CHICAGO — Bird Milliken designs “Golden Girls”-themed greeting cards under the label Lipstick on a Turd. Her advice? Find yourself a man who’s into watching “The Golden Girls.”
“It says something about them, that their antennas and receptors are open to something deeper,” said Milliken, who made the news last year for protesting outside Bill Cosby’s Pennsylvania home. “‘The Golden Girls’ — I’m getting shivers saying this — it’s not just any show. It’s not ‘Who’s the Boss?’”
Milliken wasn’t shivering alone: She was one of about 3,500 disciples who congregated here late last month for Golden-Con, the first fan convention dedicated to “The Golden Girls” (1985-92), the Emmy-winning sitcom about four affable, peppery, sex-enthusiastic older women who shared a Miami bungalow decorated in comfy rattan and bold floral motifs. Created by Susan Harris, the show ran for seven seasons on NBC; “The Golden Palace,” a spinoff, ran for one (1992-93) on CBS.
In the three decades since it went off the air, it’s as if “The Golden Girls” never left. A mainstay of syndication and streaming, the show has since expanded its fan base and made the Girls into L.G.B.T.Q. icons, drawing in younger generations with its cutting gay sensibility, ribald comedy and progressive perspectives on chosen family and friendships. (All seven seasons are on Hulu.)
For three days at Golden-Con, those fans mixed and mingled among a kind of chosen family all its own, many dressed as their favorite characters: the sturdy teacher Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur); the Southern belle sexpot Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan); the kindly but dimwitted Rose Nylund (Betty White); and Dorothy’s salty Sicilian immigrant mother, Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty).
Here, the show’s bawdy spirit — confined mostly to winks, purrs and innuendo for network television — flourished uncensored. Golden-Coners, mostly gay men and straight women, hustled from gossipy panel discussions to raucous trivia games and reverent autograph signings. Drag queens, including the troupe The Golden Gays, promenaded in stretchy ’80s cougarwear with drop shoulders and batwing sleeves. Vendors hawked “Golden Girls”-branded tote bags, T-shirts and a shocking amount of coasters.
At Golden-Con you didn’t say, “Goodbye”; you said, “Thank you for being a friend” — the first line of the show’s ear-worm theme song. As Jim Colucci, the author of “Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind The Lanai,” described it in a pre-conference interview, the event “brings back the feeling of watching it with your mom or grandmother.”
And you didn’t hold back. Across the convention floor, the vibe was screams-and-hugs festive, alternating agreeably between family friendly and R-rated. Faces were predominantly white. But nobody turned heads quite like four Black women, all sisters — Shalanda Turner, Catrina Parker, Sharon Turner-Wingba and Lashanda Bailey — dressed as Turkey Lurkey, Henny Penny, Goosey Loosey and Peter Pan, a reference to a Season 6 episode.
Chantelle Edwards, 44, visiting from Indianapolis, stopped to compliment the costumes. She remarked that it was “refreshing to see other Black women here” because “there aren’t a lot of Black people that are gung-ho about ‘The Golden Girls.’”
“If they are, they are women,” she said. “They love it because it’s about sisterhood and that no matter how old you are, you need your girls.”
Noticeably missing were the Girls themselves. White was the last surviving member of the main cast when she died in December, just shy of 100.
White’s death had lent Golden-Con an added emotional resonance it didn’t have in 2020, when Zack Hudson and two friends, the brothers Brad and Brendan Balof, first brainstormed the idea. Originally announced as a smaller event to take place at an L.G.B.T.Q. community center, it drew a response so “massive,” Hudson said, that he decided to move the convention to Navy Pier, with its cavernous ballroom and sweeping views of Lake Michigan.
“Based on the reaction, I think the time was now,” said Hudson, 44, who by day is a community health worker for seniors. He estimated that the convention had cost about $420,000 to produce, and he was confident he would come out in the black.
Golden-Con’s headliners weren’t marquee names from the latest Hollywood blockbuster, as one finds at ComicCon. They were mostly Baby Boomer actors and writers who made “The Golden Girls” zing with one-liners and double takes, and who didn’t shy away, however imperfectly, from hot potato issues like AIDS and racism.
Stan Zimmerman, a staff writer on the first season, said the show’s mix of timeless comedy and timely storytelling was why it remains a pop culture heavyweight.
The sitcom landscape in the ’80s “wasn’t about four women talking about real situations,” said Zimmerman. “But that was everything we loved as writers.”
Nobody associated with the show was too minor for Golden-Coners to fawn over. There were lines to meet the Emmy winner Bonnie Bartlett, 92, who played Barbara Thorndyke, a fan-favorite villainess in a single third-season episode.
Then there was Cindy Fee. When she was 28, she was an in-demand Los Angeles singer when in just a few takes she nailed the show’s theme song.
“I hadn’t seen the song before but that’s pretty typical in the industry — most of us are fairly good sight readers,” said Fee, whose voice also helped sell Wheaties and Hoover vacuums. “They played through the song and I just sang it. It’s easy to sing because it’s a lovely tune.”
The crowd roared as if Fee were Lady Gaga when she sang the song on Golden-Con’s opening night. They also went wild when she brought out a surprise guest: Aaron Scott, whose 2016 gospel-tinged version has over 6.3 million views on YouTube.
Even the furniture drew worship, like pilgrims to a relic. Richard Carrington, 38, and his partner, Bryan Brozek, drove from Cañon City, Colo., with a couch and chairs from the show’s living room set that they had bought from a California prop house for about $9,000. Carrington said the pieces had never left their home.
He said fans “just want to come up and touch it knowing the cast sat on it.”
“We had one guy bow to it,” he added.
The closest fans got to spending time with an original Golden Girl was an appearance by Dr. Melinda McClanahan, Rue McClanahan’s sister and a semiretired biologist. Dr. McClanahan said her celebrity sibling “would have been gobsmacked that anyone would pay this much attention and pay this much fuss over Blanche Deveraux.”
If the event had a beau idéal, it was Chase Bristow. Born on the fifth anniversary of the show’s debut — he whipped out his driver’s license to prove it — Bristow is such a “Golden Girls” stan that he customized his Uber profile so drivers back home in Daytona Beach, Fla., have to ask for Blanche.
Bristow echoed many fans when he said that watching “The Golden Girls” was a balm that soothed life’s scrapes, big and small.
“When my parents threw me out because I’m gay, the first thing I did when I walked out the door was turn on ‘Golden Girls,’” said Bristow, who wore a “Dorothy in the Streets, Blanche in the Sheets” T-shirt and sported a “Golden Girls” tattoo on his arm. “It’s like that great big hug from grandma you always want.”
Reached after the event, Hudson, one of the organizers, said that beyond offering amusement, Golden-Con also created a welcoming space for fans who had “something in common with people who feel like they’ve been pushed to the side.” He’s already planning to bring it back in 2023, perhaps to Chicago, though many fans told him Miami would make more sense.
Like the Golden Girls themselves, what fans wanted — and deserved — “was friendship and connection,” he said.
“They found some at Golden-Con.”