For Carol Burnett, life is no laughing matter (1964)
By Robert Wahls – The Daily News (New York, New York) June 14, 1964
AT MIDNIGHT, six times a week, a huge black Cadillac rolls up to a Manhattan tower on E. 72d St. From it steps a slim 5-foot-7 redhead, probably wearing a white blouse with blue and white checked Capri pants, and swinging a bag. She lopes through a lobby rich in jungle plants and is whisked 19 floors up.
Carol Burnett is home from her job. For the next hour, the star of Broadway’s newest smash, “Fade Out — Fade In,” plays with her daughter, Carrie, 5 months old. The baby’s arrival postponed the show from fall to spring.
“I wake her up every night at 12, play with her until 1, and she goes right back to sleep,” said Carol. “Now that the weather’s warm, I’m hoping to have a wading pool on the roof. We’ll spend Sundays there this summer.”
Carrie Louise doesn’t know her mother is the country’s favorite comedienne. The lady who gives her so much attention will be viewed by 40,000,000 come Tuesday on the farewell Garry Moore Show. Each night, she brings over 1,572 customers to the Mark Hellinger. Each week, theatergoers pay about $86,000 to see her.
Lucrative TV work earns her millions
Carol has a TV contract calling for $1,000,000 over a 10-year period. Her new series, “The Entertainers,” three times month, will earn her more.
She’s probably the only star whose first musical success, “Once Upon a Mattress,” was being shown, via TV tape, while she was playing her second hit, “Fade Out — Fade In,” in person on Broadway.
How much exposure can a girl have? Carol joins Lucille Ball among the few TV performers who have translated their home screen identity to a large-scale success in the theatre.
“Mattress,” her only other musical, was a spring romp at the off-Broadway Phoenix. Thanks to critics, and word of mouth about Carol, It was moved uptown and managed to hang on for a year.
“You know Neil Simon who wrote ‘Barefoot in the Park?'” the star asked. “Well, Neil used to say of ‘Mattress’ that if you haven’t seen it, it will soon be at your neighborhood playhouse. We played five different theatres on Broadway.”
It was “Mattress” that brought Carol to the Garry Moore Show. On TV, careful handling by Garry and Joe Hamilton, now her husband, made her a national image.
The image is something like a combination of Martha Ray and the girl next door, improbable but potent.
“Make that the aunt next door,” Carol advised at lunch the other day. “If Garry thought I could get more of a laugh with a good line, he always gave it to me. I can’t begin to tell you what I learned from him and how grateful I am.”
The Garry Moore Show, ironically, is fading out this week, although Garry has sought to hype it with comediennes such as Dorothy Louden. Carol has taped the farewell show. “I know Garry will be back bigger than ever, like Jackie Gleason,” she said. “I had to grow on my own, and Garry agreed wholeheartedly.”
Since leaving the Moore Show season before last, Carol and Joe put together a revue and toured the country — Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Dallas, Detroit — and wound up with a triumphant two weeks at Las Vegas. She broke every box office record and laid the foundation for her “in person” popularity.
CHILD psychologists probably wouldn’t have given a plugged nickel for the chances that Carol Burnett would become not only a tremendous success but a relatively happy, uncomplicated woman as well.
She was born on April 26, 1933, in San Antonio, Texas. It was during the Great Depression, and her dad, Jody, became manager of a movie house in the Texas city after migrating from Arkansas.
Carol told me she was almost born during a matinee showing of “Rasputin and the Empress,” starring John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore. “That was the time my mother knew,” she said. “The movie theatre was my babysitter,” she went on. “At first, my mother was with me. Later, when I grew old enough, I darn near lived at the movies, in the shadow of the silver screen.”
When she was 8, her parents moved to Los Angeles. Jody had had assorted jobs and he was looking for a break. The depression was crushing his spirit, and, as Carol has related, he found an escape in liquor.
Gradually, he became an alcoholic, and Carol’s mother, defeated by debt and failure to make her marriage complete, also became a problem drinker.
“I have been criticized for talking about my parents as alcoholics,” Carol told me. “But I saw enough to know that drinking is an illness and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. It isn’t pretty to see, and it is tragic for all concerned.
