If you are Bea Arthur, about to open your new one-woman Broadway show, Just Between Friends, you know your audience. There will be middle-aged couples who think you are a great entertainer, fans of your groundbreaking sitcom Maude, and (of course) gay men, some of whom have dressed up like you at one time or another. What you might not expect -- but what you just may be getting -- is a crowd of 22-year-old hipsters obsessed with The Golden Girls, particularly with Arthur's dumped-at-midlife character, the sarcastic Dorothy Zbornak.
Turns out that Arthur is certified platinum as far as cult icons go -- a Britney alternative. Not only has her hair turned silver, but at 78, she was recently called "funky" for the first time, by a young photographer who had her pose like a rock star in a gritty warehouse. "I played along," Arthur says, voice huskier than ever. "But I just wanted to get funky and get out of there."
Arthur may be a little taken aback by her latter-day admirers, but that won't stop them. "I'd go see Bea in a second. I'm sure she's inherently funny. She's hip," says Gary Kon, 25, who's been a rabid viewer ever since Lifetime began running Golden Girls episodes 32 times a week in 1997.
Other twentysomethings first fell under the spell of the show at age 10 -- mesmerized by the senior-citizen Sex and the City. "My mother wouldn't let me watch it. She thought the Golden Girls were tasteless," says 23-year-old Nancy Einhart. "It was a forbidden pleasure." Now that these fans have grown up, they appreciate The Golden Girls in large part because it's not obsessed with them: The show may revolve around sexual intrigue and odd living arrangements, but unlike The Real World, it has no truck whatsoever with youth culture. "People don't give a shit about old people in general," says Phoebe Reilly, 23. "You're taught that life is over after 35," she says. "Here's a show that tells you post-men, you can start all over again." Adds Patrick Carone, 25, who often watches with his grandmother: "Other shows keep getting younger and younger. It's almost more subversive than watching Jackass."
Arthur understands, mostly. "Kids adore The Golden Girls because it's so anti-Establishment," she says. "But I never thought it would become this sort of cult thing. I mean, my God -- it's like Dynasty."