For Bea Arthur, the change of life came late. It occurred in 1992, when she walked away from the long-running "Golden Girls" that had followed the long-running "Maude," not knowing where she wanted to go next in a career that had started all the way back doing Sartre, Lorca and Pirandello at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village in the late 1940's; knowing only that, after 20 years on the tube, she didn't want to do any more episodic TV.
"I just felt that the majority of my life had been spent in that little box," she says. "It's enough, it's enough." And now, she tells audiences at the Booth Theatre, "tonight, I'm out of the box, life-sized."
Anyone who's ever seen Bea Arthur knows that "life-sized" in her case is nothing to sneeze at. "I was a very, very shy, very withdrawn child," she says in the show. "Possibly because even at age eight I think I was five-foot-nine in my stocking feet, with a very deep voice."
The "age eight" is a bit of an exaggeration for dramatic effect, she will, offstage, confess, but she did soon enough grow to five-nine-plus, and twice onstage throws in a reference to the "enormous breasts" that early flowered above those stocking feet.
Very shy, very withdrawn, indeed — which is why the audiences of 28 towns on the road have been collapsing in laughter at Bea Arthur's remembrance of such true-life moments as the great Lotte Lenya of The Threepenny Opera saying: "Oh, Bea, don't be silly, men love a big behind," or of Bernie Schwartz, the kid "with a horrible New York-ese accent" who used to come down the aisle peddling "An apple for a nickel!" at New School Dramatic Workshop productions, suddenly — after a six-month absence, during which his name became Tony Curtis — popping in at the rear of a Dramatic Workshop assembly to inform one and all: "Pssssst! I just f^&*ed my first movie star!" The show at the Booth is called Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends, meaning everyone in the house. The two longtime friends onstage are Ms. Arthur with Mr. Billy Goldenberg at the piano.
"Billy and I have been joined at the hip ever since we did three numbers together at a big ACLU event in Los Angeles in 1981," says the deep-voiced lady who during the evening serves up a high-spiced potpourri of memories, palaver, and song (including Kurt Weill's "Pirate Jenny," in honor of Lotte Lenya, Andy Razaf's zero-entendre "If I Can't Sell It, I'll Keep Sittin' on It," Marilyn and Alan Bergman's heart-wrenching "Where Do You Start?" and Mama Rose's "Some People").
Of the opening, at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, of the tour that has led to Broadway, she says: "Oh my God, I can tell you exactly — April 24. The Guthrie has a thrust stage, and I was making an exit after a number. Thought I was walking into the wings, and instead fell right into the [orchestra] pit at stage right. No, actually didn't break anything, but my ankle blew up like a watermelon. Worse than that, with all those people out there, you look like a horse's ass. Oh, yes, trouper that I am, they pulled me up and I went back onstage."
What she doesn't touch on at the Booth is her own personal history: born Berenice Frankel in New York City — "a child of the Depression" — to Philip and Rebecca Frankel, who moved themselves and their daughters to Cambridge, Maryland, where the Frankels opened a clothing store.
"I quickly changed my name to Bea because I hated Berenice. And then [at 19 or so] I married an Arthur." To be precise, an Aurthur — writer Robert Alan Aurthur. A considerably longer-lasting marriage (1950-1978) was to actor-turned-director Gene Saks. "Yes, of course we're still friends. If you have kids . . . ." The kids are Matt Saks, a graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse who nowadays, instead of acting, "buys terribly run-down houses and turns them into things of beauty," and Danny Saks, a scenic designer whose wife Thea may have given birth to a daughter by the time you read this.
She'd love to take the show to London, perhaps to Sydney, and hopes the New York run will lead to that. "But let's be honest: With New York critics, there's a stigma attached to people who've been successful on television. My answer is: I started on the stage, so I hope you'll forgive my success."
Pirandello and Lorca say you're forgiven, Bea. Sartre is thinking it over.