Comedian delivers message of hope, humor at L&M's Well Healed Woman conference

Two women collaborate on a photo Sunday as comedian Vicki Lawrence gives the keynote address at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital's Well Healed Woman Conference at the Mystic Marriott Hotel and Spa in Groton.

Groton - The subtitle for Sunday's Well Healed Woman conference was "Health, Healing and Humor," and Vicki Lawrence - who became famous on "The Carol Burnett Show" - eloquently explored all three.

She talked about heart health, which is an issue she's passionate about.

She detailed her own healing from depression.

And she spoke, naturally, about humor and her career in comedy.

Lawrence - who, in addition to being a performer, is a women's rights activist - was the keynote speaker during Lawrence & Memorial Hospital's annual conference, which was held at the Mystic Marriott Hotel and Spa.

Her adventure, as she called it, began back when she was a senior in high school and entered the Miss Fireball Contest in Englewood, Calif. When a local newspaper ran an advance on the event, the reporter wrote that Lawrence bore a striking resemblance to Carol Burnett.

Lawrence - at her mother's suggestion - sent that clip, plus a fan letter to Burnett. Burnett called Lawrence and said she wanted to come see the contest, asking for two seats way in the back. Burnett's husband thought the whole thing was a little crazy, but Carol had a hunch.

Burnett did show up at the contest, and eventually, Lawrence auditioned to play Burnett's sister on "The Carol Burnett Show." For the audition, Lawrence recalled, she wanted to look as much like Burnett as possible, so she dyed her hair. "Clairol. Flame. Number 33," she said. "To this day, I'm a natural redhead."

Lawrence got the job and co-starred on the series from 1967 to 1978.

"I feel like I got to touch the golden age of television," she said.

"All in the Family" filmed down the hall, as did "The Smothers Brothers Show." Sonny and Cher shot their series right next door to where Burnett's taped. Lawrence recalled the amazing guests on the Burnett show, from Lucille Ball to Jimmy Stewart to Bing Crosby.

"It was just an incredible place to grow up and learn," she said.

Harvey Korman took her under his wing. He would work on dialect and props with her.

"It was kind of like going to the Harvard school of comedy in front of America," she said.

Lawrence said there was always a pool going on how many seconds into a sketch with Tim Conway that Korman would lose his composure.

Lawrence's signature role on "The Carol Burnett Show," of course, was Mama. Burnett was originally supposed to play Mama, but she was drawn to the character of Eunice. Lawrence, then 24 years old, took on Mama. The popularity of the character led Lawrence to star in her own series, "Mama's Family," from 1983 to 1990.

After that, from 1992-94, Lawrence hosted a talk daytime show. She told her team on that show that her motto is: Life is much too serious to be taken seriously. They were going to put that motto on the wall, and they were going to have fun.

She did have fun on air. But behind the scenes, a boss was verbally abusing her, she said, and the stress of it all caused heart palpitations that sent Lawrence to a cardiologist.

She said she worked for the wrong company, for someone who believed showbiz should be incredibly stressful.

"I thought I had learned from the very best lady in the whole world that if you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong," Lawrence said.

When the abuse escalated to the physical, she said, she went to his superiors. She never imagined they would do what they did: fire Lawrence.

She suffered severe depression after that, for three years. She lost her sense of humor. Nothing made her happy. Eventually, she came out of it. She hired a trainer. She learned transcendental meditation. She read. Her husband got her a black Lab puppy named Hannah who, Lawrence said, "saved my life."

"All of a sudden, I felt like I really wanted to laugh again. ... I realized my motto was truer than I ever realized - life is much too serious to be taken seriously," she said.

Also speaking at the conference was Lynn Malerba, chief of the Mohegan Tribe. She is the second woman to serve as Mohegan chief in the tribe's history; Anne Uncas served as interim chief in 1723.

Malerba also has a long history with L&M. She worked for two decades in nursing and hospital administration before moving on to establish the tribe's health and human service programs. She still serves as secretary for the hospital's Board of Directors.

Among the subjects Malerba discussed in her engaging talk was this: "why nurses could run the world." Nurses are optimists, she said, who start the day thinking there's no crisis they can't fix. They are flexible and know how to adapt to a changing world. They are life-long learners. They possess great assessment skills. They know how to have difficult conversations and then come to an agreement.

During Sunday's conference, the Well Healed Woman Award was given to Mary Lenzini, president of the Visiting Nurse Association of Southeastern Connecticut.

Attendees laugh as comedian Vicki Lawrence gives the keynote address Sunday in Groton at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital's Well Healed Woman Conference.
Attendees laugh as comedian Vicki Lawrence gives the keynote address Sunday in Groton at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital's Well Healed Woman Conference.
Comedian Vicki Lawrence of
Comedian Vicki Lawrence of "Carol Burnett Show" fame was the keynote speaker at the Well Healed Woman conference. Despite having a successful TV talk show, Lawrence was taking abuse from a boss than escalated to physical. The situation led to extreme stress and depression.


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