Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Best Bea Arthur Story I’ve Ever Heard

I grew up with The Golden Girls. I watched it on Saturday nights with my parents, because when you’re a kid living somewhere that’s a bit further than a bike ride from any of your friends, that’s a standard evening’s entertainment.

I remember that Sophia Petrillo taught me the word “slut,” which I promptly used at school. I got in trouble, of course, and when my teacher asked me where I’d learned that word, I said “Golden Girls.” It’s weird thinking about how a show about four old ladies could have been a corrupting influence, but I’d wager it did more good than harm.

Years later, I found out the show had a huge gay following, and this was surprising because I thought it was just a weird thing that I really liked. It was gratifying. It made me feel more connected to a community I didn’t have that much first-hand experience with, even if I didn’t immediately understand why it would have resonated with gay dudes. This past week, I got to interview some of the people who wrote for the show. We talked about their experiences on the show, but also why they thought the show got the devoted following it did, and why people — gay and otherwise — still watch the show today.

The piece appears in the print edition of Frontiers, but I’m going to direct you to the online version. I ended up getting so many good stories from those writers that I added an extra 1,000 words online — just because I knew there were people out there who would want to learn as much as possible about what it was like behind the scenes on the show.

And in particular, I’d like to draw your attention to one story that is my absolute favorite. I was speaking to Mort Nathan, an executive producer on the show who also co-wrote a lot of episodes, including the one where Rose dates a little person, and he told me something that affirms everything I’d want Bea Arthur to be.

TV Guide had done a piece on the show: ‘The Golden Girls—Is it still as good as it was the first year?’ And they asked random people what they thought of the show, and this one housewife said she didn’t think the show was as good and that Bea Arthur’s character wasn’t as interesting. They mentioned her by name—Mrs. Betty Johnson, Sioux Falls, Iowa. So Bea reads this at lunch and then gets on the phone and asks information for this Betty Johnson’s number. And she calls her. And she picks up, this TV Guide woman, and Bea says, ‘This is Bea Arthur, and I want to talk to you about what you said in TV Guide.’ The woman was horrified. She said she was misquoted. ‘I didn’t mean it. Is it really you? I love the show. I take it back.’ And Bea goes, ‘That’s what I thought. OK, that’s better.’”

I just can’t believe she fucking called the woman. I mean, can you imagine? Hearing that voice on the other end of the line, and she’s knows you said something about her and she wants to have words with you? And this is pre-Twitter, pre-internet. She just found this woman and reached out. I love it. It’s awesome.

Winifred Hervey, who also wrote a lot of great Golden Girls episodes, also told me that story, but she added one part that makes me like it even more: “And then Bea said, ‘That person’s going to go tell everyone that I called her, and no one’s going to believe her.’”

Just perfect.

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