“Some time ago I wasn’t able to be as frank about it,” she added. “But when people came to me with the stories neighbors had told of my family life, I decided to tell the truth myself. I never felt unloved… I remember the wonderful things my parents did when they were able.”
One of the things she recalls vividly was her mother’s coming across the hall to Grandmother White’s apartment while Carol had measles. Her mother asked if Ovaltine, Carol’s favorite drink, would help her sleep. Carol said she’d rather have chocolate cream pie. And mother went out and made one at 4 A.M.
Carol lived with Mrs. Mae White, who — as all true Garry Moore fans know — used to get a salute on TV when her grand-daughter pulled her left ear lobe at the end of the show.
Grandmother White was the stable figure in Carol’s adolescence. The two shared a room and a half in an inexpensive apartment house with Murphy beds. From time to time, Mrs. Burnett lived across the hall, occasionally with her husband. During one of their reconciliations, Carol’s sister, Christine, now 19, was born.
Jody Burnett died in 1964 of alcoholism in nearby Santa Monica. Thanks to Mrs. White, Carol had a home. While it wasn’t geared to study, it gave her enough privacy and tranquility to continue in school.
She was an editor of the Hollywood High newspaper and graduated with honors in her class. She enrolled at UCLA with the idea of becoming a journalist or a playwright. At that time, her tuition was $41 a semester.
“Then I found that the curriculum also included an acting class,” she said. “I had to go through with it to get my credits. My first acting attempt, with a scamp from ‘Madwoman of Chaillot,’ was a bust. But the second — well, a friend, Dick DeNeut, and I did a comedy scene. I had two words, but the class roared. From that moment I was hooked. Nobody will ever know how good I felt.”
Just 10 years ago last Friday, on June 12, 1954, Carol and her boyfriend, Don Saroyan, a UCLA classmate and cousin of author William Saroyan, were invited to an end of the season semester party flung by the music department. Their contribution to the entertainment was a scene from “Annie Get Your Gun,” with Carol in the Ethel Merman role.
She told a remarkable story about what happened after they had finished.
Anonymous offer read like a script
“A man, about 50 — he could have been Italian or Filipino — approached us, said he liked our work and our personalities and asked what plans we had,” Carol related. “He’d had a few drinks, but we told him.”
The two kids explained that they wanted to go to New York City to study, because unless you looked like a Marilyn Monroe or a Tony Curtis, you had to leave Hollywood to be discovered.
“When he asked what we needed,” Carol said, “we both said money. I was then working part-time as an usher at the Iris Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. and seeing the pictures free.
“He told us that when he first came to this country, he dug ditches, but made a fortune in the post-war construction business. Then he asked us to come to see him in San Diego. We said we’d call first. We did, the next week, and he told us to be in his office at 10 A.M. the following day.
“We did as he directed, and he was very businesslike. He explained that he intended to give each of us $1,000 as a loan, that he would expect repayment if and when we could afford it… and under no circumstances were we to give out his name.” Carol paused. “I know it sounds like a TV script,” she said, “But it is the truth. Someone had once helped him; he would help us, and we must help others in the future when we could.”
IT WASN’T until August that the girl was ready to take the Greyhound bus to Manhattan. Her father had died. Her mother wasn’t well, and her grandmother wasn’t sure it was the right move… Maybe something would turn up in the movies.
“Nanny told me if I wasn’t a star by Christmas to come right straight home,” Carol recalled. “Either they like you or they don’t like you,” Mrs. White told her granddaughter. “And if you get on TV, say hello.”
But greeting friends wasn’t permissible on nationwide TV. Her grandmother told her to give some kind of signal. “I was going down the steps lugging my single suitcase when I said I’d pull my left ear lobe.”
It was a year from the following December before she had a job with Paul Winchell, the ventriloquist. “I pulled my ear lobe,” Carol said, “and Nanny got the message. I was with Paul on NBC for 13 weeks.”
Off-camera signal caused phone call
One night on the Moore show, the running time was out as everybody waved goodnight to the audience. Carol was off-camera by the time she touched her ear. “And don’t think I didn’t get a collect call from California asking what was wrong!” she said.
