Barbara Isenberg is the author of "Making It Big: The Diary of a Broadway Musical" and a frequent contributor to The Times

The first preview of Ken Ludwig's new play, "Moon Over Buffalo," is nearly over, and the set has jammed. Director Tom Moore rushes to star Carol Burnett's dressing room: Will she entertain the packed Broadway theater while stagehands try some backstage magic?

Burnett immediately heads back onstage, in costume as second-rate actress Charlotte Hay. Time to "bump up the lights" for some questions and answers.

Burnett's witty 20 minutes of 1995 emergency improv, much of it captured in the forthcoming documentary, "Moon Over Broadway," reminds yet another audience why she may be the most beloved comic actress of our time. Laughing at people's questions--and, often, at her own answers--she proves that the American dream has not always been myth.

In less than two weeks, the red-haired comedienne will glide through Pasadena, grand marshal of the 109th Rose Parade. The perfect choice for an event whose slogan is "Hav'n Fun," Burnett is truly hometown-girl-makes-good, a product of Selma Avenue Grammar School, Hollywood High, UCLA and the city's legitimate and TV sound stages. She will also have come full circle, from singing alone in her grandmother's one-room Hollywood apartment to perfecting a regal wave for millions of TV viewers who already think of her as royalty.

Longtime friend and comedy colleague Tim Conway can't figure out why she accepted, since "they're going to be gluing those flowers all over her and pulling her down the road so early in the morning." But Burnett has already gotten into the spirit, delivering her patented Tarzan yell at the news conference announcing her selection.

"Carol Burnett is somebody who not only has the talent to be funny all the time, but to go out and do it," says Gary Dorn, 1998 Tournament of Roses president. "She didn't have the greatest childhood in the world, but she just throws it all off and continues on."

She has to. That's what they did in the movies, her alternative reality as a child.

As Liz Smith told A&E;'s "Biography" a few years ago, Burnett "gives you this feeling that even an ordinary person can be great." That's probably because Burnett grew up with just that feeling herself.

"If I hadn't been raised in the time that I was, I don't know that I could have done what I did," Burnett confides. "In the movies, the good guy won, and anybody

going through adversity would come out on top, and the movies were where I lived. So when I went home, I was still thinking about Fred [Astaire] and Ginger [Rogers] and how they went through a hell of a lot to get to the happy ending. It is really great to be naive in certain instances--you're not cynical, and you don't take no for an answer."

There's been plenty of disappointment and heartache, sure, but in her best-selling 1986 memoir, "One More Time," in her public appearances and in raising three children, Burnett's life reflects extraordinary positive thinking. As she told one questioner a few years ago: "Don't ever let anyone tell you you can't do something, because if you believe it, they're right."

So Burnett tries it all--TV, theater, movies, being funny, being serious--and is astonishingly good at all of it. Her latest success, in fact, comes of essentially recycling past experiences in "A Conversation with Carol Burnett," her traveling road show of bumping up the lights and taking on audience curiosity in one big city after another.

Ever the gracious hostess, she receives the reporter, the publicist and the air-conditioning repairman with the same lively, interested attention she's honed for more than four decades as an entertainer. Casually dressed, slim and lithe, she hardly looks 64 and a grandmother in real life as well as on NBC's "Mad About You."

Home is a condominium atop a luxury Westwood high-rise. Decorated by friend Anita Ludovici De Domenico, it is cozy and, with its warm earth colors, seems smaller than it is. Her cat, Roxy, a companion at the hotel where she lived during the run of "Moon Over Broadway," roams the place. Burnett likes condo life in part because she can lock her door at any time, walk away and head off for adventure.

Chatting in her living room, playing all the parts in stories about her family, her TV shows and everything else, she punctuates tales with that throaty laugh familiar to generations of TV viewers. Playing Verla Grubbs, the illegitimate daughter of a carnival con man and snake charmer on "All My Children," "was a hoot," as was performing with friends Julie Andrews and Beverly Sills. She giggles even talking about her frequent suppers with pals Conway and Harvey Korman.

