Golden Girls: Friends for Life

We are wrapping up our series, “Girls, Girls, Girls.” At the beginning of the month, we learned about a show that featured four women who spent much of their life together for seven years (Designing Women). Today we end our series with another show that featured a quartet of women that also ran for seven years.

In September of 1985, a new type of sitcom debuted. This show featured four retired women who lived life together, relying on humor to make things work. The show, Golden Girls, was on the air seven years, ending in 1992 and producing 177 episodes. The show was always on Saturday nights with the seventh season moving to an earlier hour.

Photo: tvseriesfinale.com

I read two different versions about the creation of the show, so take your pick. Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle. One version is that the idea came from Brandon Tartikoff, an NBC executive. When he was visiting his aunt one day, he noticed that she and her next-door neighbor who was her best friend, argued a lot but loved each other. He thought the concept would make a great show.

The other version credits NBC senior vice president Warren Littlefield. He was in the audience when Selma Diamond and Doris Roberts acted in a skit called “Miami Nice,” a parody of the popular Miami Vice. The skit featured old people living in Miami.

Either way, Susan Harris created the show itself, and it was produced by Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions, with Tony Thomas and Harris serving as original executive producers. After the first year, Harris was not as involved with the show, but still oversaw the scripts.

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The four main characters are quite different which is probably why the series was so successful. Blanche (Rue McLanahan) owns the house in Miami. Two women, widow Rose Nylund (Betty White) and divorcee Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur) respond to an ad on a grocery store bulletin board to become Blanche’s roommates. In the pilot episode, the retirement home where Dorothy’s 80-year-old mother Sophia (Estelle Getty) lives burns down, so she joins the trio. All four of the characters appeared in every episode.

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Blanche worked for an art museum. She grew up in a wealthy family, living on a plantation outside Atlanta. When she married her husband George, they moved to Miami. With six kids, Blanche should be a busy family matriarch, but she was man-hungry and always involved in some romantic entanglement much to the chagrin of Rose.

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Dorothy was a substitute teacher. She became pregnant in high school and married the father, Stanley. Stan and Dorothy moved to Miami but after 38 years of marriage, he had an affair with an airline stewardess and left Dorothy.

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Rose lived most of her life in a small farming town, St. Olaf, Minnesota. She and husband Charlie were happily married with five children. After he passes away, she moves to Florida and works at a counseling center. At one point she works for a consumer reporter at a local television station. Rose had an on-again, off-again relationship with a college professor, Miles Webber, during the run of the show.

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Sophia left Italy to get out of an arranged marriage and ended up in New York where she met Salvadore Petrillo. Sophia also has a variety of jobs on the show, including a fast-food worker and a developer of a spaghetti sauce and sandwich business. Sophia is the only character to marry during the seven seasons. She married Max Weinstock, but they separated soon after the wedding.

The role of Sophia was the first one cast. Estelle Getty had received rave reviews for her performance in Torch Song Trilogy. Although Getty played Dorothy’s mother, in reality she was a year younger than Arthur. It took Getty three hours in make-up to transform into the older Sophia, donning a white wig, heavy make-up and thick glasses. Apparently, even though she was an experienced actress, she suffered from stage fright and often froze on camera. This affliction got worse as the show continued, and by the fifth season, she was reading her lines from cue cards. McClanahan tried to describe what Getty suffered with, “She’d panic. She would start getting under a dark cloud the day before tape day . . . you could see a big difference in her that day. She’d be walking around like Pig-Pen under a black cloud. By tape day, she was unreachable. She was just as uptight as a human being could get. When your brain is frozen like that, you can’t remember lines.”

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Originally McClanahan was cast as Rose and White as Blanche. White had portrayed Sue Ann Nivens, a man-crazy woman, on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Director Paul Bogart felt they should switch roles.

McClanahan came up with the idea that Blanche should have a southern accent which she exaggerated to make the character more interesting. Apparently, one of the set jokes was where Rue McClanahan might be sleeping on the set. She was often found napping in different places.

Although Harris created Dorothy as a “Bea Arthur type,” the producers originally wanted Elaine Stritch for the part, but her audition did not go well. Arthur didn’t want to do the show because she didn’t want her and McClanahan to be portrayed as Maude and Vivian as they were in the show Maude. After reading the script and learning about the role switch of her coworkers, she came on board.

Costume designer Judy Evans created a different look for each of the cast members. Rose was down home and Midwestern. Sophia relied on comfortable clothing. Dorothy had a “pulled-together, no nonsense” look. Blanche was sexy with flowing outfits. Rue had a clause written into her contract that she be allowed to keep all Blanche’s clothing, which was custom made. By the end of the series, she filled thirteen closets with the designer wardrobe. Late McClanahan would create a more affordable line of clothing for QVC, “A Touch of Rue” based on Blanche’s show wardrobe.

