Thursday, April 26, 2012

Happy Birthday Carol Bernett!

   It is my great honor, privilege, and pleasure to give a great big happy birthday shout out to one of my favorite comedians and actresses, and people, Ms. Carol Burnett!
   And I might as well do it today as it happens to actually be her birthday.
   Carol Creighton Burnett was born at a very early age, and at 4:00AM CST precisely, which would be 2:00AM where I live, and 6:00PM in Japan. She was born in San Antonio, Texas... well, I suppose one can't help where one is born. San Antonio is of course, the seventh largest city in the nation, and the scene of the Battle of the Alamo, which took place from February 23rd to March 6th, in 1836, where John Wayne and Billy Bob Thorton, and approximately 182–257 Texans were brutally killed by the Mexican Army during the Texas Revolution.
   The Texans would get the Mexicans back 31 days later at the Battle of San Jacinto.
   As far as I know Carol had nothing whatsoever to do with either battle.
   She's a pacifist. 
   Her mom, Ina Louise, was a publicity writer for movie studios, and her dad, Joseph Thomas, a manager of a movie theater, so Carol was born into the business, you might say.
   Unfortunately her parents both suffered from the same disease I have suffered from, addiction, to alcohol primarily, and Carol spent a good deal of time with her grandmother, Mabel Eudora White (One of Carol's trademarks, if you will, is her tugging at her ear at the end of each episode of the Carol Burnett Show, which she says was a message to her grandmother. This was done to let her know that she was doing well and that she loved her. Ms. White passed away during the shows run). 
   Her parents divorced, and she and her grandmother moved to Hollywood, near where her mother lived, in a boarding house with her younger half-sister Chrissy.
   At one time she worked as an usherette at what is now the Hollywood Pacific Theater, on Hollywood Blvd, near Cahuenga. The story goes that one night, the movie playing was Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" (1951), a film Carol had enjoyed very much. She advised a late arriving couple to wait until the next show, because the film was so good it should be seen from beginning to end. The manager of the theater heard her say this and made a big deal about firing her on the spot, ripping the epaulets off her uniform.
   Decades later, when she was to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, she was asked by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce where she would like it placed. Carol asked that her star be placed in front of the Pacific. The star is at 6433 Hollywood Blvd.
   Revenge is oh so sweet.
   After graduating from Hollywood High School in 1951, Carol won a scholarship to UCLA, in Westwood where she initially planned on studying journalism. During her first year of college, she switched to theater arts and English, thinking about becoming a playwright. She found she had to take an acting course to enter the playwright program.
   "I wasn't really ready to do the acting thing, but I had no choice."
   During her first performance she improvised.
   "Don't ask me why, but when we were in front of the audience, I suddenly decided I was going to stretch out all my words and my first line came out 'I'm baaaaaaaack!'"
The audience responded:
    "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."
   And here's one for the books. In 1954, during her junior year, a professor invited Carol and some other students to perform at a formal party. Afterwards, as she was abscond... steal... relieved the host of the burden of ownership of some cookies she was placing in her purse to take home for her grandmother, John Beresford Tipton, Jr and his wife approached her and complimented her  performance and asked about her future plans. She told him that she wanted to try her luck with musical comedy theater in New York, but did not have enough money. Tipton offered her and her boyfriend each a $1000 interest-free loan on the spot. The conditions were that it was to be paid back in five years, his name was never to be revealed, and if she became a success, she would help others attain their dreams. Carol took him up on his offer, and off to New York she went.
   Oh gee, I realize now I have revealed Carol's benefactors name. Well, it can't be helped now.
   That same year her father died of causes related to his alcoholism.
   The next year she would marry that boyfriend, Don Saroyan. They would divorce in 1962.
   In New York Carol worked for a while as an hat check girl. In 1955 she got a job as the girlfriend of a ventriloquist’s dummy on the popular "Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Show." This led to a co-starring role opposite Buddy Hackett in the short-lived sitcom "Stanley" from 1956 to 1957, which was one of the very last sit-coms that was broadcast live.
   After that she was unemployed for a few months, then became a popular performer on the New York circuit of cabarets and night clubs, most notably for a hit parody number called "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles," who was the current Secretary of State. She performed this number on "The Tonight Show," with Jack Parr, and "The Ed Sullivan Show," gaining more and more national exposure.
   She gained success on Broadway in the musical, "Once Upon A Mattress," originating the role of Princess Winnifred, in 1959. The same year she became a regular on "The Garry Moore Show," (who I happened to meet once. I'm not allowed to say where) a  job that lasted until 1962.
   She won her first Emmy that year for her "Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series" on that show. Ms. Burnett portrayed a number of characters, most memorably the put-upon cleaning woman who would later become her signature alter-ego. Of course this experience got her interested in doing her own variety show, and had to have been the precursor to "The Carol Burnett Show."
   Carol finally became a headliner when she appeared in the 1962 special "Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall," co-starring her good friend Julie Andrews. The show was written by Mike Nichols (who received a 2003 Kennedy Center Honor, along with Carol)  and Ken Welch.
