revue where she sang the song “Garbage.” He kept her in mind when he was working on other projects, including The George Gobel Show in the 1960s. He called her and asked her to fly out to guest-star as Archie Bunker’s liberal cousin Maude in a one-shot appearance on All in the Family. Well, the rest is history. Lear commented, “I’ve lost a lot of friends recently, but no one seems less gone and more alive than Bea.” He was the first of many to talk about her way with timing and understanding the essence of comedy. Lear maintains that out of all the laugh-makers he’s worked with over the years, none have made him laugh like Bea.

Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist for both Shoestring Revue and Fiddler on the Roof was next, and he talked about writing “Garbage,” to spoof the dramatic torch songs with inane lyrics, which she performed with “her unerring sense of comedy.” Another Shoestring alum, Chita Rivera, emerged to talk about the joy they shared as colleagues and commented, “The one thing I wanted Bea to stop was walking down 9th Avenue in her bare feet.” Her disdain for footwear was a running topic throughout the afternoon. Rivera also said, “She would allow you to imagine what she was thinking – now that was really funny.”

Angela came back onstage to talk about first getting to know Bea while they prepare for Mame in 1965. She said that while they were always “Bosom Buddies” onstage, they really became bosom friends in later years, after both had successful TV series. They ended up living near each other in California, and their children became friendly. Lansbury got quite emotional as she recalled her husband, Peter Shaw’s final illness and how Arthur was there with food, comfort and her friendship during those difficult days.

Next up was Bea’s sister, Kay Gray, who talked about Bea’s three passions – Cary Grant, show business and animals. She talked about how her big sister was there to advise her, teach her to jitterbug, started chain smoking at 12 and ran away to sing with a band at 13. When Ms. Gray was going to visit the set of Maude, she told her sister to give her a part – that she could play her younger sister. When she arrived on the set, Bea told her in that inimitable style, “When you’re on my show, you’ll be my OLDER sister.” Six weeks before Arthur’s passing, her sister was with her in her bed. The two were sharing memories and stories. Arthur turned to her sister and said, “I’ve had a wonderful life. I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do.” Later, Arthur’s two grown sons, Matt and Daniel Saks, spoke fondly of their loving, down-to-earth hands-on mom, who wasn’t above flying in a pen pal to be a prom date and who was happiest when throwing their weddings.

Rosie O’Donnell recalled the night she met Bea – at a Manhattan restaurant where she and her brother drunkenly sang the Maude theme song to her. When they finished, she held the trademark beat before bursting out in a gale of laughter, hugging Rosie and the two became friends. She told her “I know you. You’re a funny kid.” O’Donnell got emotional as she discussed how Bea Arthur’s portrayal of Maude Findlay “taught my generation how to be a feminist.”

Bea’s co-star on Maude, Adrienne Barbeau was next. The actress recalled her total acceptance on the set, with Bea the first to arrive and the last to leave. The up and comer one time asked the star about her acting technique – if there was something that Arthur relied on when she was having difficulty creating a character. Bea said, “Oh shit, darling. You just say the words as though you mean them.” Probably the best acting advice I’ve ever heard. Then Charlie Hauck, one of Maude’s writers recalled the actress’ spontaneity, down to earth charm and how she saved a dog in the middle of Sunset Boulevard only for them to discover it belonged to Barbra Streisand.

Zoe Caldwell was neighbors with Bea Arthur when both ladies resided in Pound Ridge, NY. The acclaimed actress tore up the theatre with her distinct, dry deliver turning the mundane into the hilarious as she recalled their relationship. She spoke fondly of their friendship, saying that they were in Pound Ridge and they needed each other. Arthur assumed the role of big sister in their friendship and doled out advice and suggestions—often what play or movie to see. Her reasoning: “It will be good for you.”

“Then,” said Caldwell, “she’d come along to make sure you got the right thing from it.”

