Anthony Riccadonna began watching “The Golden Girls” as a child, when he stumbled upon a rerun on cable and asked his mom for more information on the beloved sitcom.
“I was just instantly hooked, and they have just stuck with me ever since I was a little boy,” Riccadonna, now 34, told TODAY.
Looking for a distraction during the pandemic, Riccadonna began creating TikTok videos lip-syncing memorable moments from the series, which originally ran from 1985 to 1992 on NBC and followed the lives of four women over 50 sharing a house in Miami. His account, @the.golden.girls.guy, now has nearly 12,000 followers.
So, when his partner, David Price, decided to propose last winter, he found the perfect backdrop in Golden-Con, a fan festival celebrating the iconic series. In April, the couple traveled from their home in Pittsburgh to Chicago for the festivities, which included appearances from actors, writers and producers who worked on the show. During the second night of the convention, Price popped the question onstage in front of an audience, who’d gathered for a live drag parody show from the Hell in a Handbag Theater Company. Riccadonna, who’d thought he was invited onstage to discuss his TikTok videos, was “completely shocked” by the surprise proposal.
“The reaction from the fans and everyone in the audience was overwhelming,” Riccadonna said. “What a group of supportive, wonderful people that we had met throughout the weekend. ‘Golden Girls’ fans are pretty amazing people, and to be in a room with those people was — I’m just going to say it was golden. ... I mean, we kept getting congratulated all evening and the following day.”
Another 'wow' moment
Price, 51, is also a longtime “Golden Girls” viewer, having watched the show in its original run and later in syndication.
“When we met and I found out he was into ‘The Golden Girls,’ I’m like, ‘Really? I mean, you’re so much younger and I always thought of it as being something for people my age or older,’” he told TODAY. “So I was really surprised to see that the younger generation liked it as much as I did.”
The couple, who plan to incorporate “Golden Girls” into their wedding photo-booth props — along with Price’s all-time favorite show, “Star Trek” — reflected on why the sitcom has such a strong following with the LGBTQ community.
“Back then, talking about subjects with gay people wasn’t so popular and they used their show as a platform to speak up for gay people,” said Riccadonna. “And I think it’s very important that they did that, especially back in the ‘80s. I mean, that was such a huge leap forward for them and for us as a society, saying, it’s OK to be with the person you love, no matter if he’s a man or a woman. It doesn’t matter.”
Price added, “Having grown up during that time, there were no positive gay role models on TV. The only gay people on TV were people dying of AIDS, or we were stigmatized as being these awful, degenerate people. So that was a really big deal to me to see something positive on TV in the late '80s.”
Zack Hudson, who created Golden-Con with brothers Brad and Brendan Balof, had planned to hold the event at Center on Halsted, an LGBTQ community center in Chicago, when it was first announced in December 2021. But when the event drew national attention, the three friends opted to move Golden-Con to a much larger space at Navy Pier. More than 3,000 people attended.
The founders sought to create “wow” moments, such as actor Alan Blumenfeld re-creating his much-memed birthday clown, Mr. Ha-Ha, and Hilary Shepard pumping up the crowd as Yvonne, a peppy aerobics instructor from Season Four. During the convention’s first night, Cindy Fee, who sang the show’s theme song, “Thank You For Being a Friend,” even shared a stage with Aaron Scott, the viral sensation behind the song’s gospel remix. So when they got Price’s request to stage his proposal, they immediately knew it would be another “wow” moment.
“This is a moment where people will come together and not only celebrate the girls but also celebrate the love that these two men have for each other,” Brendan Balof told TODAY.
Through having chosen family 'you can survive it all'
As for why “Golden Girls” resonates with LGBTQ fans, the three Golden-Con creators shared several reasons.
“In the 1980s, as today, we sometimes set senior citizens aside from the mainstream and they have to fight their way back in sometimes to get seen and heard,” Hudson told TODAY. “And LGBTQ folks, particularly those who are a little bit older, certainly understand that. We often migrated to big cities, and then to specific corners of big cities, and we’re set aside from, quite often, the rest of the culture and what we did was create little communities, much like those four fictional, hilarious ladies in Miami did, they created their own little group, like, ‘Well, if you want to set us aside, that’s your loss. We’re going to continue to be hilarious, go on dates, make delicious food, eat desserts, gossip, and have foibles and have fantastic lives,' from this viewer’s perspective.”
Brad Balof added that “Golden Girls” is a lot about “finding your identity in a world that may not be ready to accept you for who you fully are,” citing the Season Four episode where Blanche’s (Rue McClanahan) brother Clayton comes out to her.
“Blanche’s brother Clayton is the first positive representation that I ever saw of a homosexual man on television,” he said. ”Blanche coming to grips with not liking the fact that he was gay but then realizing that she loved him more than she disliked the fact that he happened to be gay was one of the first times that I saw that played out on television. It was something that I could relate to.”
Brendan Balof also praised the show’s writing and delivery.
