Fran Drescher: Flushing’s funny lady finds her voice
Just about every word and sound that’s dropped out of Fran Drescher’s mouth over the last quarter century has made me laugh, but nothing could compare to her description of the “Flamingo Beach Club”, located in Queens, NY. “There were no flamingos”, she once said, “and no beach. It was a pool in a concrete slab in the middle of Flushing”.
Like Drescher, I’m a Flushing native, and a fellow alumnus of both the Flamingo Beach Club and Queens College of the City University of New York. Our paths never crossed, however, until earlier this month, when she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Queens College annual fundraising dinner. Although best-known for her 1990s hit TV sitcom The Nanny, which she created, starred in, and executive produced, Drescher has since gained a reputation as a tireless crusader for cancer awareness, LGBT rights, arts and education funding, and the environment.
Drescher made her big screen debut in a scene with John Travolta in 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, but it was her small screen role as the Jewish nanny Fran Fine from Flushing that made many Americans sit up and take notice. Others, presumably, just covered their ears. Drescher’s nasal, Noo Yawk-accented foghorn of a voice, along with a laugh that sounds like a machine gun snorting, must have come as a shock to viewers in, say, Fargo, North Dakota.
“But I figured out how to monetize this voice”, Drescher noted proudly in a conversation before the fundraising dinner. “And I kinda put Flushing on the map with The Nanny. Before that, people were a little embarrassed to admit it. Then they started coming up to me on the street, saying, ‘I’m from Flushing’, and we’d high five each other!”
Drescher also was the first Jewish woman to play an outwardly Jewish character on television in decades, for which she was honored at Israel’s Knesset by Prime Minister Netanyahu. One episode of The Nanny even featured Miss Fine taking the family she worked for to the kibbutz where she’d volunteered as a teenager. Another storyline showed Fine falling for a Professor Goldberg. And, incredibly, Ray Charles once appeared on the sitcom and sang “My Yiddishe Mama” to Fran’s grandmother Yetta.
Drescher’s college tenure was short but enjoyable. “I loved learning. I loved history”, she recalled, “and I loved the view of Manhattan, because I already had dreams of going there as an aspiring actress”. Given that she left the university after a year, I had to ask which had a greater impact on her life: going to college, or to the Flamingo Beach Club?
Drescher exploded in that unmistakable laugh. “Let’s see. At the age I went to Flamingo, I was just starting to have an interest in boys, turning from a child into a young lady. So it was a very significant time, I would have to say a more transitional stage in my life”.
The now-59-year-old actress married her high school sweetheart Peter Marc Jacobson in 1978; he co-created, wrote and produced The Nanny with her. They divorced in 1999, after which he revealed he was gay. “I was always a gay icon to my Nanny fans”, Drescher told the dinner crowd, “but Peter’s coming out moved me up to Judy Garland status!” The two remain good friends, and Drescher has been honored with several awards for her LGBT-related advocacy.
In 2000, Drescher was told she had uterine cancer, following two years of misdiagnoses. Surgery saved her life, and after writing a book about the experience called Cancer Schmancer, she formed a non-profit organization with that name. Washingtonian magazine listed her among the country’s top five celebrity lobbyists, writing “She’s been a prime mover behind passage of cancer-awareness legislation”.
It’s obvious that Drescher is passionate about early screenings and patients’ rights. “We’re a very uplifting, motivating, educating, fun organization. We empower people. We transform patients into medical consumers”.
Drescher continues to “work in show business to stay current”, so she can get attention for the causes in which she believes. She advises young people to “Figure out what makes your heart sing, and then figure out how to make a living at it”.
What’s next for a still-youthful woman who’s achieved virtually every goal she’s set for herself? Fran Drescher, who once gazed at Manhattan and dreamed of the future from her college window, says she continues to learn. “I’m on a journey of self-refinement, and becoming connected to my soul, as much as possible. I walk through life like I’m in the biggest classroom ever.”