One of the coolest things about music is its power to take us back to times and places that represent some of the best times in our lives. Probably the best thing about owning a theater is that I get to bring in entertainers that bring me back to my teen years, when radio was radio, and when television was television.
And though it is the music that brings me back most of the time, sometimes there are opportunities to bring in entertainers who remind me of my showbiz formative years. From Mickey Rooney to Debbie Reynolds, Jerry Lewis to Shirley MacLaine, and Kevin Bacon to Kevin Costner, I have had the honor of presenting these and many more icons of the silver screen at the Arcada Theatre.
I recently had an onstage, career retrospective with the star of “I Dream of Jeannie,” Barbara Eden. What a night that was! To meet the girl with arguably the most famous belly button in history was amazing. After all the years that have gone by, she was still as beautiful as ever, and still as fun. I had the privilege of having a private dinner with her before our show, and we laughed for hours.
This was the night before her show, and the night of controversial newlywed vixen Jenny McCarthy’s show at The Arcada. I gave Barbara front and center seats, but I was a bit concerned. See, Barbara is an extremely proper and classy lady. The title of Jenny’s show was “Dirty, Sexy, Funny.” My concern was unfounded as Barbara doubled over with laughter at Jenny’s down-and-dirty, onstage party.
After the show, I took a picture with both blonde bombshells — Jenny on my one arm, Barbara on the other — and this has become one of my most treasured personal possessions!
Last week, I had another person at The Arcada who brought me back to one of those “better times,” Vicki Lawrence from “The Carol Burnett Show.” Remember those nights on Channel 2? From 1967 and for another 10-plus seasons, it was right up there with “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The World of Disney” and “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” as being a show that we just never missed (toss in “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”).
It was CBS on CBS! “The Carol Burnett Show” on CBS, that is!
There just wasn’t an episode we didn’t watch as a family. Part of the fun was to see which entertainment giant would be joining her that week. Luminaries including Lucille Ball, Liza Minnelli, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Stewart, Mickey Rooney, even actor Ronald Reagan … they were all there, the biggest stars of the time. Then of course were the skits. Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins, “As The Stomach Turns,” and so many other parodies. And who can forget the famous retrospective skit based on the famed flick “Gone With The Wind?”
The cast was so strong and so much a part of the web of the show, that while Carol was the star, the supporting cast was the co-star, as a group. The great Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner and Vicki Lawrence were just terrifically funny. But when Waggoner left the show for a role on “Wonder Woman,” Tim Conway joined the crew, and the show hit a new height.
The dry, physical humor Conway added to the show brought a new and hysterically funny perspective to watching television. As shows were all structured, being variety shows, talk shows, or even game shows, rarely was an unanticipated moment witnessed on the screen. Of course, there were bloopers here and there, but none to the extent, and the frequency for that matter, of that which occurred weekly on “The Carol Burnett Show.”
Specifically I am referring to the observation that it seemed Carol, Harvey and Vicki were all performing to the audience. When Tim was involved in a sketch comedy scene, however, it appeared as if he was just trying to make his co-stars laugh, and the audience came along for the ride.
Man, when Tim would throw an unscripted shot at Harvey, or an unexpected line at Carol, they would just bust up in laughter, unable to hide it. And rather than cut it from the show, the producers left it in for us all to share in the secret. Genius!
And speaking of some of the regular sketch comedy features of the show, the most popular one was entitled “The Family.” It premiered on the show in 1974 and reoccurred until the show’s end in 1978, subsequently resulting in its own sitcom. The second half of Vicki’s live show “Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two Woman Show” is her reprise of the Thelma “Mama” Harper character from “The Family.”
When I first met Vicki, she told me how she landed the role on Carol’s show. “I was only 17 and I was already performing as a vocalist,” she said. “I entered this ‘Miss Fireball’ contest for a local fire department fundraiser and I was featured in a newspaper article about it. I was always being compared to Carol because of my physical likeness to her. My mom suggested I send her the article and Carol came to see me … and that was it!”
I told Lawrence’s manager that I would like to take a picture with “Mama.” He said, “Well, OK, but when Vicki becomes Mama, she BECOMES Mama!” And that she did. During the intermission I brought my 90-year-old “Mama” with me to meet her. There she was, backstage sitting on a stool, just waiting to go on. I said, “Hi Mama, can we take a picture with you?” She just glared back at me with an intense stare, her expression not changing a bit. It was so uncomfortable! I slowly approached her and she snapped, “Well go on then!’ in that snappy, southern drawl. She did not appear happy about it. We took the shot and thanked her, but she just looked forward, never adjusting her scowl.
She came out and really gave it to the audience, being as crass as the character ever was. But it really was funny, and the crowd roared.
After the show, I thanked Vicki for keeping some of our favorite characters and television memories alive. “The Carol Burnett Show” will always be on every list of “Greatest Shows On Television.” Those of us who got to experience the nonsensical humor, the parodies and the slapstick live each week, will always have the knowledge of what television was meant to be … true entertainment. Not that there isn’t good TV out there now, but if it doesn’t involve some sort of criminal element, scripted reality or overly mature teenager, it probably won’t last long in the ratings.
Maybe a life-size tic-tac-toe game show, seven castaways shipwrecked on a deserted island or a variety show with go-go girls of the Sixties and comedians shouting one-liners through trap doors wouldn’t last today. But I can tell you, THOSE shows were entertaining!
Carol would always end her show by tugging on her ear as a secret sign of love toward her grandmother, who raised her. This traditional show ending lasted until the show’s last episode. So here is an “ear tug” to Carol, Harvey, Tim and Vicki. I am REALLY glad we had that time together, even if it was just to laugh and to sing some songs.