It was a late September night in 1964 when Broadway welcomed to the Imperial Theatre what would become a classic of musical theatre, “Fiddler on the Roof”. Opening night brought raves from all sides; the play was described the next day in the New York Times review as “filled with laughter and tenderness”. In one of the major roles, the busybody matchmaker Yente, Beatrice Arthur made the part her own and became a favorite of theatre-goers for the musical’s lengthy run.
Bernice Frankel was born in New York on May 13, 1922, and moved with her parents to Maryland when she was eleven. Her parents ran a women’s clothing shop while she was growing up and Bernice was able to enjoy a private school education. Always interested in theatre and music, she enrolled at 25 in the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in New York.
Always an original thinker, Arthur opted during the second world war to join the Women’s Reserve of the Marine Corps. There she worked at various times as a typist and truck driver. She did meet her first husband, Robert Aurthur, a fellow marine, and although the marriage didn’t last, she did amend the spelling of his name and used it during her career. In 1950, Bea Arthur married director Gene Saks – and this union lasted nearly thirty years. The couple has two adopted sons.
Bea Arthur had “the look”, the arched eyebrow with a sarcastic remark poised to leave her lips. Her timing throughout her career was impeccable, and her acting ability carried her through successful runs on television, motion pictures and the stage.
In television, two landmark roles etched Bea Arthur in the consciousness of American viewers. First, she brought liberal feminism to new heights when she played Maude Findlay, first in the series “’All in the Family” and then in her own series, called “Maude”. Later, she was one of an endearing cast of retired ladies who lived in Florida, “The Golden Girls”. Bea Arthur’s role was as supply teacher, Dorothy, coping with her job, her love life and a strong-minded Sicilian mother, Sophia. She won Emmys for both these roles. The theatre was always a strong pull for Arthur, and later in her career she toured with a successful one-woman show, “An Evening with Bea Arthur” and later “Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends”.
Two years after her stage debut in “Fiddler on the Roof”, Bea Arthur appeared as Vera Charles in the musical, “Mame”. This time she won a Tony for her work. She recreated this role in the movie version of “Mame” with Lucille Ball in 1974.
Arthur also earned fame and respect as an outspoken advocate for many groups- the poor, the elderly, the gay, the Jewish community. She also strongly supported animal rights and was involved with PETA. There is a Bea Arthur Dog Park in Norfolk, Virginia, near the PETA headquarters.
Enjoying a career that spanned nearly seventy years, Beatrice Arthur has left her mark. On April 28, 2009, following her death at age 86 from cancer, the lights of Broadway were dimmed in her honor.
To see a video biography of Bea Arthur, go to YouTube.