Before The Golden Girls, There Was Maude

Bea Arthur’s two sitcom divas were so different — and eerily similar.

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Rue McClanahan and Bea Arthur on Maude (Photo: CBS)
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Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Betty White, and Estelle Getty on The Golden Girls (Photo: NBC)

In one of the early episodes of The Golden Girls, the 1985-1992 Sex and the City forerunner set in Miami instead of New York, Dorothy Zbornak (Beatrice Arthur, as the Carrie Bradshaw of the bunch) said something that’s stayed with me all these years. She and her BFFs, Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan) and Rose Nylund (Betty White) were sitting around the kitchen table (of course) talking about the challenges of growing older.

Dorothy acknowledged that she was at an age (55 when the series began, though Arthur was 63) when 40 actually seemed young. Despite her tone of weary resignation in that scene, most of the time, Dorothy seemed pretty comfortable in her vintage skin.

How far Arthur had come in a decade. In 1975, as Maude Findlay, her iconic character on the ’70s sitcom Maude, she spent all of season four, episode nine (“Maude Bares Her Soul”) lamenting her uneasiness over her impending 50th birthday during a monologue session with her therapist.

Dorothy probably celebrated 50 with a sensible meal, a good book, confident that she was indeed entering her prime. What a lady.

Maude or Dorothy?

I go back and forth on whom I love more, Maude or Dorothy. They were alike in so many ways, and at the same time, so different.

Dorothy was presumably liberal, but, for the most part, she kept her politics — and her psychological shortcomings — to herself. Maude was liberal for show (or, as Arthur put it, “a misguided liberal”), riddled with neuroses and conceited in the way the most insecure people often are. She and Blanche Devereaux had that mask of extreme confidence in common. They either would have loved each other even more than Dorothy and Blanche did, or they would have killed each other.

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“Mixed Blessings” (Photo: NBC)

When Dorothy’s son Michael brought home a black woman twice his age, Dorothy was torn up over their differences (“Mixed Blessings,” season three, episode 23). When Maude’s daughter Carol brought home an 11-years-younger Republican (season five, episode seven), Maude was torn up in a much more flamboyant fashion. If Carol’s beau had been black, it might have lessened the sting for Maude, a staunch Democrat and self-anointed Friend of The Negro.

In a season four episode, she was diagnosed as bipolar, which explained a lot of her extreme, contradictory behavior throughout the series. Dorothy, on the other hand, was probably the most mentally stable of the The Golden Girls’ ladies who lunched on the linai.

Both Maude and Dorothy were divorcees, and Maude was also a widow. During her six-season TV run, unlike Dorothy up until the Golden series finale, she was married … for the fourth time. Perhaps partly as a result of her two divorces compared to Dorothy’s one (and her own tendency to put on airs, something Dorothy never did), Maude was less trusting.

Remember Barbara Thorndyke, that haughty author Dorothy befriended and Blanche and Rose hated in season three, episode 15 of The Golden Girls? Maude would have read her like an open book, thoroughly and accurately, from Barbara’s first pretentious sentence.

But wait. Where have I seen that before?

The disparities between the two sitcom divas were significant, but as I started watching Maude reruns on YouTube six years ago (I was too young during its original run to process much about the series), I kept getting eerie deja vu feelings. Whenever the action entered Maude’s kitchen, I was struck by how much it reminded me of the one in which Dorothy offered that memorable take on 40.

In fact, if Maude’s fourth husband Walter (Bill Macy) had been Dorothy’s ex Stanley Zbornak (Herb Edelman), The Golden Girls could have been a mellowed-by-middle age Maude’s life after a third divorce and a relocation from New York to Miami. Remember, Dorothy was from New York, too.

Were Maude Findlay and Dorothy Zbornak actually the same person in different decades and zip codes (Tuckahoe, New York’s 10707 vs. Miami’s 33101 et al)? Of course not, but it’s still fun to spot the similarities and overlaps between their two shows and the characters played by the top-billed star of both.

Were Maude Findlay and Dorothy Zbornak actually the same person in different decades and zip codes?

Settle into a comfortable seat on the linai and read on …

1. The biggest thing Maude and The Golden Girls had in common was Rue McClanahan. Before she was Blanche Devereaux, she aged up a decade or so to play Maude’s lifelong bestie Vivian, who often came across as Rose in Blanche’s body. Speaking of Rose, Betty White was named-dropped as a Tonight Show guest by a TV announcer in one episode of Maude.

2. Both Maude and Dorothy pronounced “despicable” DES-pic-able.

3. Maude performed “Hard Hearted Hannah (The Vamp of Savannah)” in season two, episode 10 of Maude, as did Dorothy in the seventh and final Golden Girls season. Yep, that was the song she sang when Blanche was consumed by jealousy after Dorothy took over as the belle of The Rusty Anchor, Blanche’s favorite watering hole (episode 18).

