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'Hollywood Arms' combines hard times with bittersweet moments

Leslie Sanderson and Louise Cornetta as Nanny and Louise in "Hollywood Lives.
Tom Hall
Leslie Sanderson and Louise Cornetta as Nanny and Louise in "Hollywood Lives.

Carol Burnett is one of America’s most beloved entertainers. The Arts Center Theatre on Marco Island is producing a play that Burnett wrote with her daughter, Carrie Hamilton.

Based on Burnett’s memoir, "One More Time," the family drama delves into Burnett’s early life and the influences that enabled her to develop the wry wit and insightful humor that earned her variety show eight Golden Globes and 25 Emmy Awards over the course of its 11-season run. But "Hollywood Arms" is not that kind of show.

That’s something that surprised lead actor Cristina Villarreal, who plays a character named Helen, who’s a stand-in for 22-year-old Carol Burnett.

“Well when I heard about "Hollywood Arms" and that it was by Carol Burnett, I just thought it was going to be pure comedy,” Villarreal says. “I didn’t realize it was going to be something about her life or her life story or that I would be playing her character in a way, and then the more I got into it, the more there’s just so much drama, so much heartfelt things and moments and it’s just like this really beautiful play. And of course there’s comedy, but there’s a lot of hard moments in there too.”

The play’s rollercoaster ride of hard times and bittersweet moments is precisely what attracted director Marilee Warner to the production.

“The one thing about this show that attracted me was the sweetness between the relationships and even though there’s some extremely hard times, what comes out of that also are these tender moments and that, as an actress and a director, excited me because I felt like you could have those ups and downs.”

What makes "Hollywood Arms" must-see theater are the astonishingly astute lessons it teaches about how difficult it is to escape poverty and the often-pivotal role that dreaming plays in the lives we end up leading.

The first lesson comes to the audience compliments of the character of Nanny, played to perfection by Leslie Sanderson.

“Well she is very poor,” Sanderson observed. “She grew up poor. She’s always looking to save a nickel or a dime. Her daughter left to become somebody famous in Hollywood and left her daughter, my granddaughter, with me, and that built up some resentment. And my daughter is sort of on like an ego trip. She’s really not down to earth and she’s making bad decisions.”

Nanny doesn’t just throw cold water on her daughter’s aspirations of becoming a famous celebrity correspondent. She uncorks a veritable fire hydrant of negativity on poor Louise that the girl can never escape. But it’s not because Nanny is mean-spirited or hyper-critical. Having been mired in poverty her entire existence, she simply lacks the life experience and skills to help her daughter be successful.

Louise Cornetta plays the daughter, who coincidentally is named Louise.

“I love this character. So she is supposed to be the beautiful mother of Helen, who is really Carol Burnette. But she’s this beautiful woman who has these big dreams and just nothing ever goes her way and so her escape is alcohol. And so she descends deeper and deeper into alcohol when the men in her life don’t work out. She falls in love with the wrong people and it’s everything that she touches basically just is a disaster.”

The character of Louise underscores two important points. How can Louise possibly succeed when she has no template for success? As importantly, once her mother comes to live with her in Hollywood, there’s absolutely no way for her to escape the negative messages of impending failure and folly that her mother implants in her mind.

But as for Louise’s descent to the bottom of a bottle, "Flashdance’s" Nick Hurley has the better explanation, “When you give up your dream, you die.”

So how did Helen aka Carol Burnett escape the negative influence of her grandmother and self-destructive example of her mother? Burnett and Hamilton provide that answer in a scene between Helen and Nanny.

“When I say, ‘I swear, Helen, you’re just like your mother,’ and she says ‘No, I’m not. I’m nothing like my mother.’ And that’s sort of a defining point,” Leslie Sanderson explains. “Yeah, she’s going to succeed where her mother did not.”

While Helen’s life at this juncture can be viewed as a rejection of her mother’s lifestyle and choices, she nevertheless recognizes just how much she is like her mother. This comes out in song when Cristina Villarreal steps stage right and sings “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.”

At the end of the rainbow there's happiness,

And to find it often I've tried,

But my life is a race, just a wild goose chase,

And my dreams have all been denied.

Why have I always been a failure?

What can the reason be?

I wonder if the world's to blame,

I wonder if it could be me.

I'm always chasing rainbows,

Watching clouds drifting by,

My schemes are just like all my dreams,

Ending in the sky.

Some fellows look and find the sunshine,

I always look and find the rain.

Some fellows make a winning sometime,

But I never even make a gain, believe me,

I'm always chasing rainbows,

Waiting to find a little bluebird in vain.

“The words in that song are so apropos for her because she was always looking to get out and get somewhere,” Marilee Warner observes. “She goes to the rooftop as a child to get away. She goes to New York to make something of herself. She goes to do something, but she always feels like she’s chasing rainbows. That’s why that particular moment in the play is special to me because I look and I go well, a lot of people can identify with that. And I think that’s why that song was chosen in the script.”

One person who definitely identifies with the chasing rainbows theme is Cristina Villarreal, who makes her theatrical debut in Hollywood Arms. Her life is all about chasing rainbows.

