My first encounter with Bea Arthur wasn’t in her role as Dorothy Zbornak on Golden Girls, or even as Maude Findlay in Maude. I was first introduced to Bea Arthur’s disembodied baritone as it came seeping through my bedroom floor boards.
Picture it – Brooklyn, early seventies. A young six year old is trying to get her beauty sleep, but in vain. A lot is going on when you’re six years old; you’re in first grade, making new friends, learning how to raise your hand before speaking, and getting the rules of Red Light Green Light One Two Three down pat so as to not end up shunned by the kids who had older siblings and already knew all the tricks of winning. It’s a very impressionable time. It’s also the time in my life when my father decided to renovate the basement and spent many a late night hammering, spackling and painting till well after my bedtime. He’d cleverly housed the stereo speakers in the ceiling and one speaker happened to be directly under my bed.
Always a Broadway fan himself (the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree), Dad played and replayed the essential Broadway Canon and I found myself being lulled to sleep by the likes of Carousel, Flower Drum Song, Oklahoma and Fiddler on the Roof which starred Zero Mostel as Tevye and featured Bea Arthur in the role of Yente the Matchmaker. The first time I ever heard her voice she was doing patter in the middle of Tradition:
Tevye: And in the circle of our little village, we have always had our special types. For instance, Yente, the matchmaker…
Yente: Avram, I have a perfect match for your son. A wonderful girl.
Avram: Who is it?
Yente: Ruchel, the shoemaker’s daughter.
Avram: Ruchel? But she can hardly see. She’s almost blind.
Yente: Tell the truth, Avram, is your son so much to look at? The way she sees and the way he looks, it’s a perfect match.
But that’s not how I remember Bea Arthur. To me, she will always be Vera Charles, the original frenemy of Mame Dennis (better known as Auntie Mame), who deadpanned her way through Mame in a way that made me appreciate thinly veiled sarcasm long before I knew what it was.
It was Bea’s Vera Charles who formed my opinion of what true comedy was — it wasn’t slapstick or tom foolery but quiet, scathing darts that hit the bulls-eye every time. Bea Arthur is what made me despise the Broadway productions of The Producers and Spamalot … it was her little spirit in me that sat there saying “Really? You’re going to go THAT WIDE to make me laugh?” I just can’t bear anyone who covers all their bases just in case their humor is too subtle. No … I’d rather be misunderstood that try too hard.
I’d wanted to experience Bea Arthur in person for as long as I could remember, but somehow never got around to buying tickets to her Broadway show, Bea Arthur on Broadway – Just Between Friends. I’m not sure why not … it’s not like I thought there’d always be time. But maybe it made me a little afraid to see her, maybe I just couldn’t bear to see how short her shadow was getting … the end looming almost directly over her. One of my favorite lines from the song Bosom Buddies in Mame went like this:
Mame: Exactly how old are you Vera? The truth!
Vera: How old do you think?
Mame: I’d say somewhere between forty … and death.
… and a part of me wanted to remember her closer to forty than to … well … you know.
In any case, I sure will miss Bea Arthur but will always be grateful for the comedic timing she inspired me to strive for … for the arched eyebrow she had me practicing in the mirror at age ten … and for the delightful way she had of outshining every person who ever stood next to her, bosom buddy or not.