Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty are first to arrive. Beatrice Arthur and Betty White don't show up for a while. Finally Getty, getting antsy, asks loudly, "Where are those two older women?"

When, in their shaggy-baggy rehearsal clothes, they make their way to the corner table at a tacky Chinese restaurant near Hollywood and Vine, White spots a spherical brass ornament on a pedestal, a goofy-looking oriental rococo thing, plopped at the center of the table as decoration, and says sarcastically to Getty, "Oh, Estelle, it was so nice of you to bring your Golden Globe. Oh that was a lovely, lovely gesture!"

Getty had recently won a Golden Globe for her performance on the show. This was not it. All four women had been nominated in the category, but, ahem, only Getty had won.

"Where did you put your Golden Globe, Estelle?" McClanahan asks her.

"In a niche, with my other icons," Getty growls.

Ah but they are icons themselves now, these four lovable stars of the biggest new situation comedy of the year. "The Golden Girls" is a huge Saturday-night success story for NBC (at 9 on Channel 4) and, line for line and yin for yang, the funniest show on prime-time television. America loves to watch these four, feisty, single over-fifties scrap and cope and spat in the sunny Miami house they share and share alike.

If it's a message show, the message, White says, is that "once you pass 50, you don't atrophy and fall off the tree, that you've got all kinds of sexuality and energy. You make the same mistakes you did as a kid, but from your frame of reference, you can get by with murder that you couldn't when you were younger."

However, Arthur, who always speaks with the authority, and seemingly the timbre, of the Burning Bush, says it's not a message show, just a comedy show. "From the moment I read that script, I didn't even think that it was about older women," says the woman who starred on the message-laden "Maude" from 1972 to 1978. "I just thought it was a damn well-written, bright funny literate script. That's all I thought. And when somebody said, 'Oh, what you're going to be doing for women over 50,' it just never entered my mind."

"I thought it was a bust size," deadpans White.

White plays severely scatterbrained Rose, Arthur plays savvily pragmatic Dorothy, McClanahan plays haughty sexpot Blanche and Getty plays Dorothy's Napoleon-sized and all-leveling mother Sophia, a Greek chorus armed with slings and arrows. "I treat my body like a temple," Blanche said on a recent show. "Yeah," said Sophia, "open to everyone, day or night."

After zinging daffy Rose on another program, Sophia said, "Forgive me, Rose; I haven't had sex in 15 years, and it's starting to get on my nerves."

Susan "Soap" Harris developed the show, which was really created in Brandon Tartikoff's programming department at NBC. The scripts have been first-rate, the direction bright and snappy, but it all lights up because of the cast. They're all perfect and none of them expendable. And yet when the show was on the drawing board, Sophia was not a regular character, only a one-shot. Then people saw the pilot and it was obvious: the gay cook character was out, Sophia was in. She's nothing if not a crowd pleaser.

A source close to the show says that for Arthur, White and McClanahan, all sitcom veterans, the attention given Getty, who just arrived in Hollywood from Broadway (where she appeared in Harvey Fierstein's "Torch Song Trilogy"), has not been thrilling. A photo of the "Golden Girls" used preceding commercial breaks on the program shows only three of them; Getty is conspicuously absent.

So there is some irony in the way they kid her about, for instance, the Golden Globe she won.

At the ceremony, Getty says, "when they called my name, I was so totally numb that my first impulse was to run out. I figured, 'If I run out, I don't have to go up there,' because I had nothing to say."

"Oh, you were out of that chair like a shot," scolds White. "It was like she was in a slingshot! Pow and she was up on that stage."

"You sprang onto the stage, what are you talking about?" McClanahan chides Getty.

"You leaped onto that stage so fast," White goes on.

"You did, you did," says Arthur, joining in now.

Getty gets, if this is possible, even tinier as she sinks into the booth. "Well, it's because I'm obedient," she says. "They call my name and I go up there."

The golden girls are asked if they socialize much together outside the studio. "Well, I had a party over Christmas Estelle came to, and Bea came to one," McClanahan says.

