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A veteran character actor with a telltale vocal warble, Charlotte Rae imprinted herself as America's most iconic cleaning lady and housemother on some of the most flamboyantly campy sitcoms in 1980s television. A well-traveled veteran of the stage, Rae played matronly characters even early in her career, most notably as Mammy Yokum in the long Broadway run of "Li'l Abner," starting in 1956 when she was just 30. She became familiar to national audiences playing the wife of Sgt. Leo Schnauser on "Car 54, Where Are You?" (NBC, 1961-63), but would become a sitcom staple two decades later when she took the role as the big-hearted housekeeper Mrs. Garrett on "Diff'rent Strokes" (NBC/ABC, 1978-1985) and continued as Garrett on the successful spin-off show "The Facts of Life" (1979-88), which earned her an Emmy nomination. Rae's distinctive voice and deft comedic skills helped to make her one of the more fondly-remembered character actors of a generation who grew up regarding her as an ideal matriarchal figure.She was born Charlotte Rae Lubotsky on April 22, 1926, in Milwaukee, WI to Jewish immigrants from Russia, Esther and Meyer Lubotsky, who ran a tire shop. Charlotte spent her first 10 years in...
A veteran character actor with a telltale vocal warble, Charlotte Rae imprinted herself as America's most iconic cleaning lady and housemother on some of the most flamboyantly campy sitcoms in 1980s television. A well-traveled veteran of the stage, Rae played matronly characters even early in her career, most notably as Mammy Yokum in the long Broadway run of "Li'l Abner," starting in 1956 when she was just 30. She became familiar to national audiences playing the wife of Sgt. Leo Schnauser on "Car 54, Where Are You?" (NBC, 1961-63), but would become a sitcom staple two decades later when she took the role as the big-hearted housekeeper Mrs. Garrett on "Diff'rent Strokes" (NBC/ABC, 1978-1985) and continued as Garrett on the successful spin-off show "The Facts of Life" (1979-88), which earned her an Emmy nomination. Rae's distinctive voice and deft comedic skills helped to make her one of the more fondly-remembered character actors of a generation who grew up regarding her as an ideal matriarchal figure.
She was born Charlotte Rae Lubotsky on April 22, 1926, in Milwaukee, WI to Jewish immigrants from Russia, Esther and Meyer Lubotsky, who ran a tire shop. Charlotte spent her first 10 years in Milwaukee in an artistic household, with both of her sisters nurturing musical talents while Charlotte gravitated towards drama. The family moved to the Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood in the mid-1930s, where she attended high school, participating in the choir and drama club, in addition to studying at the Children's Theater of Wauwatosa and performing with a local community theater, the Shorewood Players. She won an apprenticeship with the Port Washington, WI-based regional theatrical troupe The Port Players, where she shared the stage with fellow Milwaukee up-and-comer Jeffrey Hunter.
After high school, she continued her training in drama, dance and voice at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, where she studied again with Hunter and met a fellow performer who would become her lifelong friend, Cloris Leachman. She also snared voice work for Chicago-area radio stations; one executive of which convinced her, par for the times, that she would land more work if she dropped her ethnic-sounding last name from her stage moniker. She graduated from Northwestern in 1948 with a bachelor's degree in speech, and soon after, she and Leachman moved to New York City in pursuit of work, sharing an apartment. Rae struggled to make ends meet, for a time singing in nightclubs. But that path eventually led to work crooning at the venerable jazz haunt, The Village Vanguard, where she would meet her future husband, the composer John Strauss. In 1952, she landed her first Broadway play, the musical comedy "Three Wishes for Jamie," that had a short run but would lead to bigger opportunities.
Rae began an association with the great, blacklisted composer Marc Blitzstein while working together on his 1954 Broadway adaptation of Brecht's "The Threepenny Opera," which featured Ray in her first maternal role, playing alongside an estimable cast that included Bea Arthur and John Astin. She followed that soon after with "The Golden Apple," a contemporary musical adaptation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Her Broadway work bolstered her musical bona fides enough that, in 1955, she recorded an album, Songs I Taught My Mother, a collection of light-hearted tunes, including those by Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, and one song written by Blitzstein specifically for Rae. She would go on to showcase her vocal talents on CBS' Sunday night variety show "The Ed Sullivan Show" and in the New York live variety showcase "The Littlest Revue," for which she also recorded a cast album. With New York also a hotbed for live broadcasts in the early days of television, Rae's growing rep as a musical comedienne garnered her ever more work on the small screen, on variety shows such as "The Martha Raye Show" (NBC, 1954-56) and "The Colgate Comedy Hour" (NBC, 1950-55), as well as teleplay anthology shows such as "The U.S. Steel Hour" (ABC, 1953-1963),"The Philco Television Playhouse" (NBC, 1948-1955), "NBC Television Opera Theatre," "Kraft Television Theatre" (ABC, 1953-55) and "The DuPont Show of the Month" (CBS, 1957-1961).