Having heard tales of the Algonquin as a theatrical hotel frequented by the stage elite, Carol registered there. At $9 a day, she knew she couldn’t stay. She called a UCLA friend, Eleanor Ebbie, at the Rehearsal Club, a residence for embryonic actresses, and moved there immediately.
The girls got not only room but board for $18 a week, and soon Carol was earning $30 in tips checking hats at Susan Palmer’s restaurant on 49th St. Don Saroyan had followed her east, and was working as an usher at the Rosy Theatre.
“I made the rounds and got the same stock answer from agents for a year and a half,” Carol recalled. “They wanted to see me work professionally. Every kid knows this is the hardest nut to crack. How can you show your work if you can’t get a job?”
One agent suggested that Carol put on her own show. She was president of the Rehearsal Club in 1955, willing, as always, to do all the work. She got 25 girls together and Don directed them in a variety show.
Saroyan, dark-haired and handsome, was an aspirant for a job as a director, actor or producer. The Rehearsal Club has a certain prestige and a lot of important people turned out.
Carol did two acts. In the first, she and another girl were 12-year-old boys. In the second. she satirized Eartha Kitt singing her hit, “Monotonous.” The Kitt version — oh, so sexy — was littered with chaise lounges. Carol, of course, did her Eartha in curlers and an old kimono.
“It led to my first job through an agent, a week in Chicago in an industrial show plugging aluminum foil,” Carol said. “A little later came Paul Winchell and my first chance to greet Nanny.”
Through the Rehearsal Club show, really an audition for all concerned, Don also got work, directing industrial shows.
“It seemed, though, that Don never could pinpoint his goal as Carol could,” a friend observed. “And he couldn’t take the in-between frustrations. Carol was tougher… more in focus.”
Don and Carol were trying to make their $1,000 grubstakes last while they made the rounds of agents and casting offices. Carol sometimes smuggled food out of the Rehearsal Club to Don, and Susan Palmer’s was another source of sustenance.
Back in UCLA, Don and Carol had become engaged. “Carol was always working either as a movie cashier or for UCLA administration,” according to a friend who knew them in those days. “Her paying job, her school work and her entertaining — wherever she could find an audience, paid or unpaid — was a terrific schedule of hard work.
She was very much in love with Don. “He seemed to be more egocentric, flirting with lots of girls, but always returning to Carol.”
They were married late in 1955. “There was a wedding reception at Eleanor Ebbie’s house in Yonkers,” the old friend told me. “They had no money and the car they hired broke down. . . . The marriage seemed ill-fated from the start.” Saroyan worked in various jobs — even ar a taxi driver, which was far from what he wanted to do. Meanwhile, Carol was working first with Paul Winchell and then on Garry Moore’s afternoon shows.
Her success put strain on marriage
In May 1959, when Carol was rehearsing for “Once Upon a Mattress” at the Phoenix, Don was in Jamaica making “Rebel Girl” with Beverly Aadland, Errol Flynn’s friend, in the lead. He was gone several months, and Carol was lonely and upset.
After he came back and she was a big success, the strain between them became obvious to their friends.
“Once Upon a Mattress” fulfilled everything Carol had been working for. The critics found her an excellent comedienne. “I had just been turned down for a revival of ‘Babes in Arms’ by Richard Rodgers,” she said. “When I got home, I had a call to audition for George Abbott.
“Oddly enough, back at UCLA, I always said I would go to Broadway, and of course I would work for George Abbott. When I got that call I just knew I would get the job.”
CAROL had come to the attention of Abbott and the Phoenix Theatre through Bill and Jean Eckert, who were coproducing and designing sets and costumes. The Eckarts, incidentally, did lighting and sets for “Fade Out — Fade In.” Carol did stints on the Jack Paar Show, where she repeated a song she introduced at the Blue Angel — “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles.”
She was working steadily now on TV and in night clubs. “The song was a freak. Ken Welch and I were trying to work up material and we wanted a personality a teen-ager would be least likely to get a crush on,” Carol said. “I flipped when Dulles’ name came up. To me, he was like a grim grandfather with a heart of gold.”
