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Carol Burnett's unfunny childhood;NEWLN:Growing up amid poverty, neurotics -- and love

By JOAN HANAUER, UPI Feature Writer

NEW YORK -- Carol Burnett, the child of alcoholic divorced parents, was brought up in a squalid one-room apartment by a manipulative, hypochondriac Christian Scientist grandmother who was on welfare and took out her false teeth to amuse her granddaughter.

Her grandmother and her mother -- who lived down the hall in a rundown building in Hollywood -- battled a great deal. Her mother had an illegitimate child when Carol was 8. The father, a married man, walked away.

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Burnett's own father, a sweet, defeated man, wasn't around much and died in a charity hospital.

Did she have an unhappy childhood? No, Carol Burnett says today.

'It was not a pleasant childhood,' Burnett said in an interview. 'There are some that were happier and some that have been really miserable. Mine was not miserable.'

She has recorded the story of her childhood -- from her earliest memories in San Antonio to the move to Hollywood and her life there to her early showbiz years -- in 'One More Time' (Random House).

It is a frank, strangely cheerful account of a distressing childhood that ends happily when the comedienne was 26 and on her way to stardom. She explained why she looks back with fondness on that childhood in a chaotic room, amid her grandmother's compulsive clutter, with clothes hanging from all the furniture.

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'First of all, I was loved. And I loved Nanny (her grandmother) and Mama and Daddy. Certainly I was not abused.

'Then, all my friends had something like my life. Ilomay, my best girlfriend, lived with her grandmother -- her parents were divorced -- and most everybody in that neighborhood was on relief. It was the Depression.

'There were two kinds of people -- us and the people in the movies. I didn't know anybody in between.

'The older I got the more unhappy I was, the more scared I got. I could see Nanny getting older, I could see Mama was getting sicker, I could see Chrissy (her half-sister) growing up a little bit wild.'

With high school graduation coming up, she had decisions to make.

'Nanny used to drum into us, 'Get a man and get a rich one.' How was I going to do that? Nor did I want to. I wasn't beautiful like Mama was and even Mama couldn't do that because she was a romantic. If there was potential in me I wanted to find it -- I just didn't know what it was.'

There are echoes of her sad family in one she constructed for The Carol Burnett Show, still in reruns across the country.

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'When I played Eunice, I put a lot of Mama into her -- not that Mama looked anything like Eunice or even sounded like her. But there was this philosophy of 'if only...' and 'I could have...' and 'I should have...' It was always, 'If this hadn't happened...' or, to Nanny, 'If you hadn't rained on my dreams...' There was a lot of Mama that I put into Eunice.

'Nanny was nothing like the Mama character Vicki Lawrence portrays. Nanny could undercut everything and she knew just which buttons to press, but she never yelled that much -- Mama did the yelling because Nanny would frustrate her so much.

'It was a totally different situation, but the frustration that Eunice felt I just knew was the kind of frustration that Mama felt.'

The book started out as a memoir for Burnett's daughters, Carrie, Jody and Erin.

'I would have adored having my mother do the same for me; having my grandmother do the same for me -- to be able to look back and see how they felt when they were 5, when they were 12 and on and on.

'I started out doing it for them and I wound up also doing it for me. Mama and Daddy both died when they were 46 and there was no way when I was little that I could understand them when they were in their 20s or 30s. Now I can look back and understand and let go of a lot of emotional garbage.

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'There was an awful lot they were going through that I, as a child, took personally. It had nothing to do with me, I didn't cause it. But as a child when your parents drink or there's some kind of problem - the child is center stage and says, 'Oh, it's all my fault.''

Her book ends when she is 26 -- after UCLA where she began her performing career, after her early years in New York, her unsuccessful first marriage, her run in the Broadway hit 'Once Upon a Mattress' and her appearance on the Garry Moore show.

Now, fresh from the CBS miniseries spoof 'Fresno,' she has been touring to promote her book, then will head back to California. Slim of figure and with a disarmingly frank manner, Burnett discussed her home.

'It's a small house,' she said, in contrast to the big one she had during her 20-year marriage to Joe Hamilton, which ended in divorce in 1983. 'I wanted a country feel. It's on a tree-lined street in a friendly-looking neighborhood. There's a swimming pool in the small backyard and a view from there of the ocean.

'It's shingled with white trim, has two bedrooms and a little office sitting room right across from my bedroom where my computer sits. There's a dining room, living room, a nice kitchen-family room area.

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'Do I cook? No, but I clean. People like to have me over for dinner because I do the dishes. I like to iron. I'm neat -- sometimes too neat. I didn't get this kind of neatnik fetish until the past few years, although I've always been organized. I'll know I'm really getting healthy when I can leave a sock in the middle of the floor.'

She has some projects in mind, but series television is not one of them. She enjoyed doing her own show, and explained why she quit.

'There are two things that happen when a show goes off the air,' she said. 'One is you quit and the other is somebody from the network knocks on the door and says, 'Stop doing this.'

'That literally is what happened to Tim Conway on one of the sitcoms he did, I think it was a comedy-western called 'Rango.' He was in his dressing roon putting on his boots for the next scene and one of the suits from ABC knocked on the door. The guy came in and said, 'Hello, I'm so-and-so,' and Tim said, 'Hi!' and the suit said, 'Stop doing this.' He literally said, 'Stop doing this.' Tim took the boot off.

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'Is that any way to be fired? I thought it was much classier for me to say bye-bye first. We'd been doing the show for 11 years and they wanted us back, but some little voice said no, now is the time. I think I was right.'

Professionally, she said, she just plans to 'keep on truckin',' waiting to see what turns up. For her, something always has.

She also wants to write again -- perhaps her grandmother's biography, if she can piece the story together.

It was only when she began researching her own book that she discovered there was considerable mystery about just how many times Nanny had been married and to whom. Among other things, Nanny apparently fooled her own daughter -- Burnett's mother -- about the identify of her father, Burnett's grandfather.

'I would like to write my own version of what made Nanny the way she was, but I would have to make a lot of it up and call it a novel,' Burnett said, 'because I could never put all the pieces together. She was such a mystery.'

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