Published Oct 1, 2009 11:05 AM
In the spring of 1952, something magical happened at UCLA. An unassuming student actress stepped onto a small campus stage and delivered her lines. Much to her delight, the audience roared, and the Daily Bruin took notice.
"Carol Burnett got at least half a dozen good bellylaughs [sic] out of her relatively small part as a neighbor woman," proclaimed the March 31 edition. "Her mournful face, lackadaisical voice, skillfully awkward gestures and ambling figure produced laughs even on the straight lines."
"I played a hillbilly woman," Burnett says of her crowd-pleasing debut in the student play Keep Me a Woman Grown.
"Our roots are [in] Texas and Arkansas. I just had to imitate my great-grandmother and talk like she did, and I got my laughs. I thought, 'This is really a good feeling.'"
Actually, writing was Burnett's goal when she arrived on campus in 1951 with big dreams and $50 from an anonymous donor (tuition was $43). But the former editor of the Hollywood High newspaper discovered there was no journalism program. So she joined the Daily Bruin and settled on theater arts-English, a major that included playwriting and first-year courses in scenery, lighting, costuming and acting.
"When I got into that," she says, "I realized for the first time in my life that I wanted to be a performer."
Burnett auditioned for various productions of the campus one-act play program, gravitating toward comic roles because "The comedy just made me feel happy."
So did singing, she discovered, after getting a taste of musical theater in the music department's opera workshop. A standout in the chorus in South Pacific ("I was loud," she admits, laughing), she was offered the comic number "Adelaide's Lament" from Guys and Dolls. Singing solo wasn't something she had considered — until she learned what Adelaide was lamenting about: a cold. "I thought, 'Well, that I could hide behind.' So I sneezed and coughed my way through the song," she says. "It got a lot of response. I started to become kind of popular."
Burnett co-starred in the 1953 Homecoming production, Royal Blues, and took her final bow on campus in Royce Hall at the 1954 Varsity Show, Love Thy Coach. The May 7 Daily Bruin raved about her star performance: "Miss Burnette [sic] makes the show sparkle with her fresh and sincere style of acting coupled with an excellent voice and the ability to get her songs over."
The 21-year-old knew her destiny. "I had 'seen' myself in New York," she says. "I didn't know how I was going to get there, but I knew I was going to get there."
The "how" turned up that June at a party for the head of the music department, where Burnett wowed the crowd with a scene from Annie Get Your Gun. While stuffing appetizers into her purse to take home to her grandmother, she felt a tap on her shoulder. "I thought I was being busted for [taking] the hors d'oeuvres," she jokes.
Far from it. A gentleman and his wife, impressed with her performance, wondered what her future plans were. "I said, 'Well, I'd like to go to New York someday and be like Ethel Merman and Mary Martin,'" Burnett recalls. "And he said, 'Why aren't you there now?' And I said, 'Because I can't afford it.' And he said, 'I'll lend you the money to go.'"
Two months later, Burnett was off to conquer the Great White Way, with her "angel's" $1,000 and three promises: to pay him back in five years, to pay it forward by helping others and to never reveal his identity. For good measure, she packed her scrapbook of Daily Bruin reviews. "That was what I thought would really impress the New York agents," she laughs.
Soon, the lanky young woman with the unconventional looks and loud voice was sharing the spotlight with TV stars Buddy Hackett, Jack Paar and Ed Sullivan. In 1959, she landed a steady gig on The Garry Moore Show and the lead in the Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress.
Now a star, Burnett made good on her promises, paying back her benefactor — "exactly five years to the day" — and helping others. At UCLA, she's funded the Carol Burnett Awards in musical theater and donated the videotapes, scripts and music from The Carol Burnett Show to various campus collections.
Now Burnett, a 1985 recipient of the UCLA Medal, is a published author and produced playwright. She's penning a book based on her one-woman Q&A tour.
Best of all, the 76-year-old TV legend is reaching new fans through the Internet.
"[My] 2-year-old [grandson] is starting to get to know me through YouTube," she explains, tickled by the thought. "[My daughter Erin] came upon the time the Jackson 5 was on my show, and there I was, doing a sketch with them. And Dylan was just in hysterics, and he kept on saying, 'Grandma's funny! Grandma's funny!' "