It began innocently enough. Four actors wanted to perform -- for charity -- two episodes of the TV show "The Golden Girls" at Rose's Turn, the West Village cabaret. Four performances were scheduled in August and, at the third performance, a representative of the Lifetime channel, which airs the original TV sitcom daily, attended and approved. Audiences began to attend, too, and soon "The Golden Girls: Live!" added performances, ran for several months, and announced Off-Broadway plans, followed by a possible national tour, for early 2004.
Unfortunately, says John Schaefer, who played Dorothy (the role originated by Bea Arthur), "The stage rights to 'The Golden Girls' had not been secured and ultimately could not be secured. We thought that when the representative from Lifetime came and loved the show -- he asked us to perform one of the episodes at the network's Christmas party -- we had all the permission we needed to keep on doing the show. But then we got a cease-and-desist letter." The production closed Nov. 9.
The letter, he says, came from Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions, which produced the original sitcom and, more to the point, "owns all the underlying rights to 'The Golden Girls,' including stage rights."
The two entities mounting the live-action version of the show, New World Productions and JP Productions, then hired an attorney, "assuming" it would only be a matter of negotiating for the stage rights while continuing to perform at Rose's Turn and firming up plans for the Off-Broadway run.
"Then Witt/Thomas/Harris told us that even if we had negotiated for the stage rights, we wouldn't have gotten permission to do it, so we finally had to stop doing the show," Schaefer said.
In the recent past, there have been other examples of live-action versions of sitcoms. During the 1990s, for example, "The Real Live Brady Bunch" ran successfully at the Village Gate. In that particular case, however, the creator of the sitcom, Sherwood Schwartz, enthusiastically signed off on the project.
In the few months that "The Golden Girls: Live!" ran at Rose's Turn, a portion of the proceeds were donated each week to the Society for Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. Estelle Getty, who played Sophia on the original sitcom (and was essayed by Peter Mac in the live-action version), suffers from the disease. "We ended up giving a few hundred dollars to charity," Schaefer notes, "but if we moved Off-Broadway, it could have been a couple thousand."
Still, Schaefer notes that all isn't lost. "We have another live-action sitcom in the works where we will have the stage rights and where the director of the original show may direct the first few episodes we do." An announcement about the project, he added, is expected within two weeks.