My Adventures With "The Golden Girls": Betty White, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty

Herbie J Pilato

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[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

In the fall of 1982, while studying Television and Film at U.C.L.A. I had a celebrity brush with actress Bea Arthur, then best-remembered as the star of TV’s iconic Maude series (CBS, 1972–1978), and soon to be recalled to fame as on The Golden Girls, alongside Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty - each of whom I would run into over the coming years.

When I first met Bea she was starring in Amanda’s (a.k.a. Amanda’s By The Sea), a failed ABC series that was a cross between the BBC’s Faulty Towers and CBS’s Newhart.

I remember walking down Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica (past the scrumptious, now defunct Polly’s Pies) when, all of a sudden, I heard this distinctly familiar voice. I turned and there was Arthur, tall and raspy-voiced (in a later-Lucille-Ball-esque kind of way), walking with a middle-aged man who I only assumed to be her manager. I grew up on Maude (when I wasn’t watching Happy Days, which for a time was scheduled opposite it), and though I never fully understood some of the more issue-oriented episodes of that groundbreaking series (like the earth-shattering abortion episode), I was not now about to pass up the opportunity to say hello to its iconic star.

And besides, I had something to say to Arthur. So I stopped the actress in her tracks, told her how much I enjoyed her work (“yada, yada, yada”), and wisher her well with her new Amanda’s series. She responded pleasantly enough, and then thanked me on my way.

Page Fourteen

The next time I met up with Arthur, it was a completely different story — and series. The year was 1985, and I was in my fourteenth month as a contracted Page (or "Guest Relations Representative") for NBC-TV in Burbank, CA. Not only was I periodically assigned to join other Pages in ushering the audience for The Golden Girls (then fast becoming one of NBC’s biggest Saturday night draws, sinking ABC’s The Love Boat into cancellation), but I was also supposed to escort each of the Girls from their respective limos to the press room, one by one, for that year’s press tour. I was there to personally meet and greet Arthur, as well as White, McClanahan, and the then-lesser-known Getty (who would soon commence stealing many a Golden scene, much to the dismay of her then-much-better-known co-stars).

This time, Arthur appeared terribly insecure, very unlike her Girls character Dorothy Zbornak (or Maude Findley for that matter). McClanahan was confident, just like her Girls guise, Blanche Devereau, and White was sweet (but not stupid like Rose Nylund, her Girls persona).

Getty, simply in awe of her surroundings, was the least known of the Golden quartet, and, after years of performing live on the stage and in bit parts on the big screen, the senior actress was experiencing her first taste of weekly TV fame as Sophia Petrillo, the cranky and stroke-inflicted mother to Arthur’s Dorothy.

Getty was so stunned by her new position, that when her manager noticed me and commented on how much I allegedly looked like her nephew, Phil, she turned to me and said, “Oh, hi Phil! How are you?!”

“No, Estelle,” her manager clarified. “He only looks like Phil.”

“Oh,” she said.

Meanwhile, Arthur had clearly not remembered me at all from our Polly’s Pies encounter in Santa Monica just a few years before, so I just kept my mouth shut.

Page Fillers

A few weeks after formally meeting each of The Golden Girls, I and another Page were hired as audience fillers for an NBC on-air special promoting the new season of shows. Fate took its hand, and my fellow Page and I were randomly seated at a table with the Golden ladies. As the evening progressed, McClannahan and Getty exited early, leaving me and my Page pal at the table with White, Arthur, and two empty chairs. So, I struck up a conversation.

“You know,” I said to White and Arthur, as my Page compadre looked on, “…you both are so adept at comedy, I bet if either of you said as simple a word as tomato, it would sound hysterical.” As if they needed to hear any confirmation of their talent from the likes of me.

Still, White, without missing a beat, turned to Arthur and in a second to me, and asked, “Should we try?” As Arthur then dragged madly away on her cigarette, she and White readied to exit in a huff (and a puff). Apparently, both were disgusted with the mistreatment of an animal during a skit for the show. At one point, White, a legendary advocate for four-legged creatures), turned to Arthur and asked, “Shall we leave now?”

“Let’s," replied Arthur. “We don’t need to sit through this!”

While White would years later tell TV talk show host Larry King on the air that Arthur never liked her, I saw no sign of conflict between them at the time. In fact, they seemed to bond quite well, at least over the animal issue.

Either way, I would not see Arthur again until a few years later — in a post-Page moment.

Page on the Stage

Flash forward to 1986: I was now working as an extra (or atmosphere player) on several television shows, including daytime soap operas like ABC’s General Hospital and CBS’s The Bold and The Beautiful, and prime-time sitcoms like…wait for it — The Golden Girls.

