When it comes to matters of the heart, Mama knows best.
The mama in question is “Mama’s Family” star Vicki Lawrence, who will be the featured speaker at the Doctors Medical Center event “Live, Laugh & Take Heart” on Wednesday night at the Gallo Center for the Arts. The free event is part of American Heart Month celebration and awareness campaign.
“When people see me, they expect to laugh,” the comedian and actress said in a phone interview with The Modesto Bee. “We will laugh a lot and I will share with them some of the experiences I’ve had with heart disease and how it has affected me and my family. Hopefully, we’ll come out the other end laughing.”
Lawrence has been a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association on its national Go Red for Women project. The Gallo event will be the first in a series of community events from Doctors that will combine health awareness with entertainment.
The evening will begin with a wine tasting and appetizer reception where attendees can meet area cardiologists. It will be followed by a talk by Dr. Shewit Weldetensae of Modesto on “What Every Woman Should Know About Heart Disease.” Then Lawrence will serve as the evening’s keynote speaker.
Lawrence’s involvement in heart health awareness, particularly women’s heart health, comes from personal experience. Her father and father-in-law have had heart attacks, her husband had bypass surgery and her son was diagnosed with acute hypertension while still a teenager. She also has had some heart issues later in life and understands the importance of women taking care of themselves.
“If you live long enough, most families end up being touched by heart disease,” she said. “I think it is important for women in particular to be really aware of what’s going on with their bodies. Because us women are often mothers and nurturers we’re too busy looking after everyone else. So sometimes we don’t pay as much attention to ourselves as we should.”
Lawrence’s philanthropic works come after a career of making people laugh. The 64-year-old Southern California native got her big break in 1967 when she debuted on “The Carol Burnett Show.” She was hired for the show after first meeting Burnett as a senior in high school when she sent the star a letter that mentioned their resemblance. She invited Burnett to see her in the Miss Fireball Contest, and she came.
“For me, it was – I was very lucky,” Lawrence said. “Carol found me and took me under her wing. I grew up in an incredibly nurturing environment. It’s not something I ever intended to do; here I landed in the Emerald City. I got to go to the Harvard School of Comedy in front of America.”
After “The Carol Burnett Show” ended, Lawrence starred in the successful spinoff “Mama’s Family” starting in 1983. The character of Mama was based on a popular recurring sketch on Burnett’s show. Lawrence portrayed Thelma Harper, otherwise known as Mama, the blue-haired, sharp-tongued matriarch of a blue-collar clan. Mama was known for her snappy retorts. It aired for six seasons, two on NBC and four in syndication.
Lawrence continues to perform as Mama in her current touring show, “Vicki Lawrence and Mama.” She said Mama has endured because of her blunt, no-nonsense look on life.
“She is a dang funny old lady,” Lawrence said. “She has a slanted opinion on everything. I find her to be more relevant than ever. This world has gotten so nuts, it’s nice to have an old lady who is the voice of reason in everything.”