Humor Helps Carol Burnett Cope

Burnett's story is a classic rags-to-riches tale. Her difficult childhood was marked by alcoholic parents, their divorce when she was 4 years old, her upbringing in a rundown, one-room apartment with Nanny, and the fantasy life she created for herself on the rooftop of her apartment building.

Burnett said she wrote her story because she wanted her children to understand the circumstances of her childhood. Carrie found her mother's story so moving that she wanted to take the story to the stage. So she wrote the play Hollywood Arms, currently being performed at Chicago's Goodman Theater, to tell her mom's story.

As bittersweet as the story is, the play also captures the humor that always loomed large in Burnett's life. Burnett admits that a lot of her childhood "sounds awful," but says: "There was a lot of humor. My mother was very witty and beautiful, and, uh, Nanny was funny as hell."

The Next Battle — Cancer

In August 2001, Carrie, a longtime smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Initially, Carrie had checked in and out of Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles as she underwent chemotherapy and radiation, keeping her sense of humor even as she lost her hair. There seemed to be glimpses of hope that the cancer was receding, and that perhaps Carrie had triumphed over cancer the way she had beaten drugs and alcohol.

And Burnett decided to get married again. After 20 years of being single, she married musician Brian Miller. As Burnett was enjoying the new comfort and stability of married life, casting was getting under way for Hollywood Arms, a project Burnett and Carrie hoped would be just the start of a long-running mother-daughter collaboration.

But then came the news that changed Burnett's life. In November 2001, Carrie learned that her lung cancer had spread to her brain.

Like her mom, Carrie relied on humor to help her through her battle. "Carrie had a spirit about her, all through her treatments," Burnett says. When Carrie had a relapse and went back into the hospital, she told her mom she "missed the food."

"We both started to howl," Burnett says.

In her final weeks of life, Carrie helped her mother in casting decisions for the play. And in her last days, Carrie and her mom had a chance to talk again about their rough years, and Carrie actually apologized to her mom for smoking.

Carrie Hamilton died on Jan. 20 of this year. She was 38 years old. Hollywood Arms opened to positive reviews in Chicago three months later.

Hal Prince, who is directing Hollywood Arms, said: "The show is about love. It is not a dysfunctional family show. It's about somebody who came out of all that turmoil — a difficult childhood — and emerged triumphantly."

Unbroken Bond

Burnett says she feels that Carrie is right there with her at the Goodman Theater. After Carrie's death, when she was preparing for rehearsals in March, Burnett asked her daughter to give her a sign that she was with her. She said Carrie gave her that sign — loud and clear.

Burnett says when she and her husband checked into their Chicago hotel, they saw a huge floral arrangement of Birds of Paradise in the lobby. "That was Carrie's favorite flower," Burnett says.

The next night a waiter offered Burnett and her party a bottle of champagne. Burnett says, "He showed the label and the label said 'Louise.' Now, that's Carrie's middle name, it was the name of my mother. And I thought, 'Carrie, you're not subtle at all.'"

Losing Carrie has been a devastating blow to Burnett, but she seems comforted by their collaboration on Hollywood Arms. "It was her legacy. Or one of them. And it's all her doing."

Does Burnett still say goodnight to her audiences with a tug on her ear? Yes. But now, she says, she's doing it for Nanny — and for Carrie.

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