Taking the Good and the Bad
I learned of Charlotte Rae's death on Sunday night, while taking in a very beautiful performance of Minnesota's Tu Dance troupe set to the music of Bon Iver at the Hollywood Bowl. The news drew more attention on social media than I expected. For some reason, I thought of Mrs. Garrett as a character that only reverberated in my and my sister's life. We watched The Facts of Life after school every day at 4 pm. But I think that was the thing about Charlotte Rae -- she felt personal to you. Like a favorite aunt or a grandmother. (What I hadn't known is that she started as a dramatic actress but then started doing standup comedy, which led her down a more comedic path. Cole Escola posted one of her early routines on Twitter.)
The next morning at work I volunteered to gather tributes for the magazine, closing that night. It was harder than you might expect. All four of the women from Facts of Life were only issuing statements. So I reached out to Todd Bridges, who starred on Diff'rent Strokes with her, the show that Facts of Life spun off from. I had spoken to Bridges twice before, once after the death of Conrad Baine, his dad on Strokes, and again after Nancy Reagan's death (she had appeared on the show as part of her "Just Say No" campaign).
Bridges is a wonderful guy. He's just emotionally open and sincere and has a great heart. Baine was like a dad to him, and he was grieving pretty deeply for him after his death from a stroke. (They had spoken by phone just one day before.) He was taking the news of Rae's death just as hard. She was his last link to that series — Dana Plato and Gary Coleman had both died way too young. He remarked how both Baine and Rae did not abandon him after he went through well-publicized drug addiction in his 20s, even landing him in jail for 9 months for the shooting death of a drug dealer. (He was later released when it was proven he was not at the scene of the crime.)
But then Lisa Whelchel, who played Blair Warner on Life, reached out for a conversation. She admitted that as a pretty 16-year-old actress on a hit sitcom, she probably didn't appreciate the wisdom Rae had to offer. But they remained friends through the years and later in life they met eye to eye. I had to admit to her: speaking to THE Blair Warner was a thrill. She laughed that Blair laugh.
Rest In Peace, Mrs. Garrett.