Laugh with Miss Fireball

Vicki Lawrence shares her busy life

Vicki Lawrence, courtesy photo

Vicki Lawrence, courtesy photo

A newspaper article quite literally changed the course of Vicki Lawrence’s life.

Instead of the life she’d planned out, working first as a dental hygienist and then marrying a rich dentist and living a life of ease, she was spotted in the Miss Fireball of Inglewood contest by a newspaper reporter, who noted Lawrence bore a striking resemblance to comedienne Carol Burnett. Lawrence’s mother encouraged her to write a fan letter to Burnett, who tracked her down and attended the Miss Fireball contest, which Lawrence won. Burnett was called on stage to crown her and realized the resemblance was indeed striking. She called upon the young Lawrence to play Burnett’s younger sister on Burnett’s upcoming comedy show.

A lifelong friendship and years of television success followed. Lawrence, who won an Emmy for her work on “The Carol Burnett Show,” is scheduled to speak about those years and reminisce on her laugh-filled career during her keynote address at the 15th annual Tapestry event, April 29 at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum.

According to information provided by Tapestry, which is a fundraiser for Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, Lawrence appeared in her own series, “Mama’s Family,” and has most recently been seen in “Hannah Montana.” Lawrence has successfully hosted both a talk show and game show. She received a gold record for “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” and appeared in numerous productions including “Carousel” and “Send Me No Flowers.” An avid women’s rights activist, she now travels widely speaking about her life and career. She is well known for her sense of humor and reminds us, “Life is too serious to be taken seriously!” Lawrence works with the Humane Society and has been very involved with the American Heart Association and its “Go Red for Women” campaign. She published her autobiography, “Vicki!: The True Life Adventures of Miss Fireball.”

In a telephone interview with Fort Wayne Magazine in January, Lawrence reflected on her long career and the lifelong friendships she made with Burnett, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway, the ensemble cast of the hit comedy sketch show “The Carol Burnett Show,” which ran from 1967 to 1978. She was the only cast member, besides Burnett, who appeared in every season of the show.

Longevity and loyalty are important to Lawrence, who has been married to her husband, makeup artist Al Schultz, since 1974. The couple has two grown children, Courtney and Garrett. (The family appeared on “Celebrity Family Feud” last July.)

Her best-known character, Thelma “Mama” Harper, has stayed with her over the course of her nearly 50-year career. Lawrence said the character of Mama was first written for Burnett, but Burnett wanted to try the character of Mama’s daughter Eunice instead.

“The writers came from dysfunctional families,” Lawrence said. “That (initial) sketch was really well written.”

Much younger than the rest of the cast, Lawrence said she was “busy dating the usher” while the rest of the cast bonded over dinner. Indeed, she was just 18 when she first appeared on the show. She said it took a while for her to feel like she was qualified to be in the company of such great comedians.

“I was the child on that show,” Lawrence said. “It took me at least until midway through the run, probably when Mama came along, (that) I began to feel I had the right to play in the sandbox with the grown-ups. I felt I was in the presence of a master teaching class.”

Lawrence’s classmates might beg to disagree. She was already very involved in singing and dancing, to the point that she was named the “Most Likely to Succeed” her senior year of high school, and she laughed when asked if she felt she’s fulfilled that prediction.

“I guess,” she said. “I was very busy in high school, singing with Young Americans,” a group that is credited with being the first show choir in America, mixing choreography with choral singing. Lawrence also recorded a gold record, hitting No. 1 on the pop charts in the United States and Canada in 1973 with “The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia.”

While the world has gotten better for women in show business since she hit mainstream success, during her heyday, women were routinely laid off when they became pregnant.

“There was a ‘deformity clause’ in my contract,” she noted wryly. “But there was Cher, pregnant with another man’s child, and of course Lucy (Lucille Ball), but I got laid off.”

But Burnett came to the rescue again, since, Lawrence said, she missed doing the Mama’s Family skits.

“I think (women are) doing better (now). We’re getting paid attention to, though equal pay would be nice,” Lawrence said. “I think we work every bit as hard if not harder with what we want to be. So many things have changed for the better.”

Tickets to Tapestry are available by contacting tapestry@ipfw.edu or calling (260) 481-6854. “Mama’s Family” is now airing on MeTV weeknights beginning at 6 p.m. Eastern time, with limited commercial interruptions.

First appeared in the March 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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