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Evolution Of A Child Act

January 16, 1994|SUSAN KING

Giving birth to Edith Ann was a labor of love for Lily Tomlin, who introduced the inquisitive, opinionated little girl more than 20 years ago on the classic TV series "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In."

When Tomlin joined the hit NBC show in late 1969, she brought along numerous characters she had honed in comedy clubs, including her most popular--the obnoxious telephone operator Ernestine.

In fact, Tomlin acknowledges, Ernestine probably landed her the job on "Laugh-In."

"They hadn't seen me do Ernestine specifically, but Judy Carne was leaving the show and she did that switchboard thing saying, 'Beautiful downtown Burbank.'

"They had heard I did a telephone operator. Someone had seen me do it in a club. I went to see (producer) George Schlatter and I got the job."

After doing the series for a half season, Tomlin went on tour with Dan Rowan and Dick Martin. "Ernestine was immensely popular, like overnight," she recalls. "They took out three acts: me and Johnny Brown and another comedy team."

That summer, Tomlin began working on Edith Ann. "I wanted to do a little girl. I used to improv with the audiences. I would say, 'I'm working on this little girl and just ask me questions.' "

This method of creating Edith Ann, she says, "looked a lot riskier than it was because people basically ask children the same questions: 'What do you want to be when you grow up? Do you have a lot of brothers and sisters?' Most of the questions were condescending. All I would have to do was to be honest. They would ask, 'Where do babies come from?,' and you just tell them. Of course, they're screaming (with laughter)."

Tomlin also developed while on tour Edith Ann's distinct froggy voice with the noticeable lisp.

"Eventually, you find a voice for it and it happens. You start internalizing it and you start behaving and then," Tomlin states in her best Edith Ann, "it comes out."

When she returned to "Laugh-In" that fall she brought three new characters to audition for producer Schlatter. "I brought Edith Ann, Susie Sorority and Tony, the '50s teen-ager. George didn't get the '50s. He didn't think it was worth doing. He didn't like Edith, but he loved Susie, because it was Susie Sorority of the Silent Majority. That was like a real catch phrase."

Tomlin told Schlatter she would do Susie if she was allowed to do Edith Ann. Schlatter agreed and even gave Tomlin Edith's Ann catch phrase: "That's the truth."

"I had met a little girl in Pennsylvania who had that speech impediment," Tomlin explains. "A lot of kids have it at 4 or 5. Their tongues are too big for their mouth, so whenever they say a word that ends in 'th,' their tongue protrudes and they blow a soft raspberry. I was using that impediment, but I didn't have a catch phrase. George coined the phrase."

Though everyone fondly remembers Edith Ann observing the world from a gigantic-size rocking chair, when Tomlin first began doing Edith on the series she didn't have that prop. "I needed a big prop, so I used an old refrigerator box and I just stuck my head out."

Much to her surprise, Edith Ann quickly captured the imagination of audiences, although "nobody (on the show) liked her," she says.

And Tomlin can't blame them. She doesn't like to see the early incarnations of Edith Ann, either.

"When I see her on 'Laugh-In,' I'm horrified. I can't believe it. I don't know how I ever had a career. I just grew so much from 1970 to '74. Somehow, God put the nation into a kind of comatose state while Edith was on, so they thought they liked her.

"When we had our 'Laugh-In' reunions, I begged them not to run any footage of her because she's so far from what I wanted her to be. I had to use my own hair then. What you are seeing is someone working this character right out in front of the national audience. When I did her on my specials, then I began to be happy with her and the way she looked."

And whatever happened to Edith Ann's rocking chair?

"It's sitting on my patio," Tomlin says with a smile. "I was so happy when they were going to build me the chair because it cost a lot. When I left 'Laugh-In,' they gave it to me. I have preserved it carefully all of these years."

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