Thursday, August 18, 2016

Remember Her?

     She has something in common with Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg, Neil Simon and Tina Fey. They have all been recipients of the Mark Twain Prize for American humor, awarded annually since 1998 at an event held at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC..

     That may seem odd, since she was born in Texas in 1933 to parents who were both alcoholics. Her parents divorced when she was a young child. She and her half-sister Chrissie went to live with their grandmother, Mabel Eudora White, in a small apartment in a less desirable section of Hollywood, CA.

     To entertain herself she invented an imaginary twin sister named Karen. She would try to fool other people by coming in the front door of the building, going to her room, changing clothes, then sneaking out of the apartment using the fire escape and coming back in the front door wearing the different outfit. She credited her grandmother with encouraging her imagination and her talents, but also confessed that she eventually became exhausted ... "and Karen mysteriously vanished."

     She went to Hollywood High School, working part time as an usherette in a local movie theater, and when she graduated in 1951 she received an anonymous envelope containing $50, which covered the bulk of her expenses for her first year at UCLA.

     She initially wanted to major in journalism, but soon switched to English and theater arts, with the goal of becoming a playwright. She had to take an acting course as part of the program. During her first performance, on impulse, she stretched out her words. The first line came out as, "I'm baaaaaaaack."

     She later recalled, "They laughed and it felt great. All of a sudden, after so much coldness and emptiness in my life, I knew the sensation of all that warmth wrapping around me. I had always been a quiet, shy, sad sort of girl and then everything changed for me. You spend the rest of your life hoping you'll hear a laugh that great again."

     She appeared in several university productions, receiving recognition for both her comedic and musical abilities. During her senior year, she put on a show with some other students at a party. Afterward, a man and his wife approached her and asked about her plans. She said she wanted to go to New York to try her luck in the theater. The couple then made an amazing offer. They gave her and her boyfriend $1000 each, with the stipulation that if they ever achieved success they would help other aspiring performers to follow their dreams.

     So she and her boyfriend Don Saroyan moved to New York and got married. The marriage fell apart after a few years; and her initial attempts in the theater were met with failure. She took part-time jobs as a hat-check girl and working at a movie theater. But she kept at it and eventually landed a few minor TV appearances, as well as some gigs in New York cabarets and night clubs.

     In 1957 she got a spot on an early TV quiz show called Pantomime Quiz. Then in 1959 she landed a part in the Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress, a role which gained her a Tony Award nomination. That led to a job on the Garry Moore Show, where she appeared as a regular until 1962. Along the way she won an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program.

     You may be getting an idea of who she is by now. Woman. Humor. Variety show. In 1962 she headlined opposite her friend Julie Andrews in the TV special Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall, directed by Joe Hamilton who became her second husband.

     She went on to appear in several more Broadway shows, then in a recurring role as a tough-talking corporal with Jim Nabors on Gomer Pyle. She also became friends with Lucille Ball and appeared on The Lucy Show.

     Lucille Ball offered to produce a CBS sitcom with her in the starring role, called Dear Agnes. She hesitated, wondering if she wanted to be trapped into playing someone named Agnes every week. Her stall worked, and she was soon offered an hour-long variety show called The Carol Burnett Show.

     The show debuted in 1967. It was an instant hit and lasted 11 years. With co-stars Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, and protege Vicki Lawrence, the show won dozens of Emmy and Golden Globe awards.

     Carol Burnett typically opened the show with a question-and-answer session with the audience. The show had great fun parodying movies and other TV shows; it featured musical numbers, comedy skits and guest appearances. Burnett closed the show with a tug on her left ear -- a signal to her grandmother that she was doing okay.

     After the show ended in 1978, there were four postscript shows, and then the best skits were edited into half-hour shows called Carol Burnett and Friends which were on the syndication market for years.

     Carol Burnett has also appeared in a number of movies, including Pete 'n' Tillie, The Front Page, The Four Seasons, and Annie. She has also been featured as a guest on TV shows as varied as The Muppet Show and Magnum, P.I., Desperate Housewives and Law & Order.

     Burnett had three children with second husband Joe Hamilton (her oldest Carrie Hamilton died of cancer at age 38). They divorced in 1984, and Burnett, now 83 years old, is currently married to 60-year-old drummer Brian Miller.

     Burnett has also fulfilled her dream of being a writer. In 1986 she published a memoir of her early life One More Time. She followed up with This Time Together, recalling her days in the entertainment industry, and In Such Good Company, centered on her variety show. In 2013 she did Carrie and Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story, focusing on her daughter's struggle with drug addiction and then lung and brain cancer.

     She also co-wrote a play Hollywood Arms, with her daughter Carrie, loosely based on Burnett's early life in Hollywood. In 2002, the year Carrie died, the play was produced in both Chicago and on Broadway in New York.

14 comments:

Snowbrush said...

I don't just remember her, I still watch her, and I almost immediately realized who you were writing about. I must say, though, that once Mama's Family started being a part of the show, I lost most of my interest in it.

schmidleysscribblins.com said...

She and her pals made us laugh. Can't ask for more than that.

Stephen Hayes said...

A great comedian from an age when most comedy was wholesome enough to enjoy with your children.

retirementreflections said...

Watching The Carol Burnett Show with my family is a great memory of my childhood. Thanks for the reminder. Well written!
Donna
www.retirementreflections.com

Anonymous said...

Saturday nights were great TV nights. All in the Family, Mash, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, capped-off by Carol Burnett. I think I enjoyed her opening Q and A session the most.

Peggy

Still the Lucky Few said...

Her show was a staple for my family. Although witty comedy is my favorite, I loved the physical comedy she performed. Especially liked the way the cast just "broke up" and laughed even during the shows. So genuine!

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

I always loved her work: have had the album for "Once Upon a Mattress" since it first came out, remember her on the Garry Moore Show and the wonder "Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall" as well as her terrific variety show. But what I've valued most over the years has been her courage and candor in overcoming so much from her early life and when Carrie struggled with drug addiction and then with cancer. I imagine she brought comfort to so many with similar life challenges.

DJan said...

She is an amazing person, although it took me awhile to figure out who it was. Thank you for the wonderful insight into a wonderful woman. :-)

Bob Lowry said...

The Tim Conway and Harvey Korman routines on the Carol Burnett Show remain some of my favorite sketches of all time. That show was special. Last year she had several guest appearances on the new version of Hawaii 5-O.

Denise said...

I caught on early to this one, and by the time "Once Upon a Mattress" was mentioned, I was sure. Her variety show is legendary. There will never be anything like it again because of the ensemble of the cast and just how dang FUNNY they all were. (props to writers too, but did Tim Conway need a writer?)Thanks for the memory. I love the "Remember" entries.

Anonymous said...

I adore Carol Burnett a real live comedian and actresses..She has had quite a life and makes no bones or excuses, saying it has made her who she is and how she views this life, she never gave up on her dream and quite the lady to boot..There are no tv shows most people could watch with the whole family but you could the Carol Burnett show and she treated all the staff and her people as she called them like true family..Not many who are spectacular are like her whatsoever..She is simply the best next to Lucille Ball she is my favorite comedian and actress no new lady who performs today can out do Carol Burnett!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Wisewebwoman said...

I guessed from the beginning. A comedic genius.
XO
WWW

Terra Hangen said...

A big talent, and I read a memoir by her, which was funny.

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