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Bea Season

Legendary actress Bea Arthur returns to the limelight with a benefit performance of Back on Broadway and the release of a new Golden Girls DVD set. logo
Bea Arthur
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
With age, they say, comes wisdom -- so you would think that 82-year-old Bea Arthur would have learned to never say "never." Think again. "Last winter, I came to Nyack to do my solo show and I slipped and fell on some ice," Arthur recalls over the phone from her home in warm, sunny California. "When I got to JFK to board the plane back home, I immediately took off my winter coat and gave it to one of those Catholic charities, because I was sure I would never need it again."

As it turns out, Arthur does need something heavy to wear. She will be in Manhattan next week for a one-night-only benefit performance of the Tony-nominated show in question, Bea Arthur: Back on Broadway, on Monday, November 21 at Symphony Space. The following day, she'll join her Golden Girls co-stars Betty White and Rue McClanahan at a special DVD signing of The Golden Girls: The Complete Third Season, sponsored by Lifetime Television, at Barnes & Noble Chelsea (Sixth Avenue at 22nd Street). But lest you think Arthur went to the store to buy another coat for her trip eastward, the truth is far more interesting: "Angela Lansbury [her co-star in Mame] is lending me a coat and gloves. She's so wonderful."

Arthur can blame another of her good friends, composer-pianist Billy Goldenberg, for her trip to chilly climes a few years back. He begged her for years to do a solo show, but she resisted until he made an offer she couldn't refuse. "Billy said I could sing 'Pirate Jenny,' which Lotte Lenya got to sing every night in the production of Threepenny Opera we did thousands of years ago. [It was actually 1954]. That did it for me." Since Back on Broadway departed the Great White Way in 2002, Arthur has toured the show around the country, often updating it to include more topical political references. "I watch all the news shows in the morning and The Daily Show every night," says the star. "Otherwise, I watch very little series TV. I do love Curb Your Enthusiasm and, the other night, I turned on Celebrity Death Match. It was wonderful. Mostly, though, I just love watching old movies on cable."

Over and above the chance to hear some updated material, another big reason for audiences to attend Arthur's show this time around is that the proceeds will benefit The Ali Forney Center, which houses homeless queer youth in New York City. "I wasn't familiar with the organization at first but I have been so impressed with what they've done," says Arthur, who is no stranger to charitable causes. "I've been active with Children of the Night, which helps with foster children, and I work with a lot of animal charities." In fact, Arthur -- who lives with Emma, her beloved, 10-year-old Doberman Pinscher -- decided to make a rare television appearance on Comedy Central's recent roast of Pamela Anderson because the animal rights organization PETA received a generous donation on Anderson's behalf. "Did you see it? I got a standing ovation for saying the f-word. Who else but me could manage that?" she says with a chuckle.

Jane Connell, Bea Arthur, and Angela Lansbury
in the original Broadway production of Mame
(Photo from Jerry Herman: The Lyrics)
Uttering such profanities on the air was unthinkable during Arthur's 20-year reign as one of television's leading ladies, first as the star of the CBS sitcom Maude (which she reveals will soon be out on DVD) and then as Dorothy on The Golden Girls, which ran on NBC from 1985 to 1992 and is now seen umpteen times per day on Lifetime. "When they were casting Golden Girls, they sent a script to everyone but me -- and I later found out that the script actually said they were looking for a Bea Arthur-type," she relates. "I don't ever watch the show now because I don't like to see myself on screen. But I have to say, I'm not surprised that it's still popular, because it was so damn good. I am very proud of the work we did on both my shows, and I think it's in part because so many people from the New York theater world were involved in them."

The reunion of three of the Golden Girls -- co-star Estelle Getty is too ill to attend -- will be the first time Arthur has seen her co-stars since a previous DVD signing in California last year. "It's hard to see people in L.A. because you really need to get in your car and drive," she says, "and Rue has been living in New York for a while." Due to the shortness of her stay in the Big Apple, Arthur won't have time to catch McLanahan in Wicked or any other Broadway show -- not even Fiddler on the Roof, in which Arthur appeared as Yente in the original Broadway production. "I never thought the revival would be so popular," she remarks, "because it's such an innocent show in its way. But it proves that there's no way of figuring out what's going to make it on Broadway."

She also expresses some surprise that a new production of Mame, for which she won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress, is set to play at the Kennedy Center next summer with Christine Baranski as Mame and Harriet Harris in Arthur's role of Vera Charles. "I wish them luck," Arthur says. "Doing the show with Angela, we had the most marvelous time. The movie [with Lucille Ball] is another story." Right now, she insists, nothing could get her to commit to doing another Broadway show or even a TV series: "It's just too hard, and if you don't have to do it, why would you want to? Plus, with my luck, if I said yes to another series, it would be a big success."

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