But prominent in the hallway is a large painting of Hollywood rooftops, including the one at Yucca and Wilcox where she played as a child. The painting is there, she says, "so I don't lose sight of the old neighborhood and where I came from."


By now, Burnett's childhood struggles have surely passed into celebrity folklore. Named after Carole Lombard, her mother's favorite actress, Burnett was the child of alcoholics and raised primarily by her grandmother, Mabel Eudora White. Burnett and "Nanny" left San Antonio for Hollywood when she was 7, taking a one-room apartment right down the hall from her mother. Nanny slept on the pulled-down Murphy bed, young Carol on the sofa; her clothes hung on the shower rack and were always damp.

In conversation with Burnett and in her memoir, Nanny is a loving and lovable eccentric who would steal toilet paper from movie houses, look under the bed at night for robbers and movie stars and, without her false teeth, loved to smile at her granddaughter. Married "at least" six times, Nanny, at age 81, was dating a 40-year-old jazz musician. (She died in 1967.)

Burnett, a quiet child who tried "to keep out of trouble and be a good girl," thrived on movies, often seeing eight a week with Nanny or friends. Sometimes she and friends would "play the movies," acting out what they'd just seen. Other times, she says, "I'd hole myself up in this little space right outside the bathroom and look in the cracked mirror and pretend I was Betty Grable doing a number."

She wanted to be a journalist and cartoonist as well, but when she went to UCLA--her $42 tuition met by an anonymous $50 gift--she found no journalism department there. She wrote for the Daily Bruin, she says, but the "closet performer" majored in Theater Arts-English.

She acted, she sang, she tried comedy. Soon, Burnett says, "I started for the first time in my life to become kind of popular, and it was heady stuff. I'd been a nerd all through junior high and high school and just kind of in the background--I'd try to be the color of the walls. So all of a sudden, at 18, I started to get some confidence about myself."

She always "seemed to have great inner strength and discipline," recalls younger sister Christine Sanchez, whom Burnett essentially raised during Sanchez's teen years. "She got very good grades because she applied herself. We didn't have a desk to sit down at, so she'd go to the library. She had a plan, and her plan was to build a better life than we had. Fate sort of stepped in here and there, and there was luck involved. But she was ready for opportunity."

Opportunity came again and again. Much like she'd received anonymous UCLA tuition money, she was given $1,000 to go to New York, with the proviso she would pay it back, keep its donor anonymous and help others who were starting out. Burnett settled at New York's Rehearsal Club, where she shared an orange audition dress with her roommates.

Supporting herself at first as a hat check girl at Susan Palmer's Ladies Tearoom, she organized a show at the Rehearsal Club just like she'd seen Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland do in the movies. On opening night, March 3, 1955, Burnett came onstage in a housedress and curlers to sing and skewer "Monotonous," a sexy Eartha Kitt number. Her reception: "I got three bows and lots of bravos."

She also got "terrific" reviews, considerable attention and an agent. She soon appeared on Paul Winchell's TV show, the first place she pulled her ear to say hello to Nanny at home. Burnett then began collaborating with Ken Welch, who would become her longtime writer. They first met in the mid-'50s, when Burnett had so little money that she actually signed a promissory note to him for $10. (He was, he says today, "sure she'd be working very soon.")

In 1957, Welch came up with the song "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles," a spoof of teen crushes that chose as its subject the country's staid secretary of state. Burnett performed the song in her act at the Blue Angel nightclub, on the Ed Sullivan and Jack Paar shows, becoming, as Sullivan put it, "the TV sensation of the year."