One of these suggestions was to go see Katharine Hepburn in Coco. Bea opined, “We’ll sit front row center…so we can’t escape. We will watch her and watch her and watch her.” Caldwell said, “And we watched her…and watched her…and watched her… and Bea had to cry. *pause* It wasn’t a sad musical…but we cried all throughout. *pause* I suppose it was good for us…”

Carol Arthur DeLuise was introduced and she discussed Larry Gelbart, the famed writer who died this past Friday. Gelbart had been invited to Bea’s memorial but had to decline due to his ill-health. However, he did send a letter which Mrs. DeLuise read, that recalled seeing The Threepenny Opera off-Broadway and said, “She could do with a punch or a line what Ethel Merman could do with a song.” Then Miss Coco Peru, a drag performer and close friend of the star was asked to recreate “A Mother’s Ingenuity,” a hilarious piece that is included in Bea’s one woman show (and on the show’s album as “The Soup Ladle.”)

Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara came on and honored Bea with their old routine. They jokingly talked about themselves, but kept the audience in stitches for a good ten minutes. The script supervisor of The Golden Girls recalled special moments with Bea, and was in charge of getting the ladies to sign photographs. On one afternoon during the height of Bobby McFerrin’s popularity, he successfully dared her to sign “Don’t worry, Bea Arthur.”

And then there’s Rue McClanahan. McClanahan had the opportunity to co-star with Bea in both Maude and The Golden Girls and offered a window into the compassionate, caring maternal woman. When Rue’s mother died of a heart attack, McClanahan found herself alone on Thanksgiving the day after the funeral and called Bea. The star had McClanahan come to her house where she put her in bed, fed her and made sure she was comfortable.

While the audience was still dabbing their eyes at this heartfelt remembrance, Rue switched gears and talked about Bea’s bawdier side, claiming that she was not quite herself after she’d had a few drinks. At the opening night of Bea Arthur on Broadway, Rue and her husband were invited to the show and after party. Her husband went over to introduce himself to Bea, who was sitting at a corner table with her back to everyone and thanked her for the invitation. Bea turned and looked at him for one of those trademark beats, then grabbed him and drunkenly slurred, “I love Rue… Betty’s a cunt.” The anecdote was so unexpected and the laughter so intense that McClanahan (whose impersonation was the best of any of the speakers) could barely restore order.

The afternoon progressed with speakers from PETA and the Ali Forney Center, representing two causes that were near and dear to Bea’s heart: animal and gay rights. Dan Matthews, the vice president of PETA, talked of finding himself – a staunch vegan activist – in Arthur’s kitchen helping her prepare a meatloaf (after she gave him a withering glares). Carl Siciliano, executive director of the AFC talked about how Bea really committed herself to helping the organization, donating money and raising awareness. She even flew to NYC while suffering from illness to perform a benefit performance of her one woman show to raise money for them. The Center, which provides shelter for homeless LGBT youth, is naming a residency in her honor. Other speakers included Daryl Roth, who produced Bea on Broadway and Billy Goldenberg, Bea’s long-time friend and collaborator.

Interspersed throughout were clips of Bea at her finest: singing “My Way” on Maude (with a line reading that has stayed with Norman Lear for over thirty years: “Better than Fontizou…?”) as well as a montage from The Golden Girls, including Bea’s favorite when she and Estelle Getty dressed up as Sonny and Cher for a mother-daughter contest. Billy Stritch was on hand to sing her favorite song, Coleman-Leigh’s “It Amazes Me” and Angela presented her Emmy-nominated guest appearance on Malcolm in the Middle.

Finally, Angela introduced Bea herself, in an audio-video montage of her many fine moments, which included “Bosom Buddies” from the 1987 Tony telecast. The afternoon ended with Beatrice singing the elegiac and uplifting “The Chance to Sing,” the eleven o’clock number from Goldenberg’s musical of Harold and Maude. The audience then rose in standing ovation to salute the star. For the two and a half hours, we were treated to a few tears, some ribaldry and endless laughter – the kind of gathering you would expect when Bea Arthur is involved. And you know what? I think she would have approved too.

One thought on “Celebrating Bea Arthur”

  1. I just happened upon this blog entry during a term search. I don’t know if you are aware, but there is a pirate video available of this from Premiere Opera (Catalog No. 8147). I can’t speak on the quality of the video itself since I am still waiting to receive and view it. I greatly appreciated the very detailed commentary. I am old enough to remember MAUDE’s original airings (I’m 48), and I, too, have wished that all seasons of it would be released – hopefully in time. At any rate, thanks for writing this – it is a great introduction to what I will see when I get the DVD.

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