   During this time Carol guest starred on a number of T.V.  shows, including "The Twilight Zone" episode "Cavender is Coming" and a recurring role on  "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.". She  became good friends with Jim Nabors of Gomer, who would be her first guest on her own variety show, and who she considered good luck. This would cause her to invite Jim as the first guest every season.
   And here's another one for the books. After appearing several times as a guest on Lucille Ball's "The Lucy Show," they became friends and Lucy a mentor to Carol. Lucy even offered Carol her own sit-com produced by Desilu Productions. But Carol, wanting to explore the possibility of her own variety show, turned her down.
   The two remained close friends until Lucy's death in 1989. Ball sent flowers to Carol every year on her birthday. When Carol woke on her birthday in 1989, she learned of Lucy's death that morning. Later that afternoon, sure enough, flowers arrived at Carol's house with the note "Happy Birthday, Kid. Love, Lucy."
   The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) didn't want to do it. They did not want Carol to do a variety show because they believed only men could be successful at variety, but her contract required that they give her one season of whatever kind of show she wanted to make.
   The men were wrong.
   As they often are.
   On September 11, 1967, "The Carol Burnett Show" debuted. It was an hour long variety / sketch comedy television program starring Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman (of "Blazing Saddles," fame) Vicki Lawrence (of "Mama's Family," fame), Lyle Waggoner (of "Wonder Woman," fame), and Tim Conway (of "McHale's Navy"). It became an instant sensation, and earned 25 Emmy Awards during its 11-year run. It allowed Carol to fire off a wide range of comedy and musical numbers, in which she parodied movies, commercials, and people, such as movie icons  Gloria Swanson, Shirley Temple, Vivien Leigh and Joan Crawford, or singing alongside favorite vocalists like  Jim Nabors, Steve Lawrence, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Tormé. She brought on stars not known at all for slapstick comedy, including Rock Hudson and then Governor Ronald Reagan while providing a platform for new talent such as Bernadette Peters and The Pointer Sisters, which I might add, fulfilled her promise to Tipton.
   Here's some random clips:
With Robin Williams:
With Harvey and Tim:
With everybody:
   "I think the hardest thing to do in the world, show-business-wise, is write comedy. We had a great staff of writers, and if we had a sketch we were rehearsing and it wasn't working, we'd call the writers down and show them what we had come up with. And there were no egos. In eleven  years, we never had a writer get angry because we made it a little bit more of our own and maybe a little improved. They would jump in and say, "Oh okay, how about this then, while you're doing that?" We were all in the sandbox together."
   Carol opened most shows with a question and answer session with the audience (first clip above). One time she was asked who her favorite actor was. She replied, "Anthony Hopkins - you know, the little English guy?"
   That was way before Hannibal Lector.
   The show was taped from CBS Television City's Studio 33 (known today as the Bob Barker Studio), in Studio City, where Erin, Paul, Erin's best friend Julie, and I (and a whole bunch of other people) went to attend "The Price is Right," one time. 
   We didn't get in.
   "The Carol Burnett Show" was ranked #16 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time in 2002, and in 2007 was listed as one of Time magazine's "100 Best TV Shows of All Time."
   After 278 episodes, "The Carol Burnett Show" ceased production in March of 1978, and is generally regarded as the last successful major network prime-time variety show.
   "I'm glad I was born when I was. My time was the golden age of variety. If I were starting out again now, maybe things would happen for me, but it certainly would not be on a variety show with 28 musicians, 12 dancers, two major guest stars, 50 costumes a week by Bob Mackie. The networks just wouldn't spend the money today."
   Which is sad.
   Ms. Burnett appeared other vehicles during and after "The Carol Burnett Show," among them, "Pete 'n' Tillie," in 1972, with Walter Matthau , as a woman battling alcoholism in "Life of The Party: The Story of Beatrice." "The Four Seasons," with Alan Alda, "Annie," directed by John Houston, and starring Carol, Tim Curry, and Bernadette Peters, and one of my favorite comedies, "Noises Off," with Michael Caine, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve, Nicollette Sheridan, our friend Marilu Henner, Denholm Elliott (in his final performance before his death), and Julie Hagerty.
   By golly, she's been in so many movies I watched her just last night in the epic 1986 television mini-series "Fresno," which stars Carol and a whole bunch of other people... mostly actors.
   Here's a clip of what I watched:
   Carol was the first celebrity to appear on the children's series "Sesame Street," on that series' first episode on November 10th, 1969. How many people can say that I ask you? Not many.
   She's done loads of other stuff too, like appearing on the game show "Password," for years and years, and on the soap, "All My Children," which was a favorite of hers.
   She got married again the year after she got divorced, and had three daughters. She was nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for appearing on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," an episode I happened to catch recently since they play Law and Order about a 100 freaking times a day on basic cable. 
   So she likes to keep busy, you know, it helps pass the time.
   I love this about Carol, she was always open to her fans, never refusing to give an autograph, and has limited patience for "Those who've made it, then complain about loss of privacy."
   She has received a Peabody Award, the 2003 Kennedy Center Honors, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, A special Tony Award, was nominated 17 times for a Golden Globe Award and won 5 times, and was nominated 23 times for an Emmy and won 6!
   And all of us here at Joyce's Take love her, and wish her continued good health and fortune for her, her family, friends, and anybody else she may happen to meet today, but most of all, a very happy birthday!
   Happy Birthday Carol!

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