The Carol Burnett Show featured numerous guest stars during its run from 1967 to 1978. Hollywood royalty including Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby, and Jimmy Stewart each took a turn performing with the variety show star.
Film icon Rita Hayworth made her debut on the comedy series in season 4, though Burnett had some concerns watching the Gilda star in rehearsals.
Carol Burnett invited Rita Hayworth on the sketch show
After doing a spoof of Hayworth’s classic 1946 film Gilda, Burnett received a telegram from the movie star with accolades on the skit. When Burnett called to thank her, she invited the movie star on The Carol Burnett Show with a setup already in mind.
“We were to do a sketch where Rita (as herself) was having lunch at he Brown Derby with her agent (Harvey Korman),” Burnett explained in her her 2016 memoir In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox. “Vicki [Lawrence] and I were an obnoxious mother and daughter who kept interrupting their lunch.”
Burnett and Hayward would then sing a duet, followed by the live audience and viewers seeing a clip of Hayworth dancing with Fred Astaire from You’ll Never Get Rich.
Hayworth wanted her grand finale with Burnett to feature them both dressed as Burnett’s classic Charwoman character. Hayworth would be decked out in the cleaning garb, looking in a mirror with Burnett as her reflection doing a “mock striptease number.”
Rita Hayworth couldn’t find her footing
According to Burnett, Hayworth was a little off her game when it came time to rehearse their dance number.
“I remember hearing somewhere that Fred Astaire once said that Rita Hayworth was his favorite dancing partner,” The Carol Burnett Show star recalled. “She was classically trained in ballet, tap, ballroom, swing, and Spanish dancing. … So it was a great surprise to Ernie Flatt, our choreographer, when Rita was unable to execute a simple step or two in our Charwoman dance routine.”
Hayworth continued to stumble with the steps, prompting Burnett to take some safety measures.
“She was so nervous that we decided to pre-tape the number, so she wouldn’t have to perform it in front of our live audience on-the-air show,” the famous redhead explained. “Was she drinking? We didn’t know, but it was evident that something was terribly wrong. Friday came, and we were all concerned about her.”
‘The Carol Burnett Show’ audience loved the ‘Gilda’ star
Word had spread that the film star would be appearing on The Carol Burnett Show, with tickets being snapped up for both the dress rehearsal and the on-the-air show. The overwhelming reception from the audience alleviated Hayworth’s stage fright.
“When she made her entrance in the Brown Derby sketch, looking gorgeous, she received a standing ovation,” Burnett wrote. “The same thing happened on the second show. Rita must have felt the love pouring out to her from the studio audience, because she more than rose to the occasion.”
When their recorded dance number was put up for the studio audience, Hayworth got even more accolades.
“The finale was played back to the audience on the TV monitors,” Burnett shared. “There was major applause for her when the number was over. Rita was beaming during the bows. … She was so very sweet to everyone that week, and all of the angst that had been felt became a dim memory.”