When I was thinking of the perfect gift I could give my mother for her birthday on May 17th, I could think of no better present than Carol Burnett. My mom has loved her for decades. Actually, she's one of the few people that can make my mother lit-rally weep with laughter.
Months ago, when there was only one show available, I tried to get tickets and quickly failed. Another show for the day after was added and I, despite very valiant efforts, fell on my face. After that attempt, I was resigned to the fact that my idea, though well-intended, was doomed to fail. Amazingly, especially given Burnett's 83 years of age, another show yet was added for the exact date of my mother's birthday! I decided to give it one last shot and my aim was gloriously victorious.
Braving rush hour traffic and sketchy neighborhoods, my mother and I were championed by the prize that lay at the end of the tunnel. Remarking to my mother as we made our solemn journey under the L tracks, I quoted from the video game Bioshock about an underwater utopia that descends into chaos as a result of the unpredictability of the human race. One of the characters, Augustus Sinclair, had this to say: "Ol' Pauper's Drop's the worst neighborhood in Rapture -- but it's a hell of an opportunity to raise up some ah, affordable housin'. When Atlantic Express was constructin' their luxury passenger line, this place was hollowed out beneath as flophouses for the railway crew. Nobody was s'posed ta reside down here long-term -- but when you're broke in this town, you're not exactly swimmin' in alternatives. I don't favor spendin' more than an hour or so down here at a time. There ain't a side of the tracks more wrong than under 'em." I've always been a dramatic creature, so this reference played vibrantly in my mind as our pilgrimage to the promised redhead came to an end.
Entering the Chicago Theatre, you are taken aback by the sheer craftsmanship of the building. The past is etched into every crevice. Up as far as you can go, in the back of the balcony, my mother and I were seated and I immediately noticed a pillar next to me, chipped with age yet still exquisite in its construction. The crowd, not surprisingly, was well older than my age of 24 years. As you may ask, this is a good a time as ever to say that I am just as big a fan of Carol as my mother is. Actresses and comediennes of a certain age have always been my casual obsession and I have been an ardent fan of Ms. Burnett for as long as I can remember.
The show itself was an alternating mix of Carol's famous audience questions and clips from her show, which lasted for 276 episodes. Seeing the faces of Ethel Merman, Cass Elliot, Carol Channing, Steve Martin and Bing Crosby (among many others) set the dial of my heart up to max nostalgia factor.
Burnett's energy was palpable and her physicality hasn't sagged a wee bit in the sixty years she's been in the public eye. Even the fact that, for the second half of the continuous 90-minute show, she needed to sit down was elevated into a shtick as she praised the stagehand for his effective placement of the chair and table, inquiring his name and hugging him. After he left the stage for good, Burnett said something to the effect of, "Chicago is as friendly as it is windy," eliciting huge applause from a crowd eager to sop up every word like the most sumptuous broth.
The questions, as is to be expected, varied greatly. They included ranged the mundane: "Can you tell us of any backstage romances?," which spurred Carol to tell an anecdote about Tim Conway being found sleeping with a stuffed sheep and remarking, "Don't wait up for me, Barbara," as his friends entered the room to find him half-naked with his gag partner. They included the genuinely funny, as when a woman asked about her relationship with Julie Andrews and Carol told a story where, to play a prank on Julie's husband, she and Carol would sit on a settee at the bottom of the elevator and kiss in their pajamas and frighten him, but instead were greeted by secret servicemen and Lady Bird Johnson, who asked, "Aren't you Carol Burnett," to which Carol retorted, "Yes, and this is Mary Poppins." The ridiculous was also represented, with a man giving Carol his best Tarzan yell and her returning the favor.
Burnett's comic timing is the stuff of legend and, to be in the same room as her, was truly an honor incapable of description. Her vivacity, kindness, and love of her craft spilled forth into the audience like wine, intoxicating and entertaining the thousands who were there to celebrate this icon.
My mother and I were both guilty of fits of ecstatic laughter, bringing tears of joy to our eyes. My mother and I connect on many levels and our appreciation of this comedic titan was simply another checkmark on the list.
Exiting the theater, my mother exclaimed that it was worth more than money. To quote Carol, we were so happy to "have this time together."