After actress Bea Arthur left “The Golden Girls” in 1992, taking her Dorothy Zbornak character with her, the long-running sitcom ended; its sequel, “The Golden Palace,” without Arthur, never shone quite as brightly.
A similar fate might have met The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes after the passing of its principal actress and founder, Heklina, this spring. After seeing the local legend in the role of Dorothy in the staged series parody for the past 17 years, fans were initially left wondering if the show would go on without her.
That was until summer, when the play’s director and star, D’Arcy Drollinger, invited drag icon Miss Coco Peru to take over for Heklina in The Christmas Episodes—and the Trick, To Wong Foo, and Girls Will Be Girls alum obliged.
“I said yes right away,” says Peru. “I felt like it was my way of honoring Heklina and connecting with the city I love and its people. I even felt like Bea Arthur was pushing me on my other shoulder and saying, ‘Do it.’”
Peru joins the ensemble cast, including Drollinger (Rose Nylund), Matthew Martin (Blanche Devereaux), and Holotta Tymes (Sophia Petrillo) for the 18th installment of the annual holiday show (Thu/30-Sat/23) at the Victoria Theatre, where it’s run since 2011. While in town, Peru will also be doing her Coco Peru: HAVE YOU HEARD? one-woman show at OASIS on Mon/11.
This year’s episodes include “Goodbye Mister Gordon,” in which Dorothy’s old high-school teacher plagiarizes her work, and “From Here to the Pharmacy,” where a soldier serving in the Persian Gulf comes home to resume his career as a pharmacist and his “relationship” with Blanche.
I spoke to Peru about her connections to Heklina and Bea Arthur, how the late drag star emboldened her, and why even after Heklina’s demise, The Christmas Episodes must continue on.
48 HILLS I imagine you experienced a certain amount of nervousness when agreeing to take on this role that Heklina made her own over the past decade and a half.
MISS COCO PERU Yes. But I’m a nervous person anyway. I feel extra pressure to satisfy the San Francisco audience because I love my audience up there and know what a loss it is to not have Heklina there and hear her voice. But if I don’t deliver the performance they want, I’m hoping they’re at least celebrating that the show still went on.
I hope my audience there will appreciate the effort I’m putting into it and that I’m scared. It’s crazy that I’ve said yes. First, I felt good about it, and then, 10 minutes later, after I hung up the phone, I said, “What the fuck did I just say yes for?” But that was very Heklina. She was about being bold and saying yes while knowing when to say no. Heklina was always so centered in herself.
And San Francisco has always been supportive of me. I always feel so welcome, and I would not have taken on this role if I didn’t have that connection. One thing is having that connection with Heklina, but having that connection with San Francisco makes it feel OK.
48 HILLS How long have you known Heklina?
COCO PERU Not that long. Remarkably, I met Heklina back in the ‘90s. I had gone to Trannyshack and hung out with her one night when I was still shy and insecure. I recently spoke with Heklina about how one of my big regrets is that I didn’t connect with her earlier. I feel that way about Peaches Christ, too. I saw all these people as cool while I felt like this big theatre nerd who didn’t fit in.
But as my career went on, I did develop that sense of belonging in this world. I became bold and eventually went up to Peaches and said, “I’d like to be in one of your shows someday—even if it’s a cameo.” I just wanted to be included.
Over the years, people haven’t included me because of my shyness, and Heklina later confirmed this came across as aloofness—and I regret that. It was just me being insecure and always in my head. So I tried to experience people and enjoy them. I enjoyed Heklina so much, and I’m grateful I had that time with her.
48 HILLS Did you ever speak to Heklina about The Christmas Episodes?
COCO PERU Yes. We were in Palm Springs, and she spoke about her schedule. She was going over to London, and then The Christmas Episodes came up. She said she loved doing them and how much money she made. She loved money.
She was still living and excited about projects and always thinking ahead to the next thing. The Christmas Episodes were something she looked forward to.
48 HILLS With her dry wit and even drier delivery, Heklina was the perfect Dorothy.
COCO PERU The funny thing about Heklina is that Heklina was always Heklina. And so whenever you saw Heklina in a show, you were looking for that classic Heklina. Then, Dorothy Zbornak is strong and forthright, and Heklina is like that. She was always very nice to me, but when it came to business, she was forthright.
She seemed so fearless, but maybe she wasn’t. Maybe she had all these crazy fears but still dared to see things through and create. So that’s what you saw. And when she did the Dorothy character—that voice alone was incredible.
48 HILLS Are you wearing anything of Heklina’s in the show?
COCO PERU I don’t think any clothing because we’re not the same size. Anyway, I wouldn’t want to wear any of her costumes because Lord knows what you might catch.
But Nancy, her good friend, sent me a box of jewelry from The Christmas Episodes and asked if I would want any of it. I said, “Sure,” then got it in the mail and opened it. It is the most disgusting, foul, discolored, horrible jewelry. I thought, “Do I have to pick through this and find one thing I can put on so I can have her on stage with me?”
But I could also hear Heklina cackling. I wanted to pick up the phone, call her, and go, “How dare you send this to me.” That’s the relationship we had; the more horrible we could be to each other, the more we laughed.
48 HILLS What’s your history with “The Golden Girls” series?
COCO PERU It’s funny because when it was originally on in the ‘80s, I was in college, and back then, having a television was a huge luxury, which I couldn’t afford. So I never watched TV. But years later, I rediscovered “The Golden Girls” and fell in love with the brilliant writing and the four brilliant actresses perfectly cast for that show. The fact that it’s lasted all these years says something about those four women and the writing.
48 HILLS I know you’ve interviewed Bea Arthur, but how close were you?
COCO PERU She came to see my show in the mid-’90s, and then she came to greet me afterward. I was obsessed with Bea Arthur, so to meet her was a thrill. Then, our paths crossed again, and we got to know each other.
She liked me. It was extraordinary to call her a friend, although I couldn’t get past fangirling. I couldn’t get there because I was still like, “Holy shit.” But she was so dear to me. Whenever I called her on the phone, I would get the biggest “Darling!” To be able to hear Bea Arthur call you darling was a gift.
48 HILLS How have the losses of Arthur and Heklina affected you?
COCO PERU I miss them. When Heklina did go, I thought, “Well, she didn’t suffer.” I tried to find the blessings in it, but the reality is for those that loved her, it just sucks. I miss them, but that’s life.
And Heklina had a very dark sense of humor, which we shared. So there are times when I’ll see a meme, think of her, and cackle and remember her laugh. That’s how I deal with it.
48 HILLS If The Christmas Episodes go well for you, could you see staying on as a regular cast member?
COCO PERU I’m trying not to think that far ahead, but I’m open to that. Also, wouldn’t it be cool if every year it’s somebody new? So I’ll stay open to whatever comes along.
I just hope the San Francisco audience comes in knowing there’s no way I could ever fill her shoes and bring what Heklina brought to that character. I just hope they appreciate that I stepped in as her friend and as a friend of D’arcy so that the show could go on.
THE GOLDEN GIRLS: THE CHRISTMAS EPISODES Thu/30-Sat/23, Victoria Theatre, SF. $35-$75.Tickets and more info here.
COCO PERO: HAVE YOU HEARD? Mon/11, OASIS, SF. $35-$55. Tickets and more info here.