Friday, December 2, 2011

Hometown heroine: Carol Burnett

Was Carol Burnett funny? I'm not being snide; it's just that I'm old enough to remember when she was a TV star but young enough not to have gotten her shtick. I think her sidekick Tim Conway made a bigger impression. He was the guy who shuffled around on his knees pretending to be a dwarf, wearing a toga and playing a golf, right? Am I making that up? If I am, don't disabuse me—I like to think there was a guy in a toga shuffling around on his knees playing golf.

Anyway, the reason I bring up Carol Burnett is not to evaluate the quality of her comedy (didn't Chris Hitchens already more or less settle the question by decreeing that women aren't funny?) but to highlight yet another aspect of San Antonio's adorable small-town nature. Despite being the seventh largest city in the U.S. (no one back east ever believes it when I trot out this stat), San Antonio has but a scant few home-grown celebs to call its own. I get it—San Antonio is not NYC, replete with famous and soon-to-be-famous folks, or L.A., where you can be idling at a red light, and glance over at the car beside you and see Tom Cruise at the wheel—yes, that happened to me). It's not Chicago, with its Obama and Al Capone, or Boston with its Marky Mark...

No, it's San Antonio, with its Eva Longoria (but she's really from Corpus Christi), its Tommy Lee Jones (who's been overheard loudly kvetching at restaurants about how gossipy and provincial San Antonians can be), its Jackie Earle Haley (think he just moved here because his wife is a native), syndicated newspaper columnist Heloise (can't quibble with that), and Carol Burnett, who resided here for a very brief spell in the early 1930s. Carol lived with her grandma in an adorable Victorian cottage downtown but moved to Hollywood when she was seven. The house is a tourist attraction—one that was almost razed by a local BBQ chain to make room for a parking lot a few years ago. Caving to public outcry, the BBQ chain donated the house to a nonprofit run by Henry Cisnernos (okay—he's a San Antonio celebrity of sorts as well); they chopped it up and moved it a few blocks away and now run a Head Start program out of it.

All this being a very long wind-up to my saying that it wasn't a big surprise to see Carol Burnett: What I Want to Be When I Grow up at a local library sale, to know that at some point back in the 70s, someone from San Antonio bought this book for their kid because Carol is one of our few hometown heroines. The book itself is very much in the spirit of the year it was published, 1975—it reminds me of the Harry Belafonte and Marlo Thomas duet in Free to Be You and Me... ("Mommies are people, people with children..."). As the bookjacket states:

Sexist stereotypes are ignored—indeed anyone can be anything at all, from pizza maker to astronaut, from karate instructor to accountant, as these warm and lighthearted photographs of Carol prove.

Carol wears a peculiar unitard in all of the pictures, which, discordantly, brings to mind an image of another ’70s comic—Woody Allen, as an anxious sperm in Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex. In 1975, I was 7 years old, ostensibly the target audience for Carol's book. I don't think I would have found it too entertaining, though. Maybe if Tim Conway had done it...

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