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Required Reading: The New Golden Girls Oral History

Golden Girls

Get out your spectacles, everybody: there is a new comprehensive oral history of The Golden Girls out, published by Frontiers Media this week. For some, this is the answer to long-held, hushed prayers. For others, it's an irresistible pop culture tidbit sure to provide hours of idle entertainment. For all, it's just a little bit more pure gold from those girls.

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The recorded musings come from five of the show's writers and producers, including Jeff Duteil, writer of the groundbreaking episode from the second season, "Isn't It Romantic?"—which featured a lesbian character (still rather novel for 1986). That episode was nominated for a Primetime Emmy, and the show went on to win several.

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Mort Nathan, co-executive producer and co-writer from the first half of the celebrated series' run, remembers just starting out with the four women, who at that time were heavyweights while he was still a slip of nothing in his 20s:

I remember that when we met Bea Arthur, she looked at us and said, “You’ve got to be kidding. How can these children write for us?” I told her, “Bea, give us a month. We’ll figure it out.” She said a month was fair, and then Betty White said, “Not one more day, darling.”

As we all know, the show ended up being a raving success practically from the beginning, as Nathan later remembers:

Sometimes the shows were three, four, five minutes too long just because the live audience’s laughs were so huge. Those people had such a great time, which means the ladies had such a great time.

And what about Golden Girls' gay following, which cropped up almost immediately? Says Duteil:

The show had a huge gay following—and right away, too. I remember getting ready on Saturday nights. We’d go meet friends at the bars or whatever, and while we were getting ready, we’d watch The Golden Girls. A lot of the gay bars back then, even Revolver, would tape the episode and then show it on the screen. A lot of them had viewing parties—even Golden Girls cocktails. And this was back in the first season.

On Bea's legendary ability with few words, and sometimes none at all, writer Stan Zimmerman had this to say:

If it was [a line for] Bea Arthur, you could just have Rose say something dumb, and then all Dorothy would need to do is give a look. We discovered that all in the first season. We discovered Rose telling her long stories. We just started writing these St. Olaf stories and that became a runner. It was my school in structuring a joke and making sure it comes from the character. You can’t put Rose’s line in Dorothy’s mouth. If you were given lines from the show blind, you could easily say, “That’s Sofia. That’s Rose.” Now so much of TV isn’t written that way, and it’s bland.

The same could be said for Sex and the City, but we can already say that they don't make TV like that anymore, either. Zimmerman goes on to talk about the show's perceived gay sensibilities:

People are always surprised when I tell them that when I was on Golden Girls, there were no gay people there. [Berg and I] were the first. Early on, Estelle pulled us to the side of the set and said, “You’re one of us.” And I was like, “Yeah, we’re Jewish.” And she was like, “No, gay.” She thought of herself as part of the family, because of Torch Song Trilogy. Right then and there, we fell madly in love with her.

There are lots more gems in there, like how the apple never fell too far from the tree when it came to Rue McClanahan, according to Nathan:

It was in the first few weeks of the show, and [Rue] said, “The most amazingly strange thing happened. I was walking down the street and these construction workers started screaming at me. They were screaming, “Hey, Blanche” and they were saying these filthy things and grabbing their personal parts suggestively.” And I said “No kidding!” And she leaned into me and said, “To be honest, I loved it.”

As said, required reading, especially for the phenomenal prank call Bea Arthur once made to a poor, unsuspecting housewife who told TV Guide she didn't like the show. Hearing that gravelly voice say, “This is Bea Arthur, and I want to talk to you about what you said in TV Guide" could uproot a mighty sequoia. 

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