(Left to right) The cast of television series The Golden Girls Rue McClanahan, Betty White, Estelle Getty and Beatrice Arthur are shown in a scene from the show in this undated publicity handout photo.
Photo: sydneymorningherald.com

While the characters argued from time to time, you knew they loved and cared about each other and were a family, even if they made each other crazy at times. In reality, Arthur was very difficult to get along with. Betty White, who seems to love everyone, admits she did not have a good relationship with Arthur. Apparently, White’s positive and perky manner irritated Bea. McClanahan said Bea was very eccentric and hard to be friendly with. However, White, always the professional, never revealed their difficulties until after Arthur passed away. White and McClanahan became close friends during the show’s run. White always loved game shows and she found a kindred spirit in Rue. They frequently played games between takes.

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The house was often a fifth character on the show. The exterior of the home, which was supposed to be at 6151 Richmond Street, was part of the backstage studio tour ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios for the first two seasons. Designer Ed Stephenson used a “Florida look” for the home with wooden accents, columns, cypress doors, rattan furniture, and tropical prints. Of course, Blanche’s bedroom featured pink carpeting and a vanity table. Dorothy’s room was filled with books and intricate wallpaper. Rose’s walls are covered with clouds, and her room contained a lot of ruffles and chintz. Sophia’s room was also modern with dainty floral wallpaper and mahogany furniture covered by bedding with a satin trim.

If you watch the scenes in the kitchen, you will notice that although four people live there, there are only three chairs at the table. If all four girls were sitting there, someone had their back to the camera, so the director solved the problem by only having three of them in the scene at a time.

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Often the plots would feature one of the characters mired in a problem, typically involving their family, their love life, or ethical dilemmas. When they gathered around the table to talk, the stories they told would help each other, even though Rose’s stories from her youth typically had no connection to the current problem and Sophia’s stories were often made up. Many controversial issues were covered during the show including same-sex marriage, elder care, homelessness, HIV/AIDS, immigration, death, assisted suicide, and discrimination whether racial, sexual or gender.

The critics praised the show, and the public adored it. For six of the seven seasons, the show ranked in the top ten. Both Betty White and Estelle Getty received seven Emmy nominations during the seven-year period, while Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan each received four. Fun fact, all of them won an Emmy during the run of the show. Overall, the show received 68 Emmy nominations.

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The Queen Mother loved the show so much that she asked the quartet to come to England and perform for her personally. When the cast assembled in London, they appeared in an episode about the visit to the Queen.

After the seventh season, when the show had dropped into the top 30, Bea Arthur decided to leave the show. In the finale, Dorothy finally meets the man for her, who happens to be Blanche’s uncle Lucas (Leslie Nielsen), and they move to Atlanta. Sophia is uncertain whether she should move with them or stay in Miami and, in the end, decides to stay in Florida.

When the series ended, White, McClanahan, and Getty reprised their Golden Girls roles and starred in The Golden Palace about a hotel. The series ended after the first year and never enjoyed the rankings of the original, coming in 57th for the year.

Harris developed two spinoffs from the original series. Empty Nest starred Richard Mulligan as pediatrician Harry Weston who lives next to the women with his two grown daughters. The show was also very popular and lasted seven years as well.

The Cast of Empty Nest
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Empty Nest then launched a show about some of the nurses who worked in Weston’s hospital, simply titled Nurses. While this series was never as popular as Golden Girls or Empty Nest, it did last three years.

The cast of Nurses
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Although I enjoyed The Golden Girls, I actually did not watch it often.  I think maybe because it was on Saturday nights during a time that I was not likely home in the evening. I did enjoy it when I caught an episode but was never the fanatic many of my friends were. I think I should let the “Girls” have the last words about their series:

Dorothy: You know, sometimes I can’t believe my ears.
Sophia: I know. I should’ve taped them back when you were seven.

UNITED STATES – MAY 13: THE GOLDEN GIRLS – 9/24/85 – 9/24/92, ESTELLE GETTY, BEA ARTHUR, (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

[Dorothy and Sophia come home after Sophia’s best friend’s funeral]

Sophia: Well, I guess Phyllis Glutman will be my new best friend.

Dorothy: I thought you hated Phyllis Glutman.

Sophia: I do, but at the rate my friends are going, I won’t have to spend too much time with her.

Photo: entertainmentweekly.com

Rose: You know what I think?

Blanche: No, do you?

Life in Fernwood: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood 2-Night

As we wind up our series of “oddly wonderful” shows, we take a look at two shows that were set in the same community and may be two of the most unusual shows to ever air on television—Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood 2-Night.

If you read my blog often, you know I am not usually a fan of Norman Lear shows, and while these two series are very different from a typical Norman Lear show, unfortunately, I only enjoyed one of them. Lear’s shows were filmed at Metromedia Square in Hollywood. When he got ready to tackle these shows, there was no room left there. He arranged to rent space from KTLA which was across Fernwood Street. The staff started calling KTLA “Fernwood” which became the name of the town in Ohio where Mary lives.

