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From Hollywood Arms to Broadway

by Carol Burnett

Carol Burnett and Carrie Hamilton

New Year’s Day, 2003 Four and a half years ago, my daughter Carrie called me from her home in Colorado. She was a writer, actress and musician, who made a living doing all three.


“Hey, Punkin’.”

“This has been on my mind for some time and I want to pitch it to you.”

“I think we could take the first part of your memoir and make a play out of it. Just for the fun of it. You and me … together. How about it?” And we began to collaborate … long distance. She would write in her mountain cabin, and I would write in my Los Angeles apartment. The faxes flew. Nanny, Mama and Daddy were all coming to life in a different form. “Just for the fun of it,” she had said … and it was certainly that, but there was much more that was going on. Carrie and I had always been close, able to read each other’s moods and thoughts … and yet, this exercise was bonding us deeper, bringing us even closer than either one of us could have ever imagined. She was getting to know her family in the most profound way … putting words into their mouths that echoed in my deepest memories. It was a little eerie. She had never known them in life, but now she knew them by writing them … not writing “about” them, but by writing them.

In 1998, we sent a rough draft to the head of the Sundance Theater Lab workshop, Philip Himberg. Ours was accepted along with eight other projects that summer. Delighted, we packed our bags and headed for the mountains in Utah. Sundance provided us with wonderful actors and highly experienced dramaturgs for an intense eight days. We would sit around a table in a bright sunny rehearsal hall and read the play aloud. Suggestions would fly from everyone, and then we’d retire to our lodgings and head for our laptops, to write new scenes and dialogue. One problem was that the work we had done was more like a screenplay, and we needed to address the very real aspects of scenery and costume changes. Carrie and I continued to work in the same manner: apart. She would take one scene, and I would take another. The next morning, we’d hand out the new stuff and begin all over again. We were thrilled that no one could tell who wrote what. We had the same voice. And mother and daughter were having a ball.

The following spring, we did another workshop with Sundance helping … this time in New York. Although it still had a “cinematic feel,” a stage play was beginning to take shape.

Late in 1999, there was interest from a producer, who gave us the names of two (fairly new and highly respected) Broadway directors. Carrie and I didn’t have a clue about which one to pursue so I called my friend Hal Prince, for advice. Hal (The “Prince” of Broadway) knew both directors, thought they were great, and offered to read it so he could give us a recommendation. He read it and offered to direct it himself. Hal Prince! The director of Phantom of the Opera, Evita, Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, Follies, Company, and countless others … the winner of twenty Tony Awards … wants to work with us? Carrie and I were over the moon.

Off and on over the next couple of years he helped us turn it into a real stage play. Our first “assignment” was to put all the action in room 102 and the rooftop. This was quite an undertaking, as we had scenes taking place in several different settings. Hal said, “Confinement is your friend.” We tackled his notes and suggestions with a vengeance. Carrie was still in Colorado, I was still in L.A., and Hal was in New York. Once again, the faxes flew. We found out that the building had been called Hollywood Arms when it was first built in the twenties. There was our title. (I wish I had known that when I wrote the memoir!)

Hal sent the play to Robert Falls, the Artistic Director of The Goodman Theater in Chicago, and we were offered a limited run beginning in April of 2002. We were beside ourselves. An honest-to-God production!

In the spring of 2001, Hal and his scenic designer Walt Spangler were in Los Angeles with another show and wanted to see 102. We arranged a visit through the landlady. Here I was back again. We entered the room and it was squalid. It was empty, ugly and depressing. We spotted a used hypodermic needle on the threadbare faded blue carpet. Walt tookpictures of the tiny area, as he was about to start designing the scenery for the Goodman production. He called from New York ten days later and asked if he could get a couple of more shots as some of his didn’t come out too well.

I went back to Yucca and Wilcox, and found the door to 102 wide open. There were workmen sanding the old wooden floor. Scraps of the faded carpet were piled in a corner. The Spanish landlady was there.

“What’s happening here?”

“A new owner. He’s fixing up the place.”

A young man had bought the building and had plans to restore it to what it was in the 1920s … and he was starting with 102!

What was it I was feeling? Happiness: At least it wasn’t going to be torn down. Frustration: I was supposed to be the one to fix it up … to redo the past … So I rented it. I moved in some old furniture I had in storage: A small couch, a couple of chairs and a desk.

Carrie gave me some sage to burn in the four corners of the room, “to exorcise any bad spirits that had lived there.” We even had a small champagne celebration when the movers left.

Why did I rent it? I didn’t know. I just knew I had to do it. I thought that if I took my laptop there every so often, some ideas or feelings might crop up that I could write about … maybe Nanny might talk to me … reveal some of her long-buried secrets … I might hear Mama sing something … Daddy could show up at the door wanting to take me for a soda on the boulevard, so we could bond some more. They were good intentions that never panned out.

Carrie got sick.

She was diagnosed with lung cancer in the summer of 2001. Determined to lick it, she moved back to Los Angeles, where she would drive herself to her chemotherapy and radiation treatments the first few months. She was in and out of the hospital, rallying on occasion, and getting sprung to go home. I remember the final time she was readmitted to Cedars-Sinai, in the late fall. I entered her room. It was around five in the morning, and she was stirring. I looked down at her, and she opened her eyes and smiled at me. I feebly joked, “So you wanted to come back here to the hospital again, huh?”

“I missed the food.” We both howled.

She died January 20, 2002.

I knew I had to continue with Hal. I had to complete what she had begun.

Flying to Chicago that April to begin rehearsals, I closed my eyes and thought, “Carrie, let me know you’re with me. Give me some ‘signs.’ I need you to get me through these next few weeks. I need your strength.” I checked into the hotel room, and waiting for me was a huge bouquet: “Welcome to Chicago. See you tomorrow! Love, Hal.” It was a beautiful array of Birds of Paradise. I nearly fell over. Hal had no idea that was Carrie’s favorite flower … she even had a tattoo of one on her shoulder. The next night, Hal and I went out to dinner. The maitre d’ offered us a complimentary bottle of champagne. He showed us the special label: “Louise.” That was Carrie’s middle name and Mama’s first name. I had what I needed to keep me going.

Hollywood Arms opened on Broadway October 31, 2002. Hal had provided a beautiful production with a perfect cast.

My baby and I went the distance.

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