This post is a part of Fashion In the Broad Sense: a series of posts that explores how The Golden Girls relates to important topics and issues surrounding women and fashion.
In its seven storied seasons The Golden Girls only dealt with race a handful of times, but those episodes are some of the most memorable of the series. These episodes also feature a fantastic group of actresses as the characters who show the Girls how to understand perspectives outside of their own experiences. Since a big part of what I like to do with this blog is to explore why The Golden Girls continues to be such an important show, I think it’s time to learn more about the lives and careers of the Black women who had an impact throughout the series.
“The greatest gift is not being afraid to question.”
The great Ruby Dee was one of the most well-known actresses to appear on The Golden Girls. Dee starred as Viola Watkins, Blanche’s childhood nanny in the “Wham, Bam, Thank You, Mammy” episode in season 6, but her life and career were already legendary by that time. Dee made her Broadway debut in Anna Lucasta in 1946 and made an impact on film in The Jackie Robinson Story in 1950. She then originated the role of Ruth Younger in A Raisin In the Sun in 1961 and in 1965 became the first Black actress to act in a lead role for the American Shakespeare Festival. Dee was also known for her long marriage to the actor, Ossie Davis, with whom she frequently collaborated until his death in 2005. She was the recipient of numerous awards, including an Emmy, a Grammy, and the National Medal of Arts, among many others. Dee was also a prominent civil rights activist. She emceed the 1963 March on Washington, was a member of the NAACP, and continued to take part in protests and political actions throughout her life.
“The only time I feel complete expression is when I’m dancing. Then, I have no problems, no worries, no hang-ups. I feel I could do anything in the world.”
Paula Kelly is instantly recognizable to fans of The Golden Girls as Marguerite from “The Housekeeper” episode in season 3. When she passed away in February of last year I was surprised to learn about her amazing career as a dancer and singer. Kelly graduated from Julliard and performed as a soloist for the Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey dance companies. In 1964 she made her Broadway debut in the musical Something More!, and in 1969 she reprised her role as Helene in the film adaptation of Sweet Charity. In a fun connection that only true fans of The Golden Girls will appreciate, both she and Ruby Dee also starred on the television show, Police Woman, with Angie Dickinson in the 1970s. Kelly has numerous other film and television credits, and she was nominated for an Emmy award for her work on Night Court. Footage of her work is available on YouTube, including clips from Sweet Charity and her 1969 dance performance on the Academy Awards. I also especially enjoyed her poignant appearance in 1973 on the television show, Black Omnibus, hosted by James Earl Jones.
“I love creating. I love making people laugh.”
Even though we constantly reference the storylines and dialogue that keep us tuned in to The Golden Girls 35 years after it originally aired, I often think that the writers don’t get the attention they deserve. Winifred Hervey is one of those. Hervey wrote “The Housekeeper” and other episodes along with producing over 50 episodes throughout the series. She even has an Emmy award for her work on the show when The Golden Girls won for Outstanding Comedy Series in 1987. In her interview for the Archive of American Television, Hervey shared that Bea Arthur was her favorite to write for. Hervey later worked on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and created The Steve Harvey Show. Her work has helped to pave the way and create new opportunities for more Black women writers and producers in the television industry today.
“I’m not good at playing stereotypes.”
Rosalind Cash played Lorraine, Dorothy’s son Michael’s surprising fiancé on the “Mixed Blessings” episode. Cash appeared in films such as Omega Man and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, but she most enjoyed acting on stage. In 1967 she was an original company member of the Negro Ensemble Company, and she performed with the New York Shakespeare Festival as well as with many regional theater companies. She also worked as a jazz singer to support herself early on in her career, something that must’ve peaked her interest in the role of Lorraine. Omega Man was also one of the first films to show an interracial relationship and love scene between Cash and Charlton Heston. Rosalind Cash’s lived experiences obviously made her perfect for the role of Lorraine, and her career deserves more critical appraisal than it has received so far.
This episode also features three other women as Lorraine’s mother and aunts. Virginia Capers played Lorraine’s mother, Greta. I always remember her as Uncle Phil’s mom, Hattie Banks, from The Fresh Prince of Bel–Air, but she had a long and distinguished career playing many roles on stage and screen. Capers won a Tony award in 1974 for her performance in Raisin. Lynn Hamilton and Montrose Hagins complete the trio. Hamilton is often best remembered for her role as Donna Harris on Sanford and Son while Hagins also worked as a 4th grade teacher prior to focusing on acting. In spite of last year’s controversy about “Mixed Blessings,” it actually helped inspire this post. I felt that the performances of the Black women who starred on The Golden Girls were being overshadowed, especially when their work is part of what makes the show so beloved for so many.
These talented women each helped make The Golden Girls the iconic show that we all adore. I loved learning more about all of them to write this post, and I hope you enjoyed it. Finally, please remember that Black History Month is more than just one month. We all must actively work to elevate marginalized voices and the experiences of BIPOC in whatever ways we can.