By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Dec 11, 2002 at 5:40 AM

Charlotte Rae is best known as the quavery-voiced, red-headed Mrs. Garrett from the 1980s television series, "The Facts of Life," who did her best to keep the cafeteria clean and Blair, Natalie, Jo and Tootie out of trouble.

Less known is the fact she grew up in Milwaukee.

Born Charlotte Rae Lubotsky on April 22, 1926 to Russian-Jewish immigrants, she spent the first 10 years of her life living on 12th Street. Her family later moved to Murray Avenue in Shorewood, and Rae graduated from Shorewood High School in 1944.

In 1952, Rae made her Broadway debut in "Three wishes for Jamie" and went on to star as Mammy Yokum in "Lil' Abner." Although she has always been most fulfilled working on stage, she made numerous television appearances in the '50s, '60s and '70s including the "The Phil Silvers Show," "Car 54, Where Are You?" and "The Rich Little Show."

Her big break came in 1978 when Norman Lear cast her as Edna Garrett, the Drummond family's ditsy but down-to-earth housekeeper on "Diff'rent Strokes." In 1979, her character moved to her own spin-off series, "The Facts of Life." The first season was poorly rated, but after a shift in concept and a cast overhaul (which included the firing of Molly Ringwald and Lauren Tom), it became the toast of prime time.

Rae left the show after seven seasons (the show continued for two more season with Mrs. Garrett's sister, Beverly Ann, as the housemother, but it was never the same) because she was tired of the TV series grind and wanted to get back into stage acting.

Since then, Rae has performed in many shows and musicals, including her most recent stint in "The Vagina Monologues" in New York. She has also appeared in numerous television movies, "Sisters," "The Facts of Life Reunion Movie" and has made a number of commercials, including the memorable Excedrin spot with Charles Nelson Riley.

Today, Rae is 76, living in L.A. and still working. Sharp as a tack, spunky and warm, Rae was eager to reflect on her life, her role as "Mrs. G" and her memories of Milwaukee.

OMC: What are you working on right now?

CR: I just got back from New York where I did the "Vagina Monolgues" at the Westside Theater for six weeks. I'm getting ready to do a new play for Gary Marshall's theater -- The Falcoln Theater in L.A. We start rehearsals in January and open in February.

OMC: Which monologues did you perform from "Vagina Monologues?"

CR: I did the one called "I'm angry," the one on childbirth and the one about the woman who could never have an orgasm. Jane Atkinson and Alice Ripley from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" were also in the show with me.

OMC: Did you meet Eve Ensler (the writer and original performer of "Vagina Monologues")?

CR: I didn't meet her in New York during the show, but I met her in L.A.. She's working on a new work about Bosnia.

OMC: Do you think there will ever be another "Facts of Life Reunion Show?"

CR: Well, everyone loved doing the show so much. We had a wonderful time and if they (the network) wanted to do another show, we certainly would.

OMC: Do you still keep in touch with the "girls" from "Facts?"

CR: Oh yes. They are all wonderful women.

OMC: Who are you the closest to?

CR: I appreciate each one for their particular personality. Lisa (Whelchel), Kim (Fields), Nancy (McKeon) and Mindy (Cohn) are all very special to me.

OMC: Was "Facts" the highpoint of your career?

CR: No, not really, but it certainly was important. Because of the power of television, I was visible to everybody all over the world. But there are many things in the theater that are more fulfilling and that I look forward to doing more. But really, I love it all: theater, film, television.

OMC: "Facts of Life" was a spin-off from "Diff'rent Strokes." How did that happen?

CR: Fred Silverman, the head of NBC, saw me in "Diff'rent Strokes" and years ago in "Car 54 Where Are You?" and wanted to do a spin off. So we tried to think of something that we thought would be good, and came up with "Facts of Life."

OMC: There were twice as many girls in the show during the first season. Why were so many girls cut from the script?

CR: Because there were too many to focus in on for a half-hour show. Maybe if the show had been an hour, but for a half-hour, there were just too many characters.

OMC: Is it true that you discovered Mindy Cohn, who played the role of "Natalie?"

CR: Yes. I discovered Mindy. She wasn't even looking for an acting job. We went to the Westlake school for girls -- our place on "Facts" was called "Eastlake" -- to interview girls and to do research. When I met Mindy, I thought she was adorable and said we had to have her read for the show. I also named her character "Natalie." She turned out to be a wonderful asset to the show.

OMC: It's been rumored that Nancy McKeon's character, Jo, was supposed to be a lesbian, but because it was the '80s, the network had to be very low key about it. Is this true?

CR: No, she was a "tom boy," not a lesbian, but I'm sure that if she was supposed to be a lesbian, they would have talked about it. There is so much talk today about sexuality on television, and I think people are reading into something that wasn't meant to be.

OMC: Tell me about growing up in Milwaukee.

CR: For the first ten years of my life I lived at 1232 N. 12th St. It's a freeway now. My father owned a tire store. There were three girls in my family, and I was the middle one. All three of us were very talented. My older sister, Beverly, settled in Milwaukee and she died a few years ago. She was an opera singer who sang with the symphony and a group called the Saturday Arts' Club. My younger sister, Mimi, is an accomplished musician and composer. She wrote a children's album that I recorded for her, called "Wally Koala" and she's written a couple of musicals as well.

