Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Between 40 and Death

Her first review may have been in a caption of a newspaper photo showing her and fellow aspiring actress Elaine Herman painting a stage backdrop.

She was a member of the Dramatic Workshop Players of Great Neck, Long Island, a troupe consisting of World War Two service people, which was about to open a run of “Androcles and the Lion.” A newspaper story several days later concludes with her name in a list of unknowns (today and then, I suspect).

Her name was Bea Arthur.

The photo was in the New York Daily News of August 13, 1946. That gives you an idea of how long it took for Arthur to gain fame. (Sorry, we can’t reprint the picture).

In 1947 she was appearing in plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre but by 1951, she decided to toss acting away for a singing career. She joined the stock company on a short-lived musical show on the Du Mont Network called Once Upon a Tune. At the same time, she appeared at the One Fifth Avenue. Billboard’s Bill Smith reviewed her act on April 28, 1951—twice. One review went:
Bea Arthur, a tall, attractive brunette, in her first café job (she comes out of legit) impressed with a low contralto and a sharp under-selling style that drew and held attention. That the girl can act was evident from the way she handled the lyrics on torcheroos and ballads. Most of her material was standards tho she handled them so skillfully they sounded like specials. On the basis of her projection, the gal could make it in class uptown rooms and might even be a look-see by some record a. and r. guy.
In the second review, he mentioned “With proper costuming and lighting, Miss Arthur could catch on. She has the basic talent.”

Of course, we all know Arthur didn’t make it as a lounge act. She performed off-Broadway, unstudied Tallulah Bankhead in a 1956 version of the Ziegfeld Follies that died before it reached New York. She appeared on TV as a sketch performer. She didn’t appear on stage in an all-female “Hamlet”; only one actress was in front of the audience, the rest gave their lines from behind a curtain. And she did some cabaret work; she opened with the song “I’m in Love With Sammy Snead.”

Arthur had to be convinced by her husband to take the role that made her a Tony winner. She was appearing in “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1966 but Gene Saks wanted his wife to join the cast of his musical version of Auntie Mame, which tuned up in Philadelphia and Boston before hitting the Great White Way to, I think, universal rave reviews.

And then came Maude.

Well, some other things came between the two but we’ll never get there if we list anything and everything.

Here’s a National Enterprise Association story of October 5, 1972. She engages in that old show biz tradition of subtracting a number of years off her age. She was born in the Depression—if the Depression started in 1922. One thing she doesn’t underestimate is the power of television’s national exposure.
“Maude” is Really Soft-Hearted Inside

HOLLYWOOD (NEA)—Beatrice Arthur describes herself this way:
"I'm a large lady with a deep voice. Inside I'm butter."
She's physically perfect as the beautifully bitter lady known as Maude, on that sure-to-be-a-hit new CBS series. In it, the butter underneath doesn't show. She can be large, deep-voiced and tough and nobody knows about her miserable sentimental core.
It's always been that way with Beatrice Arthur. Her husband (director Gene Saks) kids her about how she looks and sounds so forbidding that she could get any shopkeeper to do anything she wanted. But, Saks says, she's too timid to go back to the butcher with a bad piece of meat.
"I always was big," Bea says, "and I always wanted to be an ingenue, when I was eight, back in Cambridge, Md., I'd go to the movies and read the fan magazines and dream of being small, delicate and blonde. Here I was big and hefty and dark."
She was born in New York, during the Depression—"but let's not talk exact years"—and then her family moved to Maryland's eastern shore. At first she wanted to be a concert pianist but gave that up when she realized she wasn't dedicated enough for a concert career "and didn't want to spend my life teaching piano to kids in Cambridge, Md."
She was a registered lab technician and she worked in the local Cambridge hospital but gave that up after a couple of years. "I just couldn't see myself taking urine specimens the rest of my life." So she headed for New York, dramatic training and Broadway. She was there more than 20 years and she says it was pretty good. She did well, worked most of the time, had a few hits.
"But in one night on television," she says, "when I did that first guest thing on "All in the Family," I got more recognition than I had in those 20, 25 years in New York onstage."
When they first suggested that Maude would be a series, she says she wasn't overwhelmingly excited. She came out to Hollywood with her husband—he was here to direct "Last of the Red Hot Lovers"—and did her thing. But now she's excited.
"I want this show to be a hit," she says, "and if it isn't I think I'll kill myself."
It's hard to think of Maude, as we know her, of ever being shy but Beatrice Arthur was. No more.
"When I studied acting," she says, "I was so shy I'd hide behind the angry peasants on stage. Today, if an angry peasant appeared on my set, I'd shoot him."
Arthur had enough of Maude and quit after six seasons. Several years later, Norman Lear talked her into something that must have seen great on paper—an American re-working of Faulty Towers. Critics hated it. The show was cancelled after something like ten episodes. Here’s how one reviewer saw the seaside show, in a column of March 25, 1983.
Frenzied 'Amanda's' Is Unwelcome Guest

