We first met brilliant Charlotte Rae as Sylvia Schnauser on Car 54, Where Are You?
Revisit Rae's funniest appearances on the 1960s slapstick sitcom.
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In the 1970s, TV audiences knew Charlotte Rae as the motherly redhead figures on hit series like Diff'rent Strokes and The Facts of Life. On both shows, she was a series darling, playing hard and soft, and steering our favorite family show stars to make tough choices, not with a sigh but with confidence, good humor and a hearty laugh. But before we saw Rae's remarkable finesse portraying characters in the muted shades of '70s TV, viewers met her first in black and white, on the much earlier slapstick sitcom, Car 54, Where Are You?
On air in the early '60s, Car 54, Where Are You? starred Joe E. Ross as Officer Gunther Toody and Fred Gwynne as Officer Francis Muldoon, following two cops patrolling the Bronx and all the hilarity that came from the characters they dealt with along the way. Rae first appears in the series as a bank teller in the episode "Get Well, Officer Schnauser," where her eyes first grow wide on the show when Muldoon unwittingly passes her a stick-up note instead of his deposit slip. This appropriate introduction to Rae would foreshadow all the many surprises the actress had up her sleeve to entertain viewers soon on the show, once she joined the crew as a permanent cast member.
Seven episodes later, Rae became a permanent fixture on Car 54, Where Are You?, playing Sylvia Schnauser, wife to Leo Schnauser, played by the uproarious Al Lewis. Rae had no trouble holding her own across from the noted comedic actor. We first see Rae as Sylvia Schnauser humming as she cleans her home with care, a black pillbox hat on her head and sleeves on her housedress rolled up. The gag is that she’s the wife who remembers where every little thing is. The shoe Leo lost years ago. The stem of a pipe that once broke off. Leo says with pride, “I’m just showing you off” as she answers him with the precise location for every item he's seeking. But then, the twist lands when he asks for a painting he's brought home that she's discarded, and it seems that the wife who always keeps everything has tossed out the one thing her husband needs. Rae gets a big laugh. These laughs would continue coming throughout her career.
In every appearance, Rae heaped more dimension on her character, start with her next appearance, when she’s a weeping housewife, theatrically bemoaning how her husband has disgraced them because the couple’s loud arguments have the neighbors summoning the police every Thursday, some of TV's most jokey “domestic disturbances.” In a house robe, Rae tearfully tells Toody and Muldoon, she’d just been trying to say two words to Leo all night! The comedy of her character walked that delicate line between humor and drama that the actress later became celebrated for on series like Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life.
But perhaps our favorite episode was “The Courtship of Sylvia Schnauser,” which opens up with Leo kissing a young bride and proclaiming he hasn’t kissed a beautiful girl in years. Rae as his wife stands beside him, exuding every bit of sass in her deadpan response with a convincing sulk. The humor piles on when she repeats the same sunken body language when she catches the bouquet.
The tensions between the Schnausers builds comedically throughout the episode, until Sylvia at last decides to leave Leo. His response? A “Ho Ho Ho” as all the neighbors listen in at their door. The slapstick of Car 54, Where Are You? took the best physical comedy elements of stage plays and silent films and turned these wild gestures into one of TV's most original zany sitcoms, punched up by masterful players like Charlotte Rae.
Through the rest of her time as Sylvia Schnauser, Rae’s character only became richer, in one episode a snooping meddler, in another she’s overjoyed at being selected as a cookie spokeswoman on TV. The antics of Car 54 were many, and over Rae’s 11 appearances, she held her own with hilarious co-stars Joe E. Ross, Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis. Her final episode was a glorious sendoff, “The Loves of Sylvia Schnauser.” In it, Sylvia is invited to do police work, helping Toody and Muldoon set traps to catch con artists. The con artists are posing as book publishers, and Sylvia’s posing as a romance writer. It becomes an extra mystery that no one’s sure in the episode if the book Sylvia describes throughout the episode is really real.