The late Secretary of State had his secretary tell the singer how much he enjoyed the song, and she sent him a recording. She gave it up when Dulles became ill with cancer.
It was at Christmas 1959, that Carol and Don asked, “What are we doing to each other?” They separated.
She was starring in “Mattress” and appearing on the Garry Moore Show Tuesday evenings. Public reaction to her was so strong and favorable that she became a constant guest.
Carol’s mother had died a year earlier. Even before her death, Carol had brought her sister, Christine, 13, here to live with her. “I simply felt it was the right thing to do. I really kidnaped her,” Carol trie to explain. “Chris was disturbed by my mother’s illness, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to leave her friends. I had to promise to have braces put on her teeth and to send her to a girls’ school in New Jersey. I borrowed from the bank, but we made it.”
Within the same year, she lost her mother, separated from her husband, took on the responsibility of her sister and was acclaimed a great clown in “Once Upon a Mattress” on Broadway, and from coast-to-coast on TV.
Carol Burnett is very much a woman. After her separation from Don, she plunged into her work with even more determination, if that is possible. Both Garry Moore and his director-producer, Joe Hamilton, understood her loneliness.
In September, 1962, Carol turned up in Reno and won a divorce from her Saroyan. TV circles had been speculating on the relationship between Carol and Hamilton. Thrown together day and night by their work, the two were regarded as inseparable.
“I’d known Joe four years,” Carol told me. “We were just good friends and co-workers, but we began to see more of each other than we did of other people. He helped me tremendously, and I needed help. . . . I’m not the home-wrecker type.”
Early in 1963, Carol told a reporter she was breaking up her romance with Hamilton. She felt that since he had a wife and eight children, and her sister, Christine, was a college under-graduate, the situation couldn’t be handled.
Hamilton, estranged from his wife, Gloria, for more than a year, flew to Mexico and got a divorce with her consent. Shortly thereafter, Carol joined Joe in Juarez, and the two were married with Christine as a witness.
“It was not Carol’s doing,” Hamilton has said. “He’s the boss,” Carol confided. “I like it that way.”
Comedienne meets tycoon’s condition
Last week, just 10 years after the construction tycoon gave Carol and Don $1,000 each to UT Manhattan, the star of “Fade Out — Fade In” fulfilled the condition that she pass along that help to others. She presented her second $1,000 Rehearsal Club scholarship to the two aspiring actresses who split this year’s grant.
Carol intends to give a scholarship each year, but, she said. “I don’t want the winner to feel beholden to me.”
Although she has tried to contact the man who lent her the $1,000, she has never since talked with him.
Incidentally, the loan was repaid June 22, 1959, five years after it was made. The last time she tried to reach her benefactor, she was in Hollywood for a Jack Benny TV show. His office said he was in Europe.
“I guess he wants it that way,” Carol added. “That’s real generosity when you don’t stand around waiting for rewards.”
Carol Burnett acts with her back… and her front (1963)
By Ernest Havemann – LIFE – Feb 22, 1963
Above an endlessly receding chin, her lower lip juts like a hitchhiker’s thumb. Her long, sensitive and disdainful nose swoops down to greet it. She is perhaps the only woman in the world who looks in profile like a monkey wrench.
Her name is Carol Burnett and her face — that strange, protuberant, elongated, restless, expressive, entirely ludicrous yet oddly beautiful face — is now show business’s favorite funny valentine.
She is only 28, and has been burdened for most of her brief career by some of the soggiest material that the producers and writers of weekly television ever foisted onto a star strong enough to bear it.
Yet she already rivals Lucille Ball as the most popular comedienne in TV history. On the rare occasions when she has had something to get her ample teeth into, as she did on the Jan. 29 Garry Moore Show, and hopefully will do again in her own CBS special on Feb. 24, she out-satirizes Imogene Coca, and outhollers Martha Raye.
She is about to make her first movie, which will add another dimension to her fame, and in the fall will appear in her first full-scale Broadway musical. She already has a million-dollar contract with CBS, and by the end of the year, she may be lighting her cigarettes with it.
