AND THEN CAME BEA ARTHUR, THE CAMBRIDGE BOMBSHELL

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I had never seen Bea Arthur on the stage until 1966, when I was sitting in the audience at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City listening to the orchestra warm up and waiting for the curtain to rise on the Broadway musical Mame, which had opened that May to rave reviews.

Arthur was playing boozy actress and sidekick Vera Charles to Angela Lansbury's Mame, and no one has ever played that role better.

First off, what added luster to the character of Vera Charles was Arthur's interpretation, much enlivened by a distinctively husky voice that sounded like a cross between a basso profundo steam whistle off the liner Q ueen Mary and a Nantucket foghorn.

Like the sui generis voices of Ethel Merman, Betty Davis or Tallulah Bankhead, once heard, never forgotten.

I remember the moment when Arthur, who had two duets with Lansbury, one in Act 1 and the other in Act II, launched into "The Man in the Moon."

Arthur, who kind of talked a song rather than outright singing it, had the audience roaring when she intoned: "The man in the moon is a lady/ A lady in lipstick and curls/ The cow that jumped over cried 'Jumpin' Jehovah/ I think it's just one of the girls."

In Act II, she rejoined Lansbury for a rousing rendition of "Bosom Buddies" that combines pointed barbs on the state of their friendship as well as the enduring love they share for one another.

They sang: "Remember that who else but a bosom buddy/ Will sit down and level/ And give you the devil/ Will sit down and tell you the truth!"

I occasionally listen to my cast recording of Mame that also dates to 1966, and Arthur and Lansbury are just as fresh and entertaining as ever.

Arthur went on not many years after her Broadway success in Mame to the character Maude Findlay in the TV show aptly named Maude , created by Norman Lear.

In its obituary last week, The New York Times described Arthur as one of the "most endearing battle-axes in television history."

Maude was a 40-ish Westchester County liberated and liberal suburban housewife who shared her home with her divorced daughter Carol, played by Adrienne Barbeau, and grandson, as well as with her fourth husband, Walter Findlay, portrayed by Bill Macy.

Maude was one commanding battleship of a woman who seemed to be always dressed in long dusters with fly-away sleeves.

Her puffy, slightly intimidating salt-and-pepper hair resembled steel wool, looking as if it could have withstood an hour in the University of Maryland wind tunnel.

On CBS-TV from 1972 to 1978, Maude advanced the cause of feminism through laughter, and when challenged by her husband (who was fully of capable of taking on his overwhelming wife), produced a snappy response that for a time was a popular retort in America: "God will get you for that, Walter."

From 1985 to 1992, NBC-TV aired The Golden Girls, with Arthur as Dorothy Zbornak, one of a quartet of formerly married women who share a home in Miami. Her co-stars were Rue McClanahan, Betty White and Estelle Getty.

While not directly playing the character of Maude, Arthur did interject into Dorothy certain overtones of Maude's character - especially her penchant for barbed repartee.

"Bea was absolutely the antithesis of the characters she portrayed," Lansbury told The New York Post last week.

"She was sensitive - really, really sensitive - and self-conscious. That voice gave people the wrong impression of toughness and an overbearing attitude," Lansbury said.

What I didn't know until I read the obituaries for Arthur was that she had a Maryland connection.

Born Beatrice Frankel in New York City, Arthur moved in 1934 to Cambridge, where her parents owned and operated a department store.

She was a graduate of Cambridge High School, where her fellow students recalled her hysterical imitations of Mae West.

She recalled her childhood there in a 1991 interview with the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail.

"That town was stifling," she told a reporter. "Three of us got out. Me, John Barth and the guy who wrote 'You Are My Sunshine,' My dream was to become a very small blonde movie star like Ida Lupino and those other women I saw up there on the screen during the Depression."

In 1973, when Sen. Frederick C. Malkus, a Lower Shore Democrat, submitted a resolution before the General Assembly congratulating Arthur for "her accomplishments in the entertainment field," Sen. Robert E. Bauman, an Upper Shore Republican, balked.

Bauman said he found Arthur's character on Maude objectionable because she slept with men she wasn't married to and had an abortion.

"I think the show should be taken off the air," he told The Sun.

Malkus responded: "All I know is that she's from a good, solid, average family. I knew the lady when she went to Cambridge High School. I don't believe everything I see on television."

The resolution passed on a voice vote without Bauman's support.

Last week, Broadway theaters dimmed their marquee lights for a minute in a much-deserved tribute to the Eastern Shore actress.

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