Ask just about any gay man which “Golden Girls” character he identifies closest and the overwhelming answer is likely going to be Blanche, but not Jason B. Schmidt.
For more than a decade, the New Jersey-based actor has been performing as Dorothy in “Golden Girls” parodies and is now bringing a cabaret show celebrating all the iconic roles of Bea Arthur to Fort Lauderdale’s Empire Stage.
“I saw a casting call for a campy drag version of ‘Golden Girls’ in the East Village and they needed someone who was tall with a deep voice,” Schmidt recalled. “That was where I started to make the connection. I had watched ‘Golden Girls’ and knew who ‘Maude’ was, but I had never really studied her.”
Actually, the actress first made an impression on him years earlier when a friend gifted him a CD of Arthur’s 2002 one-woman Broadway cabaret show “Just Between Friends.”
“That show was how I first got to know Bea Arthur … I popped that CD in my Walkman on the bus. I loved the way she told her stories, then sang a song and then back to the stories.”
The actor took a deeper dive into Arthur’s work and soon discovered other unforgettable performances, including Vera Charles from “Mame,” a role that earned a Tony on Broadway in 1966 and a contract to reprise the role on the big screen with Lucille Ball in the lead.
He immersed himself in endless reruns of “Maude” and “Golden Girls,” the sitcom that remains a favorite among gay men and is a pillar of weekly programming on several cable television networks.
Her secret, Schmidt discovered was “her seriousness and the way she delivers a joke. The reason it was so funny was that she took it so seriously — the timing, the wait — she always took a little bit longer than someone should get to it.”
By 2014 or 2015, Schmidt realized that he had more material than the “Golden Girls” spoofs allowed and he began writing and performing a cabaret-style show celebrating the full range of Arthur’s work.
He had never been intimidated by performing in drag, the “sissy boy from Lubbock, Texas” admitted. After moving to Denver while in high school, he discovered opera, acting and the escape that roles, costumes and make-up afforded. He thought he might become an opera singer, but really liked hanging around with the theater majors on the University of Denver campus.
“Even in college, I have been blessed with playing several female leading roles, so I wasn’t afraid of it,” he said of female impersonation. “Over the past three or so years, I’ve become more interested in the art of drag because of the abundance of drag on TV right now … and with YouTube, it’s easy to find the people who do makeup the way I might like to do make-up.”
After appearances on the East and West Coasts, Schmidt will debut “Bea Arthur: Astral Dame” in South Florida and describes the show simply as “Bea Arthur comes back from the heavens — the Astral Plane — to sing a few more songs and tell a few more stories the way she’s always wanted.”
He concluded, “Once I opened the door and allowed Bea into my life, so many opportunities have followed,” and he thinks Arthur couldn’t be happier.
Jason B. Schmidt stars in “Bea Arthur: Astral Dame,” May 5 – 9 at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Dr. in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $35 and $25 for a live-streaming performance on May 7. Seating is limited and socially distanced. Masks are required. For tickets and more information, go to EmpireStage.com.