"We all have such different lives, really," Getty says. "I really would love to hang out with them. But they don't let me."

Outside Stage 3 at the Sunset Gower Studios, over which looms the hillside Hollywood sign, each star of "The Golden Girls" has a marked parking place. White's Cadillac Seville is there, and McClanahan's yellow Mercedes, and Arthur's silver Audi -- and Getty's Toyota Tercel. Told she might consider upgrading her vehicle now that she is a television star, Getty asks, "Why? Am I making the lot look lousy?"

Inside the chilly studio, the cast rehearses for the week's taping, an episode called "Big Daddy" whose air date has not yet been set by NBC. The second half of the script had to be rewritten because it wasn't working. At one point, Arthur puts the new script down and moans, "I wish this were better." But by and large the four actresses have nothing but praise for the writers of the show, and for producers Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas.

Getty is sitting at a long table reading a cookbook while White and Arthur rehearse. At one point as she reads, she says aloud to herself, "Oy, veh!" She is so engrossed she doesn't hear her cue and when she looks up, White yells from the stage, "Boy, we never used to have to call you until you got your Golden Globe."

In fact the certificate she got with the award is lying on the table in front of Getty, as is a TV Guide article with her picture in it. She opens it up and shows it to a visitor. "Don't I look great?" she asks with a wink. Getty plays a character so much older than herself (about 20 years) that without her makeup, she is rarely recognized in public as the fearless and nearly peerless Sophia.

As they try to punch up a scene in the script that seems flat, Arthur socks White in the arm, suggesting that as possible punctuation for a line. Then she tries belting White in the stomach, with White feigning a mortal "Oh!" and falling backward. Someone notes that the Sunset Gower Studios used to be Columbia Studios and that on this very sound stage, the Three Stooges battered each other over the heads. This sets off a short round of mock brawling.

Spirits are festive, considering they will all be here most of the day. Director Terry Hughes marvels, "It's a wonderful setup. It's the most well-oiled machine, in terms of the writing and the acting. It's a joy to come to work."

He also notes of the program's success that it was achieved on a night of the week when viewing levels are traditionally low and which hasn't been much of a spawning ground for hits. "On Saturday night, we're doing it on our own -- not by leapfrogging Cosby," Hughes says. "Golden Girls" is not the beneficiary of a sure-fire lead in. It alone has made the night work for NBC.

Thus are the golden girls -- Arthur in big pink bunny slippers, McClanahan in a bulky blue sweater, Getty in slacks and Hush Puppies, White in a white top with a dog embroidered on it -- truly golden.

"I must tell you something," Bea Arthur says in her Dirksenian baritone, leaning forward. "We get together over lunch or wherever and later we realize that we should have had a tape recorder, because it's like something out of a 'Golden Girls.' "

This day they did.

"How can moo goo gai pan be a diet dish?" McClanahan asks, peering suspiciously into the menu. "It says here it's a diet dish."

"I went on a seven-day diet once," Getty says. "I ate it all in one day. The whole thing in one day."

"Look here, diet dish," McClanahan says again.

"Oh, don't you love it, the smallest one of all is the one on a diet?" White says of McClanahan.

"Oh what do you mean, on a diet?" snaps Arthur. "Now what are you talking about?" Arthur has a way of making everybody shape up all of a sudden.

"Emmanuel Lewis is shorter than you are," White suddenly tells Getty after McClanahan has been raving on about how good a show "Webster" is.

"Thank God!" Getty groans.

A question about their real ages, versus the ages of the characters they play on the show, is gently floated onto the table, but it sinks into the soy sauce. "Nobody's going to answer that," McClanahan says firmly. "Because I'll kill all three of them if they do."

According to one published report, McClanahan, at 51, is the youngest. White is 64. Arthur is 61. And Getty is 62, one year older than the woman whose mother she plays.

"Bea is a picky eater, picky eater!" Getty begins to chant. "I want to say that for the record. Bea Is a Picky Eater!"

Arthur looks up with exasperation on her face, like a schoolmarm with three tots on a field trip.