“These were topics that people were encountering, and maybe struggled with,” he said. “They did it with a lighthearted sense of humor, which you know, people in the community love a lighthearted sense of humor; it’s how we deflect or defend sometimes. But they never strayed away from what the actual topic was. They never strayed away from actually getting through the issue, or overlooking it. They always went through it and they went through it together. So that’s just one of the pieces that I take very much from the show is that you have your chosen family and having chosen community and through that you can survive it all.”
Golden-Con featured a space where fans could leave thank-you notes to the show’s four ladies, sharing what “Golden Girls” meant to them, and Brendan said “You couldn’t get past three cards without just becoming overwhelmed.”
“It definitely gave the impression that everybody had been seen,” he said. “A lot of folks who hadn’t been seen or hadn’t felt like they had been heard or maybe felt like they were the odd one out, that they got to spend an entire weekend with people who loved them, who cherish them and who will remember them always.”
'They don’t just survive at this time of life. They thrive'
Lyn Greene, the actor who played the younger version of Bea Arthur’s character, Dorothy, in flashback scenes of “Golden Girls,” also said the show’s appeal to LGBTQ fans has to do with the idea of “family of choice.”
“What’s interesting about the four women is that these are disenfranchised either widows or divorcees of a certain age where you‘re supposed to be losers,” said Greene, who spoke with TODAY alongside her wife, Meg Fisher, whom she married in 2013. “In fact, because of their relationships, they’re all winners. They don’t just survive at this time of life. They thrive, because of the friendship, and the fact that they have each other’s back. It is an argument for unconventional relationships, not just friendships, but there’s love there. That’s a family.”
Greene recalled the Season Two episode in which Dorothy’s friend Jean (Lois Nettleton) comes to visit and falls in love with Rose (Betty White).
“What stood out to me was Rose’s response to Lois Nettleton, which was, ‘If I were interested, I think I’d be very flattered,’ something to that effect,” she said. “I was tickled by her response and her kindness.”
Fisher, who was particularly touched by Sophia's moments of acceptance in the episodes tackling LGBTQ subjects, noted, “I’m sure for younger folks, this might be just, 'This is the way the world is.' But if you were in the late ‘80s, or the early ‘90s, these were not just given kinds of conversations or viewpoints in the public sphere.”
Greene also mentioned Monte Markham’s performance as Clayton as a standout storyline, particularly Clayton “standing up for himself and saying, ‘I ask you to accept me on my terms.’”
Markham, like Greene, appeared at Golden-Con, and told TODAY many people there thanked him for his performance as Clayton.
When Markham was cast on “Golden Girls,” he said he wasn’t concerned about playing a gay character as a straight actor, only that it was a “good role and worth doing.”
“It was a wonderful script, extremely funny,” he said.
The actor, whose two “Golden Girls” episodes first aired in 1988 and 1991, said he’s heard more and more from fans of the show since it began streaming on Hulu.
“I was quite amazed and over that period of time I would have men 30s, 40s, 50s or even young guys, 20s, come up to me and say ‘I was a 12-year-old in the middle of Kansas and didn’t know what I was doing and what I felt and I saw that show and it made everything good’ and wanted to thank me. It’s very humbling to have an effect like that and it’s become more and more frequent.”
Stan Zimmerman, a writer and producer for the show’s first season who also appeared at Golden-Con, told TODAY the “Golden Girls” writers were told not to make it like “The Facts of Life,” with “very special” episodes.
“We want these to be real issues that come from these women that would really happen in their real lives,” he said. “That’s how we tackled those issues.”
Zimmerman, who went on to work on other successful shows like “Roseanne” and “Gilmore Girls,” remembered the show being a hit with LGBTQ fans early on in the 1980s.
“Back in the day in West Hollywood, the town would stop on Saturday night at 9 o’clock, and they literally showed ‘Golden Girls’ live up on TV screens in gay bars,” he said. “I would go for the free drinks, when I would tell them I wrote that episode. Right away, the show was embraced by the LGBTQ+ community. I love meeting kids of all ages, from young kids to older gay people, telling me what that show meant to them.
“And especially for a lot of older people in that community. They hadn’t seen that on TV before. They hadn’t seen relatives come and their aunts or parents or mothers embrace them anyway, and didn’t shun them. A lot of people didn’t have that experience or it was a show that a lot of people could sit with their grandmothers and laugh with. That was a bonding experience for a lot of the young queer community with their older, probably more conservative grandparents.”
Zimmerman says he feels “so blessed” to have been part of the show, which now “seems like it’s bigger than ever.”
“It’s just permeated every aspect of our society,” he said. “I went to see ‘A Strange Loop,’ a new musical on Broadway, and they’re talking about ‘Golden Girls.’ It’s turned into part of our culture and I’m so excited and proud to have been there in its inception. The first season, we really got to watch the characters grow. It was just so timely. These women are such great archetypes and such great actors that it goes from generation to generation to generation, and will live on even past me.”