Recovering from a cold, Bea Arthur sounded concerned about her impending performance in the OVATIONS! production of Strike Up The Band at The Auditorium Theater ( Feb. 10— 13, for more information call 312— 922— 2110 ) . She said that if she didn't feel better soon, she would be singing bass, not baritone. She was, otherwise, in good spirits nevertheless and here is what we talked about.
Gregg Shapiro: Please tell me about how you became involved in the upcoming production of Strike Up The Band?
Bea Arthur: I was asked ( laughs ) . And I thought, "Well, I'm not doing anything at the moment, immediately." And, it's only a one-week operation. We only do four performances. Apparently ( we'll be ) carrying scripts, so that it really isn't like doing a complete work on any level. Also, I spoke to Lynn Redgrave. She had played the part when they did an "Encores!" production of it in New York, and she told me it was a lot of fun. So, I thought, "Oh, what the hell! I'll do it."
GS: Have you ever had the chance to see a fully staged production of Strike Up The Band?
BA: Oh, no. My God, this is from the ' 20s or ' 30s. I could be wrong, but I don't it's been done since them. Also, I tried to get a copy of the original script from Samuel French, and they don't even have it.
Apparently, the George Gershwin family, or whatever they are, has very strict reins on this thing. I found out they're now taking music from other shows, and some that hadn't been written for shows, and putting them in this production. I can't imagine what the original was like, because nobody has a copy of it.
GS: So they had to use material from other sources to flesh it out?
BA: Yes. It seems that way. I'll be doing that lovely song, "I've Got A Crush On You." I don't know what that was written for originally. But there are also songs in here, like "The Man I Love" and "Soon," and I think they've taken license to hang anything they want on this creaky little script.
GS: It sounds as if you are looking forward to having the opportunity to sing songs by George and Ira Gershwin.
BA: Yes, yes. I don't have that much to do, and actually my role in it isn't the largest part in the show. It's fairly small. But I hear there are a lot of wonderful people in the cast. And, I believe, there's going to be a 35-piece orchestra, so it should be, as Lynn ( Redgrave ) would say, "A lot of fun."
GS: Are there any other seldom-performed musicals that you think should be a part of the Ovations! concert series?
BA: I haven't the faintest idea. I'd only seen three of them. I saw Jason Alexander do Promises, Promises, which was charming. I saw a dreadful rework of Three Penny Opera. I just think it's a wonderful thing for an audience to be able to see and hear these old .. .I hesitate to call them chestnuts ... but, as a performer, I don't really know how satisfying or rewarding it's going to be, encumbered by a script, I don't think it's possible to communicate with an audience the way you can if you really know what you're doing and don't require a script.
GS: Do you mean that if it's committed to memory, you're playing a part and it's a little bit different?
BA: Right. Yes, exactly. So, I don't know. This'll be my first time and I'm looking forward to it.
GS: There are currently two productions of Jerry's Girls running in Chicago. As one of Jerry's girls yourself, is there anything you'd like to say about Jerry Herman?
BA: Oh, God, I can't say anything more! I've taken part in many tributes to him. We're just so lucky to have had him at all. He's so prolific. Of course, doing Mame on Broadway was an extraordinarily fun episode. ( It was ) trial and error as all Broadway shows are, prior to getting to Broadway.
With Jerry, it was never like "This is what I wrote, and this is what it must be." He was always open to any suggestions, whether it was possibly changing lines, changing lyrics or whatever. He was totally immersed in bringing out the best and working for the common cause.
GS: You did an interview with Arts and Understanding last year, and you are also known as something of an AIDS activist. Can you tell me what it was that made you become involved in the fight against AIDS?
BA: I think it's very simple. I had dear friends. There's nothing more to be said.
GS: As Maude Findlay, in the television series Maude, you were an inspiration to many young and budding feminists, as well as to many lesbians. Are you aware of a lesbian following that developed from that TV show?
BA: Not necessarily lesbian, but all homosexual causes, shall we say.
GS: You are known as someone who has been outspoken on the subject of dog rescue, adoption and overbreeding. What can you tell me about your involvement in the world of dogs?
BA: Any animal rights activities. I'm very heavy into that. I work very closely with People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals ( PETA ) .
GS: I know that Betty White is also active in animal-rights organizations. Is that something that you mutually were involved with, or did one of you introduce the other to the cause?
BA: First of all, I think that a lot of people are involved. It seems to me that Betty was connected with animal health and raising funds for seeing-eye dogs. I have done things such as leading a demonstration outside of Harrod's in London, protesting the sale of foi gras, because of the horrendous force-feeding of ducks and geese. I've done public service announcements about the way they get Premarin for post-menopausal women from torturing female horses.