And Then There's Bea

Okay, so you never miss an episode of The Golden Girls. It's telecast pretty much constantly -- the Lifetime network airs about a dozen episodes of the popular '80s sitcom every day -- and you never miss the show about four grumpy old bags who sit around their Florida condo carping at one another. You know that the show ran from 1985 to 1992, and that it was built around actress Beatrice Arthur and co-starred Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty. You can quote dialogue from your favorite episodes, and can even tell which year a particular episode was originally telecast just by the color of Estelle Getty's wig.

Maybe you're even up on your Maude, the '70s sitcom in which Arthur played a mouthy, middle-aged militant who got face-lifts and an abortion and impossibly high Nielsen ratings. But can you name which branch of the military Bea served in during World War II? (The Marines.) Or her religious affiliation? (Jewish.) Or her shoe size? (Very, very large.)

The former stage actress is bringing her one-woman show -- in which she sings her favorite show tunes and reminisces about her show-biz life -- to Scottsdale Center for the Arts this week, and her biggest fan and Web master, Kevin Buckstiegel, thinks we ought to be prepared.

"Bea Arthur is the actress of the new millennium," Buckstiegel says. "Everyone will be talking about her for years to come." Just in case Buckstiegel (who proudly tells us he's met Bea three times and considers himself her official biographer) is correct, we'd better all brush up on our Beatrice. What follows is a bluffer's guide to all things Arthur, sprinkled with quotes from the lady herself -- from old magazine articles and TV interviews -- and recent quips from Buckstiegel, which ought to help us all in the event of a post-show pop quiz.

Abortion, Maude's: In a two-part Maude episode titled "Maude's Dilemma" that originally aired in November of 1972, Arthur's character, 45-year-old Maude Findlay, discovers she is pregnant and opts for an abortion. Two CBS affiliates refused to air the episodes, and 32 affiliates chose not to rerun the segments that summer. The program aired just a few months before the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion, and producer Norman Lear has been dogged by pro-life activists ever since. What her Web master said: "Nowadays everyone on TV is getting abortions. Bea was definitely ahead of her time."

Amanda's: A deliberate rip-off of the BBC's Fawlty Towers, Arthur's failed sitcom lasted a single season in 1983. What her Web master said: "All the critics could talk about was how much weight she'd lost since Maude. Please!"

Betty White, Feud With: Rumors have flown for years that Bea hates Betty, although both golden gals have dodged questions about a feud. Fans aren't fooled, and even point to Lifetime's recent Golden Girls reunion special, in which each of the ladies appeared but in separate studios, as proof that Bea and Betty are less than friends. More proof? While Arthur discusses every aspect of her career in her one-woman show, she doesn't once mention White. What her Web master said: "Who cares?" What Bea said (when asked about White): "Next question!"

"California": Recent tune by proto-folkie Rufus Wainwright that mentions Bea Arthur in its refrain: "I don't know this sea of neon/Thousand surfers, whiffs of Freon/And my new grandma's Bea Arthur . . ." What her Web master said: "Bea shows up in pop songs because everyone identifies with her. Even rock 'n' rollers."

Cheesecake: A staple on The Golden Girls, episodes of which usually ended with the cast gathered around the kitchen table, noshing on one cheesecake after another. What her Web master said: "In real life, Bea hates cheesecake!"

Height: Bea Arthur is five feet nine-and-a-half inches tall. What her Web master said: "I don't know how tall she is. She's tall." What Bea said: "I'm a tall girl. A very tall girl."

Mame, The Movie: Arthur reprised her Tony-winning role as Vera Charles in this much-reviled camp fest starring Lucille Ball in the title role. Put the blame on Mame, as portrayed by Lucille Ball, for this unintentionally hilarious stink bomb. What her Web master said: "Bea doesn't have much good to say about that movie. She made it as a favor to her husband, who was directing it. They divorced soon after." What Bea said: "It wasn't very good."

Maude Vest, The: One of the most memorable fashion frights of the '70s, this peculiar knee-length garment topped nearly every one of Arthur's Maude costumes. What her Web master said: "I get a lot of e-mails from people looking for that vest. I always tell them I haven't seen it anywhere that I personally shop." What Bea said: "They make me look not so tall."

Personal Stats: Born Bernice Frankel, Beatrice Arthur is one of three children of Rebecca and Philip Frankel and a native of New York City. She is reluctant to disclose her birth date. What her Web master said: "Bea was born May 13, 1923."

Star Wars Holiday Special, The: Arthur starred in this 1978 network variety hour, which was so awful that George Lucas has forbidden it ever to be telecast again. Bootlegs of it are high-dollar items among Star Wars geeks and fans of really terrible television. Bea played a barmaid in an intergalactic tavern and sang "Goodnight, But Not Goodbye." What her Web master said: "What was she thinking?" What Bea said: "I've gotten so many letters and requests for autographed photos from that thing. I just remember singing to a bunch of people with funny heads."

Transvestitism: Despite rumors to the contrary, Bea Arthur is not a guy. What her Web master said: "She's tall and masculine, and has a deep voice. So people think she's a transvestite." What Bea said: "I was married to Gene Saks for 25 years."

Web Site ( Rife with typos and syntax errors (Sample: "If anyone took the time to learning more about her, they would find out that she is and always will be quite the women!"), Arthur's official fan site is as informative as it is bursting with arch attitude. About Arthur's one-woman show, Web master Buckstiegel warns, "If your [sic] only going because you liked her on Golden Girls, don't be surprised that she barely touches that era. There is so much to this women [sic]. This show is a must see [sic]."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela