Before Carol Burnett called from California the other day, I was a little nervous. Sure, she's a legend, but more than that, she's one of my favorite performers ever. Funny, talented, beautiful, she's got it all and has had it for the better part of a half century. • What if the interview went badly? What if I didn't like her? • But Burnett on the phone is just as she was on her old TV variety show, as down-to-earth as a neighbor hanging over the back fence. Her voice was as familiar as the sensible, hilarious big sister I never had (and could have used). • She was calling to talk about her show, "Laughter and Reflection with Carol Burnett,'' which comes to Ruth Eckerd Hall on Thursday. It's modeled after the segment of her show in which she fielded questions from the audience, inevitably including a request to "do the Tarzan yell!'' • "That's how we opened the show,'' Burnett said. "Usually shows, before they start to tape, they'll send a comedian out to warm up the audience. But it was suggested that I do the warm-up, and then it was suggested that we tape it. • At first I was afraid they wouldn't ask any questions. Then I was afraid they would. I never had any trouble with people being shy about raising their hand and asking any kind of question they wanted, silly or otherwise. One of them I remember was when some lady said, 'What was the most embarrassing question that somebody ever asked you?' And I said, 'Well, I think it was when they asked if I'd had a sex change, that kind of took the cake.' And then the very next person I called on said, 'Well, did you?' You can't write that kind of stuff.''
Broadway to television
The week before we spoke, I was in New York and saw Shrek, the new musical starring Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona. I had been struck by how much Foster, a leading Broadway performer since getting her big break in Thoroughly Modern Millie, seemed to have been influenced by Burnett's goofball style in the musical comedy spoofs that were a trademark of her TV show.
Burnett herself played a princess on Broadway, Princess Winnifred the Woebegone, in Once Upon a Mattress, which opened in 1959. She made her entrance in the throne room of an ancient castle soaking wet because, she explained, "I swam the moat.''
Growing up, it had been Burnett's dream to emulate musical theater stars like Mary Martin and Ethel Merman. But Mattress was to be her only Broadway show until almost 40 years later. Instead, she migrated to TV, first as a regular on The Garry Moore Show, then her variety show, a Saturday night staple on CBS from 1967 to 1978.
"I was always the musical comedian type, and I thought it was the best of both worlds to be on a show like Garry's and do different characters every week and also to sing,'' she said. "On my own show we did a musical comedy revue a week, almost like you were in summer stock. That's what I always loved about it, because we didn't have to keep doing the same thing night after night after night, like you do in a Broadway show.''
Growing up poor
Among the most popular features of her show were the movie parodies, which drew on Burnett's childhood in 1940s Hollywood. Hers was not, however, the Hollywood of mansions and limousines. As recounted in One More Time, her compulsively readable 1986 memoir, Burnett's family was desperately poor, her divorced mother and father both alcoholics. Carol, now 75, lived mainly with her beloved grandmother, Nanny, in a one-room apartment ("the 12 by 16 box that was Room 102,'' she wrote).
"I was raised going to the movies,'' she said, recalling when she was 10 or 11 years old and would spend days with Nanny at double features in the cinemas up and down Hollywood Boulevard, a block from their apartment. "Sometimes we'd go to four theaters a week, which meant I would see eight movies. I was just entranced by the movie musicals and comedies.''
Carol and her best childhood friend, Ilomay Sills, would act out the movies on the rooftop of their apartment building. "I'd be Betty Grable, she'd be June Haver, and we'd dance and sing and do our own version of the movies. You know, Betty Grable in Mother Wore Tights, with Dan Dailey; a lot of Judy and Mickey movies, Fred and Ginger, Cary and Irene. Sometimes we'd pretend to be two of the Andrews Sisters.''
Burnett's memories of those years in the dark were put to brilliant use in parodies on her show, such as the unforgettable version of Gone With the Wind (called "Went With the Wind'').
"The biggest laugh that it got was (costume designer) Bob Mackie's genius of putting me in that curtain rod dress,'' she said. "It was a parody of that scene in the movie where Scarlett pulled the draperies down from the window and said she was going to make a dress out of them to impress Rhett Butler. Then I came down with the curtain rod still attached across my shoulders. And Harvey (Korman), God bless him, as Rhett Butler, said, 'Oh, Scarlett, you're beautiful, and that dress is exquisite.' And my line was (she assumes a Southern drawl), 'Well, thank you, I saw it in a window, and I just couldn't resist it.' It was one of the longest laughs ever in television.''
Loss of a friend
Korman, who won four Emmy Awards for his work on the Burnett show, died last May at 81. "Oh, boy, that was a big jolt for all of us,'' she said. "We would see each other often and have dinner with Tim (Conway) and Harvey and their wives. I always joked that if you were going to have dinner with them, you better know the Heimlich maneuver. You couldn't be chewing while they were talking, because you'd start to laugh and you could choke. I miss Harvey, I miss being with him and kidding around with him.''
I was under orders from my wife, who grew up watching the show with her mother, to ask about heartthrob Lyle Waggoner. I told Carol that they had a crush on him.
"And rightfully so,'' she said. "He's as nice as he's good looking, so that's pretty nice.'' Waggoner went on to be in the Wonder Woman TV series, model as the first centerfold for Playgirl in 1973 (a year after Burt Reynolds bared it for Cosmopolitan) and then become a successful entrepreneur.
"Lyle created what they call Star Waggons. Those are the mobile homes that are rented by movie studios for the cast. I'm telling you, he could buy and sell a lot of people. Now he's retired and one of his sons is running the company.''
CBS wanted The Carol Burnett Show to continue, but she decided not to overstay her welcome. "They asked me to come back for a 12th year, but I said that I would rather leave before the host started turning off the lights, you know, before they had to ask me to leave,'' she said. It was essentially the end of an era, as the variety show format faded away on network television.
Burnett continued to do television, including popular specials with Julie Andrews, Beverly Sills and Placido Domingo. She got married for the third time in 2001, to Brian Miller, principal drummer in the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, who is 23 years her junior. In 2002, one of her three daughters, Carrie Hamilton, died of cancer at 38. That same year, Hollywood Arms, a play by Burnett and Hamilton based on Carol's memoir, ran for 76 performances on Broadway.
Burnett did some stage work in the 1990s, starring in Moon Over Buffalo, a play by Ken Ludwig, and Putting It Together, a revue of Stephen Sondheim songs. But now she sounds happy to be doing her audience-participation shows.
"I just come out and say let's bump up the lights and go for it. Ask anything you want. You never know what you're going to get. I may be in my 70s, but I think my gray matter is a lot younger. You have to be in the now. You can't be thinking about something else, you know, tomorrow or yesterday. You're right there. It's kind of a happy meditation.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.