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Not Quite Prime Time : Vicki Lawrence Hopes to Have Fun With ‘Hello, Dolly!’ but Misses the Weekly TV Audience

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Well, hello, Vicki.

Are you back where you belong?

Not quite, says Vicki Lawrence.

“I miss having a weekly audience,” said Lawrence, 42, who co-starred in CBS-TV’s “The Carol Burnett Show” from 1967 to 1978 and later played the title role on “Mama’s Family” for seven years until it was dropped from first-run syndication in 1990.

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“It’s been hard. Friends say to relax. I don’t know how anyone could stop working.”

She couldn’t. She did some stage work, including an appearance in “Annie Get Your Gun” last summer at the Sacramento Music Circus, and, tonight through Oct. 13, Lawrence will appear in the Glendale Music Theatre’s production of “Hello, Dolly!” at Crescenta Valley High School.

It ain’t prime time, but Lawrence says: “I think I’ll have fun with it. I don’t care about making a fool of myself on stage anymore. I don’t care what people think.”

Said co-star John Ingle and veteran sitcom actor: “She has an amazing comic sense. In just a few nights of rehearsals, she has the show.”

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Lawrence has done Dolly before, but that was seven years ago at the Sacramento Music Circus, and she thought she was too young to play the turn-of-the-century matronly matchmaker from one of Broadway’s longest-running shows. This time, when approached by the musical’s choreographer, Ted Sprague, a dancer from the Burnett show, Lawrence was ready.

“Dolly is a larger-than-life character,” Lawrence said. “She has a lot of ingenuity. It’s easy to lock yourself in it.”

Lawrence has never been locked in. Just when she anticipated a career as a dental hygienist, fortune intervened.

“I’d clean teeth, make a nice living, meet a rich dentist, and hang it up,” she said.

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In junior high, Lawrence was constantly told that she resembled Burnett. In 1966, as a high school senior, she finally wrote Burnett a letter about the Miss Fireball contest, an Inglewood talent show, and enclosed a picture to demonstrate the similarity. She was hardly an avid Burnett fan.

“I was trying to be Mary Tyler Moore,” Lawrence said. “I loved her in ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show.’ ”

Several weeks later, Burnett called to ask for tickets to the Miss Fireball contest in which Lawrence was a participant. Burnett’s variety show for CBS was in the final planning stages, and this was clearly a scouting mission.

Lawrence was stunned. She won the contest--a song-and-dance competition--but more importantly, she won Burnett’s interest with an audition. She tried out several scenes with actor Harvey Korman.

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“I was pitiful,” she recalled. “Harvey said I couldn’t walk and talk at the same time. I was really a shy kid.” Shy or not, Lawrence was hired for her first professional role and within months made her debut on national television. She still can’t quite believe she got the job.

“I think she hired me out of pity,” Lawrence said. “It was a novelty to have such a green kid on the show.”

Korman said Lawrence was very shy during the first couple of years on the show, “but then she absolutely emerged into one of the best comedy actresses. She can do anything.”

Over the years, Lawrence became popular in the role of the buxom gray-haired Mama in a sketch on the show. Three years after the Burnett show went off the air, Lawrence fashioned her Mama character into “Mama’s Family,” a half-hour sitcom for NBC-TV. The show lasted two years on the network, and then became one of the most highly rated first-run sitcoms in syndication. The show appears at 5 p.m. weeknights on Channel 13 in the Los Angeles area.

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So Lawrence knows how to play old. In fact, she’s gotten a little tired of it. A few years ago she had the opportunity to become the daytime host of “Win, Lose, or Draw,” the syndicated game show that featured Bert Convy as the evening host. She jumped at it.

“I did it for selfish reasons,” she admitted. “I had begun to feel typecast. I was the only actress who was going to work ugly every day.”

The game-show experience was instructive. Lawrence realized she has a gift for, well, just being herself. Earlier this year, she taped a daytime talk show for an independent broadcasting company that she hopes will air in 1992. She’s not trying to move in on Oprah Winfrey’s territory.

“We want it to be light,” Lawrence said. “There will be a lot of music and comedy.”

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Lawrence remains frustrated over her inability to return to prime-time television, but it’s not for lack of trying.

She spent months pursuing two ideas for series. The first, which she calls “ ‘Cheers’ in a bowling alley,” was going to explore the lives of bowlers in Reno, Nev. The second, about undercover decoy police officers in New York, received preliminary support from former NBC chief Brandon Tartikoff.

But neither series got through the network bureaucracy, proving that past accomplishments are no guarantee of future success.

“It’s very hard to walk into the networks with the best idea and have them make a space for you,” Lawrence said. “There aren’t enough crazy people in this business.”

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Glendale Music Theatre’s production of “Hello Dolly!” opens tonight at Crescenta Valley High School, 4400 Ramsdell Ave., La Crescenta. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 13. Tickets: $20. Call (818) 248-4646.


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