Opportunity then knocked again. Burnett had guested on "The Garry Moore Show," and when actress Martha Raye fell ill one Sunday morning in 1959, the show's producers called the young comedienne on short notice. By the time the live show aired that Tuesday evening, recalls then-associate producer Robert Wright, "we all realized something very special was going on. We usually allowed three minutes for laughter during the show, and we'd used up all three minutes halfway through the show. Garry said, 'cut anything you want, but don't cut Carol.' "

Burnett soon became a regular and, for a year, simultaneously starred onstage as Winnifred the Woebegone, tomboy princess of "Once Upon a Mattress." TV Guide honored her as favorite female performer in 1961 and again in 1962, when she won the first of six Emmy Awards.


"The Carol burnett Show" debuted on Sept. 11, 1967, bringing into the lexicon her singing charwoman, dimwitted secretary Mrs. Wiggins and raging Eunice's dysfunctional family. While her writers initially came up with Eunice, Burnett fiercely inhabited her. "They reminded me of our family. They were much more exaggerated, of course, and Mama was beautiful, but there was that dynamic between mother and daughter that must have attracted me to those characters."

In another theft from her own life, she played a young married who took in her younger sister, sending off to stardom young Vicki Lawrence, who looked more like Burnett than her own sister. Her passion for "All My Children," a show to which she and daughter Jody are addicted to this day, didn't stop her from featuring "As the Stomach Turns."

But mostly she pillaged the movies she loved. "Born to Be Bad" became "Raised to Be Rotten," and "Gone With the Wind" emerged as "Went With the Wind," providing Burnett with a now-legendary walk down the stairs in a dress made of draperies--complete with curtain rod. As she said on her last show, "I think we've done as many takeoffs as there are old movies."

Sketch comedy also gave her a chance to lose herself in characters, providing the comfort of "being somebody else." Since her earliest auditions and performances, she has hid her singing in comedy, even auditioning as a person performing at an audition or doing a routine where she was a bad speller trying to sing "Oklahoma!"

(She could also easily pretend that unintended comedy was intentional, as during her first meeting with actor Jimmy Stewart. "He'd been my idol all my life," she laughs, recalling how she was introduced to him on a set. "I was so flummoxed that after I met him, I whirled around, didn't look where I was going and stepped into a bucket of whitewash. I didn't want him to think I hadn't done it on purpose, so I kept it on and dragged it all the way across the sound stage as if I were trying to get a laugh out of it.")

She performed as Cher, danced with Placido Domingo and sang duets with Julie Andrews, Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby. "I got to be Betty Grable and Lana Turner and Betty Davis and Joan Crawford," Burnett says today. "I was grown up and had all of these resources available--a 28-piece orchestra to play with, real costumes, lights, cameras, people in the sandbox with me playing, and an audience."

She created her comedy from the outside in, taking her cues from wigs and costumes: "If I didn't know how I was going to talk or sound or walk, it would help me to know what I was going to look like, what I was going to wear." For Mrs. Wiggins, costume designer Bob Mackie found an old black skirt "that was real tight above the knees, but it bagged in the behind. I said: 'Bob, this is great but you're going to have to take it in,' and he said, 'no, stick your butt into it.' And that's how the Wiggins walk happened."

"The Carol Burnett Show" won 22 Emmys before finally folding its tent in March 1978. Burnett calls its end "bittersweet, but it was our choice to do it. I always felt it was better to leave before they ask you to leave, because eventually, one or the other is going to happen. We had different writers come and go as most variety shows did, and the writers would come in with wonderful ideas, but ideas we'd done in the fourth or the sixth years. I didn't want us to start feeding off ourselves."

Assorted attempts to rekindle the show's spirit were unsuccessful. "Carol & Company" tried to have a new story line each week, something she now equates to putting on a new sitcom pilot weekly, a form of "television hell." A later go at sketch comedy tried to match Burnett's wackiness with the edgier humor of "Saturday Night Live" but also failed. Longtime Burnett producer Wright says that many of the latter show's writers "grew up with her but didn't understand how to write for her."

