Rae of sunshine: TV icon brings cabaret act to townby dan pine, staff writer
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The trademark red bouffant may have faded to white, but actress Charlotte Rae has a few facts of life she'd like to stress: She's alive and kicking, she's touring the country with her new cabaret act, and — in one for the "Who knew?" record books — she's Jewish.
Best known for all time as Edna Garret, the motherly housekeeper/chaperone from TV's "Diff'rent Strokes" and "Facts of Life," Rae likes to remind fans of the shows that she has a lot more stage and screen experience than that. At 81, the Tony-nominated Broadway veteran is coming to the Bay Area to play a string of shows at S.F.'s famed Plush Room.
Unlike so many cabaret shows, which are basically all Gershwin all the time, Rae prefers the off-the-beaten-track numbers. Like Sheldon Harnick's "Gabor the Merrier" and Cole Porter's "When I Was a Little Cuckoo."
"I have a collection of things that were never heard before," Rae said from her Los Angeles home. "Some are risqué, but they're delicious and delightful."
An important part of Rae's show is her autobiography. In between songs she tells the tale of a Jewish girl from Milwaukee who went on to become an international TV icon.
Born Charlotte Rae Lubotsky, she grew up in a strongly Zionist household. Understandable considering her mother was a girlhood friend of Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. She became a leader with the Pioneer Women, a pre-Israel Zionist organization, while her father became an early supporter of Israel. He even helped set up the country's first tire manufacturing plant.
But young Charlotte had other, more theatrical, things on her mind. She started attending the theater as a kid, seeing stars like Ethyl Barrymore and Helen Hayes when they would swing through Milwaukee.
She became a professional singer/actress, launching her career as a nightclub singer in the early 1950s. Rae went on to many plum stage roles, from Mrs. Peachum in a 1954 production of "The Threepenny Opera" to Mammy Yokum in the original Broadway production of "Li'l Abner."
She received Tony nominations for her roles in "Pickwick (1965) and "Morning, Noon and Night" (1968) and a 1973 Obie nomination for her work in Terrance McNally's "Whiskey."
Superstardom came in the form of the loveable Mrs. Garrett on "Diff'rent Strokes" and its spin-off, "Facts of Life." She played the character from 1978 to 1986, dispensing wisdom and laughs. Today the shows live on in reruns and on DVD.
The "Facts of Life's" classic theme may have been "You take the good, you take the bad," but for Rae, playing Mrs. Garret was nothing but good.
"We really worked very hard to give the shows quality and not go into things like sex as a sport, or things that are very misleading to young people," Rae says. "We had a social responsibility and we kept to it, which made me very happy."
Fans approach her all the time. Rae says they usually want a hug, and she always complies.
Rae is proud of the Jewish continuity in her family. Her sister, Mimi Guten, has written a musical, "Bar Mitzvah," that Rae says anyone, Jewish or not, could enjoy. Her niece, Keri Guten Cohen, is an editor with the Detroit Jewish News.
Meanwhile, Rae is looking forward to singing for her Bay Area fans. And if any of them show up expecting the Mrs. Garret of old, well, she has a surprise for them.
"My hair is white and I don't use Botox," she said. "I'm 81, and there you are."
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