It is partly the face. Besides that eternally pouting lower lip and that anteater nose, Miss Burnett has the most eloquent eyes seen anywhere outside the silent movies. Her irises, which are small, dark, piercing and as sharply focused as twin radar beams, are surrounded by an incredible expanse of flashing white eyeball.
When she opens her eyes wide, she looks as startled as the world’s first fawn. When she casts them upward, she seems to have fainted, even died. When she casts them downward, she is unbearably shy — or is it unspeakably wicked? And, for variety, she can cross them, cock them and play tic-tac-toe with them.
She is at her best in comedy skits where she is cast as an unsophisticated maiden exposed to a designing male, and has a chance to display all the outraged innocence of which that mobile face is capable. The eyes open wide.
She, a country girl unused to the perils of the big city, has been caught by surprise. Then they slowly narrow to suspicious slits of new-found cynicism. Her mouth falls open; her pout intensifies; her long and disconsolate chin wriggles toward a hiding place somewhere deep in her throat.
“Watch it!” she rasps in a police siren voice. The phrase is her trademark. Even TV viewers who chance to be in the kitchen when they hear it know what has happened; some cad has got fresh with our Carol — and will never dare do it again.
She would be funny, however, even without the face. Her body is long, lean, double-jointed and strung together with its own unique springs and sinews; she has an endless repertoire of trips, limps, scampers, falls and leaps of joy.
She is indeed one of the few people in show business who have been able to do a completely effective double-take with their backs to the audience. In one of her most famous TV skits, vaguely patterned after the science-fiction shows, the women of the world were mysteriously destroyed.
Miss Burnett, a drab spinster who had been chasing men for years without success, was the sole exception. She learned the news when she turned on her radio; it was too good and too unbelievable to register; she turned away.
Then it dawned. Her shoulders tensed; her hair seemed to rise on the nape of her neck; indescribable sparks of emotion leaped out of her back. It was one of the funniest double takes of all time — and her face was never once seen.
Although her gestures and grimaces seem spontaneous and totally unplanned, Miss Burnett is a hard worker who studies every role at great length, and who knows at any given moment what she has just done, is doing now and is going to do next.
“The first time I ever forgot I was homely,” she says, “was the first time I heard an audience laugh” — and she is not about to let the audiences stop if she can possibly help it.
She will do anything within or without reason to get a laugh. She has a permanent hole the size of a walnut in her left thigh muscle, souvenir of an overenthusiastic pratfall in one of her early appearances in summer stock.
During the three years that she was a regular on the Garry Moore Show, she at various times 1) seriously sprained her back doing a somersault over a sofa, 2) smashed the cartilages of a foot in a fall out a window and 3) permanently discolored the tissues around her right hip while sliding down what was supposed to be a department store counter.
For one memorable appearance with Moore, she suggested that it would be great fun if she appeared in a glamorous evening gown and started singing “Come Rain or Come Shine” as well and as seriously as she possibly could, only to be greeted in the second chorus by an insistent trickle of rain turning into an utter torrent until at last she was totally liquefied while gargling the final note.
Because of the technical problems of putting the show on tape, this meant that she would have to endure the dousing four times within eight hours, a torturous ordeal for a skinny gal in the midwinter drafts of a New York television theater.
Although she already had the beginnings of a cold on the day of the program, she submitted to the four immersions cheerfully — then went to bed to nurse what her doctor said was a close call from pneumonia.
After leaving the Garry Moore Show last season to strike out on her own, Miss Burnett put together a little revue and toured it across the nation.
The highlight was a parody of the Moiseyev dancers in which she permitted herself to be tossed around so vigorously that she constantly had a fresh crop of bruises on her arms, legs and rib cage.
The show represented eight weeks of agony, but was an elegant success. Theater managers had to put in extra seats to accommodate the crowds in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Dallas and Kansas City, and in Detroit, the second balcony of the Shubert Theater was opened for the first time in years. The show ended with a triumphant two-week stand in Las Vegas.
