Considering how much cheesecake The Golden Girls ate, it’s surprising that more episodes weren’t about diabetes or heart disease. The dessert was a staple part of many a late night session around the cosy kitchen table as the four women discussed their latest crises, which usually centred around men, either past or present.
On the face of things they made unlikely bedfellows. Rose was sweet and naïve, filled with heart-warming stories of her decidedly strange hometown of St. Olaf, Minnesota. Blanche was her opposite; loud and colourful, always ready with a risqué remark or a racy story about one of her male conquests. Dorothy was sardonic and cynical, often offering the only sensible viewpoint out of the four; and her mother Sophia was perhaps the shortest and most sarcastic pensioner living in Florida. Despite frequent conflicts of opinions however, it was clear that the quartet cared deeply for each other, and the programme shared many of their happy moments together.
The house, situated in Miami, belonged to Blanche. After advertising her rooms for rent in the local grocer’s store, Dorothy and Rose applied and subsequently moved in. After she’d had a stroke, Dorothy had placed a resentful Sophia in Shady Pines retirement home, but then the place was destroyed by fire (hmm, she hated the place and then it burned down? Convenient…) and she too moved into Blanche’s house. So the scene was set; the four women were ready to share their ups and downs - and a lot of saturated fat.
Let’s have a look at each ‘girl’ in a bit more detail:
Blanche Devereaux (played by Rue McClanahan) was an Atlanta-born daughter of a wealthy plantation owner (who she referred to as ‘Big Daddy’). Now a widow, she had been married to her high-school sweetheart George, who died shortly before we pick up the first episode. They had six children, all of whom are either spoken about or appear during the course of the series, and who Blanche had a less than perfect relationship with, particularly her two daughters. Blanche had, shall we say, a ‘healthy romantic appetite’ and was not shy about what she was doing and with whom. It could be said that since losing George, who was obviously the love of her life (although the relationship was not perfect as we find out that Blanche once discovered that he had a secret love child), she was forever searching for a replacement for him, although as we also saw her frequently turn down good men, and pick up with unsuitable ones, perhaps subconsciously she knew that she would never find one.
Rose Nylund (the ever-youthful Betty White) started an awful lot of conversations with ‘Back in St. Olaf…’, a phrase that made Blanche, Dorothy and Sophia sigh wearily (Rose’s inanity was often the butt of the other three’s sharp barbs) but made the audience of The Golden Girls smile with anticipation. The description of the Norwegian farming town that Rose gave us could have come straight from the imagination of Roald Dahl; filled full of eccentric characters with strange habits and rituals. The team behind The Golden Girls missed a trick here; who wouldn’t want to visit St. Olaf Theme Park?
Rose may have been comically naïve (for a long time she believed her real father to be Bob Hope), but her heart was unendingly kind and St. Olaf honoured this by awarding her Woman of the Year in 1988. Judging by the picture Rose painted of her home town she may not have had much competition of course…
Rose was married to Charlie for 22 years, before his death from a heart attack. They had an extremely happy marriage which produced five children, and Rose often felt that no man she met afterwards could measure up. College professor Miles Webber (Harold Gould) came close; and was a long term boyfriend until a little matter of the mafia reared its ugly head between them…
And then there was statuesque Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur); the pillar of reason amongst the housemates. Her height allowed her to take on a commanding role if she needed to (particularly against any men that stepped out of line) but also made it hard for her to feel as feminine as she might have like to have done; particularly when comparing herself to Blanche with her overt flirting, and Rose’s cuteness.
She and Blanche had a tempestuous relationship at times; Dorothy disapproved of Blanche’s multitude of partners (although this could be put down instead as an envy of her comfortableness with her sexuality), and Blanche occasionally resented Dorothy’s intelligence and various other abilities. Despite this, if either of them were faced with adversity, the other would become their staunchest ally without a second’s thought.
Dorothy’s ex-husband Stan (Herbert Edelman) was a recurring character in many episodes. Having got Dorothy pregnant whilst they were still in high school they got married to ensure the baby wasn’t born out of wedlock. A second child followed and the couple spent 38 years together before divorcing after Stan ran off with a younger woman. How Dorothy managed to stick him for that long was a mystery; Stan was a weasel of a man and spent most of his time either cheating or scrounging off of those he met. Sophia never tried to hide her dislike of him.
Ah yes, Sophia (Estelle Getty); queen of the acerbic one-liner. There was nothing Sophia liked better than to put somebody in their place with a sharp put-down, and she took full advantage of the wealth of material available via Blanche’s varied love-life, Dorothy’s lack of one, and Rose’s foolish remarks. Dorothy was the only one able to silence her mother, usually with a sharp ‘Shady Pines, Ma!’
Despite her acid tongue, Sophia was a mother figure for all three ladies, and when problems occurred she was the one they turned to for help. She was more than happy to dispense her wisdom, and would normally recount a personal experience (possibly apocryphal) that would begin with ‘Picture this….’
Running away from an arranged marriage, and her native Sicily, as a teenager, she grew up in Brooklyn – although she carried a strong sense of her heritage with her, even occasionally mentioning her ties to the Mob. It was in New York she married Salvadore Petrillo, and they had three children: Dorothy, Gloria and Phil. A widow when the show began, during the series she married her late husband’s business partner Max Weinstock but soon discovered that they were only ever destined to be friends, although Sophia’s Catholicism prevented them from divorcing.
The Golden Girls ran on NBC from September 1985 until May 1992, and not only was it massively successful, both the programme and its stars won several awards during its lifetime. These included two Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series, three Golden Globes for Best Television Series, and an Emmy each for Betty, Bea, Rue and Estelle.
The combination of the lead actresses’ chemistry and the witty scripts drew a lot of famous cameos; George Clooney, Sonny Bono, Bob Hope, Julio Iglesias, Debbie Reynolds and Mickey Rooney were but a few of those who showed up on set over the years.
Seven seasons were made, and finally Bea Arthur felt that The Girls had had their Golden time, and the programme should be brought to a close. In the last episode, Dorothy finally found her man, (Blanche’s Uncle Lucas, played by Leslie Nielsen) and the two married and moved back to Blanche’s old stamping ground of Georgia.
For the others however, it wasn’t quite the end. Sophia decided to stay with Rose and Blanche, and in a slightly unbelievable move the three of them opened a hotel, which also gave rise to the name of the new programme, The Golden Palace. Broadcasting for 24 episodes from September 1992 until May 1993 it also starred Don Cheadle as the hotel manager, and Cheech Marin who shared chef duties with a much gentler Sophia. Blanche was also a paler version of her man-hungry former self whilst Rose suddenly grew more ballsy, and stood up for herself when she needed to.
The original Golden Girls series was remade in Russia, Greece, Spain, the Netherlands and Turkey. I can’t comment on these as I never saw them, but I did see about ten minutes of the UK version, the Brighton Belles. And I completely understand why it was cancelled after six weeks, despite eleven episodes being made. We should never speak of it again.