“Way back when I was working in Dallas in a corporate setting and I decided to quit my job and move to New Zealand for a couple of years and work odd jobs, live out of my car and live in a tent and do whatever I wanted to do and just find that kind of lifestyle. And once I did that, I fell in love with that lifestyle. And since then, I’ve just kind of been hopping around and working odd jobs. I’ve gotten my captain’s license since I’ve been here in Goodland ,or Marco Island. I’m also a licensed insurance adjustor. I’m also a licensed drone pilot. So I’m collecting licenses as I go along. Just seeing where life takes me.”

So how did Carol Burnett go from chasing rainbows and watching clouds drift by to achieving her dreams? Ah, for that, you’ll need to see the play.

"Hollywood Arms" is at Arts Center Theatre in the former home of the Marco Players in Marco Town Center now through April 2.

Go here for play dates, times, ticket information and a complete cast list.

Go here for more on the play.


  • Hollywood Arms takes its name from the dingy, run-down hotel in which the action takes place.
  • Hollywood Arms is a period piece set in Hollywood first in 1941 (Act One) and then in 1951 (Act Two).
  • Written by Carol Burnett and her daughter, Carrie Hamilton, Hollywood Arms provides a transfixed stare into the influences and obstacles the fearless entertainer overcame to become one of the most beloved and successful comedians of all time and a role model for next generation female sketch artists like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig.
  • To play the role of Nanny, actor Leslie Sanderson was required to appear and act much older than she actually is. To achieve the look, Sanderson pulled her hair back and spent a copious amount of time on YouTube learning how to apply aging make-up. She also changed her posture in Act Two to emphasis how the wear and tear of her family’s circumstances had taken a toll on her body.
  • Sanderson is also a successful playwright. Her plays have been produced all over the English-speaking world. She got her start after attending a short play festival. “I said to myself ‘If this won a festival, I think I could make a play as good as this. And the very first play I wrote, I sent it out and it won a competition.”
  • Louise K. Cornetta plays Carol Burnett’s mother, a character who becomes progressively more alcoholic as the story progresses. “She’s trying to win love from her mother, from the men in her life, from her daughters,” Cornetta observes. “But the only place she can find love is in the bottle. So, for me, each drink she takes is a little bit of feeling love for just a millimeter of a second. So she enjoys drinking because it makes her feel good for one second in time, so I just try and incorporate ‘each drink makes me feel good and looser and looser and looser until I’m really loose!”
  • One sub-theme in the play centers around Louise’s inability to escape the negative influence of her hardboiled Christian Science mother. “She’s not an encouraging soft woman. Louise just wants her mom to say I believe in you. You can do it. Go out to Hollywood and kill it. Instead, it’s just negative, negative, negative. Every time she talks to her it’s ‘you’re not good enough,’ ‘you’re never going to do this,’ ‘it’s all just a pipe dream.’ When you hear that enough, you believe it and I think it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. She believes deep down inside that she isn’t good enough, that she can’t get these things done, and she doesn’t. And it’s because of her mom in a lot of ways.”
  • As a child, Cristina Villarreal watched Carol Burnett re-runs with her mother in their home-state of Texas.
  • This is Cristina Villarreal’s first time on stage too. “This is actually the first time I’ve ever done anything like this,” Villarreal discloses. “I’ve never done any shows or acting. I just wanted to do something a little different and kind of get out of my comfort zone. I’m definitely out of it [laughing].”
  • Villarreal thinks audiences will love the small cozy theater. Director Marilee Warner agrees, but thinks that what will resonate with audiences are the situations they watch unfold on stage. “What does theater do? Theater brings out something in the audience’s lives, and if we can do that to the audience, that’s our job - to make them feel something outside their lives that they can relate to and say, ‘Omigod, I’ve had an argument like that’ or ‘Gosh, I’ve had a moment like that.’ And then, it’s almost a healing thing, and I love that part about the theater. I love that. That we can take away people for an hour or two and just make them feel. I love that!”
  • Warner is high on her entire cast. “. I adore my cast. I am so pleased with every member of my cast. I feel like I am so blessed that they have just come up to the plate. They’re so good …. It takes a village. Look, it takes a village to make a play [laughing]. That’s one thing I love about theater. It’s not just the writing. It’s not just the director. It’s not just the actors. It’s not just the technical. It’s the collaboration of it all. And for me to see that all come together and just mesh together. My cast is wonderful.”
  • Although Arts Center Theatre plays on the same stage that was previously occupied by the Marco Players, they are a completely independent and new community theater.
  • Marco Island Center for the Arts Executive Director Hyla Crane explains why the Center decided to add a performing arts component to their mission and activities when the space in Marco Town Center became available. “Marco Island is a very special and very specific community. People take pride in their community, the beauty, the history. And we excited that we can be a part of providing art and culture, visual and performing arts on what is basically a 4 by 6 mile island. While the size and scope of what we do might be more limited than if we were in a large city, it is our belief that every community deserves a place to enjoy, appreciate and learn about art and culture. Adding performing arts is a natural extension of the work that we do. It is important that Marco have its community theater just as we’ve been able to provide it with its own art center.”

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.