I don’t know why I always loved The Facts of Life so much, but I did. And I still do. I have referenced it many times in this blog over the last ten years. The popular sitcom ran on NBC from 1979 to 1988 and for some reason it spoke to me. Perhaps it was a welcome respite from the TV shows that my two younger brothers insisted we watch. In the days before DVR, there was a constant battle over what would be playing on the television and, it being two against one, I would usually succumb to watching shows like The Dukes of Hazard or The A-Team. On the rare occasion when I could wrestle control over the television and watch The Facts of Life, I knew that the two of them would leave me alone so I could imagine what it was like living in Peekskill, New York and going to the Eastland School for girls. Each of the characters on that show spoke to me. Blair Warner was the girl I thought I should fall in love with and marry. Natalie Green was the girl I wanted to be best friends with. Tootie Ramsey wanted to be an actor just like me and in season two when Jo Polniaczek showed up, she was the person I wished I could be; confident smart, strong and not afraid of anything. But it was Edna Garrett who was the constant. She was everything to the girls on that show; friend, confidante, mother, advisor, boss, caretaker and cheerleader. Mrs. Garret was played by Charlotte Rae and she died on Sunday at the age of 92.
My first introduction to Charlotte Rae was when she played Mrs. Garrett on Diff’rent Strokes, a TV show that my brothers and I could all agree on. Later, when my college was doing a production of the musical The Threepenny Opera, I learned that Charlotte Rae was on the original cast recording as Mrs. Peachum and I listened to her sing “Ballad of Dependency” over and over again until my cassette tape stretched out from overuse. She also starred in the television show Car 54, Where Are You? that aired on NBC from 1961 to 1963 and that I watched on late night TV in my dorm room. She was a regular on Broadway, appearing on stage in ten different shows from 1952 to 1973, being nominated for a Tony Award two times. She also earned an Emmy nomination in 1982. And who can forget her moment in the film Hair when she jumps up on the table to dance?
I never met Charlotte Rae, although I did see her in a performance of Into The Woods where she played Jack’s Mother. That was in about 1987 and watching her in the flesh, with my own eyes, I felt as if I knew her which is so often the case with television actors who we allow into our living rooms and our lives on a weekly basis for years and years. Her warm smile and cackling laugh so familiar to me that I wanted to run onto the stage and tell her thank you for always being there for me. It’s not like I was devoid of strong and supportive female role models in my youth. My mom, my aunt, and my two grandmothers were always there for me, but none of them ever owned their own bakery called Edna’s Edibles or a novelty store called Over Our Heads, so Mrs. Garrett had that over them.
It’s sad when someone who we grew up admiring dies because it takes us immediately back to that time in our life when we first got to know that person. Watching someone like Charlotte Rae on a rerun, it’s hard to imagine that forty years have passed by. Her death reminds us that time marches forward. On TV, she will always be the happy, red-headed, bouffanted, Edna Garrett, quick with a joke and even quicker with a shoulder to lean on. In real life, she was a respected character actor with a seventy year career on the stage and on both the large and small screen.
In People magazine recently, she said “At 91, every day is a birthday. [In my book] I want to tell everybody to celebrate every day, to savor the day and be good to yourself, love yourself, and then you can be good to others and be of service to others.” Mrs. Garrett couldn’t have said it any better.
Rest in peace. Charlotte Rae.