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'Her Spirit Was Bright, It Was Happy': Remembering Wichita Icon Karla Burns

In this month’s In The Mix, Carla Eckels remembers Karla Burns.

Karla Burns was born to perform.

“Years ago, I used to walk up and down the side street there at 8th and Wabash and sing my head off,” she said in a 2019 KMUW interview. “Singing every day and think, “Oh dear God, if I could just do this for my life, would be wonderful.’”

And that’s what she did, enjoying a career in theater that took her around the world, and eventually, back to her native Wichita, where she became an icon in the local arts scene. Burns died on June 4 after a long illness at the age of 66.

Credit Courtesy

Singing, dancing and acting were part of her DNA.

“Karla was into everything,” remembered her older sister, Donna Revels. “Her spirit was bright, it was happy. She loved to play jacks. She loved to sing. She loved to dance. She loved math.

“Even as a child she was very, very bright and she just was busy all the time.”

Burns graduated from West High School and headed off to Wichita State University, where she earned a double degree in music and theatre. Although she loved to sing, she was once discouraged from doing so by an instructor in the music department.

Revels said Burns’ voice teacher, Dr. George Gibson, asked her: “Do you really want to sing?”

“And he said, ‘I will teach you if you really, really want to, but you have to devote your life to this. You can’t play,’” Revels said.

“So, she kept going and going and going, singing opera and all of that and classical music. And eventually it clicked in and thus goes the story. That was her life.”

It was a life that took her all around the world. Her frequent director and friend of nearly 50 years Rick Bumgardner, artistic director at Roxy’s Downtown, remembers seeing Burns perform as Queenie in “Show Boat” on London’s West End.

Credit Courtesy Houston Grand Opera

“One of my proudest moments is sitting in the fourth row … watching my friend do the closing number in the first act of ‘Show Boat’ and the crowd going wild with applause lights going down on the stage, house lights coming up,” Bumgardner said. “I'm sitting there thinking and listening to that applause when the man to my left leaned over and said to me, ‘Oh my God, that Black girl is just phenomenal, isn't she?’ And I said, ‘Yes, yes, she is.’

“And to know her and to know that here was somebody halfway around the world and they were having the same sort of reaction that the people I had seen in Wichita, Kansas, and Houston and Los Angeles and New York, as she traveled with the Houston Grand Opera and taking it to Broadway, had.”

Credit Courtesy

Burns was well loved overseas and at home: She sang for the Queen of England and the rest of the Royal Family, for presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and for civil rights icon Rosa Parks and poet Maya Angelou.

Her performance as Queenie in the Broadway revival of Showboat was nominated for a Tony in 1984. And she was the first Black person from any nation to win a prestigious Lawrence Olivier award, the British equivalent to a Tony.

Burns has also received a Kansas Governor’s Arts award, and the City of Wichita declared Dec. 17 through Dec. 24, 2013, as Karla Burns Week. The Kansas African American Museum gave her a Trailblazers award in 2000.

Even with all of the accolades, Revels said she simply enjoyed hearing her sister sing.

“Actually, she can sing just about anything for me,” Revels said. “I like hearing her voice.”

Burns admired fellow Wichita native Hattie McDaniel. She portrayed the first Black Oscar winner in the one-woman show, “Hi-Hat Hattie,” showcasing elements of McDaniel’s life. And Burns pushed to replace a historical marker that was installed in March 2020 where McDaniel once lived near downtown Wichita.

Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW/File photo
KMUW/File photo

“It’s important to me to entertain and educate with excellence,” Burns said in a 2019 interview with KMUW. “Young Black children, young children who had no clue who paved the way for them… to do the American Idols, to do the kind of performances that I’ve gotten to do.

“I want to tell all the world about her.”

In 2016, Burns’ own excellence was recognized: Wichita State, her alma mater, awarded her an honorary doctorate degree.

In 2016, Revels recalls one surprise her sister shared from a letter she received from her alma mater, Wichita State.

When she received the letter, “boy, did she cry! I mean, she cried crocodile tears, alligator tears, elephant tears, everything,” her sister recalled. “The tears were just flowing down her face, and I said, ‘Well, you made it. They love you that much that they are going to give you a doctorate degree based on your ability to be able to teach children, your ability to be able to take what you have learned and share it with other people.’”

Burns was asked in 2020 about what she wanted her legacy to be.

“That I did my best and let God do the rest,” she said. "I would like to be known that I’m honest in what I love and what God has given me, that I have used this journey to be the best that I can be.

“I just hope they remember.”

Carla Eckels is Director of Organizational Culture at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.