Goodnight Sweet Bea
Expanded Edition of 4-29-09 Windy City Times Memorial Tribute
by Richard Knight, Jr.
A publicity shot for her 2001 one woman show, hilarious and unforgettable in her 1974 screen portrayal of Mame sidekick Vera
Charles - with drink in hand and belting out a reprise of "It's Today," a glimpse of what would have been if Arthur had played Mame
Bea Arthur, star of the long running hit TV sitcoms “Maude” and “Golden Girls” and award winning Broadway stage actress passed
away peacefully on Saturday, April 25 at the age of 86. Arthur, a longtime friend of the gay community was beloved for her acidic
way with a wisecrack, her spot on comedic timing and ribald sense of humor, and her one of a kind baritone singing voice. Arthur’s
breakthrough came in 1955 when she played the role of Lucy in the legendary production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” on
Broadway opposite Lotte Lenya. Just over a decade later she essayed the memorable role of Vera Charles, the drunken hambone
sidekick to Angela Lansbury’s Mame, winning a Tony and introducing her signature song (“The Man in the Moon”) in the process.
Arthur went on to recreate the role in the 1974 film version alongside Lucille Ball.
It is with Arthur’s portrayal of Vera Charles in Mame that I date my true obsession with the deep voiced actress. I first saw the movie
– believe it or not – at a drive in theatre in Nebraska where I grew up. Film critic Pauline Kael lambasted the movie (like the rest of
her compatriots and the public) but I unabashedly loved it (still do). Kael described Lucille Ball with her constantly changing wigs and
outfits as a madcap drag queen which may have had something to do with my appreciation for her in the part (I also love Ball’s
insistence on singing in her own voice – it’s beyond camp fabu-lushness). Kael also singled out Arthur’s portrayal of sidekick Vera
Charles, the over the top Broadway star and lush, who says lines like “Someone’s been sleeping in my dress” and “tell her to get her
ass on that moon” with enough comic fire to burn down a house. Each time Arthur’s onscreen the energy level in the film goes up
tenfold and Kael was right in pointing out that if she’d played the title role, the movie would have been tremendous. There’s one
tantalizing hint of what a difference there would have been when Arthur does a brief vocal reprise of Ball’s first big number in the
movie, “It's Today” (click on the player below to play it over and over and over again for purest enjoyment).
But it is “Maude,” which ran from 1972-1977 and “Golden Girls,” which ran from 1985-1992 that brought Arthur lasting fame. Both
shows continue to be extremely popular with GLBT audiences, something acknowledged by Arthur, and both television shows tackled
gay subject matter with storylines that argued for equality for gay people.
In 2001, Arthur toured with her one woman Tony nominated show, “Bea Arthur: Just Between Friends.” I saw a performance in
Chicago and she and her pianist Billy Goldenberg (a wonderful songwriter) were a charming act. She sang beautifully, told raunchy
stories and gave the audience a much more faceted part of herself than was ever revealed in the sitcoms. There was a bittersweet,
unspoken quality that ran throughout the show and, I suspect, her life. The biting humor and crack timing certainly didn’t appear
out of thin air and her one woman show – with its lamb recipes, theatrical memories, bawdy jokes, and sophisticated songs – allowed
a peek into a much more complicated person than television ever had seen.
Arthur herself was overwhelmed by the reception the show received in front of a largely gay audience in Provincetown. “Oh my God, it
was like I was visiting royalty. Truly, truly, I’ve never felt so loved and wanted and needed in my life,” she told Instinct magazine.
In 2003 she appeared in out director Rick McKay’s documentary Broadway the Golden Age reminiscing about the early days of her
career on Broadway. Arthur also made a memorable cameo appearance along with Patrick Stewart in “Out There,” a television
special produced by Comedy Central in 1993 that was one of the first television showcases of gay and lesbian comedians.
“Everybody Today Is Turning On,” a song from her 1979 CBS variety special, dedicated to the pleasures of getting high and sung
with another gay icon Rock Hudson has become a YouTube favorite. Locally, a reunion duet of “Bosom Buddies” with her “Mame” co-
star Angela Lansbury from the 1987 Tony Awards has been a weekly staple of Sidetrack’s show tune night for years.
“There is still so much intolerance,” Arthur told Instinct magazine, referring to the gay community, “We need to change that.”
Arthur, who was married and divorced twice, is survived by two sons and two granddaughters.