Carol Burnett: What I’ve learned about myself (1986)
Excerpted from an article by Phyllis Battelle, Ladies’ Home Journal (November 1986)
When Carol Burnett was a child, living on welfare with her grandmother because her estranged parents were alcoholics, she had unique ways of coping. Sometimes she would retreat into a silent inner world — eyes open, but mind closed to unpleasantness.
“Mama called it my ‘shade,'” Carol remembers. “She said when I pulled my shade down, she couldn’t even talk to me. It was as if I wasn’t in there.” An even more remarkable technique involved looking in the bathroom mirror and concentrating on the image of a girl she saw as “trust-worthy and friendly” but also “gangly and ugly.”
“If I stared really hard into my eyes, I would feel myself floating out of my body and up somewhere over my right shoulder. I’d be looking down at the kid looking in the mirror.”
The phenomenon never lasted long. “As soon as I started asking ‘What’s this all about?’ I’d come down again, because it scared me.” Carol doesn’t think there’s anything mystical about it. “Maybe it was a form of meditation. Scientists probably have a name for it,” she says with a relaxed smile. “My name for it is survival. I was escaping reality.”
Today, at the age of fifty-three, Carol has finally faced up to the realities of her youth and has come out a winner. After two years of reliving her past, an emotional odyssey that necessitated the help of a psychologist to unlock painful memories, she has produced an engrossing, funny, often heartbreaking book, “One More Time.”
…The literary hiatus from her hectic show-business life has reduced a lovely, serene woman. Her thin face is framed by short-cropped hair that accentuates high cheekbones that we never noticed all these years. The blue eyes are as lively as ever, but then they turn serious and introspective.
“I cried some during the writing,” she says, “but not a whole lot. And now I think I’m just about finished weeping over the past. It’s a good feeling to unload a ton of emotional baggage from your childhood.”
The unloading was a process Carol accomplished largely alone. And while one might imagine that this veteran dress and comedian would despise a two-year solo stint in front of a typewriter, Carol, on the contrary, reveled in it.
“I was alone a lot, and I loved it. Some days I’d get up, shower, put on a robe, schlep around, sit at the typewriter — later, the word processor — and never see anybody or leave that little apartment on Wilshire Boulevard at all.
“There’s a great difference between sing alone and being lonely. I never really realized that, because all my life, I’ve felt responsible for others.”
The independence had been a long time coming: Growing up in Los Angeles, she slept on a couch in the one room in which she and her grandmother lived. Migrating to New York, Carol bunked with other aspiring actresses, then married her college boyfriend, Don Saroyan. Her half-sister, Christine, also lived with her during the brief union.
Several years after her divorce from Saroyan, she married TV producer Joe Hamilton, with whom she had three daughters — Carrie, now twenty-two, Jody, nearly twenty, and Erin, eighteen. (Carol and Hamilton divorced in 1984.)
“I never had that feeling of space, never indulged myself with independence, and now I’ve discovered it’s wonderful. In fact,” Carol says, “I think if I ever got married again, I would insist on having my own quarters.”
She makes it clear, in the very next breath, however, that she has no plans to wed. “Listen, now that I’m sprung from the typewriter, I plan to get social again. But I’m certainly not looking for a husband…”
“But I am fifty-three years old and have been married twice, and that’s enough.” Married twice — and divorced twice.
But Carol does not see the divorces as defeats, nor has she let them turn her off to the idea of marriage in general. “I’m not against marriage,” she says. If she had it to do over again, “I think I would still marry Joe,” she says. “I don’t consider my marriage to him a failure. Twenty years is very good. And three terrific kids — that’s a success. It’s just another life.”
When The Carol Burnett Show ended its 278-episode run (1978)
Its original run was from September 11, 1967 to March 29, 1978, during which time the series won 25 primetime Emmy Awards, and was listed as one of Time magazine’s “100 Best TV Shows of All Time” (2007).
There are vintage moments in comedy. A look, a line, a nuance that takes us out of ourselves, and out of our chairs with laughter.
For Carol Burnett, they are moments of greatness. And they cannot be re-enacted, exactly. This is why Metromedia Television is going to repeat them. Exactly. The best moments from the great years of Carol Burnett have been selected, with great care. Savor them.