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So Long, Bea

Recalling a long-ago afternoon spent with Bea Arthur

Back in 1995, after Beatrice Arthur had left The Golden Girls, she returned to the stage in the Los Angeles production of the Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna play, Bermuda Avenue Triangle. I was writing for a weekly theater magazine published out of New York in those days. Because television had stolen Arthur from the stage almost entirely, this rare appearance in a minor comedy was considered major news. I requested an interview to speak to Arthur about her early stage career, hoping, perhaps, for 10 minutes of telephone conversation. I was shocked when I received an invitation to her home on Stone Canyon in Bel Air, north of Westwood Village.

We drove to her address and found an intercom on a vine-covered wall. Not seeing a door anywhere, I pushed the button, and immediately the wall parted revealing a curved drive up to an expansive house. We drove in.

Two enormous Doberman pinschers came gamboling down to our car, and it was then that I heard a voice, familiar since my youth calling, “Don’t worry! They’re all right.”

There was Beatrice Arthur, standing barefoot on the porch.

She led us into the house. In her dining room she showed us a wall with a large photograph of a very young Beatrice Arthur as Lysistrata at the New School in the late 1940s.

“Piscator love me,” she said, referring to her famed teacher. “I was tall and had a deep voice, and played all the classics for him—what my father called ‘historical roles.’”

At first we tried to conduct the interview in her kitchen, where she reheated coffee for us in her microwave oven. Her overly affectionate dogs refused to leave us alone, however, despite her scolding. As I tried to take notes, a Doberman would force his head under my arm and into my lap, wanting to be patted, while the other foolishly rested its head on my shoulder. Finally, Bea decided that enough was enough and we retreated to a small studio in a separate building on the property, leaving the dogs behind. There was a large television there, and the walls were decorated with original Hirschfeld lithographs of Arthur’s best known vehicles: The Golden Girls, Fiddler on the Roof, Mame.

Here we stayed for the next several hours. What was supposed to be a half-hour interview lingered into the early evening, as Bea, an intensely sentimental person, clearly enjoying herself, laughed, cried, reminisced, and urged us not to leave.

She regaled us with tales of her years as a young actress in New York City, studying under Piscator at the New School with classmates Tony Curtis, Harry Belafonte, Walter Matthau, and Rod Steiger. She reminisced about Lee Strasberg, about Lotte Lenya, and Sid Caesar; about Burgess Meredith and Ulysses in Nighttown. She talked about Threepenny Opera. She talked about her early years off-Broadway and her close friendship with Chita Rivera. She talked about trying to quit Fiddler on the Roof when the role of Yente was reduced, and how Charles Durning’s part had been cut entirely. She reminisced about Mame and her friendship with Angela Lansbury. She talked about her early years in television, and learning the craft of comedy.

She recalled her visit to Buffalo when her son Daniel had designed a set for Upstage New York. She talked about being Tallulah Bankhead’s understudy in the Ziegfeld Follies—“She adored me. She called me ‘Darling Beatrice.’” She told us about how Tony Curtis had been discovered by a Hollywood talent scout when she was playing Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and he was running up and down the aisles of the theater selling oranges. “Piscator hated him; he had that awful New York accent. I was playing Kate, and my cleavage was busting out to here, but Tony was the one whisked off to Hollywood to become a star!”

It was fantastic.

Finally, we told Bea that we had to see a play that evening and needed to go. Before we left she lent us a videotape of a British comic doing film parodies.

“Angie and I want to do one more television special and we’re considering this writer,” she said. “Take this tape home, watch it, and then call me and tell me what you think of it.”

She let me take her photograph with Javier for his Stagefright column. When he pulled out his Mame poster and asked Bea if she’d sign it, she was bowled over.

“I wish you’d been here yesterday,” she said, “because Angie was here.”

It took us for a minute to realize she meant Angela Lansbury, Broadway’s original Mame.

“When are you leaving town? If you leave this with me, I’ll get her to sign it too. Call me here tomorrow, and I’ll tell you if it’s ready. You can pick it up at the theater.”

She did as she promised.

When my article came out, I was sick in bed at home in Buffalo. The phone rang. It was Beatrice Arthur.

“Tony, you sound horrible! I just wanted to tell you, I saw your article. Loved it! Loved it! Now take care of yourself!”

I wasn’t too sick to press “record” on my telephone answering machine. I still have the tape.

After that, Bea did a one-woman autobiographical show for a while. She and “Angie” never did another television special. We saw her at various benefits and she was always lovely. Slowly, she disappeared into the privacy of that big house in Bel Air, with its curved drive and its tennis court and its goofy Doberman pinschers. And finally, this week at the age of 86, she died, ending an astounding run as one of the most vivid figures in the history of television.

But I will always remember that for a couple of months back in 1995, Beatrice Arthur and I were buddies. I’ll miss her forever.