By Stuart Nulman
The Facts of My Life by Charlotte Rae and Larry Strauss (BearManor Media, $33)
She was born Charlotte Lubotsky in Milwaukee 89 years ago, the second of three daughters to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. Her father ran a successful tire and appliance business in downtown Milwaukee and her mother was a committed Zionist, whose grammar school mate was one Golda Meyerson, who as Golda Meir became the first woman prime minister of Israel.
At an early age, young Charlotte found out she had a talent to entertain, as a singer and actress/comedian. She studied theatre at Northwestern University in Chicago, where some of her soon-to-famous classmates included comedian Paul Lynde, and acclaimed actresses Patricia Neal and Cloris Leachman. She appeared on Broadway several times – including the original production of the hit musical “Lil’ Abner” – and earned herself two Tony nominations. But it was on television where Charlotte Lubotsky – now Charlotte Rae – best displayed her many performing talents, from countless commercials to guest and regular spots on “The Ed Sullivan Show”, “All in the Family”, “Car 54, Where Are You?” and “The Rich Little Show”.
However, it was her portrayal of the kind and wise Edna Garrett, first on the NBC sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes” and then on its successful spin-off “The Facts of Life”, that made Rae a bona fide TV star and Mrs. Garrett one of the best known mother figure characters in the history of television.
And for a career in show business that is still going strong after nearly 70 years (most recently in a role in this year’s feature film “Ricki and the Flash” with Meryl Streep), Charlotte Rae’s road to Eastland School and Edna’s Edibles was filled with plenty of highlights and pitfalls, both personal and professional. And it’s all told with a great deal of honesty, pain and grace in her recently-published memoir The Facts of My Life, which she co-wrote with her youngest son Larry Strauss, who is a teacher and professional writer.
The book outlines in great detail her impressive career in show business, which saw her grace the New York cabaret scene, the Broadway and regional theatre stage, the silver screen and of course, television (her list of acting credits at the end of the book lists nearly 50 TV show appearances, which dates back to as early as 1954). There are plenty of interesting anecdotes that she shares with the reader of her multi-media career (my favorite is one period in the mid-50s, when she shuttled between performng in two major New York stage productions … the hit Broadway musical “The Pajama Game” by day and a production of the classic “Three Penny Opera” by night).
Also, Rae chronicles the many personal struggles she endured throughout her career, including the constant concerns of getting regular acting jobs to pay the bills, her bout with alcoholism, finding out that her husband — musical composer John Strauss – was a homosexual, and most difficult of all, being a loving and devoted mother to her sons, especially her oldest son Andy, who was living with an autistic disorder at a time when autism was rarely heard about or diagnosed at best, and whose volatile, violent tendencies compelled her and John to have him committed to New York’s notorious Bellevue Hospital psychiatric ward (although when they moved to California, they found a more humane clinic for Andy, where he managed to live with his autism and enjoy a full life until his untimely death from a heart attack in 1999 at the age of 43).
However, the last third of the book deals with behind-the-scenes stories of “The Facts of Life” and the lead character that has made her a household name with TV viewers even more than 25 years after the show went off the air … Mrs. Garrett.
“There are many people who grew up with me and Facts of Life. In fact, many people still think of me as Mrs. Garrett, and when they see me in person, they want a hug from me,” said Rae during a recent phone interview. “The writers and producers of ‘Facts’ allowed me to make Mrs. Garrett a more loving, more human kind of character. As a result, the viewers loved Mrs. Garrett so much, that they wished their mothers were more like her.”
Rae believes that the lasting appeal of “The Facts of Life” is attributed to how it dealt with the many issues that teenagers faced back in the 80s when the show first aired, and still face today. “The show did a great job portraying the issues that kids go through, as well as the many struggles and joys of life, and even parents watched it with their children, which I find was a tremendous asset of the show,” she said.
And Rae still keeps in touch with her four “Facts” co-stars – Lisa Whelchel, Kim Fields, Nancy McKeon and Mindy Cohn – and keeps track with how they are raising their own families. In fact, one of Rae’s favorite stories that involved her co-stars dealt with how she discovered Mindy Cohn.
“I was visiting a private school in L.A. to listen to some of its female students and get some background information for the show, when one girl with a funny-sounding voice kept asking me questions. I thought she was so cute; so I asked her to read for one of the parts, and she got hired for the part of Natalie Green. And that’s how I discovered Mindy Cohn,” she said.
With her 90th birthday coming up this April, Rae is grateful for a career in show business that has lasted seven decades, and for the positive effect her portrayal of Mrs. Garrett for seven years on network TV has had on millions of viewers, and admits she would like to continue acting on screen. “I am grateful for everything that I have, and I want to continue working, but this time in moderation. I don’t need a lot; I live modestly these days and I enjoy it,” she said.
The Facts of My Life is a very entertaining, frank memoir of a veteran actress with almost 70 years worth of stage, movie and TV credits to her name, and has the enviable position of being forever associated with one of the most recognized mother figure characters on television. And Charlotte Rae’s life and career, to paraphrase the theme song from the show that made her famous, took the good, took the bad, took them both and there you have the facts of Charlotte Rae’s life.
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Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week. You can either listen or download it at www.peteranthonyholder.com, Stitcher.com or subscribe to it on iTunes. Plus you can find it at www.CyberStationUSA.com, www.KDXradio.com, True Talk Radio, streaming on www.PCJMedia.com, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Stuart can be reached at email@example.com.