Once performing on the set, instead of once guarding it as a Page, I noticed that each of the Girls had changed, due to their unstoppable Golden fame. White and McClanahan were cordial enough. But when I first met Getty, she had them all beat in that department and was the nicest woman in the room, minus even one ounce of Hollywood affectation. Yet in 1986 — a mere year after her Golden debut, Getty refused to remember or even acknowledge me.

“Oh, come on, Estelle,” I wanted to say. “It’s me — your nephew. Remember? Phil?!”

Arthur, on the other hand, had been staring at me all day. At first, I thought that maybe she did indeed remember from our Polly’s Pies days — or at least when we chatted with White and my fellow Page when seated at that NBC event. or maybe she just plain liked me. Or somehow she was going to be the one responsible for my big break (via one night with Bea Arthur)?!!

As it turned out — none of the above. Arthur was staring at me because she was getting ready to blow the whistle on me. In a moment, she instructed the show’s assistant director (AD) to stop tape — and had me accosted for — da-da-da-dum- chewing gum. Arthur actually approached the AD, and whispered in his ear, while glancing in my direction. Seconds later, and with the look and tone of a strict Catholic elementary school principal nun, the AD gathered the small band of extras, which included me, and asked, point-blank, “Okay — who has the gum?”

Everyone looked at one another, and I gradually began to raise my hand. “I do,” I said, feeling like I, had just indeed been reprimanded by Sister Ann Meannie Face. “Me. I have the gum.”

“Well, would you please get rid of it?” the AD demanded.

“Uhm…sure,” I replied, with my head bowed, as I walked to a nearby trash can, and removed the chewing morsel from my mouth, proceeding to then deposit it in the garbage can before me.

I had just been busted by a Girl for enjoying some Chiclets.

What could be worse, right?

Years later, I found out.

Tex-ing (not Texting) with Bea and Bain

After leaving NBC, I had dinner at the Tex Mex restaurant in Pacific Palisades, where I encountered Bea Arthur once more, this time with former Maude co-star Conrad Bain. On Maude, Baine played Dr. Arthur Harmon, who was married to Vivian, portrayed by Arthur’s future Golden co-star McClanahan. As fate continued to conduct its evil scheme, I remembered how Bain, then TV dad to Gary Coleman on Diff’rent Strokes, one of NBC’s massive Big ’80s hits, was one of my first limo-runs for NBC.

Though Strokes was winding down by then, and would soon move to ABC for its final season, Bain was quite cordial, and spoke frankly about former co-stars, from both Maude and Strokes.

We discussed people like McClanahan, actor Bill Macy, who played Maude’s husband Walter, and Adrienne Barbeau, who portrayed Maude’s daughter Carol — and who, according to Bain, was happily married to king horror feature film director John Carpenter (The Fog, Halloween). And while Bain was most concerned about Coleman, who was struggling with health and legal issues at the time, we spoke, too, of course, about Arthur, and how different she looked with her nose job, slight face-lift, and healthy weight loss since their days together on Maude. “An actor loses personal character when they [go under the knife] to make themselves look too pretty,” Bain said.

This temporary memory blur from 1984 was rattled by my then-present observation of Arthur and Bain at Tex Mex in 1986, which was subsequently disturbed by a situation with my dinner date that night — a fellow former Page who I will call Susie Lyne — the one true love of my life as a Page (for the standard 18 months and slightly beyond). Susie Lynn was being hit on at the bar by an annoying then-top actor (who shall remain nameless), while she and I were waiting for our table.

By that point, Arthur and Bain had finished their dinner and were waiting for the valet to bring them her car so they could exit the restaurant. Around the same time, I managed to pull Susie Lynn away from the said-annoying-actor, as I continued to observe Bain and Arthur.

When the valet drove up with Arthur’s big-black BMW sedan, I couldn’t help but notice how suited she was to that behemoth vehicle.

You know how, after fashion, some people begin to look like their pets?

Apparently, that same rule goes for autos.

In a split second, I flash-backed to the Sunset-Gower Studios in Hollywood, where Arthur, White, McClanahan, and Getty had initially taped The Golden Girls (which later moved to another facility). I remembered the Golden line-up of star vehicles in the Sunset-Gower parking lot. Bea Arthur helmed the aforementioned big black BMW. Rue McClanahan guided a tan four-door Mercedes sedan. Betty White toured with a mint-green Cadillac Seville, and Estelle Getty drove a teeny, tiny little Chevette.

Somehow, it all fit.

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA
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