Others did. She moved to drama in 1979 with "Friendly Fire," and writer Fay Kanin still remembers Burnett's initial response: that perhaps they'd sent the script to the wrong person. Burnett was equally tough-minded and heartbreaking as Peg Mullen, the real-life woman whose son was killed in Vietnam by friendly fire. Other serious parts followed, as did more work onstage, on other TV venues and in such films as "Pete 'n' Tillie," "The Front Page," "Annie," "A Wedding" and "Noises Off."

Through all her success, Burnett never lost her awe for her predecessors. "Whenever anyone tried to call her the queen of television, she would always bow to Lucy," Wright recalls. "When Lucy passed away, I talked to her that morning. She was very upset. I said, 'Whether or not you like it, you're now the queen of television.' But she said, 'No, it will always be Lucy.' "

Conway calls Burnett "probably the most generous performer I've ever worked with. If it was funny, she'd say, 'You do it.' She wouldn't say, 'That's funny. I'll do it.' It was such a great place to work, we just couldn't wait to get back and spend the week together."

Burnett returns the compliment, praising Conway, designer Mackie and other colleagues and friends who have become part of her vast extended family. Welch and, later, his wife, Mitzie, have been writing for her since the '50s, and many involved with "The Carol Burnett Show" had earlier worked with her on the Garry Moore show. Marcia Brandwynne, the veteran newscaster who for several years headed Burnett's production company, Kalola Productions, says Burnett even once offered to co-host a TV talk show with her for a few weeks if Brandwynne decided to pursue that line of work.

"What makes her special is what makes her a great actress--her generosity, which exudes through her total persona," says longtime friend Frank O. Gehry, the architect. "She exudes generosity in her look, humor, everything."


Burnett continues to look for the family-style camaraderie of her long-running variety show. This year she won an Emmy for her recurring role as Jamie Buchman's outspoken mother, Theresa, in "Mad About You." At a recent taping, series co-star Helen Hunt introduced Burnett to a screaming studio audience as "the goddess of comedy."

Hunt always introduces Burnett that way, saying later: "I just think she's brilliant. The first time she did our show, we were all incredibly blown away to have her there, and then to watch her meticulously set up every beat in the scene was like being in school."

Their mother-daughter relationship is easy, Hunt says. "Because she's a magnificent actress, it felt very comfortable and familiar immediately."

It is a well-practiced role for Burnett. After a seven-year marriage to Don Saroyan ended in divorce in 1962, she married her producer, Joe Hamilton, a year later. They worked hard to provide their three daughters with a stable and essentially traditional home life.

On Sundays, the kids often sat in their parents' bedroom and watched old movie musicals, sometimes singing along. During the week, the Hamiltons planned their show around their daughters' school schedules. Burnett went to work after the girls left for school and often got home before them. Dinner was on the table at 6:30 each evening. Burnett took off weekends, summers, Christmas and Easter holidays.

All three daughters wound up in the entertainment business: Erin sings, Carrie recently concluded a run in the Boston production of "Rent" as performance artist Maureen, and Jody is more interested in management. "The fact that they're all in the business is a validation of what Joe and I did," says their mom. "They're not angry with us."

The Hamilton family also dealt with the dark side of celebrity. In 1976, Burnett sued the National Enquirer for a false portrayal of her behavior in a Washington restaurant that implied she had been drinking. She won a $1.6-million judgment, which was later reduced and then settled out of court. She used the proceeds after legal fees to set up scholarships for ethics in journalism. "She's tremendously brave," Carrie says. "And she's the last person who would say she's brave."

At one point, that bravery had to do with Carrie. Worried that word would get out about their teenage daughter's drug problem and rehabilitation, the Hamiltons held what Burnett calls "a family powwow" and decided to call People magazine. "It was really not out of wanting to be a role model or anything," she explains. "It was out of self-defense. I would have given anything not to put my kid through that publicity, but she was going to be in it with or without us, so the main thing was that we stand as a family together and talk about it."

Says Carrie, now 34: "We did what we had to do to protect ourselves. People could relate to it. If you have somebody like Mom, who people love, and she's in their living rooms every week, they listen to her. They trust her."

