“The Show Business”

The 1930s

Baby Eddi Rue

In 1933, Rheua-Nell Madaris was a beauty operator at Mrs. Rose’s Beauty Parlor on Main Street in Healdton, Oklahoma, and William Edwin McClanahan managed a billiards parlor a few doors down.  They met, enjoyed a six week whirlwind courtship, and ten months after they were married their daughter Eddi Rue McClanahan was born.  She spent her first five years a doted upon only child, dressed and done up like a little Shirley Temple doll.  When her sister Melinda arrived at the end of the decade little Eddi Rue adored her immediately.  Although only a stone’s throw from The Dust Bowl and in the midst of The Great Depression, Rue had no memories of any sort of deprivation during these early years.  In fact, she recalled “going to the movies every time we turned around” and always having new dolls, dresses, and birthday parties.  She made her acting debut in 1939, cast in the role of “Mother Cat” in her Kindergarten classroom’s performance of The Three Little Kittens.  By decade’s end, a couple of Rue’s lifelong passions began to emerge – her love of animals and her love for the boys!

The 1940s

A proper young lady

Going after the best work available at the time, Rue’s father moved his young family to Louisiana where Eddi Rue attended first grade, and then to Texas where she attended second. After Pearl Harbor, he took them back to Oklahoma and enlisted in the Construction Battalion where he served for the next three years.  Eddi Rue went through the rest of grade school and junior high in Durant, Oklahoma.  She performed in many school plays and – in addition to her love for the boys, which continued unabated – she developed a passion for performing and dance during this period.  Although she attempted tap, it was ballet that really grabbed her and she studied at the Oklahoma Dancing Academy for many years.  In fact, Eddi Rue ended up teaching at the academy by decade’s end.  When Mr. McClanahan returned from the war, he bought five-acres outside of Ardmore, Oklahoma and built the family a modern home.  Eddi Rue attended Ardmore High School, where she was a popular and academically successful student.  By the end of the 1940s, she was involved in her first serious relationships with boys: one with a straight boy from her class named Tom Keel (34 years later he would become her fifth husband), and the other with a not-so-straight boy who would remain her lifelong buddy, Skipper.  It was during the ’40s that Eddi Rue also had clarity regarding her future.  In the summer of 1949, her father drove the family to New York City for a week’s vacation.  The first time Eddi Rue emerged from the subway on 42nd Street she clearly felt that she was finally home.  Since she already knew that she had to perform, and now she knew where she wanted to do that performing, all she needed as she headed into the 50s was to figure out how to make it all happen.

The 1950s

Winning Varsity Night at TU

For Eddi Rue McClanahan, the 1950s were a decade filled with drama – both on and off the stage.  It all started out well enough: she had her high school sweetheart; her passion for dance continued; she was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” when she graduated from Ardmore High School; she went on to major in theatre at Tulsa University; and during the summers, Eddi Rue received some amazing professional training.  This training included: stints at Jacob’s Pillow with Ted Shawn; being a member of The Jatoma Players in Michigan; dancing at The Perry Mansfield Dance-Drama Camp, and performing at the The Fitchburg Playhouse.  Staying true to her dream to perform in NYC, after completing college, in January of 1957, Eddi Rue moved to Manhattan.  She enrolled with Uta Hagen at the Berghof Studio and with Myra Craske at The Metropolitan School of Ballet, and then she hit the ground running.  Eddi Rue landed her first “professional” acting gig.  Unfortunately, it was out of NYC, at The Erie Playhouse in Erie, Pennsylvania.  Rue’s other passion – her love of men – reared its head during her time in Erie in the form of a handsome actor by the name of Tom Bish.  He became Rue’s first husband and the father of her son, although not necessarily in that order.  Anyway, those personal developments knocked Eddi Rue off the rails a bit, and the last few years of the decade saw her hard work, her plans, and even perhaps her sanity, go a little haywire.  After the marriage quickly failed, Eddi Rue found herself with her newborn son living in her childhood bedroom back in Oklahoma and that was when her tenacity, and her ability to do whatever it takes to make her dreams come true, strongly re-emerged.  She briefly became a bigamist when she married her best friend, Norm, just to get out of Oklahoma.  Quickly realizing the marriage wasn’t the solution, she left norm, dropped her son Mark off with her parents, and moved to California.  Rue had her professional focus back, and she continued to learn, train, and audition, doing whatever she had to do along the way to survive.  Among a string of not so glamorous jobs, she worked as a singing and dancing waitress at the Harlequin Supper Club in Azusa, and posed nude for art students for $2 an hour in an abandoned hotel on the Venice beach. Finally, right around the time she dropped the Eddi, Rue was accepted to The Pasadena Playhouse where she studied and honed her craft for the next three years.  By decade’s end, Rue knew she was poised for a career as a working actor – but she’d have to make it through the ’60s first.

