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Monday, September 14, 2015

Happy 30th Anniversary of The Golden Girls!

Posted By on Mon, Sep 14, 2015 at 5:00 PM

click to enlarge GLEN HANSON
  • Glen Hanson

Picture it: Manhattan, 2007.

I was at a terrible gay bar in Chelsea, where Rue McClanahan was set to sign copies of her memoir, My First Five Husbands (And the Ones Who Got Away.) She arrived a bit late, by which time the crowd had got a bit tipsy, and the scene became so chaotic that she grabbed the microphone out of her handler’s hand and lectured the patrons on manners. It was sort of painful, but rather fabulous.

McClanahan died in 2010, a year after fellow Golden Girls star Beatrice Arthur and two years after Estelle Getty. Five years on, the only survivor is Betty White, an eternally sunny, 93-year-old animal lover whose career in television is as long as television itself. (There have been not one, not two, but three Betty White Shows, and her turns on late-‘70s game shows merit their own box set.)

click to enlarge 635687906358154547620853241_20130702goldengirls.jpg

The Golden Girls
debuted 30 years ago today, and it has endured in a way that’s very surprising, and not just because Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel been keeping it on dialysis for decades. People get Golden Girls tattoos, and plot out the quasi-inexplicable floor plan of the house, lanai and all. There is a San Francisco punk band named Zbörnak, and a group of drag queens stages line-by-line re-enactments every December. A Boston artist named Mike Denison has concurrent projects called “Bea a Day” and “Betty a Day,” in which he draws a daily Golden Girl in the style of some other pop-culture phenomenon, usually punning on their names. At one point, I owned three Golden Girls T-shirts.

At its heart, the show gently but firmly jabbed a stick at taboos about women’s place in society and the expectation that people over 50 must never have sex lives or even act with any sense of agency. The Golden Girls showed a possibility for a successful non-nuclear living arrangement at the height of the Reagan Era, when HIV/AIDS and a resurgent religious right marshaled the forces hellbent on erasing such things as threats to the patriarchy. The pilot included a gay housekeeper named Coco who vanished once the series got picked up — I’d love to see the notes the network gave on that — but in spite of disappearing him, an explicitly gay-affirming, queer sensibility lasted throughout the seven-year run. There were a few clunkers, like the fact that the show ended (and morphed into the forgotten Golden Palace) after Dorothy married Blanche’s uncle (played by Leslie Nielsen!), and the occasionally clumsy, Maude-esque stands for liberal causes, but The Golden Girls stayed sardonic and topical without sliding into “A Very Special Episode” preachiness. Ensemble casts are par for the course now, but show was unusual in that there was neither a breakout star nor a laggard, no Justin Timberlake and no Ringo. The Golden Girls were an inseparable tetrad.

And they were funny, with an undercurrent of lesbian jokes that have held up very well. For instance, when Blanche and Dorothy appear on a segment called “Lesbian Lovers of Miami.” Furious and embarrassed, the two of them do their best to handle it with grace. The entire bit is one long pretext for what might be the most withering example of Beatrice Arthur’s comic timing, threatening to visit a pot-stirring Sophia “at the home.”

And when a misunderstanding causes Blanche to think Dorothy had fallen in love with her (10:45 in the Best of Blanche Part 2), she responds with a Southern Belle-ism of such grandiloquence that the entire writers’ room had to be piddling themselves: “My beauty’s always been a curse. I’m sorry Dorothy, but like the fatal blossom of the graceful jimson weed, I entice with my fragrance but can provide no succor.”

But the very best episode of all must be “Journey to the Center of Attention,” where a woebegone Dorothy accompanies Blanche to a piano bar where she proceeds to upstage her. It’s the perfect distillation of the two characters’ core traits — Dorothy’s haplessness and Blanche’s self-absorption — crossing wires.

Now three of them are gone, along with Herb Edelman (who played Stanley Zbornak) and nearly all memories of the spinoff, Empty Nest. I hope Betty White continues working well into her 100s, performing benefits for stray cats at the Giant Black Hole of St. Olaf and greeting all her fans with impish, bawdy humor, because the Golden Girls are forever.

Stay golden.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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