3 min

In bed with Bea Arthur

One of those super-charged ultra-gay fantasy moments?

UP CLOSE & PERSONAL. The one and only Bea Arthur gives an intimate look at an amazing career spanning 60 years. Credit: Xtra files

Bea Arthur is mostly known for her television sitcom characters on The Golden Girls and the ground-breaking Maude, but they represent only the last half of an illustrious career which has earned this bigger-than-life comic actress gay icon status.

In her new hit stage show, Just Between Friends, which begins a three-week run at the Winter Garden Theatre on Wed, Nov 20, Bea will give you a personal tour of her career.

I had my first personal encounter with Ms Arthur in New York City at the 1993 Tony Awards after-party for Kiss Of The Spider Woman, the night the show won best musical. It was one of those super-charged ultra-gay fantasy moments come to life.

At the front door of the Symphony Café, only inches away from Liza Minnelli who was lavishing congratulations on her pal Chita Rivera, I was pushed aside by a frantic Brian Linehan who flew through the door screaming: “She’s here! She’s here!”

Everybody in the room instantly knew who “she” was the moment her imposing figure filled the frame of the entrance. After taking a second to ensure all the focus was on her, Bea Arthur made a sweeping star entrance into the centre of the media frenzy.

There are only a handful of show-biz legends of this stature still around these days, and three of them were right there in front of me, within actual grasp.

I am a huge fan of all three of these women but I’ve had a very special connection to Bea Arthur since I was 13 years old. At the closing night party of a community theatre production of Mame, in which I played Young Patrick, I had a major revelation about my sexuality. It’s true.

It completely terrified and excited me at the same time.

And when I got home that night I stayed up till dawn listening to the original Broadway cast recording of the show, a gift from the company, which features Bea Arthur’s Tony Award-winning performance as Angela Lansbury’s actress friend, Vera Charles. I listened to it over and over, numbing myself in a sort of musical comedy comfort zone, while trying to process the flood of complicated emotions around my emerging sexuality.

I wanted to share this story with Bea at the Tony party, so I waited for the right moment to introduce myself.

“I’ve always had a special connection to you, Ms Arthur,” I began, as she eyed me suspiciously. “You see, when I was 13 years old I played Patrick in a community theatre production of Mame.”

Before I could go on, she did one of her trademark deadpan takes and looked me straight in the eye. “Who didn’t,” she said in her gruff baritone, then turned and walked away into the crowd.

Some might call that rude. I call it pure comic genius.

Almost 10 years later I get an opportunity to meet with Arthur again, this time to interview her for her upcoming Toronto engagement.

It is the end of a very long media day for the 70-something comedienne when I arrive at the hotel room. The publicist tells me I’m going to have to do the interview in bed with Bea. Why not?

She looks terrific and so familiar, lounging on the bed with complete make-up and eyelashes. I am a little nervous to remind her of the Tony party snub, but she laughs. “Oh, God,” she groans. “Did I really say that?”

Her show, which she performs with friend Billy Goldenberg on piano, is a collection of comic songs and anecdotes woven together to tell the story of a career spanning 60 years. “This thing is not really entirely autobiographical,” she says. “I’m using things that happened to me. Recollections of situations and friends.”

And her friends include people like the great late female impersonator Charles Pierce and Tallulah Bankhead.

“Billy has always wanted me to do an evening of songs with him on the piano,” she says, “but I always said ‘no,’ because I thought nobody would come just to see me sing. I knew it would have to be an evening of comedy, also.”

Arthur has no question that her sense of comic timing is something she was born with.

“I was playing Lucy Brown in the original production of Threepenny Opera, and when I started singing, the audience started laughing. I suddenly realized that comedy, for me, was just being honest, and playing it for real. I’ve seen so many wonderful actors who turn into creatures from another planet when they’re told they are supposed to be playing comedy.”

As I get out of the bed, she thanks me for being obliging. “I’m really not an invalid,” she says. “And you’re a darling.”