She would make her biggest impact then to date in the celebrated musical adaptation of Al Capp's over-the-top hillbilly comic strip, "Li'l Abner," playing the feisty, pipe-chomping Mammy Yokum. The show ran for a year and a half on Broadway. In 1961, Rae won her first semi-regular TV job on "Car 54, Where Are You?," the NBC comedy about incompetent NYPD cops that was groundbreaking for its regular use of multi-ethnic supporting players apropos of its Bronx setting. Rae appeared eight times over the two-year run of the show, playing the wife of cantankerous cop Leo Schnauser (Al Lewis). The show was short-lived, but she continued to rack up Broadway work and TV guest-shots and one-off projects through the 1960s. By the end of the decade, she was adding film to her résumé with a part in the "mod" ensemble comedy "Hello Down There" (1969). Her movie work would remain New York-centric, as per her supporting turn in the maudlin Marlo Thomas vehicle "Jenny" (1970), the madcap Woody Allen comedy "Bananas" (1971) and the Robert Redford/George Seagal caper comedy "The Hot Rock" (1972).
In 1971, she landed on PBS' educational flagship show "Sesame Street" (1969- ), where for a year she played the neighborhood's postal carrier Molly in recurring spots. Increasingly, however, she began getting more job offers in the situation comedies being produced in Los Angeles, including the likes of "The Partridge Family" (ABC, 1970-74), "Love, American Style" (ABC, 1969-1974), "The Paul Lynde Show" (ABC, 1972-73) and the Norman Lear-created "All in the Family" (CBS, 1971-79). Rae moved to L.A. in 1974, and the Lear connection began to pay off - at least briefly, as she was cast on the ambitiously bleak sitcom "Hot L Baltimore" (ABC, 1975), adapted by Lear from the Lanford Wilson play of the same name. The show took an unprecedented look at America's seamier and downtrodden side, as represented by the rag-tag denizens of a run-down residence hotel, Rae played the annoying, doting mother of a pathos-ridden man who never actually left his room. Though promoted as Lear's next big thing, "Hot L Baltimore" never found an audience and ended after 13 episodes.
Rae did another bevy of guest shots in ensuing years, including one on Leachman's' sitcom "Phyllis" (CBS, 1975-77), as well as some supporting movie roles - the most notable being a made-for-TV movie musical, "Queen of the Stardust Ballroom" (CBS, 1975), which earned her an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a TV special - but in 1978, she landed what would become her signature role. In 1978, NBC hatched what would become a phenomenon but began, essentially, as a vehicle for precocious child star Gary Coleman, who played one of two orphaned African-American brothers (the other being Todd Bridges) taken in by a wealthy white man (Conrad Bain) their mother used to work for. "Diff'rent Strokes" revolved around the culture and class clash within the new family, which also included Drummond's initially bratty daughter Kimberly (Dana Plato). The ditzy but empathetic and world-wise maid Edna Garrett (Rae) provided the whimsical relief and often served as the family's moral compass. The show hit big, ranking No. 3 in the Nielsen ratings for the 1978-79 season and No. 5 the next year, but NBC decided to use Rae as the frontpiece of another hit show, and Mrs. Garrett wrapped her second season by leaving the household to become a dorm supervisor at Kimberly's elite private high school.
"The Facts of Life" premiered in August 1979, with Rae playing the housemother to seven irrepressible girls - and flexing her pipes again in her rendition of the show's theme song. But the cast proved unwieldy and producers winnowed it down (among those lost, a young Molly Ringwald) after 13 episodes to a core group of snooty bitch Blair (Lisa Whelchel); overweight, spirited Natalie (Mindy Cohn); gossipy girly-girl Tootie (Kim Fields); and tough, streetwise Jo (Nancy McKeon). Hamfistedly written and hackneyed in its airing of "issue" episodes, the series followed the foursome as they dealt chirpily with the rites of growing up and facing sobering troubles of adolescence, aided by Garrett's sage counsel, even as producers promoted Garrett to the school's dietician.
The show, never a smash, nevertheless made it into Nielsen's Top 30 for six of its eight seasons, and in 1982, Rae was nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. Though the girls were well beyond girlhood a few years into the run, producers adjusted the setting to keep them together; in 1983, Mrs. Garrett began running her own bakery with the girls' help, then later the girls ran a gift shop. But it wore thin for Rae, and she was written out at the beginning of the eighth season, convincing her sister (Cloris Leachman) to take over the shop. In ensuing years, she would pick up consistent work as a guest star on sundry dramas and comedies, with the occasional supporting turn in feature and TV movies; in between projects she returned to live performance, including a Broadway music-infused one-woman revue and taking it on tour in 1994. In 1997, she tried series TV again, but in a different iteration; her distinct voice landed her the role of the nanny on Disney's animated movie spin-off "101 Dalmatians: The Series" (1997-98). She scaled back her screen work, doing only a few supporting roles in TV movies and briefly returning to the spotlight for "The Facts of Life Reunion" (ABC, 2001), while making select stage appearances; most notably doing a turn in the onetime off-Broadway institution "The Vagina Monologues." Rae made a comic cameo in the 2008 Adam Sandler feature "You Don't Mess with the Zohan" (2008), curiously as a sexual conquest of Sandler's Israeli superspy, and that same year, had a recurring role on NBC's mainstay medical series "ER" (1994-2009).
By Matthew Grimm
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