'The Golden Girls Live!' lives on: D'Arcy Drollinger and Coco Peru carry the torch

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday November 28, 2023
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D'Arcy Drollinger, Holotta Tymes, Miss Coco Peru and Matthew Martin in 'The Golden Girls Live!'
D'Arcy Drollinger, Holotta Tymes, Miss Coco Peru and Matthew Martin in 'The Golden Girls Live!'

Imagine if you will, a San Francisco encounter between the host of the "Rocky Horror Show" and Rose Nylund. He plunges his beak into her nether regions, rhapsodizing about her aroma, "So sweet!"

"Holy Saint Olaf, Senator!" Rose shrieks. "That's not what I meant when I said I asked you to take a peek at my parklet!"

He emerges with an eyeroll: "Perhaps you're confused. I'm Frank-N-Furter, not Scott Weiner."

D'Arcy Drollinger (right) and Holotta Tymes in a 2022 production of 'The Golden Girls Live!'  

The twain have met
The unlikely collision of these characters is just another November day for D'Arcy Drollinger. Two weeks after hanging up the flashy black cape and corset he wore to play Frank in the immersive "Rocky Horror Show," he slips into a sturdier girdle to play Rose, the dim-witted double-entendresse originated by Betty White, in holiday season staple "The Golden Girls, Live!" which opens November 30 at the Victoria Theatre.

"Frank-N-Furter is more physically demanding, but Rose is more complex," said Drollinger, who shares a January 17 birthday with the late White, in a conversation with the Bay Area Reporter over Thanksgiving weekend.

"I have to work harder to land Rose's jokes because they're more nuanced and layered. So much of what's funny in how she delivers her lines, and her strange joy in telling the same old story yet another time. She's a bit surreal."

Both parts, iconic in American queer communities, require precise delivery of dialogue, because loyal audiences have the scripts entirely memorized. They're fanatical.

The cultivation of that sense of a shared culture is part of why Drollinger returns to these roles on a near-annual basis. And why he decided to produce the "Golden Girls Live!" again this Christmas season, even in the absence of close friend and collaborator Heklina, who died in April. In recent years Heklina played a spectacularly corrosive Dorothy Zbornak, the role originated by Bea Arthur in the 1985-1992 sit-com.

The cast most recently also featured Holotta Tymes as Sophia (replacing the late Eddie Bell/Cookie Dough) and Matthew Martin as Blanche.

"Before she died," said Drollinger, "Heklina and I had discussed what we'd do if one of the girls left. It was very clear to us that the show, and San Francisco's love of the show, was bigger than us individually, so it would definitely go on. But finding someone locally who could fill her shoes locally was difficult. Well, it was impossible."

Miss Coco Peru  

Friend of Dorothy
Ultimately, Drollinger offered the role to Los Angeles-based drag performer Clinton Leupp, known as Miss Coco Peru, who had been a close friend of Heklina's and shared the physical stature and imposing character that helped make Heklina's Dorothy so memorable.

"When he first asked," recalled Peru in a recent phone interview, "I oddly didn't hesitate, which is not the way I usually operate. I was so devastated about Heklina and I hadn't been able to attend her memorial. I thought it could help me have some closure.

"There's another layer, too, explained Peru. "I was friendly with Bea Arthur" (Arthur passed in 2009).

"She loved queer people and she was brought to my show years ago by [famed female impersonator] Charles Pierce. She just took a liking to me. She was my guest for 'Conversations with Coco.'

Peru conducted a live interview series at the Los Angeles LGBT Center from 2005-2016.

"Her friendship meant so much to me because she was someone I'd absolutely adored when I was a kid, Peru added. "I remember listening to my parents' cast recording of 'Fiddler on the Roof'— she played Yenta the Matchmaker—and her voice and attitude just resonated with me. Then I got to see her on TV every week as Maude and I became obsessed. Those slow burns she did were a real influence on me.

"Bea told me that when she was starting in the business she felt like an outsider. She was tall and had that deep voice and all the young actresses seemed to be short and blond and aspire to play ingenues. She felt left out, and I think that's part of why she had such a connection to the gay community."

Bosom buddies
Neither Drollinger nor Peru were particular fans of "The Golden Girls" when it originally aired on NBC broadcast television. Both were in college for four years of its run and spent little time watching TV.

Over time, they gravitated to the show in syndication as it became a fixture for gay viewers. Still, Peru admitted, "When I first saw it, I had this annoyed reaction; 'Why is Bea sharing the spotlight?!'"

While in San Francisco for rehearsals and the run of the show, Peru is living in a guest apartment connected to Drollinger's home.

"It's been great," said Drollinger, "We'd been friends in the sense of having lunch together when she was in town to do a show, but she was closer with Heklina, so it's been nice to have a chance to get to know each other better. And she's made fast friends with the rest of the cast."

For most of the 30 years prior to this one, Coco Peru has spent the Christmas season in Florida where her mother has been spending her golden years.

"As she got older, every year I felt I needed to go," said Peru. "Now she's 97 and this opportunity came along. But she gave me her blessing, told me to take it. My mom's always been great with Coco. She says 'Even when I die, you should never miss a live performance.'"

'The Golden Girls Live!' through December 23. Victoria Theater, 2961 16th St. (415) 863-7576. http://www.trypico.com/bayareareporter|becoming a BAR member.