By Donalevan Maines
People ask Vicki Lawrence if her most famous character, Thelma Harper on TV’s Mama’s Family, tweets. Lawrence replies, “Only when she eats Mexican food.”
Mama will speak for herself, thank you very much, when Vicki Lawrence & Mama: A Two-Woman Show comes to Galveston’s Grand 1894 Opera House this month.
(Speaking of thanking Vicki Lawrence, did you hear Maya Rudolph and Tina Fey, on NBC’s summer variety show, Maya and Marty, discussing female singer/comediennes who paved the way for them? In addition to Carol Burnett, Cher, and Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters, Rudolph said, “Thank you, Vicki Lawrence.” Fey added, “People don’t say, ‘Thank you, Vicki Lawrence’ enough.”)
I spoke with Lawrence by phone last month from her home in California. It was 8 a.m. her time, and she had been traveling, so I wondered how long she’s been an early riser. “Heh,” she says. “The dogs are early risers.” (She has a Labrador retriever and a Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen.) “Mama’s still in the suitcase.”
Well, hell’s bells, even in Houston it felt like the crack of dawn.
Lawrence appears as herself in the first half of the “two-woman show,” regaling the audience (as she did me) with tales of how she was discovered and catapulted to fame on The Carol Burnett Show. “I talk about how I met Carol, got kidnapped by show business, and became a natural redhead,” says Lawrence, who also sings her biggest hit, The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, from 1973.
Lawrence was a senior in high school when Burnett replied to a fan letter from her by going to cheer on Lawrence as she competed in the Miss Fireball of Inglewood (California) pageant for the local firefighter’s ball.
A very pregnant Burnett was going “to sneak in and sneak out,” but when Lawrence won the contest, the mayor of Inglewood invited her onstage to crown her look-alike winner. “She was outed,” says Lawrence. “I still have the picture from the newspaper of the mayor, Carol and her husband, and me getting my little crown.”
When Burnett had her baby (daughter number two, Erin Hamilton, a singer who scored a number-one dance hit in 2008 with “The Flame 08”), Lawrence showed up at the hospital, hoping to get a peek. “The nurses saw me and said, ‘You must be her sister, Chrissy!’ Nowadays, I would be arrested as a stalker.”
When Burnett “got her tummy back,” she launched The Carol Burnett Show, inviting Lawrence to play the character of her sister, Chrissy, in a recurring sketch (“Carol and Sis”) based on Burnett’s early adventures with her sister in the Big Apple.
“Carol had a show to run, but Harvey Korman took me aside and took me under his wing,” says Lawrence. “He said, ‘Forget stage right and stage left, you can’t even find the toilet.’ In the second season, they gave me a tiny part in a takeoff on The Newlywed Game, with Lyle Waggoner as the host. Carol thought it would be a good stepping stone.”
By the time two writers presented Burnett with the sketch that would later become Lawrence’s own show, Mama’s Family, it didn’t surprise Lawrence that she was cast as Eunice’s mother. “I was always playing old ladies,” she explains. “If Carol played Shirley Temple in a sketch, I would be the mean old schoolmarm.”
How much makeup did it take to transform a 20-something Lawrence into Mama? “Absolutely none,” she says, “which is frightening, actually.” (No dummy, she married her makeup man, Al Schultz. They have two daughters.)
Of course, Lawrence adds pads to play Mama, explaining that the Burnett show’s out costume designer, Bob Mackie, “is such a genius. He is great at making comedy bodies. We are losing this art form. Pretty soon, nobody will be making beanbag tits anymore.”
Lawrence won the 1976 Primetime Emmy Award for Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program for portraying various characters on The Carol Burnett Show.
Working with Burnett, Lawrence met the late female impersonator extraordinaire Jim Bailey, who sang live (Burnett also introduced him to millions of us in TV land), but it wasn’t until her Mama’s Family co-star, Dorothy Lyman, showed her fan letters that Lawrence learned what a hit her Thelma Harper character is in gay clubs.
A crowd favorite in the second half of the “two-woman show” is when Lawrence, as Mama, explains her take on gay marriage (but I will save that for Mama to tell). “I call it ‘Mama’s Logic,’” says Lawrence. “She has opinions. They are twisted and funny.”
But as far as mentioning the Pride month attack in Orlando, Lawrence says it’s too soon. “From the beginning, I said I want the show to be funny and take people away from everything happening outside,” she explains. “I want to make you laugh with silly stuff. What happened in Orlando is still so incredibly depressing.”
However, Mama might be tempted to say something about the upcoming presidential election. After all, she made the case for a President Thelma Harper in the 2008 book she co-authored with comedy writer Monty Aidem, Mama for President: Good Lord, Why Not?
“That was the first time Hillary ran, and the election season was so comical, but oh my God, this election is ever-changing,” says Lawrence. “I don’t even remember who the publisher of that book was, but I think we should re-release it, add a few chapters, and call it I Told You So!”
What: Vicki Lawrence & Mama: A Two-Woman Show
When: Saturday, July 23
Where: The Grand 1894 Opera House, 2020 Postoffice, Galveston
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.