Aunt Effie from Mama's Family was actually a writer on the show from Ken Berry's hometown
An esteemed bunch of actors portrayed the eclectic members of the Harper clan on The Carol Burnett Show and Mama's Family. Vicki Lawrence may lord over them all as Mama in her muumuu, but she was joined by comedy legends Carol Burnett (Eunice Harper Higgins), Betty White (Ellen Harper-Jackson), Harvey Korman (Ed Higgins), Rue McClanahan (Aunt Fran) and Ken Berry (Vinton Harper).
Overlooked in that crowded family tree is Aunt Effie Harper, Thelma's cousin. Aunt Effie pops up in eight episodes of Mama's Family. She falls off a roof ("After the Fall"), takes up tap dancing with Mama ("Mama's Girls") and, perhaps most memorably, brings rum balls to Thanksgiving dinner during a tornado ("An Ill Wind").
Playing the character was Dorothy Van. The actress was more age-appropriate for the role than Vicki Lawrence, though still only five years older than Ken Berry. In fact, she and Ken Berry had much in common. Both were born and raised in Moline, Illinois. Both Berry and Van headed to Broadway, too. No wonder they got on famously, and became friends behind-the-scenes.
But it does not suffice to call Van a mere actress on Mama's Family. She played a much bigger role. Van was a writer and story editor on the sitcom. She penned some of the best episodes of the series, including "Rashomama," the he-said, she-said story inspired by Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. Who else would take artistic Japanese cinema as an influence on Mama's Family?
Van also scripted a handful of episodes for Punky Brewster, Silver Spoons and Major Dad, but the bulk of her work was on Mama's Family. Meanwhile, her faith brought her into the friendship of a childhood idol. Through her Methodist church, she met and befriended Shirley Temple. Van passed away in 2002 at the age of 74.
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