Li’l Abner’s pipe-smokin’ Mammy Yokum on Broadway in 1956, character actress, singer, and comedienne Charlotte Rae (b. Milwaukee, WI, 22 April 1926) is now best known for her television career portraying Mrs. Edna Garrett from 1979 to 1986 in the sitcom The Facts of Life (and earlier in its parent, Diff’rent Strokes). The role won her a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy in 1982.
Charlotte Rae Lubotsky, her two sisters, and their Russian Jewish immigrant parents lived in Milwaukee until she was ten, when they moved north a few miles to the suburb of Shorewood. Her father Meyer Lubotsky owned a business selling automobile tires. As a child, Charlotte acted with the Wauwatosa Children’s Theatre and performed on the radio; as a teenager she apprenticed with a professional summer theatre company and participated in dramatics at Shorewood High School. After graduating in 1944, she headed for Northwestern University, the cynosure for many a young theatrical hopeful, where she knew the likes of Charlton Heston, Paul Lynde, Patricia Neal, Jeffrey Hunter, and Agnes Nixon (producer and writer of soap operas), and became especial friends with songwriter Sheldon Harnick and actress Cloris Leachman. Leachman was actually her roommate, and many years later would replace Charlotte Rae on The Facts of Life in the last two seasons.
Around 1948, she dropped her last name (her father was mildly insulted), left school, and moved to New York, where she performed for several years in clubs like the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel. Her Broadway debut was in a musical with John Raitt called Three Wishes for Jamie (1952), which survived for 92 performances. Far more rewarding – though the run for Charlotte Rae was not much longer – was her stint as Mrs. Peachum in the 1954 Theatre de Lys production of The Threepenny Opera in Marc Blitzstein’s adaptation with Scott Merrill, Bea Arthur, Jo Sullivan, and Lotte Lenya. (The same production was brought back in September 1955, but with Jane Connell replacing Rae, and ran for 2,611 performances until the end of 1961.) Directly from The Threepenny Opera Charlotte Rae went into the cast of The Golden Apple, replacing Geraldine Viti as Mrs. Juniper.
In 1955 she recorded her first solo vocal LP album – it would also be her last –, Songs I Taught My Mother: Silly, Sinful, and Satirical Selections. Contributing composers and lyricists, living and dead, included Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, Vernon Duke, and John Latouche; new songs were written especially for her by her friends Sheldon Harnick (“Gabor the Merrier,” “Backer’s Audition”) and Marc Blitzstein (“Modest Maid”). The record (now available on CD) is a cult favorite, and its “selections” are frequently covered by cabaret artists.
After a short run of Ben Bagley’s Littlest Revue (1956) with Tammy Grimes, Joel Grey, and Larry Storch, she joined Peter Palmer, Stubby Kaye, Edie Adams, and Joe E. Marks in the original cast of the musical Li’l Abner. The show was an enormous hit, running up 693 stompin’ performances.
In 1962 Rae appeared in multiple (non-singing) roles with Bert Lahr and Alice Ghostley in S.J. Perelman’s The Beauty Part. Then she was back singing in the musical Pickwick (1965), which did not last long, although it brought her a Tony® nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Another Tony® nomination (1969), this time for Best Actress in a Play, came for her three roles in Morning, Noon, and Night, three one-act plays. Two more one-acters in a single evening, The Chinese and Dr. Fish (1970), lasted only two weeks. Charlotte Rae’s last appearance on Broadway was with Madeline Kahn in Boom Boom Room in 1973. The same year, she was off-Broadway in Terrence McNally’s Whiskey, earning an Obie nomination. In 1974 she moved to Los Angeles.
Since 1954, in addition to her stage work, Rae had been appearing in television commercials and guest roles in series dramas and comedies: The United States Steel Hour, Armstrong Circle Theatre, NBC Television Opera Theatre, The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, The DuPont Show of the Month/Week, The Phil Silvers Show, Way Out, The Defenders, and The Love Boat; she also frequently appeared as herself on shows like Ed Sullivan, The Colgate Comedy Hour (where she became friends with producer Norman Lear), The Martha Raye Show, Camera Three, Garry Moore, and Joan Rivers. Her first significant success in a recurring role was on the sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? (1961–1963), in which she played Sylvia Schnauser, the wife of Officer Leo Schnauser .
In the 70s, devoting herself almost entirely to television, she guest-starred on McMillan & Wife, The Partridge Family, Love, American Style, All in the Family, Good Times, and Dinah. On Sesame Street she made several appearances as Molly the Mail Lady, and in 1975 she was nominated for an Emmy for her supporting role in Queen of the Stardust Ballroom. Another recurring role was Mrs. Bellotti in ABC’s Hot L Baltimore.
In 1978, Norman Lear produced a new series, Diff’rent Strokes, in which Charlotte Rae played housekeeper Edna Garrett in all 24 episodes of the first season. The character was so popular that the producers spun off yet another series for her, The Facts of Life. Edna Garrett became a housemother overseeing four teenagers in a prestigious private girls’ school. Dealing with young people’s issues like drugs, alcohol, weight gain and loss, dating, and depression, the show lasted for ten seasons; Edna Garrett was conspicuously absent for many episodes during the seventh and eighth season (Rae was having serious health problems), and finally Cloris Leachman joined the cast, as Garrett’s sister, as a substitute.
In 2001 cast members of The Facts of Life came together in a TV movie, The Facts of Life Reunion. A second reunion took place at the TV Land Awards in April 2011, where the show won an award as Pop Culture Icon. That occasion coincided with Charlotte Rae’s 85th birthday.
In the 25 years since she left the cast of The Facts of Life, Charlotte Rae has been busier than ever – still mostly on television, but appearing in movies and stage shows as well. TV series have included St. Elsewhere (1987), Murder, She Wrote (1987), 227 (1989), Baby Talk (1991), Thunder in Paradise (1994), Sisters (1995), 101 Dalmatians (43 episodes, 1997–1998), Diagnosis: Murder (2000), The King of Queens (2005), ER (4 episodes, 2008), Life (2009), and Pretty Little Liars (2011); her movies and videos have included The Worst Witch (1986), Save the Dog! (1988), Mickey: Reelin’ Through the Years (1995), Another Woman’s Husband (2000), You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008), and Christmas Cottage (2008). In 2000, she starred as Berthe in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Pippin, and her most recent New York appearance was in the 2006 Encores! production of 70, Girls, 70.
Charlotte Rae and her two sisters were all gifted musically: her older sister Beverly was an opera singer; Miriam (Mimi) is a composer. Beverly died in 1998 of pancreatic cancer, a disease that runs in their family; Charlotte suffered from it also but has survived thanks to early diagnosis. Charlotte’s 25-year marriage to composer John Strauss (now deceased) ended in divorce in 1976; they have two sons: one is autistic and the other now teaches school in Los Angeles.
– Lucy E. Cross