As part of the Museum of Television and Radio’s William S. Paley Festival at the Directors Guild of America, cast and crew members of The Golden Girls — including two of its stars, Rue McClanahan and Betty White, show creator Susan Harris and executive producer Paul Junger Witt — screened episodes and conducted a Q&A with a packed auditorium of the young, old and very gay. (Those over-plucked and overarching brows of The Tonight Show’s Ross the Intern are scarier in person.)
I arrived a bit late and was greeted by dirty looks and mumbles of outrage (“Uhhh. Too bad. You’re late!”) from people with portable oxygen tanks and walkers, as well as one rather ornery-looking fellow in flip-on shades sitting all the way in the back. These are the kind of fans who, according to one audience member, stop whatever they’re doing to say to each other, “Shady Pines, Ma.” (If you, uhhh, have to ask, Shady Pines is the retirement home from which Estelle Getty’s character Sophia escaped.) At any rate, you simply don’t interrupt Emmy winner Betty White while she’s recalling the time she slept with a pig. Such is the devotion to NBC’s former No. 1 sitcom about four old ladies living in Miami, which now occupies about 500 hours of television on the Lifetime network.
There are more than a hundred years of television history between McClanahan, 73, and White, 83, yet nearly everyone who asked a question couldn’t help but call them girls. And with all the overlapping banter and re-channeling of their TV alter egos — McClanahan’s oversexed Blanche and White’s lovable but dimwitted Rose — it was as if we were gathered around the kitchen table talking about our first times over cheesecake. In fact, there was such an episode during The Golden Girls’ first season in 1985, but since McClanahan had trouble remembering her lines, allow me to re-create the scene:
Rose (to Blanche): “That first time, did you .?.?. you know .?.?. ?”
Blanche: “Are you serious? Why, many times at first. Many, many times. You didn’t?”
Rose: “Well, it was nice. Being with Charlie was nice. But it was five years before I knew what made your eyes go back into your head.”
The auditorium was a constant clatter of oh yeahs and uh-huhs and yups every time the two reminisced about their favorite moments and favorite episodes. McClanahan loved singing “I Wanna Be Loved By You” on a grand piano. White talked about the episode in which she dated a little person. “It was such a sweet story without making fun of him,” said White. “They milked it for every short joke you could possibly come up with. But there was a sweetness to it.”
The two were at a loss to explain the show’s large gay following. Of course, it was a no-brainer for us — Bea Arthur won a Tony playing Vera Charles in Mame for God’s sake.
“I asked a fella, a gay young man in Greenwich Village several years ago,” remembered McClanahan, “?‘Why is it that you gay guys liked Blanche so much?’ And he said, ‘Are you kidding? We all wanted to be her.’?”
When asked which actresses they’d like to portray their characters in a contemporary rendition of TheGolden Girls, McClanahan responded, “My God, nobody!” As for White? “Well, Meryl Streep has been begging me.”
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The Golden Girls’ more than 20 years of popularity can be credited to the show’s team of writers as much as the dynamics among the four women. Marc Cherry, who went on to bigger success creating and producing Desperate Housewives, had off-the-set stories of his own to tell. On one occasion at Arthur’s home, he and his writing partner secretly traded glasses of gin and tonic ’cause Cherry was too intimidated by Arthur to admit he didn’t drink. And he remembers another time when White was accidentally hit in the face with a piece of bologna at the craft-services table.
Unfortunately, this was no cast reunion: Arthur had been scheduled to appear but was a no-show. We can, however, vouch in her absence that she doesn’t actually like cheesecake, if you, uhhh, didn’t already know. And the beloved Getty has been battling Parkinson’s since the show was on the air.
“It’s hard to keep in touch with Estelle because she’s usually out of touch,” McClanahan sadly informed us.
Not wanting to end the event on a somber note, Cherry offered, “This will be the only time to do this in a public outing — I can walk like Bea Arthur.” Then, with quiet concentration, he re-entered the stage, left arm raised mid-air and left hip facing forward, much like Mame herself might have. Not so intimidated now, was he?