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COVER STORY : Bump Up the Lights

With Her Singing Charwoman, Dimwitted Mrs. Wiggins and Raging Eunice Part of TV Folklore, Carol Burnett Is Now Reaping Kudos as Mom and Grandma on 'Mad About You'--and at Home.

December 21, 1997|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is the author of "Making It Big: The Diary of a Broadway Musical" and a frequent contributor to The Times

The first preview of Ken Ludwig's new play, "Moon Over Buffalo," is nearly over, and the set has jammed. Director Tom Moore rushes to star Carol Burnett's dressing room: Will she entertain the packed Broadway theater while stagehands try some backstage magic?

Burnett immediately heads back onstage, in costume as second-rate actress Charlotte Hay. Time to "bump up the lights" for some questions and answers.

Burnett's witty 20 minutes of 1995 emergency improv, much of it captured in the forthcoming documentary, "Moon Over Broadway," reminds yet another audience why she may be the most beloved comic actress of our time. Laughing at people's questions--and, often, at her own answers--she proves that the American dream has not always been myth.

In less than two weeks, the red-haired comedienne will glide through Pasadena, grand marshal of the 109th Rose Parade. The perfect choice for an event whose slogan is "Hav'n Fun," Burnett is truly hometown-girl-makes-good, a product of Selma Avenue Grammar School, Hollywood High, UCLA and the city's legitimate and TV sound stages. She will also have come full circle, from singing alone in her grandmother's one-room Hollywood apartment to perfecting a regal wave for millions of TV viewers who already think of her as royalty.

Longtime friend and comedy colleague Tim Conway can't figure out why she accepted, since "they're going to be gluing those flowers all over her and pulling her down the road so early in the morning." But Burnett has already gotten into the spirit, delivering her patented Tarzan yell at the news conference announcing her selection.

"Carol Burnett is somebody who not only has the talent to be funny all the time, but to go out and do it," says Gary Dorn, 1998 Tournament of Roses president. "She didn't have the greatest childhood in the world, but she just throws it all off and continues on."

She has to. That's what they did in the movies, her alternative reality as a child.

As Liz Smith told A&E's "Biography" a few years ago, Burnett "gives you this feeling that even an ordinary person can be great." That's probably because Burnett grew up with just that feeling herself.

"If I hadn't been raised in the time that I was, I don't know that I could have done what I did," Burnett confides. "In the movies, the good guy won, and anybody

going through adversity would come out on top, and the movies were where I lived. So when I went home, I was still thinking about Fred [Astaire] and Ginger [Rogers] and how they went through a hell of a lot to get to the happy ending. It is really great to be naive in certain instances--you're not cynical, and you don't take no for an answer."

There's been plenty of disappointment and heartache, sure, but in her best-selling 1986 memoir, "One More Time," in her public appearances and in raising three children, Burnett's life reflects extraordinary positive thinking. As she told one questioner a few years ago: "Don't ever let anyone tell you you can't do something, because if you believe it, they're right."

So Burnett tries it all--TV, theater, movies, being funny, being serious--and is astonishingly good at all of it. Her latest success, in fact, comes of essentially recycling past experiences in "A Conversation with Carol Burnett," her traveling road show of bumping up the lights and taking on audience curiosity in one big city after another.

Ever the gracious hostess, she receives the reporter, the publicist and the air-conditioning repairman with the same lively, interested attention she's honed for more than four decades as an entertainer. Casually dressed, slim and lithe, she hardly looks 64 and a grandmother in real life as well as on NBC's "Mad About You."

Home is a condominium atop a luxury Westwood high-rise. Decorated by friend Anita Ludovici De Domenico, it is cozy and, with its warm earth colors, seems smaller than it is. Her cat, Roxy, a companion at the hotel where she lived during the run of "Moon Over Broadway," roams the place. Burnett likes condo life in part because she can lock her door at any time, walk away and head off for adventure.

Chatting in her living room, playing all the parts in stories about her family, her TV shows and everything else, she punctuates tales with that throaty laugh familiar to generations of TV viewers. Playing Verla Grubbs, the illegitimate daughter of a carnival con man and snake charmer on "All My Children," "was a hoot," as was performing with friends Julie Andrews and Beverly Sills. She giggles even talking about her frequent suppers with pals Conway and Harvey Korman.

But prominent in the hallway is a large painting of Hollywood rooftops, including the one at Yucca and Wilcox where she played as a child. The painting is there, she says, "so I don't lose sight of the old neighborhood and where I came from."

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