Afterward, Carol Burnett was exhausted, but still exhilarated. “I feel like I’ve just driven straight from New York to L.A. without a stoplight,” was the way she put it. And well she might have, for Burnett’s high-speed, long-running career was celebrated on an epic scale by both friends and fans. A crowd of 6,000 packed UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion to gawk at the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, bathe in the dulcet melodies of Neil Diamond and, above all, pay tribute to America’s favorite TV comedienne on her 53rd birthday.
It was one of those curious, hybrid Hollywood affairs—part homage, part revue, part charitable enterprise. The common folk paid $25 a crack to sit in the upper reaches of the pavilion. They probably owned the best seats in the house since they were able to look down on the celebrated groundlings, including Tom Selleck, Cybill Shepherd and Burt Bacharach. The stars had forked out as much as $500 apiece to sit in front of the stage. The evening, which raised $500,000 for UCLA’s performing arts program, began in earnest with a film roll-by of Burnett’s life (including baby pix and shots of her as a theater arts student at UCLA). Next up was opera great Beverly Sills, who sang “a little ditty” she’d written to the tune of I’m Glad There Is You. It went like this: “In this world of boring, self-adoring people, I’m glad there is you…. A special gal, my dearest pal, I’ll state it clearly, I’m glad we met, Carol Burnett.”
Things went on this way, gushingly. A slimmed-down Liz paid her respects, and even Ron and Nancy Reagan appeared in video form to extend their best wishes. Finally, Julie Andrews swept onstage and lent some asperity to the proceedings. She told how some years back, she and Carol were staying in a Washington, D.C. hotel. They were expecting a nocturnal visit from director Mike Nichols and decided to surprise him. Dressing in their pajamas, they waited, locked in a passionate embrace, by the elevators. And who should emerge from same but Lady Bird Johnson! “Aren’t you Carol Burnett?” asked Lady Bird. “Yes,” Carol responded grandly. “And this is my friend Mary Poppins.”
Carol seemed to get the biggest thrill of all from watching her daughters, Carrie, Jody and Erin. The three dressed as cleaning women—after Mom’s trademark skit—and did a bump-and-grind number, as well as Burnett’s theme song, I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together. Then, closing the show, there was Neil Diamond’s set, including Sweet Caroline. By the time the birthday girl got onstage, she was wiping away the tears. Reflecting on the fact that she had dropped out of UCLA without a degree, she said, “I can’t help but wonder what this evening could have been like if only I’d graduated.”