Carol Burnett attended Hollywood High School. That's where I took my SATs. To this day, I have no idea why I had to go all the way from South Central L.A. to Hollywood to take my SATs, but I did. Like young Carol Burnett, I adored old movies and TV. I wanted to be an entertainer. I'm sure I was not the only school kid who wrote a fan letter to Carol Burnett that asked for advice. As others also did, I got a letter from Carol Burnett at Television City in Hollywood thanking me for my letter and telling me to stay in school. Mom hoped I'd pick a different profession. It wasn't that she saw me as a non-talented performer. She didn't want me to be disappointed at the lack of equal opportunities solely because of my race. But, when I got my own talk show on VH1 in the late 80s, that was like a childhood dream of mine that came true. In the years after my VH1 time, I did experience the disappointments Mom feared. Racially, the playing field in entertainment hiring and representation was not level. I loved and still love performing on TV. More important to me than stardom was making enough so I could give my single mom a nice life. I was able to help her, but I could never give her the really comfortable life that I longed to thanks to my TV career. My national TV income was …. well, moderate. If was work that I loved but the pay always left me needing a part-time gig to help make ends meet. Doing some kind of TV work that would earn a special place in people's hearts, be found significant and entertaining...that was my dream. It still is.
Mom, who arrived in Southern California for gradate school in her registered nursing career, was well-educated and loved the arts. After Mom and Dad divorced, she refused alimony and was the single working mother of three. Her weekday job was nursing. She needed some extra cash and sought a weekend job. Mom pretended to be way less educated than she was and got a job doing light domestic work for a Hollywood wife. Remember Jack Lord, TV star of the original HAWAII FIVE-O? Before he booked that show, Mom ironed his shirts. Yes. She was hired by Mrs. Jack Lord. When, during some casual chat, Mom went fan-girl on Simone Signoret, enthusiastically recommending her performance in Stanley Kramer's SHIP OF FOOLS, Mrs. Lord figured there was more to this black woman who was putting light starch in her husband's collars. They talked. Mom made cash. The Lords got a new gig and had to move to Hawaii. For the rest of Mom's life, she'd say how much she loved working for Mrs. Jack Lord who later offered Mom a more upscale position. But it would've involved moving.
In Milwaukee, where I started my TV career after graduating from Marquette University, Lena Horne brought her Tony-winning, one-woman Broadway show to town for a week. I attended her press conference. She wanted to know more about me. Lena Horne later met with Mom and offered her a job. But, that too would've involved moving.
Mom was in an assisted living facility in her last few years. She and I drew so much closer in those years with daily or, at least, weekly phone calls. One time, she whispered "Hold on." She couldn't speak until the nurse in her room left. When the nurse was gone, Mom squealed, "She walks just like Carol Burnett as Mrs. Wiggins!," followed by her full-out, infectious laugh. Mom referred to and praised Carol Burnett numerous times in our conversations. The memory of those classic sketches Carol Burnett did provided Mom and me with many shared laughs.
That's why I cried. Seeing a clip of Carol Burnett as Mrs. Wiggins brought back a rush of tender memories for me. Mom would've loved Burnett's acceptance speech.