The life of the charwoman holds irony. She lives a humdrum existence. Yet when the inimitable Carol Burnett brought her somewhat melancholy character to audiences, the humble office cleaner showed America her dreams, imagining worlds that go beyond what others might consider. There is irony, too, in the woman who gives her life: The six-time Emmy Award winner is a hugely successful star who has been a household name for more than half a century. And yet, Burnett is still awed by the talent of others. She cannot be blasé about meeting gifted entertainers; she is a superfan, often tongue-tied and uncomfortable.
Introduced in a 1962 Burnett television special, the charwoman became an icon.
Because the audience loved her, the character later enjoyed a long life in the fan-favorite variety series “The Carol Burnett Show,” which aired for more than a decade from 1967 to 1978—279 benchmark episodes that garnered 25 Emmys, with 70 nominations. The show is still widely available in television reruns and on YouTube. The sentimental tug of her ear that ended each show along with the lilting refrain, “I’m so glad we had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song,” became a cultural touchstone.
In a typical charwoman scene, she would enter the set, dragging her bucket and mop. Something would spark her imagination, and she’d reveal her dream in pantomime. Then, silent no more she’d belt out a classic in song and dance from the American songbook.
Creating the charwoman
The original inspiration for the character was a Billboard number one hit in 1962, “The Stripper” by David Rose and His Orchestra. “I was listening to it on the radio this one afternoon,” Burnett tells Smithsonian in an exclusive interview, “and the disc jockey who was going to play it said, ‘This is the housewives’ favorite song,’ so I pictured a housewife, quote-unquote, ironing or sweeping or vacuuming, but doing The Stripper’s walk like she was Gypsy Rose Lee or somebody.”
That housewife morphed into the charwoman cleaning a burlesque house, “and in her imagination, she heard the orchestration, and all of a sudden, she decides that she wants to be in her mind, Gypsy Rose Lee, a famous striptease artist. So she starts doing the bumps and the grinds and the whole thing,” says Burnett. Unlike real strippers, the charwoman doffs only her cardigan. Today one of Burnett's charwoman costumes is held in the entertainment collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Burnett’s story and success, says Ryan Lintelman, one of the museum’s curators, lies in her “willingness to not take herself so seriously and to not always be glamorous.”
The show's inspirations
Burnett's family was not a wealthy one, but “in the ’40s, in the ’50s, my grandmother and I would go to the movies four or five times a week. We saved our pennies, and there were always double features.” Even before her feet could reach the floor in a movie theater seat, she found it thrilling: “How I loved the movies with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and Judy Garland, and Mickey Rooney, and Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire, and Betty Grable!”
When she saw a film with her cousin at age 10 or 11, they would “come home and act out the movies. And so when we would see a Tarzan movie, she would always be Jane, and I was Tarzan. I taught myself to yell,” she says, and that is how she perfected her famous Tarzan yell—an imitation of Johnny Weissmuller’s signature holler.
In her memoir, This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection, Burnett recalls when she first met Cary Grant, the handsome and charming actor who gave generations of women unrealistic expectations about what they could find in a man. Her grandmother had told her as a child that “he’s the second most beautiful thing in the world next to Hedy Lamarr.”
Years later, she was thrilled when she heard that Grant liked “The Carol Burnett Show.” Nevertheless, at a party once, Grant walked into the room and she urgently wanted to leave. Her then-husband, Joe Hamilton, asked why: “Because I wouldn’t know what to say or how to act, and I would make a fool of myself. He wouldn’t like me anymore!”
Before she could get to the door, Grant materialized right in front of her. He held her hand and spoke for several minutes. Her loud heartbeat made it impossible for her to process what he was saying. When he stopped talking, she simply said, “You’re a credit to your profession.”
On the way home, her husband said, “Sweetheart, I’ll never doubt you again.”
Something similar occurred when she and her husband rode an elevator with the Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck. She caught herself babbling about how much she loved his work, and then, belatedly, she introduced her husband, Joe Hamilton, as George Hamilton.
