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Golden girls in their prime.


It's night when four women who look like cheerleaders for U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper return to the tidy home they share in Miami. There's Dorothy, who'd like to strangle her ex-husband for running off with a young stewardess; Rose, sweet and daffy, who still laments her late husband's death; Blanche, a sex-starved Southern belle; and the nettlesome Sophia, Dorothy's mother, a crab apple as lovable as a Cabbage Patch Grandma.

Having Just attended a rock concert, this gang of Geritol Guzzlers pauses on the doorstep for a brief critique of the performance. Full of interest but slightly out-of-date, they show themselves still in touch with both the world and their sense of humor:

"The name Madonna doesn't fit her," Rose says.

"Try 'slut'!" Sophia says.

"Please," Dorothy quips. "She did things on that stage I never did with my husband!"

Entering their house, they face another surprise. A thief has ransacked the place. Alone and unprotected, they react with fear and caution. Like many older people, they feel like easy prey to this sort of unchecked peril. However, these ladies face the problem head-on.

"They were probably looking for drugs," Rose surmises.

"We have Maalox and estrogen," Dorothy replies. "How many thieves have gas and hot flashes?"

Score one for wisdom and a way of looking at life that takes years off old age. When Blanche, fearing harm if the burglar is still in the house, confronts the biggest problem of life, she deals it a knockout punch: "What if I die now?" she asks. "I'm too young . . . and I'm wearing the wrong underwear."

They have gray hair and wrinkles, aches and pains, and bodies that have lost the war with bikinis. They carp and complain and get on each other's nerves. Yet they are full of laughter and love. They could be anybody's mother, aunt, or grandmother. At another time, these actresses might have retired to their favorite rockers to compose their memoirs. But NBC's "Golden Girls" has given its stars--Bea Arthur (Dorothy); Betty White (Rose); Rue McClanahan (Blanche); and Estelle Getty (Sophia)--a new chapter to their still-young lives. "To have this much fun is like stealing money," White says. "And I think we're showing that people of a certain age are still really vital and can have a h--- of a lot of fun."

Indeed. These "Golden Girls" have gracefully shown that people don't grow old--they merely ripen. Television has made a practice of celebrating the unblemished image of youth, yet the "Golden Girls" has become one of the most beloved 30 minutes on prime time. since its debut last September, the program, steadily hovering in the ratings' top 10, has shattered a long-held myth that viewers wouldn't be interested in a show about older folks.

Wells, balderdash to that. The phenomenal success of "Golden Girls," whose Saturday-night time slot is usually a graveyard for TV shows, has helped increase NBC's Saturday-night ratings a staggering 36 percent from a year ago. Popular with young and old viewers alike, the show's glib one-liners and senior jokes have prompted critics to chorus praise for the new ground being broken. "The show has a delicious case of bad manners," People magazine's Jeff Jarvis wrote. Stories of bridge games breaking up early so the players can watch the show are now routine.

Even the actresses are realizing the show's positive effect. "You haven't seen relationships on television between still really viable ladies who are of a certain age," White says. "I think it's changing people's ideas of aging."

Set in the slow lane of Miami, the mecca of senior citizens, "Golden Girls" takes its creative cues from such wide-ranging sources as Dr. Ruth Westheimer, "Charlie's Angels," and Lawrence Welk. And it dishes out a universal elixir: laughter. "I think it's become a huge success because it's the funniest thing on television," Rue McClanahan says. Estelle Getty, whose character, Sophia, steals most of the show's best lines, adds: "It's funny, well acted, and has the best d--- writing in television--all the things that make anything successful.

"I also think it's because the format is different," Getty continues. "I think because we are older, we have piqued the curiosity of viewers. But if it hadn't been good, they would've watched it once and turned it off. But not only did everyone become interested in watching four older women, they stayed around and liked it."

"Golden Girls" began in the office of NBC's programing chief, Brandon Tartikoff, when he learned of the changing demographics of the U.S. population. Almost 37 percent of Americans were at least 45 in 1984, and there are now approximately 10 million more people over 50 than there were ten years ago. The show dates back to a 1984 comedy skit on the "NBC Fall Preview Show." Then the concept landed in the lap of Susan Harris, 44, a veteran television writer whose grandmother, at 89 years of age, had taken a job helping the elderly and lived on her own until she died in 1983 at 93. The press-shy writer-producer said in a previous interview: "It's so much easier to write for a person who's lived 50 years instead of one who's lived 20. They have a lot more history, a lot more experience."

Earlier this year Arthur and White, appearing on "Donahue," were showered with praise, such as the comment from one woman who said the show made her "feel 52 and gorgeous." McClanahan says: "So many people have said to me, 'Oh, you've got us down, you've got us exactly That's me and my three friends.' Or, 'That's my mother and her three friends.' In other words, the show seems to be true to life."

