Visiting the set, part 1

The first show I ever visited was The Golden Girls in the fall of 1991. They had metal detectors when you went inside; most of the other stages didn’t, though many probably started using them afterward. The episode I saw being filmed was ‘The Pope’s Ring’ from season 7. The director, Lex Passaris, never came down on stage. He directed the whole thing from the catwalk above using a microphone.

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The sets were like you see on screen. The living room door opened into nothing really. Just a fake backdrop on the other side. This episode had two temporary sets: a hospital room and hospital hallway. Those were built next to the main kitchen set, downstage left. Much of the action took place outside the house using the temporary sets.

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They were running short on time and had to stretch some jokes out. They gave Rue McClanahan a line about a credit card. The audience didn’t find it very funny, but the audience was asked to laugh several times, so they could record lengthy reactions with the other main characters. They padded an extra 30 seconds with that bit. At the end, they had Estelle Getty improvise a scene where her character Sophia was playing poker with the pope. Silly and not in the original script, but they were still short on time. They ended up putting longer closing credits over that improvised business.

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Estelle had trouble remembering a lot of her lines. She slowed things down considerably. At one point, she had to sit in a chair by the camera operators and take an extended break. She looked at me and smiled and I smiled back. She regained her confidence, stood up and resumed filming. It didn’t surprise me that she was soon diagnosed with dementia. She continued to play the character three more seasons, though in a reduced capacity, on the spinoff The Golden Palace; then on the other spinoff Empty Nest. She was a trouper.

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Normally I don’t watch the episodes on TV after I see them filmed. There are different reasons for this. Sometimes I just don’t happen to catch them in syndication. But I did finally see ‘The Pope’s Ring’ about a year ago on Hulu. It held up well and ended up being better than I thought it would be. It’s interesting to see something performed live in 1991, then to see the recorded version 25 years later.

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