OMC: Did you like being a student at Shorewood High School?

CR: Great school. Beautiful campus. I had some wonderful teachers that I will never forget.

OMC: Do you remember what street you lived on in Shorewood?

CR: We moved to Shorewood when I was 10 years old, to 4431 N. Murray Ave. between Lake Bluff and Kensington Blvd.

OMC: Wow, great memory ...

CR: Cramer, Oakland Avenue ... I remember all of those streets.

OMC: Do you ever make it back to Milwaukee these days?

CR: No, I haven't been there in a long time because my parents and sister and brother-in-law have passed away.

OMC: What do you remember most about Milwaukee?

CR: I remember Milwaukee very fondly. My neighbors were very friendly. I remember all of the wonderful, German food. I love Lake Michigan and the beach. I used to like to ride my bicycle down there. I love all of my girlfriends from Milwaukee.

OMC: Did you start your acting career in Milwaukee?

CR: Yes, I was interested in acting since grade school. I did a lot of radio work and I was also with the Wauwatosa Children's Theatre. When I was 16, I was an apprentice with the Port Players, a professional theater company that would come for the summer to Milwaukee. They had several distinguished actors involved, like Morton DaCosta who was the director of the Music Man on Broadway.

OMC: Why did you leave Milwaukee?

CR: When I graduated from Shorewood, I went to Northwestern University and graduated from there in '48 with a bachelor's in speech. I did a lot of theater work at Northwestern, and decided to go to New York, where I lived until '74. While I lived in New York I did a lot of stage and theater. I was the original Mammy Yokum in "Lil' Abner" and I played Mrs. Peachum in the first production of the "Three Penny Opera" with Bea Arthur. I also did a lot of television work because television was very big in New York.

OMC: Weren't you on "Sesame Street" for a while?

CR: Yes. I was Molly the Mail person on "Sesame Street." I've done a lot of stuff for PBS.

OMC: Do you watch television today?

CR: Not too much. I love "Law & Order." I don't really like sitcoms, even though I was on one. I don't like the mechanical laughter. I do like public broadcasting a lot. They do so many great things. I just saw something on Benjamin Franklin and it just blew me away. I also like "Masterpiece Theater" and I'm really looking forward to the new season of "Six Feet Under" in January. I also like the Sundance Channel and the Independent Film Channel.

OMC: Do people still recognize you as "Mrs. Garrett?"

CR: Everywhere I go, all over the world. People couldn't be sweeter or nicer. A lot of them want a hug.

OMC: There are definitely some similarities between Mrs. Garrett and Charlotte Rae. You are both divorced. You both have a sister named Beverly and a son named Andy. But would you say that your personality is like Mrs. Garrett's?

CR: Her personality is a part of me and I have some of those qualities but I'm not always that way.

OMC: Do you still have red hair?

CR: (Laughing) Yes. Sort of.

OMC: What is your favorite "Facts" episode?

CR: I thought they were all pretty good, but the one where the girl acted like everything was fine and then committed suicide had an important message that other teenagers could connect with. I think it's wonderful when television can not just be preachy but illuminating.

OMC: What do you think when you watch reruns of "Facts?"

CR: I don't watch them at all. Why should I sit and watch something that was done a long time ago? Since then I've done all sorts of things.


OMC: Do you think "Facts of Life" would make it on television today?

CR: I think it would because it's so innocent and sweet. I think sometimes people are disgusted with some of the over explanations of sex on television and sometimes they want to watch something sweet. Why do you think they go back to old shows like "The Brady Bunch" and "Facts of Life?" Because they're not so racy. I like that you don't have sex as a sport on "Facts." I feel that sex should be part of something more meaningful than just being something casual. Television should be a little more responsible because today you can get HIV or you can get pregnant if you don't have someone guiding you along. I'm not a prude, but I think the television industry has a responsibility to the community, especially the teenage community.

Molly Snyder grew up on Milwaukee's East Side and today, she lives in the Walker's Point neighborhood with her partner and two sons.

As a full time senior writer, editorial manager and self-described experience junkie, Molly has written thousands of articles about Milwaukee (and a few about New Orleans, Detroit, Indianapolis, Boston and various vacation spots in Wisconsin) that range in subject from where to get the best cup of coffee to an in-depth profile on the survivors of the iconic Norman apartment building that burned down in the '90s.

She also once got a colonic just to report on it, but that's enough on that. 

Always told she had a "radio voice," Molly found herself as a regular contributor on FM102, 97WMYX and 1130WISN with her childhood radio favorite, Gene Mueller.

Molly's poetry, essays and articles appeared in many publications including USA Today, The Writer, The Sun Magazine and more. She has a collection of poetry, "Topless," and is slowly writing a memoir.

In 2009, Molly won a Milwaukee Press Club Award. She served as the Narrator / writer-in-residence at the Pfister Hotel from 2013-2014. She is also a story slam-winning storyteller who has performed with The Moth, Ex Fabula and Risk!

When she's not writing, interviewing or mom-ing, Molly teaches tarot card classes, gardens, sits in bars drinking Miller products and dreams of being in a punk band again.