Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bea and me

A lot of bloggers are posting about the death of Bea Arthur, and many work into it somewhere the song lyric, “Thank you for being a friend”, Andrew Gold’s 1978 hit which was used as the theme music (sung by Cynthia Fee) for the hit series The Golden Girls. My history with Bea goes back farther.

I don’t remember ever seeing Bea play the character Maude on All in the Family, since my family didn’t watch the show during the first years it was on. However, when I saw her on Maude (1972-1978) she and the show quickly became favourites.

When I started watching, my politics had more in common with Maude’s conservative foil, Dr. Arthur Harmon (played by Conrad Bain), than with the liberal Maude Findlay. That changed over the years, and by the time the show ended in 1978, I was hooked and largely—and perhaps largely secretly—in agreement with the liberal icon.

During its run, it tackled many “controversial” issues of the day, including abortion (which is what the clip above is from) before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal throughout the US. It’s hard to remember it now, but in that pre-Internet era the main place America debated the burning issues of the day was TV sitcoms. Can anyone imagine current US sitcoms being in any way similarly topical?

I was also a fan of The Golden Girls (1985-1992), and my original attraction to it was the re-teaming of Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan. I was happy that this show also took on “controversial” issues, but as with Maude, the writing and acting that kept me watching. The creator of The Golden Girls, Susan Harris, was also a writer on the famous (infamous?) Maude abortion episode.

In the early years of Maude, I had no idea that Bea Arthur had had a stage career before television. Mind you, in those days I wasn’t very aware of stage generally, so it’s not really a surprise. The clip below is of Bea and Angela Lansbury performing “Bosom Buddies” from Mame, which they did together on Broadway in 1966. Reportedly, Bea based the character of Maude on her portrayal of Vera Charles.

So, first and foremost, Bea Arthur gave me countless hours of entertainment and more laughs than I could possibly count. That’s tribute enough. But her performance as Maude also made me realise that it was okay to think differently from the majority. The character of Maude certainly didn’t turn me into a liberal, but it helped me feel it was okay to be myself and think for myself, which had so many other important implications. I can’t think of many other TV sitcoms that had that kind of affect on me. Heck, I can’t even remember that many other old sitcoms, and those that I do are mostly from that same general era.

So, Bea, thank you for—well, you know.


Roger Owen Green said...

I would have written more myself but the child can be an interrupter. Bea Arthur, RIP

d said...

I find these days, that social commentary plays out in Cartoons (i.e. Family Guy, American Dad) and dramas (Boston Legal).

As for Bea, I only watched her in Golden Girls. Still, she will be missed.

Jason in DC said...

One of the best episodes ever if All in the Family was when Maude showed up to help out Edith. I think Maude was Edith's cousin. Wow were there fireworks.

Carroll O'Connor and Bea Arthur were at their best. The writing was incredible which made the acting all that better.

I remember watching Maude. I had no problem identifying with her. In some ways she reminded me of my mother (only with a much deeper voice). My mom was just as liberal as Maude. So it reinforced that my mom's ideas, which over time also became my ideas, were just fine.

As for the Golden Girls, it is still one of my favorite shows. I still laugh out loud. What chemistry between those four great actors. I'm so glad I was able to see both of these ground breaking shows when they were new.

Arthur Schenck said...

Roger: Yes, it happens!

D: You're probably right about the cartoons, though I'd add South Park and sometimes the Simpsons (I actually don't watch any of the shows you listed). Things like "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" cover some of this territory, but not in the same way the old sitcoms did.

Jason: I saw a clip from that "All in the Family" recently, but not when it was new. I'm glad you mentioned your mother, because Maude reminded me of her, too, but I thought it would be a bit cheeky for me to say so.

I didn't see all of "The Golden Girls" episodes at when they were first broadcast, but I probably saw most of them. And now, of course, we have it on DVD so we can watch whenever we want. Eventually I'll get "Maude" on DVD, too.

Nomad said...

Thank goodness for Bea Arthur and the Golden Girls, if not for shows like that and the People's Court, etc. my summer's as a junior higher would have been even more dismally dull