CHICAGO — Bird Milliken designs “Golden Girls”-themed greeting cards under the Lipstick on a Turd label. Her advice? Find a man who likes to watch ‘The Golden Girls’.
“It says something about them, that their antennae and receptors are open to something deeper,” said Milliken, who made headlines last year for protests outside Bill Cosby’s Pennsylvania home. “’The Golden Girls’ – I get shivers when I say this – it’s not just any show. It’s not ‘Who’s the boss?’”
Milliken wasn’t just shivering: She was one of roughly 3,500 disciples who gathered here late last month for Golden-Con, the first fan convention devoted to “The Golden Girls” (1985-92), the Emmy-winning sitcom about four affable, peppery, sex-enthusiastic elderly women sharing a bungalow in Miami, decorated with comfy rattan and bold floral designs. Created by Susan Harris, the show ran for seven seasons on NBC; “The Golden Palace”, a spin-off, ran for one (1992-93) on CBS.
In the three decades since it went off air, it’s like the “The Golden Girls” never left. A mainstay of syndication and streaming, the show has since expanded its fan base and made the Girls LGBTQ icons, attracting younger generations with its sharp gay sensibility, brutal comedy and progressive perspectives on chosen family and friendships. (All seven seasons are on Hulu.)
For three days at Golden-Con, those fans mingled with a family of sorts, many dressed as their favorite characters: tough teacher Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur); the southern belle sexpot Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan); the kind-but-dumb Rose Nylund (Betty White); and Dorothy’s salty Sicilian immigrant mother, Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty).
Here, the show’s bawdy spirit — mostly limited to winks, purrs, and network television innuendo — thrived uncensored. Golden-Coners, mostly gay men and straight women, rushed from gossip panel discussions to raucous trivia games and reverent autographs. Drag queens, including the group The Golden Gays, walked around in stretchy 80s cougar with dropped shoulders and bat sleeves. Vendors sold tote bags, T-shirts, and a shocking number of “Golden Girls”-branded coasters.
At Golden-Con you didn’t say “goodbye”; you said “Thanks for being a friend” – the first line of the show’s Earwig theme song. As Jim Colucci, the author of “Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind The Lanai,” described it in a pre-conference interview, the event “returns the feeling of looking at it with your mom or grandmother.”
And you didn’t hold back. The atmosphere on the conference floor was festive and festive, alternating between family-friendly and R-rated. Faces were mostly white. But none caught the eye like four black women, all sisters – Shalanda Turner, Catrina Parker, Sharon Turner-Wingba and Lashanda Bailey – dressed as Turkey Lurkey, Henny Penny, Goosey Loosey and Peter Pan, a reference to a Season 6 episode.
Chantelle Edwards, 44, visiting from Indianapolis, stopped to compliment the costumes. She commented that it was “refreshing to see other black women here” because “not many black people love ‘The Golden Girls’.”
“If so, it’s women,” she said. “They love it because it’s about sisterhood and that no matter how old you are, you need your girls.”
Strikingly missing were the Girls themselves. White was the last remaining main cast member when she died in December, just short of 100.
White’s death had given Golden-Con an extra emotional resonance it didn’t have in 2020, when Zack Hudson and two friends, brothers Brad and Brendan Balof, first brainstormed the idea. Originally announced as a smaller event to take place at an LGBTQ community center, it received such a “massive” response, Hudson said, that he decided to move the convention to Navy Pier, with its cavernous ballroom and expansive views of Lake Michigan.
“Based on the response, I think now is the time,” says Hudson, 44, who is a daytime health worker for seniors. He estimated that the convention cost about $420,000 to produce, and he was confident it would come out in black.
The Golden-Con headliners weren’t big names from the latest Hollywood blockbuster, like the ones you’ll find at ComicCon. It was mainly Baby Boomer actors and writers who made ‘The Golden Girls’ with one-liners and double takes, and who, imperfect as they may be, did not shy away from hot potato issues like AIDS and racism.
Stan Zimmerman, a first-season staff writer, said its mix of timeless comedy and current storytelling is why it remains a pop culture heavyweight.
The sitcom landscape in the ’80s “wasn’t about four women talking about real-life situations,” Zimmerman said. “But that was all we loved as writers.”
No one involved in the show was too small for Golden-Coners to flutter about. There were lines to meet Emmy winner Bonnie Bartlett, 92, who played Barbara Thorndyke, a fan-favorite villain in a single episode of the third season.
Then there was Cindy Fee. At 28, she was a sought after singer in Los Angeles when she nailed the show’s theme song in just a few takes.
“I hadn’t seen the song before, but that’s pretty typical of the industry — most of us are pretty good viewers,” said Fee, whose voice also helped sell Wheaties and Hoover vacuums. “They played through the song and I just sang it. It’s easy to sing because it’s a beautiful tune.”
The crowd roared as if Fee were Lady Gaga as she sang the song on the opening night of Golden-Con. They also went wild when she brought out a surprise guest: Aaron Scott, whose gospel-tinged 2016 version has more than 6.3 million views on YouTube.
Even the furniture attracted worship, like pilgrims to a relic. Richard Carrington, 38, and his partner, Bryan Brozek, were driving from Cañon City, Colorado, with a couch and chairs from the show’s living room set they bought from a California prop house for about $9,000. Carrington said the pieces never left their home.
He said fans “just want to come up and touch it, knowing the cast was on it.”
“We had a man who bowed to it,” he added.
The closest fans have come to spending time with an original Golden Girl was a performance by Dr. Melinda McClanahan, sister of Rue McClanahan and a semi-retired biologist. dr. McClanahan said her famous sibling “would have been stunned that someone would pay so much attention and make such a fuss about Blanche Deveraux.”
If the event had a beautiful ideal, it would be Chase Bristow. Born on the fifth anniversary of the show’s debut – he pulled out his driver’s license to prove it – Bristow is such a “Golden Girls” stan that he tweaked his Uber profile so drivers back home in Florida’s Daytona Beach , should ask for Blanch.
Bristow resonated with many fans when he said that watching “The Golden Girls” was a balm that soothed life’s grazes, big and small.
“When my parents kicked me out for being gay, the first thing I did when I walked out the door was put on ‘Golden Girls’,” said Bristow, who wore a “Dorothy in the Streets, Blanche in the Sheets.” T-shirt and sported a “Golden Girls” tattoo on his arm. “It’s like that great big hug from Grandma you always want.”
After the event, Hudson, one of the organizers, said that Golden-Con not only provided entertainment but also created a welcoming space for fans who “had something in common with people who feel they have been pushed aside”. He already plans to bring it back in 2023, perhaps to Chicago, although many fans told him Miami would make more sense.
Like the Golden Girls themselves, fans wanted — and deserved — “friendship and connection,” he said.
“They found a few at Golden-Con.”