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Burnett Gets Ready to Bring 'Broadway' Home to the Bowl

Theater: While she is known as a TV performer, her career is bracketed by performances on New York stage.

July 26, 1996|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Carol Burnett's first love is New York's Broadway stage, but she grew up right here in Hollywood, raised by her grandmother near Yucca and Wilcox in the shadow of Hollywood Bowl.

"It's a really sad area; when I was growing up, it was poor, but it was safe," Burnett recalled during a recent interview at her Century City home, which she is in the process of selling to spend more time at a second home in Santa Fe, N.M. "We came up from Texas, and I went to grammar school here. We used to sneak up to the Bowl from school--I think they might have known we were sneaking in, but they turned the other cheek."

On her next visit to the Bowl, Burnett won't have to enter on the sly--she'll be a special guest onstage. And she'll be able to combine her East and West Coast roots in "Hollywood Bowl on Broadway," appearing tonight and Saturday with Scott Bakula (star of the late TV series "Quantum Leap") to perform selections from Broadway musicals including "Gypsy," "Company," "Guys and Dolls" and "Annie Get Your Gun."

When asked by the Bowl to guest-star in a weekend of musical comedy, Burnett immediately asked Bakula, who also has a musical theater background, to join her. "I don't like to work alone," Burnett said. "That's why I had a variety show--you might think that I was alone when I used to do Q&A on my show, but the audience was my partner. I never got up and told a joke--it's not my thing, I'm not a stand-up. So it was kind of nerve-racking to think: I've got to stand up and do a whole program at the Hollywood Bowl--that's scary!"

It is fitting that Burnett, 62, should do Broadway at the Bowl. Although best known for her long-running TV variety series "The Carol Burnett Show," which lasted from 1967 to 1979 on CBS--and to some as Miss Hannigan from the movie "Annie"--Broadway brackets her career. In 1959, she starred as Princess Winifred the Woebegone in the "Princess and the Pea" spoof "Once Upon a Mattress." "Moon Over Buffalo," her latest Broadway show, co-starring Philip Bosco, closed June 30. Based in 1953, it told the story of a fading theatrical couple doing repertory theater.

"Moon" drew mixed reviews, but critics fawned over Burnett--at the worst saying that her considerable talents were wasted in her role as the shrill Charlotte Hay. Numerous critics noted that this was a banner year for veteran actresses on Broadway, with Burnett in "Moon," Carol Channing in her revival of "Hello Dolly" and Burnett's chum Julie Andrews in "Victor/Victoria."

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Burnett says she regrets that Broadway no longer nurtures talent the way it did 30 years ago when she first came on the scene. "In the old days, four or five sets of producers and composers would be saying: 'Let's write something for [critically acclaimed "Guys and Dolls" star] Faith Prince,' just like they did for Carol Channing when she started," Burnett said. "Where are these people going to make a living? They are going to come out here and do television.

"They're chasing [talent] away by not nurturing it and by putting on all these spectaculars. Special effects--it reminds me of the old days in Las Vegas, where they blew up a train or something. Where are the people? It's somebody being greedy--I read so much about people trying to keep up with Andrew Lloyd Webber, or Andrew Lloyd Webber trying to keep up with himself, that it's a crime."

As far as her own show went, Burnett and the "Moon" cast only regretted that they never got to do a musical number together onstage. "We begged them to let us do a song in the show because we [portray] a theatrical troupe, and it would have made a great curtain call," she said. "So we'd get in my dressing room and play CDs during intermission and sing and kid around." Burnett is also nursing her vocal chords after a year of onstage screaming and her back after the same amount of time running around on a raked stage in high heels.

The Bowl venture, however, grew out of her TV series, not her stage work. In a brainstorming session with representatives from the Bowl, Burnett recalled a musical medley that her longtime music writers, Ken and Mitzi Welch, had put together for Burnett and guest star Sammy Davis Jr. in the early '70s--a history of musical comedy from 1900 up through the 1969 rock musical "Hair."

(Ken Welch helped launch Burnett's TV career by writing for her the nightclub comedy song "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles," which one New York Times writer described as "a heartsick paean to the pickle-pussed Secretary of State." In 1957, Burnett performed the song on three network variety shows--twice on "The Tonight Show With Jack Paar" and once on "The Ed Sullivan Show.")

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