Carol Burnett Recalls Early Benefit Performance Ahead of SAG Honor

Carol Burnett Big Break First Time
Caroline Andrieu for Variety

Versatile Carol Burnett is best known for her eponymous variety show, which ran for 11 seasons on CBS in the ’60 and ’70s. Nearly 50 years later, she’s still entertaining people, and will receive the SAG Life Achievement Award at the guild’s Jan. 30 kudos. But she was just 19 when she earned her first mention in Variety, appearing in 1953 at a benefit for the local Republican Committee at the Athletic Club on Hollywood Boulevard.

What was this gig about?

A guy at UCLA named Bill Beard and I had put an act together, scenes from musical comedies, and we’d go to different places and get $5. I don’t remember this particular evening, but we were doing that while we were still in college.

So you were accepting bookings for events at that time.

Yeah! We’d come out and open with “When you see a guy/Reach for stars in the sky,” you know, the “Guys and Dolls” thing. Then he would do “Luck Be a Lady.” I would do “Adelaide’s Lament.” The two of us would do “Sue Me.” And then we’d do the finale. It was like these little snippets, with a piano player who was also a student.

Was the Hollywood Athletic Club a big-deal venue?

Anything was a big deal for us at the time when you got five bucks. I mean — that’s five days’ rent!

How did real show business appear to you at that time?

I think the reason I was successful is that I was never cynical. I was raised on Judy and Mickey: “Put a show on in the barn, and it’s going to go to New York.” Everything was positive when I was going to the movies with(my grandmother) in the ’40s; the good guys won, the bad guys didn’t. There were no gray areas. So when I got to New York, I just knew it was a matter of time. Not that I was going to be a headliner, but I knew I was going to be able to put clothes on my back, put food on the table and pay the rent.

Had you considered carving out a career here in L.A.?

No. I felt because I wasn’t pretty, I couldn’t be a movie star. But when I got in front of an audience at UCLA, it was Broadway. Ethel Merman. Mary Martin.

I wonder if anyone remembers you from that night in 1953.

Oh, I doubt it … probably all dead.

You stay awfully busy. You have a new book, “In the Sandbox,” coming out in November. You go on things like “Hawaii 5-0,” and you’re bringing out DVD collections of your variety show. Are you still available for Q&A’s, one-nighters, fundraisers?

Absolutely! But not for Republicans.

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