I was sorry to read about the passing of actress Charlotte Rae, but happy that she lead a good, active and long life, to the age of 92. Though most people will know her for her role as 'Mrs. Garrett' on the long-running TV sitcoms Diff'rent Strokes and then The Facts of Life, her career was far more extensive than that. Indeed, it lasted for 61 years, up until most recently appearing in the Meryl Streep film Ricki and the Flash in 2015. But that wasn't just a random final role, She was in the Adam Sandler comedy, You Don't Mess with the Zohan, in 2008 -- and seven other productions in between, including Pretty Little Liars and a recurring character in four episodes of E.R. She stayed extremely active, her entire career. Among many other things, she also co-starred in the Broadway musical of Li'l Abner, in the role of 'Mammy Yokum.'
In fact, it was her connection to Broadway that helped launch the career of lyricist Sheldon Harnick. who co-wrote the songs for Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, The Apple Tree, and more. As Harnick has explained, both he and Rae went to Northwestern University and were friends. One year she came back from New York on a trip, and brought with her the cast album of Finian's Rainbow which she'd just seen there. She told Harnick had to listen to it, and he was so taken by the lyrics by E.Y. Harburg (the man who also wrote the songs to The Wizard of Oz, including of course "Over the Rainbow") and saw the possibilities of what lyrics could do that he changed major from music and decided to go to New York. Harburg later even became Harnick's mentor.
(There's a family connection to all this, as well. One day sometime after making his decision, Harnick had told my Aunt Joan -- whose recent 90th surprise birthday party you might recall I wrote about here. They were childhood friends, and she went to Northwestern, as well. After she later went home and explained his plans to her mother, my aunt's mother -- as most mothers, especially then, concerned about the risky world of show business, wondered to her, "Do you think there's a career in the theater??")
Charlotte Rae and Harnick not only both went to Broadway, but both actually worked together a couple of times in New York. She was in the famous revue, New Faces of 1952, renowned for all the young actors and writers who were to become big successes, and Harnick contributed a song (both the lyrics and music). She didn't sing it, but two years later in The Littlest Revue, she did sing one of Harnick's songs (again, both lyrics and music) -- a number which 64 years later is still performed as a popular cabaret song, "Ballad of the Shape of Things."
And here she is, recreating that number in 2007, at the age of 81. (She comes on stage around the 1:00 mark.) It's a wonderful performance, giving the song its full due as if she was back on stage during the original show. And stick around to the end. When she initially comes on stage, she waves excitedly to someone in the audience, but it's hard to tell who. But at the very end it's clear -- it's Sheldon Harnick, who is there cheering her on, and there's a lovely moment between the two old friends who impacted each others' lives --
I only had one occasion to cross paths with her. But I went out of my way to do so -- that's because not only was my Aunt Joan a childhood friend of Sheldon Harnick and also went to the beloved Northwestern, but she and Charlotte Rae were in the same sorority. (And also in that sorority was Jo Baskin... mother of the my own childhood friend, Nell Minow!) The event was the memorial tribute for Larry Gelbart held at the Motion Picture Academy in 2009. I saw her come in and watched where she took her seat. Loathe as I generally am to do such things, I went over to introduce myself. She was more than a bit uncertain who this intruding person was -- but I knew from my aunt that many of the sorority sisters had kept in touch over the decades and even had mini-reunions. So, when I explained that Joan Sered (her name back then) was my aunt, Charlotte Rae's face almost-immediately lit up.
She became very interested and even knew a little about what my aunt had been been up to in the intervening six decades, including that she'd gone back to Northwestern to get her PhD later in life, but it had been a while since they'd seen each other and wanted to be filled in on other details. And was happy to hear them all. Anyway, it was a charming visit, and I'm glad I had the chance to meet up with her. She wanted me to be sure sent her best to Joan, who was so pleased to hear the story.
And to bring things back around to Finian's Rainbow, the musical she loved so much back in college that she influenced a Broadway legend-to-be with it, here is Charlotte Rae in a 1982 TV appearance (I believe this is from "Broadway Plays Washington" on Kennedy Center Tonight) choosing to sing "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich" from that very same show.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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