Forever a fan
To this day, she still hasn’t outgrown the problem of becoming tongue-tied around the people she admires. “I’m still a fan. I’m a fan of people who are a lot younger than I am. I’m still in awe, still in awe. Right now … I’m doing a miniseries for Apple, which is called Mrs. American Pie and stars Kristen Wiig and Laura Dern and Allison Janney.”
Burnett, who plays a family matriarch in “snooty” Palm Beach society, says, “And I’m in awe of all three of those women. And I could be their mother.”
Burnett’s 11 seasons starring in her own variety show made dreams come true; she is delighted to have met many of her idols. “I was able to work with the people, some of the people, I used to see as a kid in the movies,” she says. “I got to sing and do a sketch with Bing Crosby, with Rita Hayworth, with Betty Grable, who was one of my idols growing up. … And my first love was James Stewart.” As a child, “Oh my gosh, I just adored him. And I kept thinking, as a child, someday I’m going to get to know Jimmy Stewart. And you know what? It came true. And we became close friends.”
Despite their awkward beginning, she even became friends with Cary Grant. Looking at all the people she has known, she exclaims, “How many times do you get that kind of an opportunity?”
Inspired by the movies
Her show made good use of her fascination for the movies: Among her favorite skits were film parodies. In one of the best-remembered—“Went With the Wind”—a spoof of the 1939 film classic Gone With the Wind, Burnett parodies the dress that Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) created out of window drapes.
TV Guide ranked her famous entrance as “Starlett,” walking down a flight of winding stairs in a dress not merely made from the drapes but still hanging on a curtain rod, as second among “The 50 Funniest TV Moments of All Time.”
“I saw it in the window, and I just couldn’t resist it,” Starlett says to Harvey Korman’s “Ratt Butler.” During the skit, Burnett, who did her own stunts, rolls down the steps twice.
Burnett says she knew the skit was going to be a winner. The writing was brilliant, she says, and when she saw Bob Mackie’s green velvet costume design, she predicted, “This is going to be one of the greatest sight gags in the history of television.”
Mackie created 65 to 70 costumes each week for the series, and this was just one of them. Starlett’s costume is also held in the museum’s collections. Because the film Gone With the Wind had recently aired for the first time on TV, it became a part of the “cultural vernacular” that everyone could recognize says, says Lintelman. “It’s the birth of this very referential form of American comedy I think that you see then in the latter part of the century where shows like ‘The Simpsons’ or ‘Family Guy,’ things like that, are really drawing on this whole canon of experiences and media viewing that you’re supposed to have had.”
Burnett understands how fans feel when they approach her. She always remembers her own first personal encounter with a celebrity and tries to live up to the graciousness of that star.
“My grandmother and I would go down to Hollywood Boulevard and be behind the ropes at a premiere, and we would hang over the ropes to watch all the movie stars come in,” she says. “And I remember this one time Linda Darnell was walking by us. She was a beautiful actress, and one of my favorites too. And my grandmother kind of reached out and touched her arm” and asked Darnell to give an autograph to her 9-year-old granddaughter. “She stopped, and she was so sweet. And I never forgot that.” It was for Burnett’s grandmother, with whom she shared many adventures, that she tugged on her ear during her show—a gesture of love.
As Verla Grubbs in 'All My Children'
Burnett’s passionate fandom has not been restricted to film. She was an avid devotee of the soap opera “All My Children,” which ran on ABC from January 5, 1970, to September 23, 2011, and briefly found new life on an online network afterward. Burnett got hooked on the show on a beach vacation with her kids, who were watching it, and had organized her schedule around being able to see each episode. In the early 1980s, she got an opportunity to appear on the show as Verla Grubbs, the illegitimate child of a con artist and snake charmer who visits Pine Valley to find her father. She appeared in ten episodes, an experience she thoroughly enjoyed.