Certainly, if nothing else, "Golden Girls" is making people more appreciative of older folks. "The show presents a lot of issues that people need to look at," says 82-year-old Lydia Bragger, Media Watch chair-person for the Gray Panthers, a national organization that lobbies against, among other issues, age discrimination. "I think it makes people feel better about older people and about getting old themselves, which is a great service. It's a more realistic image, and that's what we're after."

With more than 100 years of acting experience among them, the four women have created a chemistry of zest and verve. From day one of the pilot, it was all sugar and spice among them. "From the first time we got together it was something special," McClanahan says. "There was lots of energy, and there is every week." Arthur and McClanahan had worked together for six years on "Maude"; and White and McClanahan were partners for two seasons on "Mama's Family." The addition of the veteran stage actress Getty (who won a Golden Globe this year for playing the cranky Sophia) rounded out the troupe. "We all adore each other," Gretty says. "They're terrific."

Despite the chuckles they generate on the show, the women can relate the rocky roads of their real lives to the "Golden Girls" theme of mature women struggling on their own. Bea Arthur has experienced marriage, motherhood, and divorce; she now lives alone. "Of course I went through a difficult period," Arthur says, "but I'm happy now." Away from the camera the Emmy winner (for "Maude") is extremely reticent--in high contrast to her sharp-tongued Dorothy on the show. "She's very private and shy," McClanahan says.

Rue McClanahan, who plays the show's risque window, began acting at age four in her native Oklahoma, then carved a reputation for herself as a stage actress before joining Arthur on "Maude" in 1973. Married five times and the mother of one son, she knows firsthand about resiliency. "I identify with the show a lot because I've lived my life like that," McClanahan explains. "I've been married several times and unmarried several times, and I've had to make various kinds of living arrangements. I think survival depends on how willing you are to give, on how flexible you're willing to be. You have to want to survive.

Estelle Getty may act the part of Dorothy's octogenarian mother, Sophia, but in real life she's a spirited 20 years younger. "People are always disappointed I'm not as old As Sophia," she says. A veteran stage actress, Getty has almost made a career of playing mothers--in the play Torch Song Trilsogy and in the recent movies Mask and Copacabana. "That's been a fortuitous role for me," Getty says. "As my son once said, 'You'll always have work, because everybody has a mother.'"

The spunky Getty, the mother of two sons, spends most of the year in Los Angeles apart from her husband of 38 years, Arthur Gettleman, who remains in New York minding his glass business. "I like my privacy, but I don't like being alone much," she still maintains. "So I relate strongly to that part of the show.

"I think what I like best about the show's theme is that you have the choice of cursing the dark or lighting a candle," Getty continues. "I think people should live with other people, if that's what they want, and that's something our show tries to get across. I think communal living is a great idea. The best elderly people I've seen are those who share homes with other elderly people. There may be a lot of bickering and gossiping, but at least people are not by themselves."

Betty White, like her character, Rose, is a widow who still deeply misses her husband, who died of cancer in 1981. White and the "Password" host, Allen Ludden, had met 20 years earlier on the set of the show. She was divorced, he was a widower; they married two years later. "The way my part is written, Charlie and Rose evidently had a good marriage," says White, a two-time Emmy Award winner for her work as the happy homemaker Sue Ann Nivens on "The mary Tyler Moore Show." "It's impossible for me to refer to Charlie without thinking of Allen. That's just art imitating life," she adds.

These days White lives alone and keeps herself occupied when she's not working on "Golden Girls" by making guest appearances on game shows and by raising money for the several pet charities she's involved with. "I'm a good loner," she explains. "The last thingk in the world I could imagine is moving in with three other friends, no matter how much I liked them. Bea says the same thing. I'm very busy with people all day, and when I go home at night, being by myself is wonderful.

But there are a lot of people who don't feel that way. There are a lot of people who need companionship--good, bad, or indifferent. They just cannot be alone. And I think for that reason we're saying something important on our show. We're saying that there is an alterantive. People can kind of pool their resources and make a way of life."

Alternatives and appreciation. That's the whole idea. Now, while the show receives unanimous fanfare as a second season is scheduled to begin production this July, "Golden Girls" will continue to promote the vibrancy of old age and, like fine wines, the ripening of the human spirit. The message: "Don't throw us away," White urges. "Recycle us! If you were a vital young person, you'll continue to be interesting as you get older. Keep your ears open. Age is just a state of mind."

Something else to remember: Old age isn't so bad when you consider the alternative.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty
Author:Gold, Todd
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1986
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