25 April 2009

Unabashedly Queer Lifetime Achievement: Bea Arthur 1922-2009

In memory of my favorite Golden Girl, Bea Arthur, I am re-posting a piece I wrote in 2006 about a day I spent with Bea:

Adventures in Bea-Bea Sitting

While searching for my favorite underrated blacktress, Nell Carter, on YouTube, I came across one of those rare gems that makes you praise Allah that the Internet exists. It was a clip from the 60th anniversary celebration of NBC and all of my favorite 80s sitcom maternal figures were involved. Barbara Eden opens the scene saying how proud NBC is of its current family programming and quickly moves out of the way to let the real star, Nell Carter, begin her song while pretending to clean up around the modern minimalist home set:

From Genie and her bottle, to father knowing best, Cheers to Punky Brewster, Family Ties and all the rest. Each week they’ve entertained us, proving life is just a game. Now, each situation differed, but the sprit was the same.

Then Nell bursts into “We Are a Family” from Dreamgirls. After fixing some flowers and setting them down in a new location, the torch is passed to kooky Charlotte Rae who continues the song while carrying a tray of cookies from the kitchen. Cue Bea Arthur who barrels through the front door setting shopping bags on a table and sporting enough shoulder pad to play for the Raiders. Then comes my favorite part where Nell Carter goes up some stairs and passes Marla Gibbs saying, “I love your new show” to which Marla returns the compliment, “Not only do I love your show, child, I love your singing.” I only wish I could have been a part of that staged conversation.

It was all so genius! The leading ladies just walking around that modern home set pretending to clean things and fix dinner and console Punky Brewster as they sang. I sent the link to my former boss and sitcom producer, Maxine Lapiduss, knowing she would appreciate it. Maxine responded by telling me she was interviewing Bea Arthur that coming weekend on a radio she hosted and would I be interested in picking Bea up from her home and bringing her to Maxine’s. Oh G-d, yes please. Does she need a mani/pedi too?  A vinegar douche?  I'd do it. So of course I said yes.

I put together a really cute outfit. Some Jordache cut-off jean shorts, a threadbare vintage tee, a pair of Marc Jacobs canvas slides and a vintage scarf for a headband. What kind of music would I play on our forty-five minute commute together? As an experiment would I play the theme songs from “Maude” and “The Golden Girls” on a constant loop and see if she caught on? I decided to play Joni Mitchell at a low volume--surely that would be unobtrusive. I called Bea on the way to her home and asked if she wanted anything from The Coffee Bean.  I really just wanted to dial her phone number and hear her phone voice. "COFFEE BEAN," she shouted not knowing what it was.  I clarified, "I'm getting some coffee, would you like some," to which she responded, "Oh, no, darling, I've been up for days."

When I arrived at her home in the hills of Brentwood she was wearing a white terrycloth jumpsuit that matched her snow white hair (I'm a poet and that's a metaphor).  She peaked outside and said how sunny it was, covering her very red eyes with shades.  Now, I had heard stories about Bea Arthur's feet and they did not disappoint.  They were mammoth and her overgrown toenails were shades of yellows, browns and greens exposed in flip-flops.  There was a tissue lovingly stuck to the heel of one foot.  I suggest she opt for a closed-toe slide next time.  But you know what, she's 85 years old and a star--she doesn't need to impress anybody.

Being the mensch that I am, I tried to help her down the steps to my car but she refused--you know that old person "I can still take care of myself, thank you very much" thing.  Winding down her country-like road, I explained to Bea that we had met before at the Comedy Central Roast of Pam Anderson and she was like, "Oh that thing."  She mentioned how horrible comedian Jeffrey Ross was making that joke about not even wanting to fuck disease-ridden Pam with Bea Authur's dick.  Bea said she was just there to help out PETA and wouldn't have gone had she known they were going to be so harsh with her.  I said that I had been there with my then-boss who was a comedian and she was all, "what did you do for him" and I was all, "I was his assistant," and she was all "What's an assistant?"  And I was all in my head, "OY she is having dementia and doesn't know what that word means."  So I said, "You know, a personal assistant."  And she continued, "I've never heard of that."  And so I replied, "You know I did all the errands and things he didn't want to do." and she says, "Oh, you were a flunky."  Charmed!  So I tried to be cute and say, "I liked to think of myself more as a Girl Friday."  Silence.