4. Two sophomore-season episodes of Maude were dedicated to Maude getting a facelift. Dorothy once admitted to having had her eyes done.

5. The polygamist that Blanche almost married in The Golden Girls’ pilot was played by the same actor (Frank Aletter) who portrayed the older man who was briefly betrothed to Maude’s daughter Carol in season one, episode seven. Incidentally, both Blanche and Carol got involved with much older and much younger men over the course of their respective series.

6. Season two, episode 11 of Maude featured an appearance by Louis Guss, the actor who played the man Sophia met in the personals whose dying wife wanted Sophia to replace her in season seven, episode 13 of The Golden Girls.

7. The actress who played the wife of the guy who died of a heart attack in Rose’s bed in “In a Bed or Roses,” season one, episode 15 of The Golden Girls, previously appeared in “Maude Gets a Job,” the third episode of Maude’s fourth season.

8. “What fools these mortals be.” That’s a Shakespearean line Dorothy once pretentiously quoted, as did Maude in the ninth episode of the second season.

9. Remember when Rose announced that she always sang the song “Over There” when she was scared and the gang broke into it as Blanche was being wheeled into the operating room to have a pacemaker installed (season five, episode 17)? Well, Bea Arthur also sang it as Maude in season two, episode 14.

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“Maude Meets the Duke” (Photo: CBS)

10. In season three, episode one of Maude, the one with a guest appearance by John Wayne, Maude uttered the line: “I, for one, intend to question Mr. Wayne on the important issues of the day.” Dorothy said the same thing about President George Bush when she learned he’d be coming to their house in the two-parter “The President’s Coming! The President’s Coming!” (season five, episodes 25 and 26).

11. Both Maude and The Golden Girls devoted an entire episode to a supposed UFO sighting.

12. In Maude’s 20th episode, Maude’s visiting friend Jane was estranged from her daughter Linda over an inheritance that Jane’s late husband had left the younger woman. A similar scenario played out between Rose and her daughter over Rose’s late husband Charlie’s estate in the 16th episode of The Golden Girls.

13. A character by the name of Miss Devereaux popped up in Maude’s “Business Person of the Year,” the 10th episode of the sixth season. Eerie, right?

14. Both shows had amazing theme songs. Maude’s was sung by the late Donny Hathaway, who had Top 40 hits with Roberta Flack in the ’70s. Meanwhile, The Golden Girls’ “Thank You for Being a Friend” was written by the late Andrew Gold, who had a Top 40 hit with it in the ’70s.

15. During the first two seasons, Maude employed a sassy black maid named Florida (Esther Rolle, who later played the same character on the spin-off sitcom Good Times), whom she initially patronized because of her white liberal guilt. Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche once employed a sassy black maid named Maguerite (Paula Kelly), whom they patronized because they were afraid she had cast a spell on them (season three, episode four). Alas, Maguerite lasted only one episode.

16. In addition to the aforementioned double-dipping guest stars, a number of others appeared in episodes of both sitcoms.

  • Herb Edelman, who had a recurring role as Dorothy’s ex-husband Stanley on The Golden Girls, was in “Maude the Boss,” season three, episode 11 of the earlier series.
  • Conrad Janis played the host of Beat the Devil in “The Game Show,” season five, episode eight of Maude. (Sounds a bit like “Grab That Dough,” season three, episode 16 of The Golden Girls, no?) He was also the dance-off emcee in “One for the Money” season three, episode two of The Golden Girls.
  • Edward Winter appeared in the Maude episode “The Ecologist” (season six, episode eight) and later as the blind guy Blanche dated on The Golden Girls (season four, episode 12).
  • Craig Richard Nelson, the actor who portrayed the man who played with fire when the girls were held hostage by Santa on Christmas Eve (season two, episode 11) also appeared in “The Gay Bar,” season six, episode nine of Maude.

Fun fact:

Between Maude and The Golden Girls, Bea Arthur starred in the short-lived 1983 sitcom Amanda’s, a U.S. remake of the British classic Fawlty Towers. Playing the owner of a California seaside hotel, Arthur preceded her future Golden Girls roommates in the hospitality business by nine years. Sadly, she stayed in business for only 13 episodes.

Yep, remember The Golden Palace, CBS’s in which Rose, Blanche, and Sophia, minus Dorothy for all but two of the 24 episodes, sold their Miami house to buy a Miami hotel? If you don’t, check it out on YouTube. Although it lasted just one season, it’s a lot funnier now than it was to me at the time.

So whom do I love most, Maude Findlay or Dorothy Zbornak? Neither … and both. Sophie may have had to choose, but I don’t. Maude and The Golden Girls were two of the best sitcoms of all-time, and a decade after her passing, Bea Arthur remains a national treasure. We’re lucky to have had her as a regular in our homes … twice.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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