Though the fabulous Beatrice Arthur is beloved of millions for her Emmy Award-winning work on television in Maude and The Golden Girls, her theatrical roots are deep. Arthur first attracted the attention of critics and audiences in the 1954 production of The Threepenny Opera that sparked the then-burgeoning Off-Broadway movement. She went on to create the role of Yente the Matchmaker on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof (1964), directed by Jerome Robbins and starring Zero Mostel. And she captured a well-deserved Tony Award for her performance as Vera Charles in Mame (1966) opposite her good friend Angela Lansbury. (Arthur's talents were never fully exploited in feature films, with the notable exceptions of the big-screen versions of Mame and Lovers and Other Strangers).

The lady tested the waters for a return to Broadway in a reading of the new stage version of Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Lambs Theatre last year, but ultimately decided not to remain associated with that project (see below). Her stage work of late has been confined to regional productions of Bermuda Avenue Triangle and After-Play. Now, however, she's preparing take the White Barn Theatre in Westport, Connecticut by storm with her new one-woman show, created in collaboration with her musical director-accompanist, Billy Goldenberg. (Phone 203-227-3768 for information.)

Whatever the medium, Bea Arthur's musical comedy savoir faire and brilliant timing are always appreciated; she is one of those rare performers who could quite literally get laughs by reading the phone book. Just over a week before her White Barn performances (July 28, 29, and 30 at 8pm), I phoned Arthur at her home in Los Angeles for our TheaterMania interview.

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TM: I know you've been planning this show for some time, Miss Arthur. How are you feeling now that it's about to happen?

ARTHUR: I'm fine. A little frightened, but fine.

TM: I spoke with you briefly at the New Dramatists' tribute to Angela Lansbury in May, and you told me that your show was stalled for a while because Billy Goldenberg has been writing a new Harold and Maude musical.

ARTHUR: Yes. We've been working on this off and on for almost three years. Billy would go off and do something else, or I'd go off and do something else. So it was constantly a matter of restarting until just a few months ago, when we finally said, "Look, let's do the thing."

TM: What are your plans for the show after the White Barn?

ARTHUR: We have one other performance scheduled at the Great Waters Music Festival up in New Hampshire. Then we'll see where we stand. I guess it was always in the back of my mind to do a show like this; after all those years on television, the one thing I knew was that I didn't want to do another series. So I decided that I would do the occasional guest spot on TV, but wouldn't get involved full-time. I really enjoy being on stage, and this show is appealing because it's something I haven't done before.

TM: Both of your series had live studio audiences. Were they comparable to theater in that sense?

ARTHUR: Yes, but the difference is that you don't have the luxury of going out of town and having a lot of rehearsals and performances before you bring the show into the city. It was like doing a new one-act play every five days. To this day, I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and think, "Why did I choose to do that certain bit in Maude? What I really should have done was this." I always feel that TV leaves things unfinished, or unpolished.

TM: The Golden Girls is still in syndication...

ARTHUR: Oh, God. There's no escape! You can't get away from it. And now Maude is back on TV Land.

TM: So you're everywhere. All things considered, when you look back, are you pleased with your work on those shows?

ARTHUR: Oh, yes. We had such wonderful people involved. A lot of theater people sort of looked down their noses at us, but I think we really helped make TV sitcoms into an art form.

TM: You certainly hit the jackpot--not once, but twice. Do you discuss any of this in your one-woman show? Is it something of a career retrospective?

ARTHUR: Not really. It's not autobiographical. We're just doing a lot of terrific music that we love, along with the occasional anecdote or anything that strikes us funny. We kind of threw it together. And a lot of time has passed since we first started working on it, so we've added stuff.

TM: Is there a writer credited?

ARTHUR: No. When we started, we did have a writer; he was charming, bright, and witty, but what he was coming up with wasn't the kind of thing I do. I mean, it was very funny, but it didn't come trippingly off my tongue. So, now, we're just having fun.

TM: Will the show include songs you've sung in your career along with material that's new to you?

ARTHUR: Yes, that's right.

TM: I thought I knew your bio pretty well, but I've only recently learned that you were in Plain and Fancy on Broadway.