She then pointed out that she didn't even have an agent muchless an assistant and I thought that was super fierce because to me she was saying, "In my day, we didn't need assistants or agents.  I woke up at 5:30, taped an episode of my hit TV show, picked up the dry-cleaning, went grocery shopping, negotiated my contract, cooked dinner and had sex with my husband.  Woke up and did it all over again every day for THIRTY YEARS."

Painful conversation creations:

"What do you during the day, Bea?" 
"Oh, I read and go to doctor's appointments."  Silence.

"Did you always live on the west side of town?"
"We lived wherever Norman Lear's wife told us to."  Silence. 

I asked her what kind of music she listens to and two minutes later she told me she likes a guy who was formerly in the band, Deep Purple.  Silence.

I asked her if she had grandchildren.  "Yes," was the answer.  Now, what old person doesn't go on about their grandchildren?  Rude.  Silence.

She then brought up "Dancing with the Stars" and told me that every time that show comes on it makes her wanna throw-up, she hates it so much.  Now that's the spunky Dorothy Zbornak I know and love!

I made one bad mistake that made me look like a total fool when I asked her if she did Vaudeville in the olden days.  I didn't say "olden days" but I sure said "Vaudeville."  She was none too pleased. 
"Oops. I'm so sorry--I didn't know."  Silence. 

She made some pleasantries.  She commented that I didn't have a southern accent and I told her that it might be because I went to boarding school at fifteen. She asked where, so I proudly said "Northfield Mount Hermon," my beloved Alma Mater.  She got agitated and above normal volume shouted, "NO, WHERE," and I was like, "Oh, Western Massachusetts."  Silence.  The burst of agitation scared me.

Every five minutes she asked how much longer the car ride would be and I kept apologizing for the traffic. She assured me it wasn’t my fault.  I made the mistake of momentarily gazing at the directions and she said, "So you don't know where we're going.” Now she was just annoying me so I didn’t respond and changed the subject.  "Have you ever been to Silver Lake, Bea, that's where I live."  I spoke slowly and deliberately like I was speaking to an intimidating child. She knew about Silver Lake and said she heard it had fabulous restaurants. Then she asked me if Lily lived there.  "Lily, who," I asked.  "Tomlin," she responded.  "I'm not a map to the stars homes, Bea," I didn't say.

When we finally arrived at Maxine’s house, all Bea wanted was to see Maxine’s dogs.  Her perma-frown face turned into a sunny smile the moment the dogs came barreling toward her.  She was tickled by the sight of them and then talked about how her dog died of bone cancer and that she didn't want to get another for fear that it would outlive her.  Honey, lighten up.  One of my favorite things she did all day was pull a tissue out of her purse and slip it into her sleeve before she went to do the radio interview.  I just like the idea of putting things where they don't belong.  A tissue in a sleeve.  A dick in an ass.  
After the interview, Maxine, who is like the best Jewish daughter ever, doted over Bea and insisted that she take some of the catered meal home with her, fixing her a plate of middle-eastern food.  Everything was fine until Bea saw Maxine start to put some rice in the container and she screamed, "NO RICE!"  Another agitated outburst.  Whoa.  We went outside and took photos together and Bea commented on how I was as tall as her and Maxine, which really isn't that surprising since I'm a five foot eleven inch man but I didn't think much of it then.

I didn't think much of it until we were approaching her home and she said to me, "Do you need to come in and use the ladies room?"  At first I thought that was so nice of her to invite me in and maybe it might lead to a tour of the home.  The more I thought about it, though, the more I began to think, "This bitch thinks I'm a woman."  It made sense.  My outfit was rather ambiguous and I did refer to myself as a Girl Friday.  And the way Bea marveled at how I was as tall as her and Maxine. I would be tall--for a lady.  Yep, she definitely only thought I was a chick. 

As she got out of the car she said, "I'm sorry, what's your name again?"
She looked perplexed. 

Bea Arthur is a kind, extraordinarily talented woman and apparently so am I. 


Anonymous said...

Cute post. Was always a fan of Bea may she rest in peace.

Anonymous said...

Lovely story - would have expected it to be in the Times or something, but wtf, Thx for sharing it.

I like the word verifications that come up sometimes... this one - pousilly.

Tom said...

that was really sweet. though she did seem a little crabby at times, i wouldn't expect any less of bea. when i heard about her passing, you were actually one of the first people i thought about. sigh. goodbye bea, you will be missed intensely.