Literal hustling led to Carol Burnett's first TV gig
It turns out she sprinted and conned her way to legendary status.
Image: The Everett Collection
One of Andy Warhol's best friends was iconic television set designer Charles Lisanby, a genius art director tapped for everything from Kraft Music Hall to Paul Lynde's Halloween Special. He's in the Art Directors Guild Hall of Fame for a reason, and one of his favorite shows he worked on early in his career was The Gary Moore Show, a variety show that most folks remember as the vehicle that launched Carol Burnett to stardom. Well, it turns out that Lisanby wasn't just on set with the comedy legend, he actually had a whole lot to do with her being there in the first place.
Lisanby paints the picture in an interview with the Archive of American Television of a time when he would frequent a little lunchtime spot called Susan Palmer's Tea Shop, and in the winter when he wore a coat, he had two options: waiting to check his coat or jaunting down the stairs to hang it at a counter only regular customers knew about. Well, one day, he was on his way down the stairs when the coat check girl – none other than Carol Burnett – wasn't about the let him hang his own coat. Instead, demonstrating her excellence in customer service, Burnett didn't call out to the frequent customer, but instead took off running, chasing him down the stairs to take his coat. Lisanby remembered their auspicious meeting:
"She was a hat check girl in I think it was called the Susan Palmer Tea Shop in Rockefeller Center, and I would sometimes have lunch there and upstairs were tables and so on, and if you could get down the downstairs, there was a counter where you could hang your coat on the wall, and once she chased me all the way down the stairs to get my coat and the hostess introduced me to her."
You might think that was it, because who could forget meeting Carol Burnett, but Lisanby said, "I didn’t remember her name at the time," even though the hostess could see she was going to be a star, telling the famous set designer with full faith, "She’s going to be an actress." Instead, Burnett happened to be cast on The Gary Moore Show for a random guest spot and Lisanby saw her and remembered her then. He said, "Suddenly this girl arrived … and it’s Carol Burnett and so I talked to her."
Once the day was done, Burnett left the set, and that honestly could've been the last time we saw her on The Gary Moore Show, except the man she had chased down the stairs as a coat check girl stepped in to interfere with that joyless fate. He said, "A week later, they needed a girl for a sketch, and I said, ‘Why don’t you get the girl from last week?’ and they said, ‘That’s a great idea! We loved her!’ And they hired her, and she became a regular after that. When she came back that time, she never left.”
Isn't that funny? If Burnett hadn't snatched his coat and snagged an introduction, it's unlikely he would've stuck his neck out for her, but what's even funnier is that Burnett once explained how her hustling that day wasn't really just about great customer service, but also part of a larger scheme of hers at the place where she worked:
"It was called Susan Palmer's Tea Room, but they had an oyster bar downstairs that the men would go to. So in order to get a tip, I would grab the men as they were going downstairs and say, 'Check your coat, sir?' So they'd give me their coat," Burnett said. "And then I would take a scissors… and you know the little thing in the back? The hand tab? I'd cut that off. And then I would resew it with another color thread. So when they would come back up and ask for their coat, I would say, 'This was broken, but I fixed it for you.'"
It's unclear if Burnett ever "fixed" Lisanby's coat for him, but we're happy he actually fixed her up with a great start to what turned out to be a legendary career.