ARTHUR: Jesus! I'd really forgotten about that. I was the understudy. I think I went on twice, but I was ill prepared, because I had just been signed and I hadn't had any rehearsals. I got that job because Morton DaCosta was the director, and Chita Rivera and I had done a show with him called Seventh Heaven, starring Ricardo Montalban and Gloria DeHaven. It was a big bomb. I don't even remember if we came into New York with it! I replaced Fifi D'Orsay out of town.

TM: Was it a revue?

ARTHUR: No, it was a book show. We were in trouble right from the beginning. I'll never forget one thing that happened: They were making changes every night. One of the songs had been cut entirely, and everyone knew it except the conductor. So, there we were on stage, and he started playing the introduction to the song! I forget how we handled that, but it was a horror. After that show, I went back into The Threepenny Opera. But DaCosta wanted me to understudy Shirl Conway in Plain and Fancy, so I had a wonderful deal: I continued in Threepenny Opera but, if I was needed to go on in the other show, they had to let me out.


TM: In recent years, you've become famous for your rendition of "Fifty Percent" from Billy Goldenberg's show Ballroom. Can I assume that you'll be singing it in your new show?

ARTHUR: Oh, yes. That's my 11 o'clock number! I'm also doing another Billy Goldenberg song, from Harold and Maude.

TM: At the Lansbury tribute, you told me that you felt you were the only person in America who hasn't seen the movie.

ARTHUR: That's true. I still haven't. And I don't want to see it until I see what happens with the musical. They're doing a production of it out here right now [at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum]. It got quite a nice review.

TM: I was thinking of shows that would be great for you if you wanted to come back to Broadway, and 70, Girls, 70 came to mind. When they did a reading of it at the York Theatre last season, it went over like gangbusters. Would something like that interest you?

ARTHUR: I'll tell you, if I'm going to do something, I want it to be my show. Don't misunderstand me; it's wonderful to be part of an ensemble. But if I'm going to uproot myself for a show, I really want it to be mine. I have a wonderful life here--a beautiful place, two Dobermans. My kids are here. To pick myself and go back to Broadway, it would have to be a show that really knocks me out.

TM: Is that why you decided not to continue in Thoroughly Modern Millie?

ARTHUR: Yes. And they understood. But it was such fun doing it, particularly after all those years on TV. I haven't done that much stage work lately. I've come to the point where I'm very choosy. This is so funny: Alex Cohen wanted me to play the Rosemary Harris role in Waiting for the Wings! But I didn't care for the play, and I also didn't feel I was quite right for it. Luckily, Michael Langham, who directed it, said--and this broke me up--that I was too much like Betty Bacall! Anyway, my point is that I want to be thrilled with what I'm doing. I don't want to work just for the sake of working.

TM: You've certainly earned the right not to do that, but it's interesting how people look at things differently. Some stars of a certain age feel that they don't want to carry a show, because it's too strenuous and/or too much pressure.

ARTHUR: That never entered my mind. Never!

TM: You've worked with some legendary artists in your time, including some who are famous for being extremely difficult. Would you care to say anything about Jerome Robbins?

ARTHUR: I mention him in my show. But there is one story that I couldn't mention; this is incredible. It was the very first rehearsal for Fiddler, and Zero Mostel was on stage. He started saying a few lines of the script, and Jerry said from the audience, "Wait a minute, Z. When you..." That's as far as he got. And Zero said: "Look, you don't like what I'm doing? Hire f**king Red Buttons!"

TM: I know Mostel hated Robbins for having testified in the McCarthy hearings. I guess they had an uneasy truce.

ARTHUR: That's right. Zero was a bit of a tyrant, also. I came out unscathed, because I had no scenes with him in the show.

TM: But Mame, you've said, was a wonderful experience from start to finish.

ARTHUR: Absolutely. Angela Lansbury is a terrific lady.

TM: Well, thanks for your time, Miss Arthur. I can't wait to see your show at the White Barn. I'm coming to the first performance.

ARTHUR: Good. I'm gonna look cute that night; I'm getting my hair and make up done!

TM: Wow. It sounds like you're really looking forward to being on stage again.

ARTHUR: Yes. There's a lot of love for the theater expressed in the show. You know, we're so lucky to be in this business and make a living, let alone to become some kind of a celebrity. It's joyful.