According to family members, when I was a very little girl, I used to wrap my pyjama top around my shoulders like a shawl and strut down the hallway of my grandmother’s house saying in a three or four year old’s version of a Southern drawl, “Hello, my name is Blanche Devereaux.” While this narcissistic, man-hungry, oversexed Southern Belle may not have been the most ideal role model for such a young child, I know that it was Rue McClanahan’s sharp instinct for comedy and the warmth of spirit that she infused into the heart of all her scenes on The Golden Girls that endeared her so vibrantly to me. I was terribly saddened to learn that Ms. McClanahan passed away from a brain haemorrhage following a stroke on June 3rd, 2010 in Manhattan.
She, along with her other Golden Girl cast mates, belonged to a generation of performers who were trained for the theatre, and whose acting skill and talents for song and dance enriched not only the performances that they were able to give on television, but also allowed for these television programs to rise to a superior level of comedic sophistication. Ms. McClanahan studied ballet and drama in New York after graduating with honours in Drama from the University of Tulsa in 1956 and she made her professional debut at Erie Playhouse in Pennsylvania the next year. Throughout the 1960s she performed on stages in New York, making her Broadway debut in Jimmy Shine as Sally Weber in 1968. Iconic American playwright Tennessee Williams once wrote that her, “work is that rare combination of earthiness and lapidary polish, that quality being utterly common and utterly noble. Frippery combined with fierceness.” She became a successful television star playing Vivian Cavender Harmon on Maude (1971-78), the best friend of Bea Arthur who played the title character. Both McClanahan and Arthur would, of course, go on to play Blanche Devereaux and Dorothy Zbornak respectively on The Golden Girls, which seized the Number One rating its first night in 1985, stayed in the top ten for six seasons and garnered Ms. McClanahan an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 1987. She also played Reverend Mother Mary Regina in a televised version of Nunsense (1993) and replaced Carole Shelley as Madame Morrible in Wicked on Broadway in 2005.
There is something incredibly divine in being able to sit in a theatre and to watch actors on a stage who are truly passionate about their work and who excel at the perfected craft of making people laugh. Unfortunately, this experience is not always accessible and only the truly privileged obtain the opportunity to see the very best performers in the World live before their eyes. It was through television that I, as a Haligonian preschooler, became captivated by Rue McClanahan, and I believe that when television uses it mass media powers to disseminate performances like that of Ms. McClanahan, Ms. Arthur, Ms. White and Ms. Getty, a few among an entire plethora of brilliant versatile performers of this era of entertainment, it maximizes its potential for shaping lives and offering everyone an experience that they will hold on to and cherish for the rest of their lives.
I learned to discern quality quickly, I believe, because the level of sophistication in the performances that I watched on television as a very young child were of such a distinct and exceptional calibre. I will always think on Rue McClanahan with a grateful smile for all the laughter and light that she has given to me. Thank you, Ms. McClanahan, for sharing your talents with us, and thank you for being a friend.