The 1960s

Being touched up for a performance

The ’60s were a tumultuous time for many, Rue included.  In Hollywood, she went through both a string of waitressing gigs and boyfriends, none of which worked out.  In 1960, motivated by the pain of not being able to provide for her son and have him with her, Rue vowed to become a bona fide working actress by getting into the unions.  She was passionate about theatre, and loved studying and performing at The Pasadena Playhouse, but since neither provided much income, she included auditioning for television and movies in her plan.  Rue quickly landed a speaking part on the hit television show Malibu Run, which got her membership in the Screen Actor’s Guild; and then she appeared in a theatrical production called The Crawling Arnold Review, which got her into the Actors’ Equity Association.  Rue even appeared in a few films during this time – including a wonderful scene as a drunk bar patron in a classic film noir called Angel’s Flight – but none of these projects brought her much income and Rue wanted a change.  In 1964, a producer friend offered her an audition for an off-Broadway show in NYC, so she headed back East to give life in New York a second try.  This time, it worked.  Rue got the off-Broadway part, the show and her performance were critical successes, and whether it was regional, stock, Broadway or off, television or film, she remained a working actress for the rest of her life – never forced to live apart from her son again.  The show was called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and during rehearsals Rue noticed a handsome Italian in the chorus who soon became her third husband.  She appeared in dozens of theatrical productions in the later half of the ’60s and was cast in her first Broadway show; it was called Jimmy Shine and starred none other than a young Dustin Hoffman, fresh off his success from The Graduate.  The most significant professional event for Rue in the 1960s however, was when she performed in Tonight! In Living Color!, but not because she won an OBIE Award for her performance, but rather because she sat across from Norman Lear at the opening night party.  He said, “I hope I can hire you someday,” and with the success of his sitcom All in the Family a few years later, he did.  But that is a story for the next decade.

The 1970s

The ’70s started and ended well for Rue professionally,  but personally they were a bit of a disaster.  In the early part of the decade her third marriage ended, and before the ’70s were over, she’d meet, marry, and divorce husband number four.  She was living the life of a working actress in New York City however, and that was what she had always wanted.  She was constantly going out on auditions, except now she was actually regularly being booked.  She appeared in dozens of theatrical productions – including a show that opened in England so she was able to take her first trip abroad – she made a few more movies, had recurring roles on various soap operas, and she even started popping up on commercials.  She began to experience the first ripples of celebrity when people back home started regularly seeing her on television, and even in Manhattan she was occasionally recognized on the street.  While working on a Joseph Papp, Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway production, Rue received the phone call that changed her life.  Norman Lear wanted her to come out to California and audition for a part on All in the Family.  From that moment on, things happened fast.  The episode Rue appeared in ended up winning an Emmy, but even during rehearsals Mr. Lear confirmed Rue’s talent and cast her in a new show he had created which was taping on the adjoining soundstage – Maude.  In the Spring of 1974, Rue and her son Mark moved back to Los Angeles for her second try at California life.  This time, with a regular role on a hit television series, it was a completely different experience.  Finally having a substantial income, Rue bought her first brand new car, a house in Hollywood, and even incorporated herself – professionally, she became RMCC, Inc.  Even better though, she was acting with some real professionals – Bea Arthur, Conrad Bain, Bill Macy, Adrienne Barbeau – and with a cast like that, and Norman Lear’s genius, the show ran for seven successful years.  When it wrapped near the end of the decade, a chance at her own series failed, but by then Rue was a true television star with no shortage of offers or work.  She regularly appeared in movies and on television shows for the remainder of the ’70s and, of course, the ’80s only got better.

The 1980s

Early publicity still for "The Golden Girls"

If Rue became a star in the ’70s, she became a superstar in the ’80s.  Although she was regularly appearing as a guest on hit television shows, and consistently starring in made-for-TV movies, after the creatively satisfying and profitable experience of working on Maude, Rue wanted another series.  She found it with Mama’s Family, a spin-off of the long-running Carol Burnett Show.  Unfortunately, Rue just couldn’t get a firm grasp on the “mousy character,” so the role never felt like a good fit to her.  In what turned out to be the most fortunate job loss ever, Rue’s character was written off the show and, as a result, she was available for hire when the next series came across her desk.  But, just like in decades past, it seemed before Rue could gain professionally, she had to pay the price personally.  Having proven to herself over and over that she wasn’t adept at choosing husbands, she reached back in time to a period when she was happy with a man, to a relationship from 34 years earlier, and she married her high school sweetheart Tom Keel.  This sacrifice on the marriage alter must have done the trick – husband number five lasted just under a year – because that next script that came her way was for The Golden Girls.  A good barometer of just how the show impacted her life can be found in the press clipping file cabinet she kept in her home office.  The files begin in the 1950s, when the write-ups for various school productions she was involved with began, and each year has its own file; some are sadly thin and others are up to an inch thick.  From 1985 through 1992 – the years The Golden Girls ran – those press files are several feet thick.  No doubt about it, the role of “Blanche” on The Golden Girls blasted Rue into the stratosphere of celebrity stardom.  Naturally, her lifestyle changed as she became a millionaire many times over.  She bought herself a large house on several acres in Encino, California, and like legions of newly rich people before her, she completely gutted the place and started blasting the property with a fire hose of cash.  The yard alone absorbed a full year’s salary, but Rue successfully created exactly what she wanted – a gorgeous gated oasis where she could relax and enjoy the perks of being a star.  She bought herself a Mercedes sedan and, instead of falling prey to another husband, she hired a couple of live-in maids to take care of her and her dream house.  She continued to date and make relationship blunders – even getting in and out of two more engagements – except now when she did so, the mistakes appeared not only on the pages of her journals, but also on the cover of The National Enquirer.  Even so, all things considered, the later half of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s were a period of blissful success for Rue.  That evening in 1987, when her name was called as the winner of the Prime TIme Emmy Award for “Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series,” she deservedly experienced the culmination of 40 years of hard work – her dreams had come true.

