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.
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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?

Do We Have Reservations? Yes We Do.

February has finally arrived.   Some of us are getting a bit tired of winter, so this is a popular month for travel to a warmer destination.  If you aren’t able to physically get away, stay home and watch the February Sweeps, the only time you’re guaranteed new episodes of your favorite show for a month straight.  This week I decided to look at sitcoms set in hotels or resorts.  I did not discuss Fantasy Island or The Love Boat because I thought we could talk about them another time.

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Based on the length of many of these shows, the hotel business is a tough one to be successful in. Let’s look at a bunch of shows that didn’t last too long.

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Stanley was a show starring Buddy Hackett and his girlfriend played by Carol Burnett that aired in 1956. Stanley ran a newsstand in the lobby of a New York City hotel. The hotel owner was played by Paul Lynde.  The show was cancelled in March of 1957, supporting the philosophy that no news is good news.

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Happy starred George and Gracie’s son, Ronnie Burns. Ronnie was married to a woman played by Yvonne Lime and they were co-owners and managers of the Desert Palm, a ritzy resort. Included in the cast was their Uncle Charlie and the co-owner played by Doris Packer.  Happy was their son who commented on what was going on, sort of like Family Guy’s Stewie.  It was a summer entry in 1960, but 9 months later it gave birth to a cancellation which made the cast not Happy.  I don’t know why, but apparently viewers could accept a talking horse or a talking car, but not a talking baby.

Another show that began as a summer replacement was Holiday Lodge in 1961. Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster, two comedians from Canada, played social directors at a New York state hotel. They tried to provide entertainment but always ran into trouble, including being taken off the air after a few episodes.

The Bill Dana Show was interestingly based on the character Jose Jiminez developed by Dana for the Steve Allen Show and later brought to the Danny Thomas Show.  In 1963 The Bill Dana Show portrayed Jiminez as a bellhop at the New York City Park Central Hotel and the show centered on him trying to get used to life outside Mexico. Often his dream sequences took him into bizarre situations.  The most interesting fact about this show might be that the house detective was played by Don Adams who went on to star in Get Smart. Jimeniz’s dream became a nightmare when the show was cancelled after 42 episodes.

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One of the most controversial shows to air on television in the 1970s was Hot L Baltimore debuting in the fall of 1975.  Many stations refused to air the show because it was lewd and racy.  Norman Lear, the producer behind All in the Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons developed the concept based on a play. The cast was made up of a desk clerk, his girlfriend, the manager, a hooker, an unemployed waitress, a dying man, a gay couple, and an eccentric woman. After four months, the waitress was not the only one unemployed because the show was done.

The Last Resort was developed by MTM in 1979, the company that created The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, and Phyllis. The resort, set in the Catskills in upper New York, included a bunch of college students working their way through school. It featured a stereotyped crew including the brilliant premed student, a bookworm, a snob, an overweight clumsy guy, the pastry chef who left her wealthy husband to pursue her career, a Japanese chef, and a maitre’d who ran the place like a drill sergeant. It was cancelled after three episodes. Retooled, it came back in December only to be finished for good in March when the last resort of The Last Resort was no more.

Checking In must be in the running for the shortest show to appear on television. In 1980, Marla Gibbs, playing Florence the maid on The Jeffersons, got her own show, transferring to a hotel in New York City where she was the head housekeeper. She answered to a snobby manager played by Larry Linville who would later become Frank Burns on M*A*S*H. The rest of the cast included an assistant, a house detective, a maintenance supervisor, and a bellboy. After several weeks, the hotel was shut down and Florence went back to working for The Jeffersons.

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The Golden Girls was one of the most beloved shows in television, but I’m guessing few people remember The Golden Palace which debuted in 1992.  After Dorothy got married, the other three characters decide to invest in a hotel in Miami. Only two employees are left at the hotel:  a manager and a chef. After 24 shows, no one was left at the hotel.

In 1999 Payne, a remake of the British show Fawlty Towers hit the air.  Set in a California inn, Whispering Pines, the hotel was owned by Royal Payne and his wife Constance.  It went on the air in March.  At the end of April, the network ended its Payne by taking two aspirins and cancelling the show.

