Arts & Culture

Carol Burnett’s return adds to her love story with KC: ‘I always have fun there’

“Please tell people to come armed with questions,” Carol Burnett asked of her KC audience.
“Please tell people to come armed with questions,” Carol Burnett asked of her KC audience. Elite Entertainment

Carol Burnett is the rare kind of celebrity who doesn’t seem to know she’s a celebrity.

Although she’s one of the greatest comediennes and biggest TV stars of all time, a conversation with her is like chatting with a longtime friend. That’s just what the audience will experience when she appears at Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland on Tuesday.

Burnett, 85, was eager to talk about the show during a recent telephone interview, saying, “Nothing is ever planned. I don’t know what is going to happen. That keeps it fresh.”

But she spent more time discussing her previous visits to Kansas City, where locals jumped on the Carol Burnett fan wagon long before her popular weekly TV show.

Her introduction to Kansas City was a two-week production of “Calamity Jane” at Starlight Theatre in July 1961.

“I remember I was singing the opening number from ‘Calamity Jane’ and a moth flew in my mouth,” she said. “I figured if I kept going it would eventually fly out.”

It did.

Of her first experience in outdoor theater, she quipped at the time: “I like it. I’m married to two June bugs.”

The show set Starlight records for attendance and gate receipts despite several nights of rain.

Burnett, who was then mostly known for her role on “The Garry Moore Show,” probably also set a record for most new friends in a Midwestern city.

The Star and Times treated her like a visiting dignitary, running stories almost daily on Burnett and the Starlight show. They told how she attended local parties, talked to civic groups and learned the names of ushers, security guards and stagehands. She even took over the Starlight telephone switchboard and helped fill orders for tickets.

One day, she visited a bedridden 11-year-old polio victim in her home, breaking down into tears when the girl presented her with an apron she had crafted.

At the time, The Star wrote, “Theater officials believe no Starlight performer ever has been more considerate or more obliging than Carol Burnett.”

She became fond of Kansas City, too.

“I don’t know why,” Burnett said then, “but whenever I thought of Kansas City I thought of something flat and brown. It’s beautiful. And I’ve seen quite a bit of it. Every time I go someplace I get lost and see more of it.”

Carol & Company
Carol Burnett (left) as Rosalind Burke, Betty White as Trisha Durant in “Trisha Springs Eternal” in 1990. Associated Press

She did encounter one somewhat awkward situation.

While dining at a restaurant, two women approached her table.

“We just wanted to tell you how much we enjoyed seeing you each week with Garry Moore,” one said. “But, you know something? That hairdo you have is the gosh-awfulest thing we’ve ever seen. Where in heaven’s name did you get it?”

Without hesitation, Burnett responded: “Please, dear ladies. I prefer you don’t talk that way in front of my hairdresser.”

The women humbly apologized and made a hasty retreat, never learning that the man dining with Burnett was in fact Richard H. Berger, Starlight’s production director.

Berger was the man who brought Burnett to Starlight in 1961, and he was thrilled to have her back the following summer when she decided to do a revue show.

That’s how Kansas City got an early preview of “The Carol Burnett Show,” which didn’t hit the TV airwaves until 1967.

The seven-night production sold out — and then some. Starlight’s capacity at the time was 7,600, and Burnett drew as many as 8,528. The total attendance of 55,142 set a record that stood until “The Wizard of Oz” broke it in 1991.

“I didn’t know that,” Burnett said.

Burnett’s ties to Kansas City extend well beyond those two early appearances.

She burst on the national scene in 1957 by performing the comical song, “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles,” on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show.” It was written by Kansas Citian Ken Welch, who was Burnett’s vocal coach.

Lyle Waggoner, one of the supporting players on TV’s “The Carol Burnett Show,” was born in Kansas City, Kan., and spent much of his childhood in Excelsior Springs.

One of the show’s writers, Jenna McMahon, also was from Kansas City.

That fact led many people to believe that the Raytown in “Mama’s Family,” which McMahon and partner Dick Clair created as a sketch on Burnett’s show, was based on our Raytown.

If it was, the message never got to Burnett.

“I remember when I read it for the first time, I thought this family was from Arkansas or Texas,” she said. “That’s why I did the accent, and Harvey (Korman) and Vickie (Lawrence) followed suit. Jenna and Dick were very upset. They thought we would alienate an entire portion of the country.”

The “Mama’s Family” spinoff went on to run for six seasons without Burnett.

Meanwhile, “The Carol Burnett Show” continued until 1978, ultimately winning 23 Emmy Awards.

Burnett herself has six Emmys, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and the inaugural Peabody Career Achievement Award. She was nominated for another Emmy this year for “The Carol Burnett Show 50th Anniversary Special.”

President Bush presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Carol Burnett in 2005. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian award, and recognizes exceptional meritorious service. EVAN VUCCI AP

She has continued to maintain a TV presence over recent years, appearing occasionally in “All My Children,” as well as in “Glee,” “Hot In Cleveland” and “Hawaii 5-0.” Now she can be seen on “A Little Help With Carol Burnett,” a 12-episode Netflix show released in May featuring kids offering life advice to celebrity panelists.

All the while, she has continued to hit the road. The Nov. 6 appearance will be similar in format to shows Burnett presented in 2001 at the Music Hall and in 2013 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

The natural question is, why does she still travel the country to do shows like this?

“It keeps the old gray matter ticking,” Burnett said. “I have to really be on my toes, so it’s good exercise for the brain.”

Kansas City is glad to oblige.

“I always have fun there,” she said. “Please tell people to come armed with questions.”

And please, no moths.

Carol Burnett

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 6, at Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland. 816-283-9921. Tickets are $65-$175 through