Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Still-Golden Anniversary: 20 Years Since Debut of Failed Spinoff Golden Palace


For seven seasons, The Golden Girls brought groundbreaking comedy to the small screen, and made icons of its four leading ladies.  Then in 1992, three of the Girls packed up the house on Miami’s Richmond Street, and moved to the beach – and to CBS.

The Cast of Golden Palace (1992-93).
  Back:  Cheech Marin as chef Chuy Castillos;
Don Cheadle as desk clerk Roland Wilson;
Billy L. Sullivan as Oliver Webb;
Front:  Rue McClanahan, Betty White, Estelle Getty
With schoolteacher Dorothy Zbornak now married and living in Atlanta – after actress Bea Arthur had opted out of The Golden Girls, thus ending the series – her roommates Blanche and Rose moved to Golden Palace, making the odd, life-changing decision to invest their savings in the show’s titular hotel.  Stranger still, Dorothy had even left her by now nearly nonagenarian mother Sophia behind; soon, after some financial miscalculations, the three women found themselves putting in backbreaking hours of cooking and cleaning as the Art Deco District’s most unlikely hoteliers.

Producer Tony Thomas remembers the decision to take the three remaining Girls in such a new direction.  “You don’t replace Bea – it would have been ridiculous to have someone try,” he explains.  Thomas says that he and fellow producers, Golden Girls creator Susan Harris and her husband Paul Witt, “have always liked the idea of doing a show about life in a hotel.  There’s something appealing about a core cast in such a transient setting.”

“We wanted to show these woman as still vital and active,” Witt adds.  “So taking over a small hotel would put them in contact on a regular basis with interesting people, and keep them active as they learned to do something different.  We couldn’t do ‘Golden Girls Redux’ or ‘Golden Girls Continued.’  We had to make it different and hopefully comfortable.”


The Old College Try

The cast of Golden Palace boasted not only three sitcom heavyweights in Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty, but also comedy legend Cheech Marin, and future House of Lies star Don Cheadle as the hotel’s desk clerk, Roland Wilson.  And like the Girls before it, Palace also boasted some of today’s hottest comedy writing talents among its staff. 

But writer Mitchell Hurwitz, who would later create CBS’ sitcom The Ellen Show before finding fame with Arrested Development, remembers his colleagues’ unease with the Palace premise from the start.  “People really related to The Golden Girls.  The husband leaves, which was something a lot of women had gone through in that generation,” he notes.  But with Golden Palace, “now we were asking the audience to relate to having to run and manage a hotel, and clean the rooms yourself.  It was an interesting premise, which created a lot of opportunities for comedy, but it wasn’t what people came to The Golden Girls for.”

In the 2006 interview I conducted, via the Archive of American Television, with McClanahan, who died in 2010, she also remembered the difficulties in transferring her character Blanche to the new seaside setting.  “We gave it the good old college try, but [Golden Palace] wasn’t the right thing to do.  It took the center out of the characters as they had been established – particularly Blanche.  She had to become a businesswoman, and run a hotel.  How did she learn how to do that?  Where did that come from?  It required more out of the Blanche character than ever before, and I found it very hard to find the way to play it.”  Presenting the Girls without their popular fourth friend Dorothy, McClanahan recalled, “really was like walking without one shoe.”


AfterG*I*R*L*S

Premiering on September 18, 1992 as part of CBS’ new two-hour comedy block, Golden Palace won its 8 PM time slot for its first few weeks.  But soon, the entire night began to sink in the ratings.  For every rare case like Frasier, which would premiere the next fall and would last eleven seasons, there is an AfterM*A*S*H, or a Joey.  And Golden Palace would soon prove to belong to the latter category of sequel series.

Golden Palace was ill-conceived from the start,” says another former writer, Marc Cherry, who went on to create CBS’ sitcoms The Five Mrs. Buchanans and Some of My Best Friends before his iconic Desperate Housewives (and now, Lifetime's eagerly anticipated new series Devious Maids.)  “Old ladies just don’t go around buying hotels.”

Still, Cherry says, “Golden Palace is no [tacky ‘80s syndicated sitcom] Small Wonder.  There are moments of the show that are actually quite good.”  One particularly touching episode, he agrees, featured Ned Beatty as Blanche’s heretofore unmentioned, mentally challenged brother.  In another, lifelong animal activist Betty White was able to highlight the sad plight of greyhounds discarded by Florida racetracks.  In a two-part episode, Arthur’s Dorothy returned to visit her old friends in their new setting, bringing with her an hour’s worth of that old Golden magic.  And throughout its 24-episode run, Golden Palace sported cameos from the biggest stars of yesteryear, like George Burns, Eddie Albert, Tim Conway and Harvey Korman, and gave early breaks not just to Cheadle, but other future comedy stars like Jack Black, Margaret Cho and Bill Engvall.

“With a little more time, I think we could have gotten [Golden Palace] to be very good – but we didn’t get there,” Witt remembers.  In the spring of 1993, Palace was cancelled after its freshman season,  along with the entire Friday comedy block.

Although Cherry says that he worried at the time that the sub-par Golden Palace would end up tarnishing the memory of its parent series, many fans have come to see the show as the Girls’ de facto eighth season.  Unlike Girls, Palace is not available on DVD – but it caused a sensation in the mid 2000’s when Lifetime briefly tacked its episodes onto the end of its regular Golden Girls run.

Marin, who went on to star in CBS’ shows Nash Bridges and Rob, remembers an additional Palace legacy.  Conscious of Miami as a rich ethnic and racial melting pot, the show’s producers had hired the Mexican-American actor to play the hotel’s Cuban chef Chuy Castillos; Marin says he used to refer to himself and Cheadle, surrounded by older white ladies, as “the Afro-Cuban section of the Lawrence Welk band.”

Marin says his greatest memory of Golden Palace was working with co-star Getty – but not in any moment that showed up on screen.  “She taught me to make a great matzoh ball, and boy, it just makes them nice and fluffy,” the 66-year-old actor remembers.  “I make great matzoh ball soup to this day, for which I’m eternally grateful – as are my children.”

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