Arts & Culture » Theater

Mama's Girl

by Sari Staver

Vicki Lawrence as Mama and herself
Vicki Lawrence as Mama and herself  (Source:Courtesy the subject)

For decades, comic actress Vicki Lawrence has had an enthusiastic following in the gay community, but she still isn't sure exactly why.

"Why do you think I do?" she asked a reporter who called to ask about her upcoming show, "Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two Woman Show," at the Castro Theatre on Sat., March 17, at 8 p.m. The show, a 90-minute one-woman performance, features Lawrence as herself, updating the audience on her life and career, during the first half, and as "Mama," her iconic character role from "The Carol Burnett Show," for the second half. The show was brought to San Francisco by impresario D'Arcy Drollinger, who seems to know exactly why Lawrence is a hit with so many people in the LGBT community.

"I think in many ways Mama is a drag queen," said Drollinger, an actor, writer, and director known for his stage productions, which often combine slapstick, farce, and drag. Drollinger, who owns the San Francisco nightclub Oasis with drag performer Heklina, saw Lawrence's new show and "knew we had to bring it to San Francisco," he said in an interview with the B.A.R. "Mama has her wigs and her housecoats and is so full of sass that we see as over-the-top camp comedy. That appeal is what attracts people. Those of us old enough to have watched her on 'Carol Burnett' knew she was creating groundbreaking, hilarious comedy sketches, and set a precedent for how we view comedy and drag theatre today."

When the Burnett show premiered in 1967, "it was the first platform in mainstream American culture that embraced lots of drag. The flamboyant characters on that show stem from the type of openness we hadn't seen since vaudeville. It was a resurgence of flamboyance," Drollinger said. The San Francisco audience, he predicted, "is really going to love this show." A meet-and-greet with Lawrence sold out in a day, he said.

Lawrence, 68, and married for 44 years to Hollywood make-up artist Al Schultz, said she's always gotten a kick out of her gay following. She first learned of her LGBT fan-base from a colleague, Dorothy Lyman, who also found a following in the LGBT community.

"Mama is most definitely a fun character who gets away with having a potty mouth and pretty much saying whatever she wants," explained Lawrence. "Maybe that's what resonates" with a gay audience, she said. "Everyone has an outspoken Mama in their family," she said.

At her "Mama" shows, which began almost two decades ago, gay fans often come dressed in drag as Mama. "D'Arcy has organized a contest with prizes, for intermission in San Francisco," she said.

Lawrence said audiences also seem to enjoy hearing about her real life, which she discusses in the first act of her show. In it, she answers all the questions people want to know, such as how she was plucked out of total obscurity and got instant fame on the Burnett show at the tender age of 17.

"That's an interesting story," she said. During her senior year of high school, Vicki sent Burnett a letter, including a clip from a local newspaper article that mentioned their resemblance. She also invited Burnett to attend the local fire department's "Miss Fireball Contest," where Lawrence was performing. Burnett, who happened to be looking for an actress to play her kid sister on her variety show, contacted Lawrence and made arrangements to come to the event.

"And the rest is history," said Lawrence, although the role of kid sister quickly gave way to her longtime role as Burnett's mother, despite the fact that Burnett was 16 years her senior. Lawrence earned one Emmy Award and five nominations for her role.

When the Burnett show wrapped up after 11 years on the air, Lawrence's career continued to thrive. She has written two books, including her autobiography "Vicki: the True Life Adventures of Miss Fireball" and "Mama for President: Good Lord, Why Not?"

Lawrence went on to star in her own TV series, "Mama's Family," syndicated for five years in the late 1980s. On her lengthy resume are also credits for hosting a game show, "Win, Lose, or Draw," her own daytime talk show, called "Vicki," and hosting the program "Fox After Breakfast."

She has also appeared in many stage productions, and appeared briefly in "The Vagina Monologues" with Rita Moreno. She also travels around the country speaking to women's organizations about her life and career, and about being a woman in a man's world, including some horrific abuse on the set of a show.

When Lawrence went to the top brass of the production company complaining about an abusive male colleague, "They fired me, not him," she said. The loss of her job sent Lawrence into a three-year downward spiral of severe depression.

"I was stunned and in shock. I had absolutely no idea that they would even consider letting me go," she said. "Friends and family stuck by me" while she went through the motions of daily life. While she tried to decide how she might make a comeback, her colleagues from the Burnett show advised her to come up with something "that I could call my own," she said.

"It was really good advice," says Lawrence, who made her living room into a rehearsal space, and put together the one-woman Mama show. But the abusive treatment she received, and her subsequent dismissal for complaining about it, still haunts her.

"I don't believe that sort of thing could happen today," she said of the abuse. "Thanks to the #MeToo movement and women coming together to demand better treatment, I hope those days are over."

But her stint in the doldrums, when she was unable to work, is something she doesn't want to repeat. "Retirement would not be for me. I have no idea how I would cope with it, or what I would do with my time," she said.

For now, Lawrence thinks Mama still has many years to go as a performer. "I'm constantly thinking of things Mama would want to comment on. I jot them down and send them to my writer," she said.

Lawrence travels with her husband, who is her producer, and her son, her director. "I'm working with my two favorite guys in the world. What could be better?" And both at home and on the road, Lawrence is often recognized by fans. "I love it," she said, "when people tell me their fond memories" of her TV roles.

Recently, she said, a fan who works in the entertainment industry stopped her in the grocery store to say he'd heard "good things" about a new TV pilot she made.

"I'm keeping my fingers crossed," she said of the pilot, which also stars David Alan Grier, Leslie Jordan, and Martin Mull, who play three guys in a retirement home who have to deal with new arrival Margaret, played by Lawrence. "Please stay tuned. I'd love to be back on TV."


"Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two Woman Show," Castro Theatre, March 17. Tickets: $30 (balcony), $60 (orchestra): www.ticketfly.com/event/1631621-vicki-lawrence-mama-two-san-francisco/

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