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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Kennedy Center salutes Carol Burnett

By Mike Hughes
Gannett News Service

Somewhere near the top of the award-show mountain there are the Kennedy Center Honors.

Here is a prize without categories or quirks. It simply honors the best in show business.

This year's show, airing at 8 p.m. Friday on CBS, names a comedian, a director and three entertainers.

"What I like is that you don't have to do anything," said Carol Burnett, one of this year's winners. "You sit and smile and wave and enjoy the show."

Also honored will be musicians James Brown, Loretta Lynn and violinist Itzhak Perlman, along with director Mike Nichols. Nichols started in comedy, founding the Second City comedy troupe, then became a director of films ranging from 1967's "The Graduate" to HBO's current acclaimed "Angels in America."

All five, who received the awards in a taped ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 7, had tough starts. Brown grew up poor in Barnwell, S.C.; Lynn was born in her parents' bedroom in Butcher Hollow, Ky. Nichols was a German kid whose family fled the Nazis; Perlman was born in the new state of Israel and contracted polio at 4.

Then there was Burnett's childhood, just out of reach of the Hollywood dream.

Both parents drank heavily. As sometimes happens with children of alcoholics, she became the family diplomat. "You grow up that way," she said. "You don't make any waves. You tiptoe around your own feelings."

Her mother's dream — never achieved — was to interview Hollywood stars. Burnett grew up in a small Hollywood apartment, raised mainly by her grandmother, who took her to the movies.

"We'd see eight movies a week," Burnett said. "We'd go four times, always for double features. It was 11 cents a ticket for me."

The investment paid off handsomely. "My friends and I would act out all those movies," she said.

It also shaped her nature.

"The movies weren't cynical — the bad guys got caught," Burnett said. "They were kind of naive and hopeful and uplifting."

Her grandmother, who partly inspired the hilarious "Mama's Family" character, shared none of those traits. "She was very, very practical."

Through she insisted her granddaughter further her education, young Carol had no way to raise the $42 tuition for UCLA.

Then she found an envelope with her name typed on it in the apartment mailbox. "Out fell a $50 bill," she said. "To this day I don't know who sent it."

There was one other semi-mysterious benefactor. A construction contractor saw Burnett perform at her UCLA professor's party. "I was at the hors d'oeuvres table, putting food in my pockets for my grandmother," she said. "He started talking to me."

Soon he made the no-strings offer: He would loan her the money to start a New York career.

"I couldn't believe it," she said. "It was $1,000. ... I put all the money on the murphy bed in our apartment. My grandmother almost had a heart attack."

Burnett had vowed to work for Broadway's top director, George Abbott. She did short comedy bits in cabaret shows and on TV while trying to land a musical.

"I was so close to getting (a revival of) 'Babes in Arms.' I was really disappointed."

On the rebound, she landed a role in the musical "Once Upon a Mattress," with Abbott directing. Broadway loved her.

TV stardom followed. Burnett won her first Emmy (for work on "The Garry Moore Show") in 1962 and started the 11-year run of "The Carol Burnett Show" in '67.

"Few entertainers in any field anywhere have endeared themselves to the American public as overwhelmingly, as sweetly as Carol Burnett," according to the Kennedy Center Honors statement.

"Burnett has played everything from nervous klutz to earth mother, has sung everything from Tarzan yells to Sondheim anthems, has conquered television, triumphed on stage and written a best-selling memoir."

At 70, she said she's not interested in a TV series, but is open to guest roles. She's also back into theater. With daughter Carrie Hamilton (who died of cancer last year at 38), Burnett wrote the autobiographical "Hollywood Arms." She also hopes to film "Once Upon a Mattress," bringing her musical career full circle.