They remembered with love — and a lot of laughter — the star of television’s “Maude” and “The Golden Girls,” a woman who also appeared in such hit musicals as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Mame.”
Memories of Bea Arthur filled Broadway’s Majestic Theatre Monday as friends, family and co-stars recalled the tall, baritone-voiced and supremely funny actress who died last April of cancer at the age of 86.
A large photo of Arthur, dressed in a stylish black suit stared down during the lengthy celebration, which was hosted by Angela Lansbury. The actress first worked with Arthur in 1966 in “Mame,” playing Mame Dennis opposite Arthur’s tart-tongued Vera Charles.
“On stage, yes, we were bosom buddies (the title of their famous ‘Mame’ duet) but it wasn’t until years later after we both had successful TV series under our belts that we really got together,” Lansbury recalled. “That’s when we became ... bosom friends.”
Among the other participants were “Maude” producer Norman Lear, Rosie O’Donnell, “Fiddler” lyricist Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, and several of Arthur’s television co-stars including Rue McClanahan and Adrienne Barbeau.
“No one seems less gone to me or more alive to me than Bea,” said Lear, who also created the television classic, “All in the Family,” which is where Arthur’s character of the feminist, liberal Maude Findlay first appeared.
“I am sure that’s because laughter lingers and no one made me laugh like Bea Arthur,” the producer explained. “I have spent most of my life in the company of extraordinary laugh-makers, performers and writers, killers of the art, but Bea Arthur had me laughing in nooks and crannies of my body, places I didn’t even know existed.”
A parade of photographs and film clips were interspersed throughout the program, including Arthur’s rendition (as Maude) of that Frank Sinatra classic “My Way,” that brought down the house.
Harnick recalled Arthur’s rendition of a torch-song spoof he wrote called “Garbage,” and which she sang off-Broadway in “The Shoestring Revue” in 1955. He said Arthur brought something to the song that cannot be taught or directed: “an unerring sense of comedy.
“When she wanted to be funny, she was funny,” Harnick explained. “The combination of intelligence, talent, timing, gestures, facial expressions, attitude and voice quality — that smoky baritone once heard never forgotten — that combination was unique and inimitable.”
And it wasn’t just her voice.
Said Chita Rivera, who appeared with Arthur in “The Shoestring Revue”: “Her silences often said so much more than someone with a huge monologue. She would allow you to imagine what she was thinking — (now) that was really funny.”
O’Donnell recalled the first time she met Arthur, going up to the actress at a West Side night spot and drunkenly singing the theme song from “Maude” to her (which O’Donnell also sang Monday). It was a bonding moment, according to the comedian.
“She really taught me and every other woman my age how to be a feminist at a time when that was a dirty word,” O’Donnell said. “And without her, I think, there would not be as many funny women on television today.”