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October 8, 2015

Memories of Rue McClanahan and 'The Golden Girls' as Gay Icons

by Jim Colucci, posted Jun 6th 2010 12:30PM
Rue McClanahanThe most rewarding parts about writing a book are usually the advance payment beforehand, or the acclaim afterward. But for me, with 'The Q Guide to The Golden Girls,' it was the homework.

In the spring of 2006, I had the excuse to revisit old favorite 'Golden' episodes, all in the name of journalism. And even better, I had the opportunity to interview Bea Arthur, Betty White and Rue McClanahan in their respective homes, where I could not only ask them outright about their careers, but could also observe firsthand a small slice of their own real lives. For a gay man who had grown up on Dorothy Zbornak's quips and Blanche Devereaux's steamy sex stories, this was fantasy camp.

With her sixth husband, Morrow Wilson, not at home when I arrived at her apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Rue answered the door in a bathrobe, fresh from the shower. Then, because this interview was going to be captured on video for the Archive of American Television (it's now viewable, in fact, here), I was able to watch as the Oklahoma native, then 72, went into makeup, transforming gradually into a certain beautiful, carefully coiffed Miami slut.

The ground-floor apartment, otherwise ordinary, featured an oversized, outdoor terrace, which tempted our cameraman on this particularly sunny day to take advantage of the natural light near the sliding glass doors. But Rue had another idea. As a proud mama, she explained, she'd prefer to be framed by the artworks of her son Mark Bish, hanging around the entryway.

As our first videotape rolled, Rue detailed how she had struggled to raise her young son on her own, staying 14 months at a job she disliked -- as crazed nanny Caroline Johnson on the soap 'Another World' starting in 1970 -- for the steady paycheck. Fifteen years later, as they assumed their now famous roles on 'The Golden Girls,' Rue and her costars Bea Arthur, Betty White and Estelle Getty would display similar maternal concerns, mothers and grandmothers all.

The Gay Golden Fantasy

For 'The Golden Girls'' expected audience of older women, Blanche, Rose, Dorothy and Sophia were identifiable peers. But NBC was delighted when the ratings showed that for other, younger viewers, they were fantasy grandmas – and their show a de facto Saturday night babysitter. If you were like me, maybe you fantasized about staying a while at Blanche's house in Miami; as we all know, the Girls were more than willing to double or even triple up in a bed in order to accommodate visitors.
The Q Guide to the Golden Girls
And if you were again like me – a gay and confused teen at the time -- you would have wanted to visit these ladies more than you did your own real-life elders. Because whatever problems you might bring through that door on Richmond Street -- past that inexplicable exclamation point carved into the wood -- you would not be met with judgment. (Or if you initially were, you'd know the Girls would come around within the next 22 minutes.)

In our interview, Rue was quick to point out that, unlike the actress herself, Blanche had a conservative, even homophobic side. She was grossed out when her daughter Rebecca announced she was going to be artificially inseminated. She was confused as to what the word "lesbian" meant in reference to Dorothy's good friend Jean, and later horrified to find out her brother Clayton was in love with another man. And yet, in all cases, Blanche ultimately arrived at a place of loving acceptance.

In times like these, we saw how Blanche, Rose, Dorothy and Sophia had families and friends from back home that they truly cared for – but they cared for each other more, and that's just how we liked it. And so when a gun-toting Santa forced them to forgo flights home and instead spend Christmas together, we were happy because we knew that deep down, the Girls were happier that way, too.

The Golden Girls were the ultimate surrogate family, relatable to gay viewers who had constructed such relationships ourselves. (We particularly wanted to be Family with the sexually liberated Blanche. Heck -- we wanted to BE Blanche!) Except these ladies were far more fierce than our own friends. Your real-life BFF might not look quite so fabulous the morning after a party in South Beach. But the Girls were always dressed up, put together, and ready with the snappiest one-liners, the sharpest put-downs, and the wackiest "St. Olaf stories" that Hollywood's best comedy writers had to offer.

The Golden Girls Live On

It's for these reasons that even today, the show's frankness and fun continues to captivate gay and straight viewers, of all ages. Eighteen years after the show left the airwaves, the Girls are as popular as ever, still repeated up to six times per day on two different cable channels. The NBC Experience store in New York's Rockefeller Center sells mostly merchandise from the network's current shows; but after its "Stay Golden" tee, with caricatures of the four ladies, sold well, the store just recently added a second shirt, featuring a silhouette of Rue with the slogan "Blanche is my Nana."

As we sat in front of the camera that day in Rue's living room, I managed to coax her into slipping for a moment back into Blanche's patented patois, drawling the phrase "my many, many men" winkingly into the camera. Chances are, if you go up to any gay man or woman – or anyone else worth talking to – and imitate Rue's unique delivery, you'll get a knowing laugh. And quite possibly, that 'Golden' fan wasn't even yet born when the show premiered.

I noticed that phenomenon firsthand at a November 2005 DVD signing in New York. I was lucky that, with my press credentials, I was able to push past the crowds and through the doors of Barnes & Noble, where hordes of mostly young, presumably straight girls, queued around the block in the rain, screamed for Bea, Betty and Rue as if they were the Beatles at their peak.

The world has lost first Estelle Getty, then Bea, and now Rue. And so I like to think back to that rainy day, and the outpouring of love as fans pressed waterlogged signs to the bookstore's windows for the girls to read: "Will you have cheesecake with me?" Or I think of the golden sun at the beginning of the show's opening credits, shining forever in repeats.

And I also come back to thinking about the view out of Rue's sliding glass doors, onto that well-groomed patch of planters and grass. Ever since that day of our interview, I've actually thought of Rue as being just like that terrace. It takes up a noticeably large swath of some of the world's most precious real estate. Just like Rue's place in television history, and in so many hearts.

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