"But it's her total preoccupation," says White. "It's better than sex as far as Bea is concerned. Eating."

The subject is changed to: What has been the best episode of the series so far?

"I loved the midget one," says Arthur. That was the show in which Betty White as Rose started dating a midget -- a personable and attractive fellow -- but was so self-conscious about being seen in public with him that she finally decided to break up. Before she could tell him, he told her that he had to stop seeing her because of the difference in their religions. She wasn't Jewish, so he dumped her.

Getty said that on one of her return trips to New York, where she still keeps an apartment, friends insisted that the episode had to have been based on a true story they had told her. "They said my friend's daughter's friend had gone to London, met this dwarf, they fell in love and were married, and this dwarf's parents were appalled, because she wasn't Jewish. They had a child and they were recently divorced because of his philandering."

"I adore it, I love it, I love it," Arthur raves upon hearing the story.

"And they were all positive that I had given the writers the idea for the story," Getty says. "But I had forgotten all about it."

"That's not a story you necessarily forget," says White. "You must lead a very interesting life if that one gets lost in the shuffle."

"Oh I must tell you what I did," says Arthur. "I got a letter addressed to me after the midget episode . . . "

"Oh tell that. This is wonderful," gushes White.

". . . saying, 'How could you?' And, 'I have a friend who is a little person and how could you make fun of little people and religion and the whole thing?' And I got so angry I called the person -- she lived in Manhattan and I called information to get the number -- and I called her up and I said, 'How dare you?' And I just let her have it! By the end, she was babbling on about how she should have realized we were not making fun. Oh, God!"

Arthur looks very satisfied having told the story again.

"I was so proud of you," White tells her. "I never would have had the guts to do that."

Comes now a round of everyone saying how wonderful it is working with everyone else on "The Golden Girls." For the most part, they appear to mean it, although Getty admits that appearing in her first sitcom late in her career was something of a shock to her system.

"At my age, it was a shock to my heart," she says. "Not only was it terrifying to get this kind of job, it was terrifying to walk into a room with Betty White and Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan."

"And don't you forget it," Betty White says.

Rightly or wrongly, many people would assume that four actresses would have a hard time getting along week after week as they make a television show.

"Well, I have gotten along with women all my life," McClanahan says.

"I have too," says Arthur.

"My best friends are women," says Getty.

"Oh, mine aren't," says White. "I like to be with men better. But I get along with women."

"I like being with women," Getty says.

"Oh, I like being with men," White asserts again.

"Men," says Arthur, "and dogs." White has been active in animal protection charities and is past president of the Morris Animal Fund in Los Angeles. When asked what changes they would make in the show, McClanahan says, "Oh, I'd have Blanche have a lot funnier lines, and a lot more of them," but White says, "I'd have us have a pet."

"That would be nice," says Getty, clearly indifferent.

"A pet turtle," says McClanahan, humoring White.

"No, I have a vision of Rose having a lop-eared rabbit in her room that nobody knows about," White rhapsodizes. While she talks about the bunny, Arthur gets the attention of one of the listeners at the table and, shielding her face from White, rolls her eyes with heady sarcasm. That is one of the things Arthur does as an "oh, brother" expression. Also, she says "Please" a lot -- groaningly, imploringly.

As when White insists that everyone at the table must close their eyes when picking a fortune cookie -- even the person who picks the last fortune cookie. "Please," says Arthur, knowing full well that she is speaking for everyone.

Arthur was a smash on "Maude," but the intervening years have not been so kind to her. She recalls with a grimace a 1983 ABC sitcom called "Amanda's," which was an Americanized "Fawlty Towers" with Fawlty turned into Amanda (Arthur, of course) and most of the humor wrung out.

"The Ghastliest Experience of My Life," Arthur says with great finality. "I mean, I should have known. The very first day I said, 'Uh, now, on that first line, could we -- ' and everybody backed off, like 'What's wrong with the line?' And I looked and I knew we were doomed. I keep talking about the lack of ego here. There, that's all there was.