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Compared to some of the shows, Whoopi! might have seemed successful, lasting an entire season.  Set in the Lamont Hotel in New York City, a one-hit wonder musician played by Whoopi Goldberg decides to put her money into a hotel and run it the way she sees fit.  She has an assistant from Iran, a brother who is a conservative Republican, and his girlfriend who is white but acts more African American than the black members of the hotel. Of course, these three characters give her much controversy to deal with.  The network, acting as referee, blew the whistle and cancelled the entire thing after one year.

In 2008 Do Not Disturb debuted.  If you missed it, don’t feel bad.  It debuted on Fox and featured The Inn, a hip Manhattan hotel.  The staff is not as competent as they appear to their guests. The manger is arrogant, the head of human resources is loud and tactless, the front desk clerk is an aging model who does not want to be a desk clerk or older, the reservations clerk is a famous musician wannbe, and the head of housekeeping has problems at home. The network, not wanting to disturb the viewing public, pulled the plug after three shows. Larry, played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, would go on to star in Modern Family in 2009.

Before you begin to think shows about hotels are doomed, let’s check in with four successful shows that knew how to make a profit.

From 1996-2001 The Jamie Foxx Show on WB featured Jamie Foxx as a musician who moves to California to work at his aunt and uncle’s (played by Ellia English and Garett Morris) hotel, King’s Tower.  He has two co-workers played by Christopher B. Duncan and “Fancy” played by Garcelle Beauvais. He is interested in Fancy, but she doesn’t feel the same until the final two seasons when they become engaged. The show aired 100 episodes before the network finally got reservations.

Disney’s Suite Life of Zach and Cody set in the Tipton Hotel ran from 2005-2008. The twins lived in the hotel because their mother was the lounge singer.  Somewhat like Eloise at the Plaza, the boys got into mischief and interacted with other employees including the wealthy heiress London Tipton, the candy counter salesgirl Maddie Fitzpatrick, and the manger Marion Moseby.  In 2008 the show sailed off, literally, and became Suite Life on Deck running until 2011.

With 184 episodes, Newhart debuted in 1982. With its quirky cast of characters, it became a big hit. Set in Vermont, Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) is a writer who buys the hotel and runs it with his wife Joanna (Mary Frann). Their handyman George Utley (Tom Poston) and their maid Stephanie Vanderkellen (Julia Duffy) make life both easier and more difficult at the inn. Later Dick becomes a local television celebrity working with Michael Harris (Peter Scolari) who marries Stephanie.  Larry, (William Sanderson) his brother Darryl (Tony Papenfuss) and his other brother Darryl (John Voldstad) are memorable characters.  Darryl and Darryl never speak until the final episode.  That finale has the best ending ever in a television series when Bob Newhart wakes up in bed, tells his wife he had a really weird dream, and we see the wife is Suzanne Pleshette, his wife Emily from The Bob Newhart Show in which he played a psychiatrist from 1972-78. This series delightfully captured the life in a small New England town until 1990.

While Newhart is hard to top, my favorite hotel sitcom is Petticoat Junction which featured the Bradley Girls from 1963-1970. Kate (Bea Benaderet) ran the hotel with her three daughters Billie Jo, (Jeannine Riley till 1965, Gunilla Hutton until 1966, and Meredith MacRae until 1970), Bobby Jo (Pat Woodell until 1965 and Lori Saunders through 1970, and Betty Jo (Linda Henning), along with her Uncle Joe (Edgar Buchanan). The Shady Rest is near Hooterville, so we get to know a variety of town folk including Sam Drucker who runs the general store; Floyd and Charley, who run the Cannonball train; and Steve Elliott, crop duster, who is Billie Jo’s boyfriend first but later marries Betty Jo; and we run into the Ziffels and the Douglases from the show Green Acres. It’s a charming and heart-warming show loaded with loveable but zany characters. It ran for 222 episodes, even surviving the death of Bea Benaderet, who was replaced by Janet Craig (June Lockhart), a woman doctor who moves into the hotel. The amazing Charles Lane shows up throughout the series as Homer Bedloe, a railroad employee whose sole mission is shutting down the Cannonball.

If you can’t physically travel this month, take some time and watch a season or two of Newhart or Petticoat Junction, and you can still get away and experience life in a small-town hotel.