The 1990s

Photo shoot for clothing line

Rue entered the decade at the top of her game.  She was starring in a smash-hit television series with a base salary of over one million dollars – which didn’t even include all the side jobs she was booking.  She was living in a “movie star” house that she had designed and built to her exact specifications.  Her evenings and weekends were packed with unending appearances and events.  And, although her son was off living his own life, they had a close, loving relationship, and saw each other often.  In addition, one relative or another was frequently staying in a guest room, a slew of close personal friends and business associates were orbiting, and Rue had many rescued cats and dogs chasing around the place; there was no shortage of love in Rue’s life.  She was approaching 60-years old and had never looked or felt better. She was still attracting men, and enjoyed several love affairs during the ’90s, but was able to avoid marriage until the end of the decade.  Although The Golden Girls went off the air in 1992 and a spin-off lasted only one more year, Rue was constantly working in the ’90s.  She continued making movies, doing guest appearances, starring in theatrical productions – even directing and producing a musical she wrote with her second husband – and somehow found time to design and launch two clothing lines on QVC.  All that work came to a grinding halt, however, during a production in New York City in 1997 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Literally, within days she was engaged to a man she’d only met a little over two weeks earlier.  She left the production and together they vowed to fight and beat her illness.  On Christmas Day of 1997, having let go of her beautiful, successful life in California, Rue entered into her sixth marriage and started her third go-around as a New Yorker.

The 2000s

Cover of Rue's memoir

The good news is that Rue and her sixth husband beat the cancer and she entered the 2000s cancer free, the not-so-good news is that she entered the decade with a sixth husband!  However, despite a sometime rocky home life, her career continued to flourish.  Rue once commented that she knew how lucky she was to be entering a period of “advanced glamour” and still remain of interest to people, and she clearly knew the reason why.  Although she worked on 100s of television shows, movies, and theatrical productions over the decades of her career, ever since The Golden Girls went off the air, not only did the residual checks keep coming in the mail, but the popularity and global reach of the series continued to expand.  As a result, Rue remained a beloved public figure wherever she went.  Age didn’t seem to slow her down a bit either, she worked the entire decade: she made movies; appeared on television shows; did stints on a couple more Broadway hits; made another series; and also began a successful career on the lecture circuit, giving talks on surviving breast cancer and aging gracefully.  Although she had been active with animal and environmentally focused charities since her stardom first gave her clout, as she moved into her 70s, her philanthropic work became even more important to her.  Rue not only wrote regular checks to dozens of charities, she donated personal property and show business memorabilia – even  works of art she spent countless hours creating – all to be auctioned off for the good of animals, cancer and AIDS research, the planet, and many other causes she fervently believed in supporting.  More telling, she showed up to the unending fundraisers she was invited to, and lent her presence and name to help raise money.  Rue remained very close to her son, sister, nephews and nieces, and kept a tight group of friends around her.  She never cut herself off from the public though, and was a fixture on the sidewalks of her New York City neighborhood.  Whether in an airport, restaurant, or walking down the street, Rue was a consistently gracious star, and always willing to stop and have a chat or pose for a picture with any fan who was lucky enough to spot her.  In the early part of the decade, Rue purchased some combined first floor Co-op apartments in Manhattan and then bought the land abutting the building so she could put in that rarest of NYC luxuries – a back yard.  It was in her beautiful private garden that Rue worked on what became her popular memoir, aptly entitled: My First Five Husbands…And the Ones Who Got Away.  In it, she wrote: “I used to say that I wanted to die onstage after the curtain goes down on a play that I’m in…now I think I’d be just as pleased to check out right here in the garden.”  That is exactly what happened, too.  At the close of the decade, while preparing to star in a musical adaptation of her memoir, Rue suffered a stroke after undergoing emergency bypass surgery.  For over half a year, she fought to regain her health and get back to performing; and Rue being Rue, she also took steps to end her sixth marriage and marry her seventh.  “After all,” Rue said, “everyone knows seven is a lucky number.”  In the Spring of 2010, after planting that season’s garden, while sitting in her living room with the glass doors open and watching the birds splash around in a new birdbath, Rue quietly slipped away.  Rue McClanahan was a talented actress, an amazing woman, and a true friend to many – she will be remembered and missed by people all over the world.

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