The Hamiltons divorced in 1984, and Burnett has not remarried. Her new gentleman friend in an upcoming "Mad About You" episode is, to quote her TV daughter, "the square root of her age," and Burnett says she suggested the topic of older woman-younger man. She'd like to be in a relationship, she says, "but I'm not putting an ad in the paper. And I'd like him to live next door. I've been by myself so long, I'd like to have a really serious date. Quite often. A steady."

It would fit with her peripatetic lifestyle, for while she dotes on family, she clearly loves to roam. Not only does Burnett willingly head off for such things as her coming launch of a Fort Worth performance hall and her continuing "Conversations," she has moved 12 times in the last 14 years. (She confessed to Home & Garden Television that she even likes to pack.) She has lived in Betty Grable's old home in Beverly Hills and built three places from scratch, including her last home --a Santa Fe spread (already on the market) she has called her "womb with a view."


On A&E;'s "Biography," friend Julie Andrews described Burnett as both private and shy, qualities that become apparent over the course of a few hours. She is friendly, warm and welcoming, but there are questions she doesn't answer, conversational paths she clearly doesn't travel. "I closed myself in real early because it made me feel safe," Burnett wrote in her memoir. "I put a wall up . . . what Mama called 'Carol's shade.' "

She apologized to her daughters for that "wall" in her memoir, which she used in part to help tear it down. "I kept my sanity by writing it," Burnett says. "It was a real rough time for me. I was getting a divorce, and I was kind of out on my own, my finances weren't too swift and I just needed to go back and explore some stuff. The fact that it was a letter to the girls unlocked it for me. There was a reason to write it. They were the reason."

Today she is a doting grandmother to 11-month-old Zachary, son of Burnett's youngest daughter, Erin, and husband Trae Carlson. Calling Burnett "the hippest Grandma I ever met," Erin says she learned plenty about parenting from her mother. Among the lessons: "Let [your children] go ahead and make their own decisions. Encourage them if they want to fly to the moon or be janitors. Give them lots of love and laughter."

Burnett and daughter Carrie are hoping to turn Mom's memoir into a play next summer at Utah's Sundance Institute, and Burnett also expects to perform onstage again in Los Angeles next year. Her return after three decades to Broadway in "Moon Over Buffalo" fared well with fans and theater critics, who praised both her "cockeyed splendor" and "game goofiness."

Burnett's likely project here, however, will have a limited run. She says she stayed too long in "Moon Over Buffalo" and has since learned "that no can be a complete sentence. It's really hard for me to say no, and it always has been. It's that people-pleasing, care-taker thing; you want everybody to think you're a really terrific person and like you. I was guilted into renewing, and it took an awful lot out of me physically.'

She loves the stage "because there's no sitting around and waiting. It's immediate. And that's exactly the way we ran ["The Carol Burnett Show"]. We were all creatures of live television, so it never occurred to us to perfect something right out of its being spontaneous. Which is, unfortunately, what I think happens to television comedy today. There's no spontaneity, no danger. And that's what's fun about the theater. Something can happen."

That potential danger also attracts her to "Conversations," which she will do again in Florida next February.

Once last year, she'd given a young man a birthday hug onstage when a slightly older, attractive gentleman noted it was his birthday as well. He explained that he was 40, wanted a hug and said he thought Burnett both funny and sexy. "I said, 'Get up here.' I asked if he was involved. He looked down at his shoes and said, 'Sort of.' I said, 'Sort of? What does sort of mean?' He said, 'I'm a priest.' Excuse the pun, but you pray for things like that."

A great exercise for the mind--"It keeps my gray matter hopping"--her "Conversations" are also a way of "Hav'n Fun." So is doing the crossword puzzle in the morning, hanging out with her daughters and winning over an audience.

"I have fun if I love something I'm doing onstage, and it's coming across to the audience," she says. "It's a great high to hear something land."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World