When UCLA alumna Carol Burnett eloquently accepted a new award named in her honor at the 2019 Golden Globes, she said her childhood dreams came true. “My first love growing up was the movies,” she said, until she got a television set when she was a teenager and fell for the small screen.
“What fascinated me,” she said, “was the way that stars on screen could make people laugh, or cry, or both. And I wished and I hoped that maybe, just maybe, someday I could do the same thing.”
And for 50 years, she did just that. The first woman to host a variety sketch show, she was also the first to win both a Kennedy Center Honor and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
When the young native Texan came to UCLA in 1951, an anonymous donor paid her $43 tuition. She chose to study theater arts-English, which included playwriting and first-year courses in scenery, lighting and acting. Auditioning for several productions of the university’s one-act play program, she found that she loved comedy. The campus newspaper the Daily Bruin wrote that “her mournful face, lackadaisical voice, skillfully awkward gestures and ambling figure produced laughs even on the straight lines.” Today, we think of that as classic Carol Burnett.
But the course of her life changed in June 1953, when she wowed the audience at a party for the head of UCLA’s music department with a scene from Annie Get Your Gun. A couple in attendance came forward and offered to lend her $1,000 to go to New York and launch her career.
“I had ‘seen’ myself in New York,” she said years later, “but didn’t know how I was going to get there.”
So she headed to New York and made her Broadway debut in 1959 in the musical Once Upon a Mattress. She repaid the loan five years to the day after receiving it.