Maybe you have, or had, an older family member, an aunt, say, who was nice to you but whom you never thought that much about because you only saw her at family gatherings. She’d take an interest in you, give you a piece of cake and some milk, and ask about what you were up to, what you liked. And you never thought to ask her anything about herself and you only discovered later in your own life that she had a rich history, that she was intelligent and interesting and there were so many things you wish you could have asked her.
If you know that feeling then you’ll understand when I say that’s kind of how I feel when I heard about the passing of Charlotte Rae. Yes, she never took any interest in me personally—we never crossed paths, and I know it’s weird to feel that way about someone I really only knew as a television character, but I was seven when Diff’rent Strokes debuted and once a week lost myself in the goings on of the Drummond family. And even though I thought it was the kids I related to there was something about Rae’s Mrs. Garrett that was warm and familiar; there were women like her in my family, although none of them lived with us.
It’s a surprise to me now that she only spent one season on Diff’rent Strokes. I immersed myself in The Facts Of Life too–yeah, I was a kid who watched too much television–but in my memory it’s as though she lived in both the Drummond house and Eastland School simultaneously. The younger cast members may technically have been the focus of both shows but she was a vital part of both.
And it never occurred to me at the time that she had a rich history and an interesting life outside of those shows. Her memoir, The Facts Of My Life, co-written with her younger son Larry Strauss, traces her history from the pogroms of the early 20th century that drove her family out of Russia and to the United States, through her career in cabaret and television–including a stint on Car 54, Where Are You? as Al Lewis’s wife Sylvia Schnauser. The Facts Of My Life opens, though, in 1971 while Rae was working on Sesame Street as Molly The Mail Lady. Her older son Andy had been put in Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric treatment following a violent outburst just before his sixteenth birthday. It was a tough time for her and she says,
I had to be back on Sesame Street in the morning delivering mail to Oscar The Grouch and Big Bird and those bright-eyed children who would sit on my lap. They were so adorable and precious and I was in such pain. I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t think I could do another scene with those beautiful children. I tried to talk myself into it: Come on, Charlotte. You’re an actress. You can love them and admire them and admire and marvel at them.
That was really only the latest in a series of difficulties and things would get a lot harder for her.
Something else I didn’t even think about until now is that Rae was also a singer, and in an odd coincidence this morning on my way to work I was shuffling through songs on my phone and “My Conviction” from the Hair soundtrack popped up. I’ve listened to that whole album countless times and yet it never occurred to me that it’s Charlotte Rae singing, that, in addition to her talents for acting and comedy, she had some serious pipes too.
Hail and farewell Charlotte Rae.
I had no idea…
It was really a shock, and I’m a bit sad that I didn’t appreciate what an amazing person she was and what an amazing career she had.
I did not know that! Thanks for sharing this! I hate to age myself, but I saw Hair on Broadway (1968) and Barry McGuire was the lead male (Eve of Destruction). Boy can you bring back memories!!!
Age doesn’t matter–except that you’re very lucky to have seen Hair on Broadway. A few years later my parents very nearly took me to see O! Calcutta! because we were in New York and my mother wanted to see a Broadway show. After learning what it was about they switched to 42nd Street, which was all around a much better choice.
Well,that would have been an eye opening experience for a young lad!
Thank you for sharing this. The Facts of Life is still one of my favourite shows.
I loved every minute of it.
Me too. I sometimes say you know you’re a child of the ’80’s when you wake up in the middle of the night and wonder what Mindy Cohn is up to these days. People think I’m kidding but I’m really not. I even still liked the show when Rae left and Cloris Leachman took over, and just learned they were good friends.
We never really know much about anyone, do we?
We really don’t, although Wikipedia is good for filling in information about well-known people.
I had this open all day yesterday but was at work and never really worked up to saying anything.
I watched and loved the facts of life as a little girl…and only much later realized I was watching re-runs, as it had originally aired quite a bit before. But I loved them all, they were real to me, perhaps the first live-action, “adult” show I cared for and followed as a kid and I know that she was a big part of that. Her character may still be my goal, the ideal, always caring adult who manages to always say the right thing.
She really was an amazing actress and person, something I didn’t appreciate while watching The Facts Of Life the first time around. I also never knew how much she struggled in her private life, especially raising an autistic son, which I think contributed to how well she played that caring adult who could always say the right thing.
My conviction is that your blog keeps us better tuned in to what counts, Chris. Thanks for this lovely tribute.
I’m so glad you enjoyed this tribute, and your comments help keep me in touch with what counts.
I love memoirs because people really are interesting. Thanks for sharing.
I’m glad you liked it. And I’m sad that I didn’t realize just what an amazing person Charlotte Rae was when she was alive.
Her character was so soothing. I had no idea she came from Russia or could sing. Fun fact – I took TV Production at Mercer County Community College in the 80’s and one of my professors worked on – Car 54, Where Are You? – and somehow I have found myself in the deceased stars rabbit hole of your blog. Must follow the light or stay away from the light – I can’t remember.
Most of the time when I do these tributes I learn something fascinating I didn’t know. In the case of Charlotte Rae I learned even more than I expected, and reading her memoir was enjoyable, even if I was sad she was gone. Anyway they often turn out to be rabbit holes for me as I don’t just learn about the person but who they worked with too.