Ray Bourbon’s “Mop Lady” and Carol Burnett’s “Charwoman”

I’m probably going to get into trouble with some Carol Burnett fans with this post, but there’s a persistent story about Ray Bourbon’s connection to an iconic Burnett character that is worth exploring.

Just about everyone who was around in the sixties and seventies was familiar with Carol Burnett’s famous “Charwoman” character.  Carol, dressed in ragged clothes, would use the character in a sketch to close out each season of her wildly popular CBS television variety series.

The character became so associated with Burnett that it’s used as her trademarked logo – she even sued the producers of the animated tv show Family Guy for doing a parody of the character in their own show in 2007.

Title screen showing the Charwoman from CBS "Carol Burnett Show"

Burnett’s Charwoman was a kind of “sad clown”, in the mold of Emmett Kelly.  Never speaking, and only using pantomime for the gags, the character is a sympathetic, unglamorous “everywoman”.  The connection to Emmett Kelly in Burnett’s development of the character is very apparent – she even did a turn with Kelly in an episode of her variety series.

But what does this have to do with Ray Bourbon?

The Rumor on Ray’s “Mop Lady”

When Ray Bourbon appeared at the Jewel Box in Kansas City, in the 1960s he performed what’s commonly called his “mop lady” routine.  Jack Ames, who worked as a bartender at the Jewel Box, described it in an email to me in June 2000.

“The best part of the show was at the end … all the others had left the stage & Rae, dressed as the cleaning lady in an old dress … & foul mouth … the departing audience, many of them, didn’t realise it was the same person who had been causing them so much merriment before … she threw the bucket down on the stage … started mopping … mumbling about having to clean up “after those bitches” … then stood there, mop in one hand, other hand on hip & delievered [sic] a 10-15 minute little post script… all ad lib & just so funny!”

Over the years of researching Ray, I’ve heard several people have noting the similarity of Ray’s “Mop Lady” to Carol Burnette’s “Charlady”, wondering of Burnett might have been influenced by Ray to create the character (or vice versa).  Ray himself never discussed Burnett’s character and never claimed any connections to it – the speculations and rumors came from people who saw Ray perform or who worked with him at the Jewel Box.

A few have said outright that the Burnett Charlady was appropriated from Ray.  This email from “Scott” sent to me in April 2002 is very specific:

“My Uncle Rick Munden worked at the Jewel Box and knew Rae. You did not mention that Carol Burnett  and her gay staff took in Rae’s ‘mop lady’ act when they were barhopping after doing shows @ the Starlight Theatere.[sic] This would have been the late sixties. Guess what happened to that act and where it went.”

Ray briefly discussed the character in testimony at his 1969 murder trial when asked about his work at the Jewel Box,

I was working as he top entertainer in the place. I was playing the part of a slightly drunken neighbor who was constantly bugging her other neighbors on the phone. At the finish of the show I was back as Mavis, the mop bucket woman, complaining about the dirty writing on the ladies room walls.

There’s a surviving program from the Jewel Box that was introduced at Ray’s trial.  One one page of the program, Ray is shown in his usual female impersonator guise, as well as “the mop lady”.

Page from 1965 program of the Jewel Box showing Ray in his usual drag costume and as the "mop lady"

JD Doyle’s Queer Music Heritage has a color postcard of Ray as the “mop lady”, flanked by other female impersonators, on his page about the Jewel Box.

And, in Ray’s photos accompanying his memoirs was a photo of him as the character, probably taken at the Jewel Box.  On the back of the photo, Ray typed “My favorite – The Mop Woman”.

Color photograph of Ray as the "Mop Woman" in a blue housedress with mop and bucket

Origins of Burnette’s Charwoman

Carol Burnett discussed the origins of the Charwoman character when her costume for the role was donated to the Smithsonian in 1988.  The following quote is from Crispin Y. Campbell, “Carol Burnett Donates Charwoman Costume to Smithsonian“, AP News, May 19, 1988.

The charwoman character was created for Miss Burnett’s 1963 television special, Carol & Company, in which the ragged cleaning lady performed a modified strip- tease in her work clothes.

Miss Burnett developed the skit after she heard a radio disc jockey allude to the fact that some American housewives were fond of practicing a strip-tease to David Rose’s ′′The Stripper′′ while doing their chores.

′′It thought maybe I should do a charwoman cleaning up in a burlesque house after everyone is gone and then imagines she’s Gypsy Rose Lee,′′ Miss Burnett said.

The first appearance of the Charwoman in Carol & Company from February 24, 1963 is available on disc 19 of the Time-Life Carol Burnett Show dvd collection.

Carol Burnett dressed as the Charwoman with mop seated on overturned mop bucket

Carol Burnett as the Charwoman in a publicity photograph used on her 1967 RCA Victor album, Carol Burnett Sings.

Origins of Ray’s “Mop Lady”

Although Ray’s “Mop Lady” character is most prominently documented in his appearances at the Jewel Box, we don’t know how or when Ray first used the character.  The “Mop Lady” goes back at least to the 1930s and perhaps earlier; Ray mentions it in his unfinished memoirs, written during his last days in prison.

In the section where Ray talks about appearing at the London Palladium with the Crazy Gang in October 1936 in the revue OKay for Sound, he goes into a detail about a routine by Nervo and Knox.

There had been a big scene called “Don Juan’s Night of Love”. Nervo, the smaller of Nervo & Knox, had been doing a funny ballet dance in the scene wearing a complete ballet dress with very large breasts. When one of the others started chasing and trying to catch him, he ran to escape “a fate worse than death”. He jumped into the orchestra pit – there was a small trampoline built in the shape of a large drum and, when he jumped on it, he sprang right back on stage. It was hilariously funny.

