Geri Jewell, although an accomplished actress and comedian known for her wit and ability to communicate the essence of a character, had more than talent to get her started. She knew how to pay attention to what others brought to this world and what added to joy and a feeling of well-being. She knew how to listen to herself, follow her hunches, and how to say what she felt so that she could be what she wanted to be. She had a sense of determination that never let limitations limit her.
Geri was twelve years old and in a Special Ed program when Emmet Kelly Jr. came to her class and handed a balloon to each child who could hold one and attached one to the wheelchairs of those children who could not. At that instant, she thought she wanted to be a clown when she grew up. What appealed to her? Everyone loved him. And, she thought no one would notice her cerebral palsy behind the costume.
At about that same time, something else with a more powerful motivation crossed her path. Seeing Carol Burnett make people laugh was instruction enough. She wrote what you would have to call a love letter. Geri told Ms. Burnett how much she loved her and how much it meant to her that people were laughing with her and not at her, and that it was a loving laughter. A healing laughter. Nothing malicious. Geri told her that she wanted to be like her when she grew up. And, she told Carol Burnett that she had cerebral palsy and asked Ms. Burnett what did she think. With that one question the letter went beyond affection and into the realm of trust. Like most love letters, it was an act of faith, this one faith in what Geri sensed would be Ms. Burnett’s compassion and recognition of a young girl’s courageous determination.
The life-altering power of a love letter! Listen to Geri talk about the letters she got from Carol Burnett that told her to keep going. Geri says, “When I was about 13 I used to carry some of her letters in my back pocket because they meant so much to me. Whenever someone told me I couldn’t do something or I was living in a dream world, I would take it out and say out-loud, “Dear Carol Burnett!”
Was she surprised then she heard back from Carol Burnett? “Oh, my God, yes! When I was 16 I got tickets to her show and saw the spoof on Gone with the Wind that got the longest laugh in television history. I did not know I was sitting in the middle of history. She used to raise the houselights to accept questions, I had my hand up and she did not call on me. During the whole time I was whispering to my friend, ‘She didn’t call on me, she didn’t call on me,’ until my friends told me to get over it. During the break I am still saying ‘She didn’t… ‘, and then my friend said ‘think of something quick because she is coming over to you.’ I turned around and saw her, she put out her hand and said, ‘Hi, I’m Carol Burnett, you must be Geri. I want you to know that I loved your letters and put your poetry up in my office for everybody to see.’” Geri, ever charmingly able to focus on goals, said to Carol Burnett, “Could you do me a favor? I wrote a paper for my class on you, and if you sign it, I might get a better grade. She signed it and I got an A”
Years later, in ’93 I went to see Carol in a play in Long Beach and she invited me back stage (she was always kind to me). I was going through a difficult period with my mother dying of cancer. I asked her if she knew what her letters meant to me and told her I was a comedienne because of her. She said, ‘Whether or not I had written to you, you would have done it.’”
Geri talks about being what she calls a survivor of special ed with both insightful pros and the cons and about her parents who strengthened her always. She recalls her first appearance as a stand-up comic thanks to the encouragement, and unusual and droll enough in itself, advice of her friend the blind comic Alex Valdez. “October 1978 I had just turned 21, went on open mic night at the Comedy Store. MC introduced me as ‘Geri Jewell, from Orange County- he drove a long way to get here.’ I got up on stage and you could hear a pin drop. Whole audience was staring at me. I knew I had 5 minutes.” She says that she couldn’t wait to get off stage, and was terrified but not willing to give up, and adds, “What I found out about stand-up is most comedians have to fight for attention. With that introduction as ‘he’ I had the attention, question was what was I going to do with it?” She ended up getting a standing ovation.
Norman Lear and Charlotte Rae were in the audience that night. Listen to Geri talk about how this all translated to her stardom in Facts of Life as Cousin Geri and the soaring Nielsen ratings.
She knows the importance of letters and although says she has “a million more” love letters she could write, at this stage in her life she would write “a letter to my mom, who is on the other side, and thank her for the foundation, the strength and the will. She never coddled me, did not spoil me, prepared me for pitfalls – she would say, ”Oh, you fell? Get up,” and Geri smiles as she remembers this and how she was taught never to be limited by limitations.
Sometimes letters are a stunning look into your own past as it was for Geri when about 6 months ago on Facebook someone sent her a private message that he had a scrapbook that belonged to her. “He wanted to return it. I said it was not mine. I told him to take a photo of it. I had forgotten that in my early years in the 80s I had so much of my stuff stolen and that scrapbook ended up in his memorabilia shop over 30 years later. Letters from Carol Burnett, Charlotte Rae, Lisa Whelchel, Brandon Tartakoff, He gave it all back to me. My contract for the first episode of Facts Of Life, Cheech and Chong show, of movie with Robby Benson, all my early years that I had forgotten had been kept in that scrapbook. I just cried when I saw it all. And, that it was in the hands of someone who cared enough to send it to me.”
It is no surprise that people always cared about Geri, ever defined by charm, trust, talent, the ability to laugh at herself, and with a spirit generous enough to share her real self. How permanent a gift that all of this is on paper, signed, sealed and delivered.
From me to you with love in the air,
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