"That experience made me reluctant to really look for work. I didn't for a long time. No, when I saw this -- first of all, let's be honest: It never dawned on me that it was going to take off like this."

"Never," says White.

"It never dawned on anyone what?" McClanahan asks.

The oldest truism in the world is that actors and actresses are not the people they play on the screen. But in the case of "The Golden Girls," the similarities are hard to ignore. McClanahan really is kind of flighty and flirtatious, if very serious about her work. Arthur is an imposing figure, if extremely shy. Getty really does lob audacious nifties. And White, like Rose, does occasionally miss a point or two.

But White was so devastating as the bitchy Sue Ann Nivens on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" that some viewers have objected to her being cast as a dummy like Rose. White does not think Rose is too dumb. "I love Rose," she says, recalling that she was first offered the role of Blanche. "If I had played Blanche, no matter what stops I would have pulled out, Sue Ann Nivens would have been echoing in there somewhere.

"This child [meaning McClanahan] has taken the part of Blanche and gotten the bit in her teeth and run with it and made her just wonderful, way down the road from where I would have gone. So I'm thrilled with Rose. Sure, we all get bored when she comes up with her stories and stuff, but I don't. I'm always kind of interested to hear. Because I learn more about her each time."

Somewhere between moo goo gai pan as a diet dish and bobbing for fortune cookies, the subject of Cary Grant comes up. Arthur mentions that she met him and this has Getty bouncing up and down in her seat in excitement. Soon she has her hand in her mouth in mock ecstasy.

"Look at her," says Arthur with stern disapproval.

"I can't get over it, I can't get over it," Getty says. "I mean, it's just such an exciting thing to imagine."

It is suggested Cary Grant be summoned to the set.

"I'll have to invite him," Arthur says. White says maybe he could be written into a script. Getty says, still panting, "I'd drink his bath water -- are you kidding?"

Lana Turner in fact would like to be on the show, White says. "She said, 'I just got a wonderful idea for the show.' And it's the same idea that Stewart Granger told me about three months ago. They want to play themselves. And the storyline is that she's in town and all us girls think, 'Is there a chance to meet her, how can we arrange to meet her?' And then we all find some devious way to meet her. Stewart Granger had the exact same idea."

"Except Stewart Granger's not Lana Turner," Getty says.

"And he didn't want to be Lana Turner. He wanted to be Stewart Granger," White says. "I told Tony and Paul about this and they threw up their hands and said, 'Oh, please!' "

"You know who we did have?" says Arthur. "We had Jeane Dixon. And the dwarf." Dixon appeared in a dream sequence.

"Don't mention that woman's name to me," sputters Getty. "She came up with a real winner. We were sitting down before lunch and she said she had a lot of prophesies, not the least of which was that the show was going to be a hit. And I said, 'What is she talking about? We've been number one [in the time period] for nine weeks!' Didn't she know that? Nine weeks we're number one, she's telling me it's going to be a success."

The crumbs of the fortune cookies are strewn around the table now. The actresses are asked if there hasn't ever been some sort of flare-up, some little tiny disruption, on this supposedly blissful, Good-Ship-Lollipop set of theirs.

"I think the most that ever happened," says White, "was one morning, Rue said, 'What's this crap? I won't do it!' That's the only thing." This is White's idea of a joke; Rue never did it.

"Somebody beat her up!" shouts Getty. "Somebody beat her up!"

"I think," says McClanahan, "I will do that some night."

There is a chorus of "oh, let's do it" all around the table. It sounds like such a nifty joke for striking terror into the hearts of the show's writers.

"Let's get an old script, let's all come in," says Getty fiendishly, "and we'll read the script and each of us'll get up and say, 'I'm not going to do this crap' and we'll all leave and go down the elevator."

"What a great idea!" says White.

"But we should do it when it's a really brilliant script," says Arthur.

"Oh puh-leez!" chuckles McClanahan. "My gall bladder hurts when I laugh too hard!

They all warm to the plot, and Arthur spins the trolley on which the Chinese food has been riding. The golden girls chortle. The golden girls laugh. The golden girls glow.