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Carol Burnett Turns 90

If it was left up to Carol Burnett, who turns 90 on April 26, she would have followed her path after editing the Hollywood High School newspaper to become a journalist. Lucky for us, fate intervened, and she went on to become one of the most beloved stage, film and TV personalities of the 21st century.
In her 2019 episode of the ‘Golden Globes Around the World’ podcast, the inaugural recipient of the Carol Burnett Award, honoring Lifetime Achievement in Television, recalls the moment she discovered her true passion while studying English and Theatre Arts at UCLA. “I wasn’t sure in which direction I was going into, whether it would be newspaper work or writing a novel or a play, but I had to take an acting course as a prerequisite, and it happened,” she said. “The bug bit and I got hooked on that and it was all an accident because I never knew what I wanted to do until I did it.”
Carol Creighton Burnett was born in 1933, in San Antonio, Texas and after her parents divorced when she was young, she moved in with her grandmother, Mabel Eudora White, who raised her in Hollywood. “I came from a broken family, but I never felt unloved,” she tells our podcast. After her mother encouraged her to go into journalism, she initially lamented the fact there was no money for her to attend UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles).
But, in what Burnett describes as a “gift from heaven,” an anonymous benefactor came to the rescue. “It cost $43 for a semester at UCLA and my grandmother and I lived in one room in an apartment building and could barely pay the $30 a month rent,” she recalls. “One day there was an envelope with my name and address on it containing a $50 bill in it: my ticket to UCLA! To this day, I don’t know who gave me that money because all my relatives and everybody in the neighborhood was just as poor as we were!”
That wasn’t the only mysterious donor who changed Burnett’s life. “I’d been at UCLA for two years and one of the students in the music department asked if I could sing and would I be in the chorus of South Pacific, singing ‘I’m Going to Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair,’” she says. “I belted it out so loud they took me out of the chorus and then put me in a scene from Guys and Dolls and so I joined the musical comedy department.
“Then our professor asked us to perform a scene from Annie Get Your Gun at his black-tie party. I was at the hors d’oeuvres table, putting some in a napkin in my purse to take home to my grandmother, and there was a tap on my shoulder, and I thought I was busted. But it was this well-dressed gentleman and his wife who told me they enjoyed what I did and what did I want to do with my life? I said, ‘Someday, I would love to go to New York and be on the musical comedy stage, like Ethel Merman and Mary Martin.’ I told them I had a part-time job as an usherette at Warner Bros. Theater in Hollywood for 65 cents an hour so it would take me a while to save up and he gave me his card and said, ‘I’ll lend you the money.’”
Burnett continues, “When I got to his office a week later, he said, ‘OK, I’m going to lend you $1,000 dollars but it’s a loan and I want you to pay it back in five years and with one stipulation; you must never reveal my name. You must use this money to go to New York and if you are successful, you must help others out that you have faith in.”
True to her promise, Burnett paid it back five years to the day of the loan and remains a passionate supporter of the arts and education, establishing several scholarships around the country, including the Carol Burnett Musical Theatre Competition at UCLA, and the Carrie Hamilton Foundation, to honor the memory of her daughter who died of cancer at age 38 in 2002.
In 1955, she landed her first TV gig on the children’s series, The Paul Winchell Show, as the girlfriend of one of the ventriloquist’s dummies. “I called Nanny and said, ‘I’m going to be on television,’ and she said, ‘You’ve got to say hello to me,’ Burnett reveals in our podcast. “I didn’t think they’d let me say ‘hello Nanny,’ so I told her I’d pull my left ear.”
This was the gesture Burnett famously continued to make for the rest of her career. “I’d always pull that ear at the end of every one of my shows to say, ‘Hi Nanny, I’m fine, I love you, your check is on the way!’”
After winning a 1960 Tony award for her Broadway role in Once Upon a Mattress, Burnett became a popular guest star on other comedy variety shows before finally being offered her own. The Carol Burnett Show began in 1967 and ran for 11 seasons, averaging 30 million viewers per week and receiving six Golden Globe awards and 25 Emmy awards before later being named by Time magazine as one of 100 Best Television Shows of All Time.

Her film credits include: Pete ‘n’ TillieThe Front PageThe Four Seasons (1981), Annie (1982), Noises Off (1992) and Post Grad (2009), and more recently, her TV guest appearances include: Desperate Housewives (2006), Law & Order: Special Victims Unit(2009) and GleeRyan Murphy.
“When I heard you were going to create this new category and that I was going to receive it, I was thrilled at that,” Burnett reflects on her new and more permanent association with the Golden Globes. “And then I was totally amazed when you said that you were going to name it after me. That was, I think, just one of the biggest thrills I’ve ever had as far as awards and things like that go.”
Happy Birthday Carol, one of our favorite new nonagenarians!