THE BOOTLEG FILES: “THE BEATRICE ARTHUR SPECIAL”

No one thinks of Beatrice Arthur as being a major source for generating erections. However, no one bothered to tell Beatrice Arthur. On January 19, 1980, the silver-haired Golden Girl decided to get a rise from her male fans by presenting herself as a singing and dancing force of sexual energy in “The Beatrice Arthur Special.” CBS broadcast this one-hour musical-variety production once — obviously the network was smart enough not to make the same mistake twice.

“The Beatrice Arthur Special” opens with the one-time Maude in tight, gauzy close-up purring for the camera “If I could be with you for one hour tonight!” Then the camera pulls back to reveal Arthur in a too-tight black evening gown with a slit that seems to go all the way up to her own home-grown slit. Her body pumps and rocks with musical dynamics as she holds her head back, flashes a million dollar grin, and roars into a jazzy rendition of the Broadway tune “Hey There, Good Times!” The result, as you may imagine, is thoroughly ludicrous. Watching this tall, not-thin, not-young, not-tuneful woman growling out a lyrical celebration of hedonism is enough to make any red-blooded heterosexual head for the closet to see what the other ten percent are up to.

Ah, but someone left the closet door open and coming out to sing along with Arthur are the deities of the lavender subculture: Rock Hudson and puppeteer Wayland Flowers with his ribald old-lady puppet Madame. Tagging along for the ride in this inane opening number is Melba Moore, the gifted Broadway performer who is clearly out of place because (1) she can sing, (2) she is sexy, and (3) she has no association with gay camp whatsoever.

The remainder of “The Beatrice Arthur Special” is a hodgepodge of bad comedy, off-key musical numbers, and even a dead-serious one-act play with Arthur and Hudson as an older married couple who finally acknowledge their love has gone cold. This unlikely pair have more fun in a novelty musical number in which they swill martinis while complaining about the youth drug culture. Imagine Beatrice Arthur complaining to Rock Hudson about acid while he returns the grumble about poppers, while both of them consume enough alcohol to sorely tempt the friends of Bill W. to fall off the wagon.

Poor Melba Moore gets the Beatrice Arthur humiliation treatment by having to do a duet with her of Fats Waller tunes. This was inspired by the then-current stage hit “Ain’t Misbehaving.” While Moore can find her way through Waller’s playful double-entendres, Arthur crashes through the songs like a goony bird landing on an icy patch. Moore gets additional abuse when she is forced to wear an atrocious disco outfit and perform a supposedly hip dance number which must have seemed dated and crazy back in 1980 (today it is virtually unwatchable without rolling in laughter at the tacky costumes and dull choreography).

Elsewhere in this madness is a skit with Arthur pretending to be Steve Martin’s mother. This was during Martin’s “wild and crazy” period and Arthur simulates his shtick horribly with flapping arms and a jittery walk. The punch line is having her “Maude” co-star Conrad Bain appear in an unbilled cameo without his pants as Martin’s father. Huh? Arthur also gets to imitate Cher and Dolly Parton and Carol Burnett, which further displays her lack of mimicry skills. The climax is a takeoff on a shrill evangelical revival meeting, and that nonsense will clearly leave the born-again crowd simmering with less-than-holy anger.

Wayland Flowers and Madame manage to get away with some degree of genuine fun, thanks to Madame poking nasty/funny cracks at Arthur’s age, appearance and lack of sex appeal. Needless to say, the puppet was kept on the sidelines for most of the show.

In some ways, it is difficult to understand how “The Beatrice Arthur Special” slipped away into obscurity. Its so-bad-it’s-great lunacy puts it on an equal footing with some of the earlier video crackpot titles featured here, like “The Star Wars Holiday Special” or “The Paul Lynde Hollywood Special.” And the triple-camp-threat of Beatrice Arthur, Rock Hudson, and Wayland Flowers and Madame would make this seem like ideal retro viewing for gay audiences.

But most likely, “The Beatrice Arthur Special” is stuck in the Bootleg Files because of a major problem that plagues many films and television productions: music clearance rights. No, the music copyright owners are not punishing Arthur and her guests for mangling the songs. The problem is clearing the rights to roughly two dozen songs, which can be a fairly costly endeavor. This particular production would also need some digital remastering–the bootleg version currently on the market has a slight corruption in the visual quality during the first few minutes.

However, “The Beatrice Arthur Special” is such a weird and silly show that it deserves to be fished out for a new look. And who knows? For today’s men who gets easily bored with the antiseptic sex appeal of Beyonce Knowles, Charlize Theron or Jennifer Lopez, there is nothing like the mature charms of a strutting and singing Beatrice Arthur to bring up a healthy boner.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on March 26, 2004 in Features by
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