NEA Television Critic
If you're a PBS watcher, you may have already seen "Amanda's."
This new ABC sitcom, a starring vehicle for Bea Arthur, is adapted from "Fawlty Towers," an incredibly funny British sitcom about an ill-humored, inefficient, hen-pecked bully of an innkeeper named Basil Fawlty. John Cleese of Monty Python plays him.
Since I'm a member of the "Fawlty Towers" cult following, I'm probably the wrong guy to talk to about "Amanda's." I've tried to watch it with an open mind, to take it on its own terms, to give it a chance.
I've tried. But this U.S. version still seems shrill and clumsy to me. To put it plain, I think "Amanda's" is an embarrassment.
Amanda Cartwright (Miss Arthur) is a sour, intimidating petty tyrant whose crumbling California seaside inn is in heavy financial trouble. Her neighbor and arch-rival, Krinsky (Michael Constantine), wants to buy her out and tear the place down.
"If I die before you," she advises him, "I'm to be cremated and my ashes strewn in your eyes."
Her son, Marty (Fred McCarren), has loads of advice for perking up business, seeing as how she did send him to hotel management school. But Amanda totally ignores him. He is an oaf.
As for his wife, Arlene (Simone Griffith), she's a pampered, snobby Bostonian who talks mostly about clothes and daddy, who is, she often points out, the third largest maker of folding chairs in America. Amanda despises her.
Rounding out our cast are Aldo (Tony Rosato), a forgetful bellhop who speaks no English, and Earl (Rick Hurst), the chef, who is an amazingly long-winded bumpkin.
Amanda is unfailingly nasty to all of them, as well as to her guests. When one diner complains that the lettuce is wilted, Amanda snaps, "You probably scared it to death."
While Miss Arthur went to town as the ill-humored, sharp-tongued Maude Findlay, she suffers from a lack of equals here. On "Maude," she had her husband, Walter, to keep her in line. Meanwhile, on "Fawlty Towers," Basil can bellow and huff until his face turns blue but you still know he's terrified of his tiny wife, Sybil.
Here, there is nobody to stand up to her. The rest of the characters are one-note patsies. She is out of control, and so is the show. It doesn't have stories, it has elaborate contraptions.
Each week we are force-fed an exhaustingly madcap, three-ring circus so crammed with stupid characters and frenzied sight gags that it reminds me of the disastrous movie "1941" - played out in a phone booth.
In one episode of "Amanda's," for instance, a bank robber holds staff and guests hostage in the lobby. Within the course of 60 seconds we are treated to the sight of: Marty, clad in snorkel and scuba mask, being tied to a chair; Arlene being hit in the face by a flying duck; two people being conked on the head by a large frying pan; a poodle named Joel being outfitted in a party hat.
While all of this is going on, Amanda is being wooed by the chief of police over the bullhorn.
In another episode, Amanda prepares an elaborate surprise party for Earl, invites banjo players, square dancers, a magician and a suicidal comic, only to learn at the last moment that the new bank president she was planning a party for next week is coming a week early.
So she has to switch the parties, only the place is already filled with the wrong crowd and Earl has found out about the surprise and Amanda has her arm stuck in a vase.
Two rules of comedy: More is not better, it's less; madcap is only synonymous with funny if you have Cary Grant as your star.
Bea Arthur is an imposing presence and a fine performer. It's nice to see her back on series TV. But this is the wrong kind of show for her. For anyone.
Perhaps it’s just as well that Amanda’s failed. That would have prevented her casting in the Golden Girls, which is Arthur’s biggest success in the eyes of some. If there’s one thing people like more than catty women, it’s catty older women. Yet she left that show, too, when she felt it had run its course.

There’s a line in the song “Bosom Buddies” from “Mame” about Arthur’s Vera Charles being “between 40 and death.” That’s what she was when she died in 2009. She’d come quite a way from painting backdrops after getting out of the service.

1 comment:

  1. Amanda's had 13 episodes produced in which 3 of them went unaired.