Thursday, August 09, 2018

Charlotte Rae passed away on August 5th. She was 92. A "sick" MERRY MINUET

      First off, in offering a picture of Charlotte in her TV sitcom prime, the full cover of her obscure album was cut off a bit. The title is NOT, "Songs I Taught my Moth." 

    Sad that the lovely, talented and naturally funny Charlotte Rae is no longer with us.  Also sad is that the representative song below is not up to the usual blog-basic standards. The one time I saw it, in one of the used record shops I used to haunt, the jacket was split on most of its seams and the previous owner had played the vinyl a lot. Fortunately with some careful digital work, the sound quality picks up after some unavoidable crunchiness during the first 20 seconds. Another problem is that back then (around 1955) some records were pressed “quietly,” and you had to turn up the volume just to hear it at all, thus magnifying any dust or scratches.

    When the obits arrived on Charlotte Rae Lubotsky, almost all of them concentrated on her mature work as a sitcom star. That would be “Diff’rent Strokes,” which evolved into “The Facts of Life.”  There was some mention that she played Mrs. Schnauzer on “Car 54 Where Are You,” but you’d have to be OLD to remember or care about that show. (Remembering and caring being two different things). 

    Charlotte was atypical of most Jewish entertainers; she was born in Wisconsin and attended Northwestern University. She didn’t come to New York City till 1948. It took a half-dozen years for her to establish herself, as she worked the posh nightclubs (Blue Angel, Village Vanguard) with comedy routines and parody songs (including a Zsa Zsa Gabor imitation, courtesy of songwriter Sheldon Harnick).  

    She managed to snag a role in the obscure musical "Three Wishes for Jamie" in 1952, and got good notices for “The Threepenny Opera” in 1954. The following year she turned up in "The Golden Apple," and parlayed her credits into a record deal. Her first and last album is a rather fey and chi-chi collection of sophisticated songs. Frankly, it's dated now, and the stylings would seem pretentious to anyone who doesn't know and like some of Rae's contemporaries: Cole Porter (she covers two of his songs), Noel Coward, Hildegarde, Anna Russell and Elsa Lanchester. Rae's stand-up style was like Jean Carroll's, without the neurotic quavery voice that she (and Alice Ghostley) would find so lucrative in TV sitcom work. 

    “Merry Minuet,” one of four Sheldon Harnick songs on the album (which is, amazingly, now on CD) was first sung by Orson Bean in John Murray Anderson’s revue “Almanac.” Revues were all the rage back then, with Leonard Sillman creating his annual “New Faces” variety show (Rae was in one of those), Ben Bagley offering his “Shoestring” revues (Rae was in one of those, titled "Littlest Revue") and Julius Monk selecting promising stars for his “Upstairs at the Downstairs” shows. Harnick would go on to write the lyrics for “Fiddler on the Roof,” including one of the most charmingly cynical songs in Broadway history, “When Messiah Comes.” How cynical does it get…the song was funny, cutting, and cut from the show before the curtain rose. (When Herschel Bernardi replaced Zero Mostel as Tevye, and issued his own album of “Fiddler” songs, he made sure to cover “When Messiah Comes.”) 

    If the name “Merry Minuet” sounds familiar, it’s probably because of the Kingston Trio version, which hammered the song into folk, and accentuated the Tom Lehrer-like ghoulishness of cheerfully acknowledging world chaos. 

    Here, Rae performs it very much in cabaret style, with the so-called “Baroque Bearcats” helping out, and John Strauss at the piano. Strauss and Rae were married in 1951. Although she worked TV (since so many variety shows were shot in New York) she preferred Broadway. This included her very atypical turn as “Mammy Yokum” in the original stage production of “Li’l Abner,” her co-star role with Ghostley in "The Beauty Part," and her Tony nomination opposite Harry Secombe in the failed musical "Pickwick." She ended the 60's with her second Tony nomination for "Morning Noon and Night." She was in "Boom Boom Room" with Madeline Kahn in 1973, and won an off-Broadway Obie for "Whiskey," written by Terrence McNally.

     She moved out to California for TV work, including a memorable guest spot as a neurotic, emotional Tupperware saleslady in "All in the Family." From there, producer Norman Lear cast her in “Diff’rent Strokes,” and the spinoff "The Facts of Life" where her character Mrs. Garrett was housemother in a school for girls. The 70’s was a time for explosive new freedoms, from stage nudity to edgy political comedy. People were encouraged to be themselves, and husband John Strauss came out of the closet and told Charlotte that he was really gay. Now was the time for him to realize who he really was, and be a happy gay. It was time for Charlotte to get a divorce.

    "The Facts of Life" helped Charlotte Rae achieve fame and economic security. It might not buy health, but it allowed her to keep on top of emerging problems, and she beat pancreatic cancer and had a pacemaker installed in 1982. She left her sitcom due to the strain of the work (Cloris Leachman, her friend from Northwestern University became the new housemother) but she took roles at her leisure. This included the challenge of a Chicago stage production of “Driving Miss Daisy.” She wrote her autobiography and was still in demand for interviews and other work when was diagnosed with bone cancer last year. The fact is...she had a very full life. Her autobiography will tell you much more. 

 The wry, doom-loving MERRY MINUET by Sheldon Harnick, performed by Charlotte Rae

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