In an age when most stars have millions of fans they interact with anonymously via social media, Vicki Lawrence holds a special place in her heart for traditional snail mail. That’s because she rocketed to fame during her senior year of high school after sending the legendary comic actress Carol Burnett a fan letter that included a clip from her local newspaper, which had printed a picture of her noting her resemblance to the star.
She had merely hoped to convince Burnett to attend a local talent contest she was competing in, but Burnett was so impressed with Lawrence that she hired her to play her kid sister on her classic comedy show “The Carol Burnett Show.” But Lawrence fit in so well with Burnett and the other veteran comic actors in the cast, including Tim Conway and Harvey Korman, that she was soon playing tons of classic characters en route to earning five Emmy nominations and one win.
But one character — the cantankerous senior citizen Thelma “Mama” Harper — stood out from the pack and went on to have a hit seven-season sitcom of her own with “Mama’s Family,” which ran on NBC from 1983 to 1990. And for the past three decades since the series ended, Lawrence has managed to maintain a lucrative touring schedule portraying her in the live “Vicki Lawrence & Mama: A Two-Woman Show,” which she will bring to the Arcadia Performing Arts Center at 8 p.m. Saturday.
“My fans’ enthusiasm keeps Mama fresh for me, but I really try to keep Mama topical,” says Lawrence, speaking from a tour stop in Florida. “When I put my show together, I knew that Mama would have to be a big part of it because everyone loves her so much. Everyone asks about that. My half of the show is autobiographical, because my life has been nothing but comical and serendipitous so I answer all the questions. But when I play Mama, I look at it as my chance to be Chris Rock, because I look at all the stuff going on in the world and it’s fun to push her into the new century.”
Lawrence, 69, was born and raised in Inglewood, where she originally planned on being a dental hygienist, although she was a teenage member of the notable musical group The Young Americans. She toured nationally with the ensemble and performed at the Oscars with them, regularly encountering celebrities such as Johnny Mathis and Louis Armstrong.
Those experience helped Lawrence handle the transition to national fame well, rather than having difficulty due to being plucked out of teenage obscurity and onto the 11-year run with Burnett’s show.
“I was too stupid to be overwhelmed,” recalls Lawrence. “I was young and very naïve. I sort of feel I was kidnapped by show business, because it’s never something I thought I’d do after high school. I was kidnapped by the Harvard School of Comedy, put into the learners’ program and taught by the very best people how to be funny. Harvey Korman is the one who took me under his wing and taught me the most about doing sketches, working on accents, dialects, props, and explaining what the old movies were we were spoofing if I didn’t know them.”
Lawrence believes that she would never have the same kind of chances today, both because of the fact that fans rarely write letters to stars anymore and because “networks would say get rid of her and get a real actress.” The turning point at which she felt she fully belonged “in the sandbox” with her more seasoned costars came about halfway through the series’ run, when the character of “Mama” was originated for her.
At the same time, she found surprisingly massive success on the music charts with the No. 1 hit “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.” The song was a lengthy oddity, telling a complex story over the course of its running time, and Lawrence stumbled into singing it because it was written by her first husband, Bobby Russell, and no one but her wanted to record it.
“It was the ultimate demise of an already doomed marriage,” says Lawrence, who performs the song in all of her live shows. “Everybody hated it including my husband, but I kept saying ‘It’s a hit’ and they finally gave it to me in the studio. I pushed that thing, all the way up the hill, but it was the end of a really dysfunctional marriage in which I got the gold record and the dog. I couldn’t wait to get back to the Carol Burnett show and not be involved in the music business anymore.”
Vicki Lawrence performs in “Vicki Lawrence & Mama: A Two-Person Show” at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Arcadia Performing Arts Center, 188 Campus Drive, Arcadia. Doors open at 6:30. Tickets are $8 to $89. Visit arcadiapaf.org or call (626) 821-1781.