Years later, on a European vacation, she and her husband were awakened in their hotel room by a knock on the door at 2 a.m. Puzzled and a tad fearful of bad news, they opened the door. “And the manager was standing there with a telegram and was shaking.” Burnett looked at the telegram. “It said something like: ‘Erica is still in a coma; Mona is being arrested on suspicion of shoplifting.’ I started to laugh so hard. They thought it was real, and I’m laughing so hard. They thought that I was crying.” Her husband saw the telegram and said, “Oh, for heaven’s sake. It’s her soap opera.” A friend had been enlisted to send her a summary of the week’s events on “All My Children” every Friday when she was out of the country.
This year, in addition to continuing her own acting career in “Better Call Saul” and “Mrs. American Pie,” the 89-year-old actress is leading a campaign as a fan activist.
In honor of Harold Prince
She is attempting to get Broadway’s Majestic Theater renamed to honor Broadway producer and director Harold Prince, winner of 21 Tony Awards before his death in 2019. He worked on musicals including West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Sweeney Todd and The Phantom of the Opera, which will soon close its 35-year run at the Majestic. She has recruited many musical stars to join her campaign, including Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Julie Andrews, Mandy Patinkin and Lin-Manuel Miranda, as well as unions representing choreographers and directors. They are trying to gather support to convince the theater’s owner, the Shubert Organization, to rename it. “I’m encouraging everybody to get behind it and write to the Shuberts and say, ‘Please think about this,’” she says. “He definitely deserves the honor.”
When she was in her 20s, Burnett believed that her future awaited her in Broadway theaters like the Majestic, where she would star in musicals. In 1959, she debuted off-Broadway and then on Broadway as the star of Once Upon a Mattress. While she was savoring a dream accomplished, she was invited to be part of the regular cast on television’s “The Garry Moore Show.” She worked two jobs for a while. “I was young,” she explains with a laugh. And she learned something surprising: She enjoyed playing different characters in her TV job more than she enjoyed playing the same character repeatedly on the Broadway stage.
Before long she’d switched allegiances to TV. While still working with Garry Moore, she had a contract with CBS to present several specials, and the deal included an opportunity to have her own variety show. After debuting in successful specials, she said she wanted her own show, but CBS leaders balked. A woman had never led that kind of production, so at first they tried to steer her toward a situation comedy. But she resisted, and finally they agreed to give her a series and contracted for at least 30 shows.
It was family
Her show with her frequent partner, Korman, along with Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and eventually Tim Conway, was a huge success. “It was a family,” she says. “I don’t think there’s anybody better at being a comedic actor than Harvey Korman. There might be somebody as good, but nobody better. He could do it all. And he was very serious about his comedy.” She knows that many fans remember the occasions when the group dissolved into laughter in the middle of a sketch, but she says it happened fewer times than people think it did. “The culprit usually was Tim Conway,” she recalls. He loved to ad-lib. The show was taped twice in one day, and if the first taping went well, Conway felt comfortable ad-libbing in the second.
Looking back, one of her favorite characters was the melodramatic Eunice Harper Higgins, the unhappy wife in “The Family” sketches. She liked that role because “there were no jokes in those sketches. It was all character-driven. … One time in rehearsal, just as an exercise, we performed one of the sketches without trying to be funny, without those [Texas] accents. And it was very serious. But when we put the accents over, it went over the top,” she says. The family sketches were reborn in a new form—NBC’s “Mama’s Family,” which ran from 1983 to 1990. Lawrence starred, playing Mama, the same character she portrayed on “The Carol Burnett Show.”
As a child with her legs dangling from her seat in movie theaters, Carol Burnett could not know that she herself one day would become a star and touch the lives of millions of Americans. Today, Burnett is quick to praise her fellow actors, writers, designers and dancers who contributed to her show’s success. But the success of the show, Lintelman says, was built on Burnett’s memorable personas.
The new exhibition, “Entertainment Nation,” opens December 9 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Read more about “The Carol Burnett Show” in the exhibition’s catalog, Entertainment Nation: How Music, Television, Film, Sports, and Theater Shaped the United States.
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