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A start that was anything but glamorous

Delores Reger finishes her 40-year career at Green Valley Health and Herbs this month. [Whitney Neilson / The Observer]

Think of Carol Burnett, and comedy comes to mind. But it wasn’t always that way, as the fictionalized story of her early years attests to.

Hollywood Arms, to be staged by the Elmira Theatre Company starting next week, paints a less-than-perfect portrait of the iconic actress’ formative years. That’s not to say it’s without its funny moments, however, in keeping with who she would become.

Written by the comic legend and her daughter Carrie Hamilton (who died of cancer at 38 before the play hit Broadway in 2002), Hollywood Arms is based on Burnett’s best-selling memoir “One More Time.” Set in California in 1941 and 1951, it tells the story of Burnett (called “Helen” in the play) as she grows up in a poor and troubled family. Born in San Antonio, Texas, Burnett moved to a less-than-glamorous section of Hollywood, where her grandmother raised her and her younger sister.

“She had a rough childhood. They were poor, and both her parents were alcoholics.

She and a half-sister were pretty much raised by her grandmother,” explained David MacMillan, who directs the ETC production that opens Feb. 11.

“It was a rather trying time for them, but it’s a very interesting story about the human element.”

Given the circumstances, it might be advisable to bring along a hanky, he suggests.
“It’s not a flat-out comedy, that’s for sure. It has it’s comedic moments, but it’s more of a drama.”

Telling the story of three generations of women pursuing their dreams that often ended up in disappointment and tragedy – and ultimately triumph for Burnett – Hollywood
Arms is at times poignant, sad and funny as we get to see the fledgling Carol Burnett in the making and how she chose to become an entertainer.

“She was a very strong person. Despite all that happened to her, she had no resentment and kept a good outlook on life,” said MacMillan.

The play offers great roles for the female leads, he noted, particularly the roles of Helen – played as a child by Kate Short and later by Krista Hovsepian – and her grandmother, Nanny, played by Cathy Judd.

“Her grandmother was really important to her – this shows us why.”

Fans of the Carol Burnett Show, her long-running variety series, will remember the signature signoff: Burnett tugging her ear as an affectionate message to her grandmother that she was doing fine. Her grandmother’s influence is clearly on display in the story of her origins. In Helen, we see where she got her start.

A TARNISHED TINSEL TOWN The Elmira Theatre Production of Hollywood Arms, a fictionalized story about the early life of Carol Burnett, begins its run Feb. 11. The cast of the show includes, back row: Bart Penwarden, Roger Sumner, Krista Hovsepian, Sue Rose; front row: Cathy Judd, Kate Short, Sarah Mayo, Jennifer Cornish, Jeremy Hartrup.

In years that follow those portrayed in Hollywood Arms, Burnett headed off to New York, where she proved to have star power and strong comedic instincts. Appearances on The Garry Moore Show, The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show led, in 1959, to a starring role on the off-Broadway (and soon Broadway) hit Once Upon a Mattress.

An Emmy Award-winning concert special with Julie Andrews in 1962 drew critical acclaim and in 1967 Burnett was ready for her own series, The Carol Burnett Show.

What followed was a far cry from the Hollywood days of her youth.

The Elmira Theatre Company production of Hollywood Arms runs Feb. 11-13, Feb 17-20 at 76 Howard Ave. Show times are 8 p.m., except Sundays (2:30 p.m.). Tickets are $18, available at the Centre In The Square box office in Kitchener by calling 578-1570 or 1-800-265-8977, online at www.centre-square.com.

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