Nice gals finish last? Carol Burnett didn’t get that memo.
The actress, author, and comedy icon exudes a warmth that, coupled with her distinctive voice, makes her seem like a long lost friend. Burnett also missed the memo about celebrities acting aloof. When the six-time Emmy winner debuts at Strathmore this spring, it will be an unscripted, audience-embracing event—an ask-me-anything reminiscent of the question-and answer session with which she began every episode of her groundbreaking comedy sketch vehicle, The Carol Burnett Show.
Burnett describes the evening of comedy and nostalgia as “ninety minutes of flying without a safety net . . .We’ve never had a plant. I never know what anybody’s going to ask. It keeps the gray matter ticking!”
Gray matter is at the heart of Burnett’s legend. It took brains, and talent, to go from New York City hat-check girl to host of her own eponymous music-and-comedy variety show on CBS. Burnett had both in abundance, plus a considerable amount of luck.
KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
Burnett was raised in California by her grandmother. Although quiet and shy, she remembers, “I always had a sense of humor.”
“I was all set to be a writer,” she explains. “I was going to major in journalism at UCLA—I knew I was going to go; I visualized it; [I] could see myself on campus.”
Her grandmother’s vision was not as daring.
“She wanted me to go to secretarial school,” Burnett says. “We were poor. We couldn’t afford college, and she’d say, ‘You can always be a secretary.’”
Lucky for us, Burnett was never a secretary. Mysteriously, she received an envelope containing a $50 bill—the exact amount of a year’s tuition at UCLA.
“That’s what it was for,” she insists. “To this day I don’t know who did that; everyone in our neighborhood was poor. But I knew it was for college, and it wasn’t until I took an acting class at UCLA that an audience laughed and I loved the feeling.”
Soon after, a UCLA theater professor needed students to entertain at a function. Burnett polished a scene from Annie Get Your Gun. It went better than she could have imagined.
“I was at a table stealing hors d’oeuvres to take home to my grandmother,” she laughs, “and this man and his wife came up to say they thought I should go to New York—now!” So Burnett made her way to New York City, once again through a mysterious benefactor.
The man was a wealthy shipbuilder. “Someone had helped him get started,” she says. He wrote Burnett a check for $1,000—an interest-free loan, he explained— asking her that, even after she’d repaid him, she would never reveal his identity.
“He said, ‘If you are successful, you must help others who need it,’” the comedian remembers. “[H]e never told anybody and neither did I, but the door was opened and I forever will be grateful for that generosity.”
Once that door opened, Burnett leapt through: living at a boarding house for young actresses, working as a hat-check girl, and scrambling to audition after audition.
“I got a job on the Paul Winchell kiddie TV show (The Winchell-Mahoney Show) on Saturday mornings,” she recalls. “My grandmother said, ‘Say hello to me!’ So I started the tug on the ear,” It was a greeting she continued for decades. Although she got her big break on Broadway in 1959, garnering a Tony nomination for Once Upon a Mattress, Burnett—after burnishing her comedy routines on the cabaret circuit—felt an affinity with the pioneers of the small screen.
“I liked the idea of doing a different show every week, as opposed to eight shows a week on Broadway,” she says. “Being different people every week—it was just like summer stock; that really appealed to me.”
After The Winchell-Mahoney Show, she costarred with Buddy Hackett on the sitcom Stanley, then went on to The Garry Moore Show.
“I subbed for Martha Raye and Garry was impressed,” she says. “In the fall I got a call from Garry asking me to be a regular rep player every week.”
The rest is history: The Carol Burnett Show debuted in 1967 and ran for 11 years, making her a household name. She emulated television pioneers like Moore— “totally without ego and very generous; handing out the ‘goodies’ to other people”—and her friend and mentor, Lucille Ball.
Even now, she credits the success of The Carol Burnett Show to its incredible ensemble cast: Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Lyle Waggoner, Vicki Lawrence, and the “brilliant, brilliant” costume designer Bob Mackie, whose Scarlett O’Hara costume for the show’s “Went with the Wind” skit now hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Burnett still looks forward to questions from the audience. “I like it to be a surprise,” she says, “so please: come with some fun questions.”
~ Originally Published in StrathmoreNews, Spring 2016 Issue