Photo: next-episode.net

Lear said he created the show to deal with consumerism.

The original show was was a campy show but had likable and thoughtful characters. Like Soap, this show had a brilliant cast and satirized soap series. It was called Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, because the writers said dialogue on a soap opera was often said twice. Lear filmed the pilot and offered it to the three major networks who all passed. The show began as a syndicated show (it began on 50 stations) and was only on from January 1976 till May 1977. Unlike Soap, this show produced a huge number of episodes, 325 to be exact. It aired daily on weekdays.

Like the Tates and Campbells, Mary suffered through bizarre plots and unbelievable story lines, including adultery, mass murder, disease, homosexuality, religious cults, UFO sightings, and a nervous breakdown.

Photo: imdb.com
Dodie Goodman as Martha

Louise Lasser (who had been married to Woody Allen) portrayed Mary. She was married to Tom (Greg Mullavey). Tom worked at an auto assembly plant. Dody Goodman played Mary’s mother Martha. Debralee Scott played her sister Lorraine. The cast was rounded out by amazing supporting characters including Mary Kay Place as Mary’s best friend Loretta; Graham Jarvis as Charlie, Loretta’s husband and Tom’s best friend; Claudia Lamb as Heather, Mary and Tom’s daughter; Martin Mull as Garth Gimble who killed his wife; Dabney Coleman, Fernwood’s mayor; Gloria DeHaven who had an affair with Tom; Orson Bean as Rev. Brim, Shelley Fabares as Eleanor Major, a woman Tom falls in love with after Mary leaves him; Ed Begley Jr. as Steve; and Doris Roberts as Dorelda Doremus, a faith healer.

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Mary Kay Place as Loretta

Mary wore her hair in braids like Pippi Longstocking. One article described her as a life-size Raggedy Ann. She was indecisive and switched her emotions quickly and without reason. Mary went through one crisis after another until she couldn’t function anymore. One of the things that led to Mary’s breakdown was that she believed everything she saw on television and it made her crazy that she could not see the waxy yellow build up the commercials claimed was on her floor. She was also dealing with marital problems and boredom.

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Right from the beginning, the show displayed its weird story lines. In the first episode, the Lombardi family of five is murdered and the neighborhood tries to catch the Fernwood Flasher, who later turned out to be Mary’s grandfather. There were a lot of strange deaths in this show. Jimmy Joe Jeeter was electrocuted in the tub, Coach Leroy drowned in chicken noodle soup, and Garth Gimble impaled his wife on a bottle brush Christmas tree.

In 1977, Lasser decided to leave the show. The rest of the cast continued on and accounted for her disappearance by announcing that she had run off with Sgt Dennis Foley. The show then became Forever Fernwood.

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Later that year, Fernwood 2-Night was spun off. Martin Mull was now Garth’s twin brother Barth and was the host of a late-night talk show with Jerry Hubbard (Fred Willard) as his “Ed McMahon”.

One of my favorite things about this show was Frank DeVol, the composer, who played Happy Kyne with his band the Mirth Makers (Eddie Robertson, Tommy Tedesco, Frank Marocco, and Colin Bailey) on the show. Happy never looked happy; he had a side business, a fast-food restaurant called Bun ‘n Run.

Photo: sonypicturesmuseum.com

Alan Thicke was the head writer on the show. Lear thought it should all be improvised, but Thicke said it needed a balance of scripting with ad-lib.

In the same way Mary Hartman satirized soap operas, this show satirized late-night talk shows. The guests were a mix of real and fictional people. For example, Tom Waits appeared on the show when his bus broke down in Fernwood. I don’t remember a lot about this show specifically, but I remember thinking it was very funny.

Photo: sonypicturesmuseum.com

After the first season, the show was moved to California where celebrities would be more likely to appear on the show.

Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

I have never seen either of these shows in reruns and like most of the shows we learned about this month, I think they are better left as a remnant of the era they debuted in. Although few people seem to remember Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, it was listed #21 on TV Guide’s list of best one-hundred shows in 2003. When thinking about the classic shows that had been on the air by 2003, that says a lot about what TV Guide thought about the quality of this show.

Lear had to tow a fine line on this show. With the types of crises Mary encountered and the bleak life that was portrayed of a housewife in Fernwood, Ohio, it was close to tragic. The exaggerated number of catastrophes and despairing situations kept it slightly in the humor genre. The demise of the show is often blamed on Lasser’s leaving, but in my opinion, it could not have continued to sustain viewers much longer than it was on the air. How many crises can be cooked up that hadn’t happened, and when did the tragic overtake the comedy for most viewers? Again, it’s a show best viewed in its decade.

In my rating of odd, wonderful, or oddly wonderful, I give Fernwood 2-night wonderful, and I’m afraid I have to give Mary Hartman an odd rating. It was a hard show to watch. If you wanted drama, there was too much humor in it, but if you wanted comedy, it was way too dark. I’d love to hear from you on your ratings for these two little-remembered shows.