TAKING THE GOOD, TAKING THE BAD:
Charlotte Rae Shares The Facts of Her Life
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who grew up in the 1980’s who can’t sing the famous theme song to “The Facts of Life”. Of course, it wasn’t just the show’s catchy opening tune that won the affections of the American public for over ten years. Television audiences fell in love with the sitcom’s four girls: Blair, Jo, Natalie, and Tootie. At the heart of the show was Charlotte Rae’s iconic Edna Garrett, who ruled over the all-girls Eastland School (and beyond…) with a mix of common-sense advice and quick wit. “The Facts of Life” was not a hit when it initially debuted in 1979, but the Season Two premiere of the retooled series saw an immediate boom in ratings. By its third season, “The Facts of Life” had become the number one comedy and the number two overall program for NBC. For the first time, it even beat out its predecessor “Diff’rent Strokes”, the show that first introduced us to Mrs. Garrett. “Facts” went on to become one of the longest-running sitcoms of the 1980’s, and Rae received the Primetime Emmy Award Nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy in 1982.
Charlotte Rae’s beloved Mrs. Garrett won the hardworking actress a new level of professional success as well as worldwide recognition. Although she was now seen in living rooms across America every week, Rae was no stranger to show business. Born Charlotte Rae Lubotsky in Milwaukee, the inimitable actress got her start in theater, where she received Tony nominations for “Pickwick” in 1965 and “Morning, Noon, and Night” in 1969. And, before she ever donned Edna Garrett’s apron, Rae had already been seen in over 28 TV shows and commercials. With a career spanning six decades, the actress has just released her autobiography, named “The Facts of My Life”. In the book, Rae recounts many colorful stories about her career as a performer, from her beginnings as a fresh face in 1950’s New York City. Her life, however, wasn’t just a constant stream of spotlights and applause. Alongside the glory, the star faced many personal and professional hurdles– and in her new book, she candidly shares them with the reader. Those struggles included alcohol dependence, the shock of her husband coming out of the closet, serious health issues, and the challenge of raising an autistic child. In the end, Rae emerges as a true survivor.
Today, the actress is busier than ever. The self-described “lucky lady” is currently recording the audiobook for “The Facts of My Life”. She will also be returning to her beloved Big Apple on October 24 to participate in a one-night-only reading of George Bernard Shaw’s “On The Rocks” at New York City’s Symphony Space, as part of The Gingold Theatrical Group’s monthly “Project Shaw”. Now living in California, Charlotte Rae took the time to speak with me about her new book, as well as her life at 90 years young:
JR: Thank you for speaking with me. Congratulations on the new book!
CR: Thank YOU! I hope you enjoyed the read.
JR: Very much so! How has the response to “The Facts of My Life” been so far?
CR: Everyone feels that I’m actually talking to them; that it’s very intimate and very honest. People tell me that they read it straight through, and that they have really gotten involved with it. I’ve gotten lots of letters and lots of e-mails. People seem to have enjoyed it very much… and I hope you did too!
JR: Oh, yes! As a child of the ’80’s, I grew up with “The Facts of Life”. I watched it religiously when it was on– as did a lot of other people, obviously! The show and all the characters really made their mark on American pop culture. But in the book, we learn that it was actually a long, hard road to your success on TV. There were the endless auditions, and the previous TV shows that didn’t quite make it, and a lot of small acting jobs along the way. When “The Facts of Life” became a success, did you finally believe, “Wow! This is the reward for all my hard work. The moment has finally come!”?
CR: Yeah! I was very grateful. It was a beautiful experience. The girls were really quite terrific. (Laughs) I mean, they were going through puberty! Today they say, “Oh my God! What we put you through!” (Laughs) I felt like “the old horse”. I was very patient. They were going through what they had to go through, but they were good girls. And now that they are women, we are still very close– especially Nancy McKeon, who played Jo; and Lisa Whelchel, who played Blair; and Kim Fields, who played Tootie. It’s “woman to woman” now. We talk about children, and about life… and it’s quite marvelous that we’ve been bonded all these years. They’re grown up, in their 40’s and 50’s. It’s amazing, isn’t it?
JR: Yes it is! And, “The Facts of Life” is still being shown on cable TV. People really loved your Mrs. Garrett. She was a motherly figure and a great role model for the girls, but it was rare that she out-and-out told them what to do; She instead tried to get them to figure out the right thing to do on their own! She guided them.
