- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 25, 2001

NEW YORK — Before there was Maude Findlay, the liberal scourge of television's Archie Bunker, or Dorothy Zbornak, the outspoken divorcee of "Golden Girls," there was a whole career onstage for Bea Arthur.
We're not just talking Vera Charles, the acerbic bosom buddy of Mame Dennis in both the Broadway (with good friend Angela Lansbury) and the movie (with Lucille Ball) versions of the musical "Mame."
Miss Arthur currently is touring the country with an informal evening of entertainment called "… And Then There's Bea." (The show is due at the Warner Theatre from Oct. 2 to 7.) It's a collection of stories and songs that, she says, "touch, tickle or enrage me."
"I just want you to think of me as an old friend who's come to your house for dinner," says Miss Arthur, stylishly done up in a peach pantsuit and inexplicably sitting unnoticed in the library of a West Side Manhattan hotel.
Well, maybe an old friend who is also bringing along her impeccable sense of comic timing and the ability to make you laugh while chitchatting about her latest show-business adventure. Expect a New York opening sometime next spring.
A conversation with Miss Arthur is filled with dynamite pauses (the pause-filled plays of Harold Pinter have nothing on this actress) accompanied by those raised eyebrows and the if-looks-could-kill stare that used to precede her "God will get you for that" on "Maude."
This is a woman somewhere in her mid-to-late 70s (she won't reveal her exact age) with definite opinions, expressed in her distinctive, basement-mezzo voice.
When asked if her new project is autobiographical, she shotguns a response: "I hate autobiographical 'That's the year I sang' kind of stuff. And besides, they are usually much older ladies with dyed hair who do that," she adds dryly, defiantly shaking her gray locks.
Yet there will be an occasional anecdote, she concedes. After all, Miss Arthur has appeared in some landmark theater productions. They include the long-running 1954 off-Broadway revival of "The Threepenny Opera," which starred Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill's widow, and was responsible for the renewed American interest in the German-born composer.
Then, 10 years later, came "Fiddler on the Roof" "The Producers" of its day in which Miss Arthur played the matchmaker in the Russian village of Anatevka, home to Tevye, the musical theater's most famous milkman.
Miss Arthur and her stalwart, longtime pianist Billy Goldenberg have been working on her current show for nearly three years. It was birthed in Palm Springs, Calif., where the duo were signed for an AIDS benefit and then discovered they were the only performers on the bill. Panic attack.
"So I started thinking which one of us should get sick," Miss Arthur says, flashing another one of those looks. "And then a friend suggested, 'Look, why don't you go out and tell something funny and then simply say, "I'm just going to do whatever we want to do. So I am just going to sing."'"
The program was only 20 minutes long, but it was a big hit. Some tinkering and the addition of more material at various venues from Big Bear, Calif., to Westport, Conn., to the Great Waters Music Festival in Wolfeboro, N.H., moved the show further along. Richard Maltby Jr., who guided the revue "Ain't Misbehavin'" to success, has come aboard to supervise the proceedings.
The current version began with a kerplunk last April at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. On opening night, Miss Arthur fell into the orchestra pit.
"Minneapolis has a huge thrust stage and I thought I was walking into the wings because I saw lights there. I wasn't," she says. "I went into the pit, about a 3-feet drop." Miss Arthur, her ankle taped up, worked the fall into her act at the next performance.
It was only one of many ongoing revisions for the piece, which she still considers a work-in-progress.
Songs are being added and subtracted. Some are immutable. No way could she leave out "Bosom Buddies," the catty duet she did with Miss Lansbury in "Mame." But yanked was one of her favorite and most unlikely numbers: Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'."
"It probably was the first time people would have heard the lyrics," she says with a low chortle. "I loved the sentiment of the thing, which is you had better shape up because things are going to be different."
Yet Miss Arthur and Mr. Goldenberg realized the song just didn't fit. "The number was a downer for where we were going," she says. "It was difficult to weed out. It's like saying, 'Who is your favorite child?'"
Miss Arthur's brashness brands her forever as a New Yorker, but California has been her home now for more than two decades.
"I don't know why I am staying in LA," she says. "The kids (two sons) are grown. I'm not married (divorced from director Gene Saks). But I have two gorgeous Dobermans and a lot of land. That's really what keeps me there."
Miss Arthur doesn't watch much television these days except news programs and crazy shows such as MTV's "Celebrity Deathmatch."
"Of course, if I wake up in the middle of the night, I'll watch 'Golden Girls' or 'Maude.' I enjoy watching them because I never watched them when I was doing the shows," she says. "I felt it would inhibit me. You know, they are damn good."
Miss Arthur is not one to run from her celebrity, even in public places.
"When I first come out onstage in this show, it's like people know me. I've been in their living rooms every 15 minutes. If people come up to me, I figure it's because they like me.
"People say to me, 'You do your own grocery shopping?' I say, 'Of course. I usually meet Angela in produce.'"


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