During the “Ta Ta to Your Tar” number, I was dressed similarly to the others, with a dirty mop and bucket. I remembered how funny it had been when Nervo jumped into the orchestra pit and decided to try it. I let out a yell and jumped. I didn’t know they had moved the trampoline and put the big drum back in its place. I went right through the drum and turned over several more. It didn’t hurt me and when I stood up, the six on stage, without missing a note of the number, dragged me back on stage.

I have never heard so much screaming and laughing in my life. The number was funny without me, but that turned the trick. It completely stopped the show. We had to do the number over again.

I had seen the movement in the pit and knew they had moved the small trampoline back in place. Right at the same spot in the song where I’d jumped before, I jumped off the stage again. I was thrown right back on stage, only, this time I hit butt first in the foot lights. There were four distinct pops from four lights in the foots exploding. The six grabbed me again, pulled me to my feet and we went right on with the number. The same thing happened again – the audience was in a state of pandemonium. They finally had to turn up the house lights to get the audience quiet.

Later in the show, Ray changes costume to do a number.

In my own spot in the show, I only did two numbers and an opening song. I was about half way through it when the audience recognized me as the one that had been the Idiot Mop Woman. All I could hear was, “It’s ‘er …. it’s ‘er … it’s ‘er.”

After two weeks at the Palladium, Ray worked at the Folies Bergère in Paris with Josephine Baker in October-November 1936.  He revived the character there.

Monsieur Durval asked me what I wanted to do in one of the production numbers. I explained that I thought it would be funny in the Great Parade number, when all the girls are completely naked except for head pieces and drapes on their arms, for me to be in the parade, wearing a big head piece, a ratty wig, and the same face makeup I’d used in the mop-woman in London, no teeth, a crotch cover like the blond dancer in the Waterfall scene, dirty tennis shoes and dirty bobby socks.

Eventually, the “Mop Lady” evolved into the routine Ray would perform at the Jewel Box and other venues – something he would do when sharing a bill with a larger cast to engage in slapstick and not as a solo spot, as far as we can tell.

Carol Burnette and Saint Louis, Missouri

Anyone seeing Ray perform his Mop Lady routine at the Jewel Box in Kansas City, then seeing a similar character pop up on The Carol Burnett Show later, might have wondered if there was some connection.  But is there really some link between Carol Burnett and Saint Louis, Missouri during the time Ray worked there?

It turns out there is.

The Jewel Box Lounge opened in 1948 and closed in 1982 and was well-known for its female impersonators in the late 1950s and 60s.  I’ve found ads listing Ray as a performer there starting in April 1963 and running through July 1967.  However, he likely appeared earlier at the club.  

Ray is documented as working in Kansas City as early as late 1960 at Club Michael’s in ads appearing in the Kansas City times.  A December 19, 1960 article says Ray was working at clubs in the city.  (“Circus Trouping”, Tom Parkinson, Billboard, Dec 19, 1960, p 174). Ray’s appearances in the city go back to at least 1935 when Ray appeared at Dante’s Inferno with Chet Forrest.

Burnett first appeared in Calmity Jane at the Starlight Theater in Saint Louis, Missouri in 1961.  Burnette, already a celebrity for her work in The Garry Moore Show, created quite a stir. 

1961 publicity photo of Carol Burnett with the cast of the "Garry Moore Show"

The local paper discussed Burnett’s Kansas City roots when she returned to perform there in 2018. (Quotes from Dan Kelly, “Carol Burnett’s Return Adds to Her Love Story with KC“, Kansas City Star, November 4, 2018.)

The Star and Times treated her like a visiting dignitary, running stories almost daily on Burnett and the Starlight show. They told how she attended local parties, talked to civic groups and learned the names of ushers, security guards and stagehands. She even took over the Starlight telephone switchboard and helped fill orders for tickets.

The 2018 article continues, noting that Burnette returned to Kansas City the following year, 1962, with a sketch comedy revue.

[Richard F.] Berger was the man who brought Burnett to Starlight in 1961, and he was thrilled to have her back the following summer when she decided to do a revue show.

That’s how Kansas City got an early preview of The Carol Burnett Show, which didn’t hit the TV airwaves until 1967.

The seven-night production sold out — and then some. Starlight’s capacity at the time was 7,600, and Burnett drew as many as 8,528. The total attendance of 55,142 set a record that stood until “The Wizard of Oz” broke it in 1991.

A record of Ray’s appearances are incomplete for 1961 and 1962, but he could have been performing in Kansas City when Burnett was in town.  And Burnett’s appearances were certainly big news in the city at the time.

Conclusion

So, did Carol Burnett’s writers “rip off” Ray Bourbon’s “Mop Lady” character for Burnette’s “Charlady” as “Scott” and a few others have claimed over the years? 

We have no proof that it happened, but the coincidence of Burnette’s high-profile appearances in Kansas City at the time Ray was doing the “Mop Lady” routine at the Jewel Box or other venues, followed by Burnett’s Charlady appearances in her tv special and later variety series, got the rumor mill started.

My own theory on this is that both Ray and Carol were probably tapping into a much older theater tradition or trope that neither was really conscious about.  A scholar in theater and performance history might know more about this, but a ragged “mop lady” used to “clean up” the stage after the performers just seems like something very basic that might have originated in English music halls or early burlesque shows.

Both Ray and Carol used the basic idea in different ways – Ray using the character for outrageous slapstick, Burnett for more subtle and poignant pantomime.  The similarity of the characters really takes nothing away from the brilliance and talent of either performer.

Until more evidence one way or another turns up, we can chalk this up to a fascinating coincidence.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s