CR: Right! She only talked about and shared her own experiences. She really didn’t want to give advice. She didn’t want to be one of “those” people! You know what I mean?
JR: Yes! So, as we were talking about, it was a long road to “The Facts of Life”. Early in the book you wrote about how at one time, in your theater days, you went from being in two shows at the same time to being unemployed.
CS: You got it! Being an actor is not like any other job. It’s not easy. I felt like a hooker! (Both laugh) You never know when your next job is going to come along.
JR: Does it ever get annoying for you when people see you on the street and yell out, “MRS. GAR-RETT!”?
CR: I don’t mind. I don’t mind at all. When I used to go to New York, I’d sometimes take the subway. I don’t do it anymore! (Laughs) I just celebrated my 90th birthday, so I’m not like a little gazelle anymore, going up and down those stairs like that! But I remember coming up the stairs of the subway at 77nd Street, and I bumped into this big, tall, handsome guy. I looked at him, and then we embraced each other without saying a word. And then he went down to the subway. So, I love it all. I don’t mind it. No, no, no! If people had a positive experience with Mrs. Garrett, that makes me so happy!
JR: Wow! That’s so good to hear. So, when a lot of people read a celebrity autobiography, they may expect a lot of, shall we say, “dish” about other celebrities, or an expose of show business. I didn’t really notice that with your book. On the contrast, you seem to really make a point how wonderful and supportive most people were…
CR: I’m very glad that you noticed that. I didn’t want to do that. I just wanted to celebrate the people that I love. As for the people who were difficult, I didn’t see any point in trying to put them down. I say, “God bless them”…. and I stay away from them!
CR: But I really do “let it all hang out”. I really do tell it all, don’t I?
JR: Yes! You are very open about your life, and there was a lot of heartbreak along the way. You talk about your sons: Larry Strauss, who I see you co-wrote the book with…
CR: Yes! The book never even would have been written if he hadn’t been like, “Mom, you’re 87, and I think it’s time you wrote your memoirs!” I said, “I can’t do it. I’m not a writer!” He answered back, “Well, I AM!” He’s written many beautiful novels and other things. He said, “You tell me about it, and I’ll write it.” I thought to myself, “I’m not just gonna make this a boring ‘And then I did this… and then I did this… and then I got this award and then I got that award…'” Then, I thought that it wouldn’t do any harm to tell people that my life, like most lives, has been full of a lot of “stuff”. Some of it has been fabulous and great. Some of it has been really tough. So I tell them about my son Andy who was autistic. There was nothing about autism in those days. NOTHING! No one even knew what it was. When the doctor said that he was autistic, I thought he said, “ARTISTIC”. I was like, “Thank God. He’s just a little offbeat, a little artistic. It’s OK.”
JR: You said, “It runs in the family!”
CR: Yeah! Anyway, that was a long, long thing… I think we did well with him. My husband John, and my son Larry, and I did everything possible to make his life as good as can be. God bless him. He passed at the age of 45. And then, there was the alcoholism. I’ve been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 42 years, and it’s really saved me. I was going through so much anguish. My drug of choice to go to sleep was alcohol. I found the program, and it’s been simply wonderful. I’m still hanging in there with it. I also talk about my husband John. He found the program too. I was his little channel– his angel to find it. I loved him dearly, and then he finally told me that he was bisexual. That was a blow. But we continued to have a beautiful relationship even after the divorce. I loved him until the day he passed. He was a good dad and a tremendously creative man.
JR: You went through a lot of emotionally rough circumstances in life, especially with raising Andy. The whole time, you were working one job after another to support your family– not like a celebrity who was working just to buy a third Rolls Royce, for example. What gave you the strength to get through all those rough times?
CR: I do believe that there is some power higher than me. I’m not a religious freak, but I do believe that there is a higher power. Obviously I’ve pulled through so many things. I was going to give up acting and just devote myself to Andy– and then I found this wonderful woman named Elsbeth Pfeiffer who worked at Bank Street School. She had worked with Anna Freud. She used to come to the Bellevue Deviant Children’s Ward. They called it the “Deviant Children’s Ward”. Isn’t that awful? I used to bring him to Bellevue every day to be with Elsbeth. She was one of God’s little angels who supported me. She said to me, in her German accent, “It’s not your fault, Mrs. Strauss! No, no, no!” She always made me feel like I was doing all the good things, and she said, “No, you mustn’t give up your work! It is very important that you continue with your work. It will be very helpful for you and your spirit… and for your son.” All along the way, there were people there always being supportive. God’s little angels, I call them. I still think they are around. Don’t you find that sometimes?
