Best Mother’s Day Gift Ever? A Chat with Carol Burnett

You will love Carol Burnett’s new memoir, This Time Together. Billy Crystal calls it “happy, sad, hilarious, and poignant.” Julie Andrews says “it’s funny, it’s endearing, and very moving.” Hal Prince points out that “it’s written the way she talks – nothing stilted, nothing distanced. You’ll read it in one gulp.”

Here’s one of our favorite stories from This Time Together, about a (mis)adventure Carol experienced when she first moved to New York. Funny and daring, just like Carol.

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Rumplemayer’s and the Mean Hostess

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During the summer of 1959 Once upon a Mattress was enjoying a healthy run, and a few of us in the cast decided to splurge one Saturday night after the show and treat ourselves to a sundae at the most expensive ice cream parlor in New York City: Rumplemayer’s, in the St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park South. Even though Mattress had been running for a few months and I had done some television, I was far from being recognizable in public. Nonetheless, I was flush with the excitement of being in a hit stage show and raking in $80 a week to boot. I could afford a Rumplemayer’s treat.

Rumplemayer’s was a pretty posh ice cream parlor. You could spot familiar faces there anytime after the bows had been taken and the lights had dimmed on Broadway for the night. Some folks went to nightclubs or bars, but those who had a sweet tooth and who also wanted to be seen went to Rumplemayer’s. I remember having peeked in a few months earlier and spotting Marlene Dietrich in a gorgeous gray pantsuit at the counter, elegantly digging a long-handled spoon into a whipped cream goodie.

On this night four of us pushed our way through the re olving door and stood casing the scene as we waited for the hostess. It was crowded, but there were a couple of empty tables in the back. The hostess, in a blue dress with a white collar and cuffs and sporting a very tight bun in her hair, approached us with menus. She took a closer look, and smoke began to come out of her ears.

“EXCUSE ME! But just what do you think you’re doing?”

She was looking straight at me.

“Pardon me?”

“I SAID, what do you think you’re doing?”

Before I could speak, she went off on a major tear. “Young woman, don’t you realize that we don’t allow ladies in RUMPLEMAYER’S wearing SLACKS? SL-ACKS”—she made it two syllables and pronounced them like a dirty word—“are FOR-BID-DEN!”

She was actually screaming at me. Her pipes could’ve given Ethel Merman a run for her money. I wondered if maybe her bun was too tight. Suddenly I noticed that the place had become strangely quiet: fewer clinking spoons, less slurping through straws. More than a few customers were watching us, evidently waiting to see if the hostess was going to shoot me. I was feeling like an axe murderer and at the same time awfully humiliated. I was dressed in a nice pair of black slacks, not jeans, but apparently that was still enough of a social gaffe for her to send me up the river and put me in solitary.

My friends and I were frozen in place, but this lady wouldn’t quit. I looked for the swastika on her sleeve as she continued her harangue.

“DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME? FOR-BID-DEN!”

I was about to slink out backward when the image of Marlene Dietrich came to me out of nowhere. She had been in SL-ACKS and nobody had yelled at her. And all this hostess needed to do with us was to nicely explain the rules. It could have gone thusly:

Hostess: (quietly) I’m awfully sorry, miss, but Rumplemayer’s has a dress code, and ladies are not seated if they’re wearing slacks. I do hope you and your friends will come back and see us soon. Here’s a mint.

Me: (quietly) Oh, of course. I’m sorry, I didn’t know. We’ll definitely come back another time, and thank you so much for the mint. (We exit with dignity.)

End of Scene.

Simple. No problem. But noooo.

Astonishingly, she was still at it, not only for our benefit now, but clearly for that of the entire restaurant: “I DON’T KNOW WHERE YOU KIDS GET OFF THINKING YOU CAN BREAK THE RULES WHENEVER YOU WANT!”

You could’ve heard a pin drop. At this point, the image of Dietrich in pants was looming full screen in my mind’s eye. I opened my mouth to speak.

“Please forgive me,” I said sweetly (but projecting so that every customer could hear), “but I have a wooden leg, and I’m too embarrassed to wear a skirt.”

Dead silence. I felt the entire restaurant getting ready to line the hostess up in front of a firing squad. She felt it, too. She led us to a back table. I dragged my wooden leg all the way across the room without bending my knee and ate my hot fudge sundae while sitting stiff-legged the whole time.

The revenge tasted sweeter than the sundae.

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We all have our favorite skits from The Carol Burnett Show. That famous Tarzan yell. The “Went With the Wind” skit. The way she tugged her ear at the end of every show. What’s yours? Post a comment about your favorite Carol Burnett moment to enter for your chance to win the best Mother’s Day gift ever: A short phone conversation with Carol about her new memoir. Other lucky runners-up will win autographed copies of This Time Together. Winners selected at random. Limited quantities. No purchase necessary.

About Kira Walton

Kira Walton

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life as a college English teacher, bookseller, book club consultant, author, and editor.