From the Archives – Carol Burnett

UPDATED: March 30, 2009
PUBLISHED: March 30, 2009

Carol Burnett is best known for her comedic
variety show
The Carol Burnett Show, which
ran for 11 years. Now 76, Burnett has won
six Emmy Awards and five Golden Globes.
She co-stars in the new movie
The Post-
Grad Survival Guide, scheduled for release
in August. The following excerpt is from a
feature appearing in the December 1977 issue

My career—TV, stage, movies, all of
it—was founded on a strange event that
was to be a deep mystery to me for years.
Only after my life had changed drastically
did I begin to solve the puzzle I was
confronted with on a long-ago June evening
in California.

In those days I was one of a group of
stagestruck drama-school students at UCLA, living on hopes
and dreams and not much else. As school ended, one of our
professors was leaving for a vacation in Europe. He had a
house near San Diego, and a bon voyage party was planned.
It was suggested that some of us drama students might drive
down and entertain his dinner guests with scenes from
musical comedies.

the spiritual
principle of

Nine of us agreed to
go. One of the boys and
I had rehearsed a scene
from Annie Get Your Gun,
I remember, and that was
our part of the program.
Everything went well.
The guests seemed to
enjoy our singing, and we
enjoyed it, too.

After our performance,
dinner was announced. I
was standing at the buffet
when a man I had never
seen before spoke to me pleasantly. He said he had admired
our performance. Then he asked me what I intended to do with
my life.

I told him that I hoped to go to New York someday and make
a career for myself on the stage. When he asked what was stopping
me, I told him truthfully that I barely had enough money to
get to Los Angeles, let alone New York. I might have added, but
didn’t, that at times my grandmother, my mother, my sister and
I had been on welfare. The man smiled and said that he would
be happy to lend me the money to go to New York. A thousand
dollars, he added, should be enough to get me started.

Well, in those days I was pretty innocent, but not that innocent.
So I refused his offer politely. He went away, but in a few
moments he was back with a pleasant-faced lady whom he
introduced as his wife. Then he made his offer all over again.
He was quite serious, he said. There were only three conditions.
First, if I did meet with success, I was to repay the loan without
interest in five years. Next, I was never to reveal his identity
to anyone. Finally, if I accepted his offer, I was eventually to
pass the kindness along, to help some other person in similar
circumstances when I was able to do so.

He added that he was prepared to make a similar offer to
my partner in the scene from Annie Get Your Gun, and he gave
me his telephone number.

The next day, half convinced I had dreamt the whole thing, I called
the number. I was told that if I had decided to accept the conditions, I
could drive down on Monday morning and pick up my check.

At sunup on Monday morning my partner and I were on the road.
We drove for three hours. At 9 o’clock, we were at the man’s office.
He reminded us of the conditions, especially the one about not
revealing his identity. Then he had his secretary bring in the checks.
I watched as he signed them. I had never seen so many beautiful
zeros in my life.

With my family’s anxious admonitions ringing in my ears, I
headed to New York.

In all of that vast city I knew just one soul, a girl named Eleanore
Ebe. So I moved in with Ellie at the Rehearsal Club, where in those
days young theatrical hopefuls could find room and board for $18
a week.

It was the old story. No experience? Then no work. But how
can you get experience if you can’t get work? My funds got lower
and lower.

My grandmother wrote me sternly that if I hadn’t
found a job on the stage by Christmas, I had better
come home. So I redoubled my visits to theatrical
agencies. Finally one agent said wearily, “Why don’t
you put on your own show? Maybe then you’d stop
bothering us!”

That sparked an idea. Back at the Rehearsal Club
I talked to all my jobless friends. If we were really
bursting with talent, as we were sure we were, why not
hire a hall, send out invitations to all the agents and
critics in town, and put on our own revue?

Everyone agreed that it was a great idea. Talented
youngsters took on the task of creating scenery, writing
music and lyrics, doing the choreography. When the
Rehearsal Club Revue finally opened and ran for three
nights, it seemed to us that everyone in New York
show business was in the audience. The day after it
closed, three agents called me with job offers. From
that point on, the magic doors swung open and I was
on my way.

Five years to the day after I accepted his loan, I paid
my benefactor back, and I’ve kept my pledge never to
reveal his identity. He never told me his reasons for
helping me in the manner he did, but as the years have
gone by, I’ve been able to unravel the mystery of this
and in the process I’ve discovered a powerful
spiritual principle to use in my own life. I began
to see that when he made his offer to me, my
benefactor employed the spiritual principle of giving-in-secret-without-
seeking-credit. He had done it partly to be kind, of course,
but also because he knew that great dividends flow back to anyone
who is wise enough to practice this kind giving.

So that’s the story of how my career began. I shall always be
grateful to my anonymous friend. With pride I repaid his loan, and
with pride I have kept his name secret. As for his stipulation about
passing the kindness along to others—well, that’s my secret.