JR: Absolutely! As the song says, we get by with a little help from our friends!
CR: And as another song says, “I’m Still Here!”
JR: Yes! So, in the book, you also write about some moments in television history that are now lost. One of those was the controversial 1975 series “The Hot L Baltimore”. You wrote about how Norman Lear told you that this was his favorite TV show of all. Sadly, it appears that the show is truly lost. It’s not on video and isn’t shown on TV anymore. It would be great if we could watch you on that show once again. You wrote about how you had a great time working on it.
CR: Yes, I remember. It was a wonderful show. Before there were any other shows that had gay people, this show had a beautiful episode about the gay couple at the hotel. They were celebrating their anniversary. Two of the show’s main characters– the hotel manager and the hooker– were having trouble relating with each other. They were always quarreling with each other and having a terrible time. In contrast, the gay couple were celebrating their anniversary with such dignity and grace. Norman Lear handled it so beautifully. It was way ahead of its time. I always told Norman that I thought he did such a magnificent job. I wish you could see it! Too bad you can’t. That was a great show.
CR: I did a lot of wonderful things for Norman. I did a lot of wonderful theater too. I did a Samuel Beckett play called “Happy Days” at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. It was a wonderful part. A challenging part. Then they took me to CSC Repertory Theater to do it in New York. It was just a wonderful experience. Recently, I did a Beckett play at The Kirk Douglas Theater in L.A., called “Endgame”. My name was Nell, and I was in an ash can! (Laughs) I’m just so grateful that I’ve been able to do all these wonderful things. In the book, I also talk about playing at all these supper clubs– the Blue Angel, and the Village Vanguard…
JR: … which is still there!
CR: Yes! My experience with Sheldon Harnick, and how I led him to New York, is also in the book. I was his channel! He wrote “Fiddler on the Roof” and “She Loves Me” and so many other shows. I talk about all the people in my life: Cloris Leachman, Paul Lynde…
JR: While we are on that subject: Was there a fellow performer in the business who you really felt a special bond with? A real true friend?
CR: Quite a few. But the one I really felt a bond with was Charles Durning. We did a play together called “In The Boom Boom Room”. He passed a couple of years ago. We were real buddies. We played mother and father to a girl named Chrissy, played by Madeline Kahn. She’s gone now too. It was a fascinating play. We were friends forever. So many of the people who I played opposite, or just worked with, became friends forever. One of them is Marilyn Maye. I adore her. We admire each other enormously. Jo Anne Worley and I started a group called “Ladies Who Lunch”. We get together once a month. We’re going to lunch today, in fact! It’s me, and Jo Anne, and Millicent Martin, and Anne Jeffreys, and Miriam Nelson. It’s just a joy to get together once a month, and laugh, and have a great time!
JR: Wow! With that group of ladies, how could you not have fun? I’m jealous! So, what else do you do in your spare time, when you’re not working?
CR: I have a granddaughter Carly. She’s in her 20’s. She teaches art. I have a grandson Sean. He’s 15 and a junior in high school, and interested in making movies and making music for movies. I live in California and try to get to New York twice a year: in May and in October. It’s a beautiful life. I’m just grateful. I’m a survivor of pancreatic cancer. I don’t know… I’m just a lucky lady!
JR: Is there a romantic interest in your life right now?
CR: Uhm… no! (Laughs) I’m in love with everyone! (Laughs)
JR: That’s a great thing. So, lastly, is there anything else you’d like to tell your fans?
CR: You can get the book at Amazon! (Laughs) That’s about it. Oh, wait… I’d also tell them to live one day at a time. All we have is today. Just live it. We don’t know about tomorrow. So, enjoy the day. Love yourself, and spread love around. Sometimes I’m in an elevator and I’ll say something cheerful, even if I don’t know anybody in the elevator. What the heck? Everyone can use a little love, right?
JR: Absolutely! Thank you again, Ms. Rae. And have a great time at lunch with the ladies!
Charlotte Rae’s “The Facts of My Life” is now available at www.Amazon.com.