Burns, George

views updated May 11 2018

Burns, George

(b. 20 January 1896 in New York City; d. 9 March 1996 in Los Angeles, California), comedian who acquired celebrity as half of the George Burns and Gracie Allen comedy team and, after Allen’s death, achieved a highly successful solo career.

George Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum, the tenth of twelve children of Louis Birnbaum, an Austrian immigrant, and Dora Bluth, a Polish immigrant. The family lived in a three-room apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where many Jewish immigrants had settled after arriving from Eastern Europe. Louis Birnbaum earned so little as a butcher’s helper that Dora took in wash to support the household. Things grew desperate when Louis died at the age of forty-seven, a victim of the 1904 influenza epidemic.

That same year, at the age of eight, Burns—who would forever be “Nat” to his intimates—joined a street-corner singing group called “The Peewee Quartet.” After that, show business became his consuming interest. Three years later, economic need and academic boredom caused him to quit school in the fifth grade. Consequently, he was almost illiterate for the rest of his life.

Burns abandoned the quartet when a friend taught him the basics of tap dancing, after which he decided to make a career of song and dance on the vaudeville stage. He took the name, George Burns, borrowing “George” from a favorite brother and Burns—so he said—from the local “Burns Brothers Coal Yard.” More likely, he simply anglicized “Birnbaum.”

In the following years Burns acquired a vast collection of names as he joined countless acts in a frantic effort to break into vaudeville. He was Jackson in “Jackson and Malone,” Harris in “Harris and Dunlop,” Jose in “Jose and Dolores,” and first Brown and then Williams of “Brown and Williams.” Everything in his life was grist for a vaudevillian view of life. He even married a dance partner named Hermosa Jose (whose real name was Hannah Siegel) because that was the only way her parents would allow her to tour with him, according to Burns. He would put a “vaudeville shine” on life’s mundane events because, as he would always say, he preferred show business to everyday drabness.

The marriage to Hannah Siegel was as short-lived as their stage act, but neither failure upset him. In later years, Burns recalled both the wife and the act as comedy material. Indeed, most of his banter was based on personal history as he chose to reinvent it, not for his own psychological advantage but for laughs. Burns’s most striking characteristic was good humor—a boundless optimism and a love of his life. Financial circumstances may have sometimes forced the young man to take the occasional job—as a garment worker, for instance—but he would quit as soon as he earned enough money to buy a new auditioning outfit. Then he was on to the next third-rate vaudeville theater and the next failed act.

The turning point for Burns came in 1923. He was playing a final engagement as half of a disbanding impressionist act called “Burns and Lorraine,” when he was visited backstage by a beautiful young singer-dancer named Grace Allen, who was looking for a new partner. She, too, had performed since childhood, but in every other respect these two could not have been more different. Burns was a product of New York’s teeming Lower East Side, a first-generation American, and a Jew. Allen, who was ten years younger than Burns, was an Irish Catholic from San Francisco. His parents were poor immigrants who had never heard of show business, while she came from a theatrical family. And although Burns had known nothing but failure, Allen had been successful from the outset, dancing with her sisters as part of “The Four Colleens.”

By 1923, however, the last of Allen’s sisters had quit the act, leaving the seventeen-year-old performer in search of a new partner and a new act. That fortuitous night, she found both the partner and the act on the stage of a smalltime vaudeville theater in suburban Union City, New Jersey, while attending a friend’s performance. Within weeks, Burns and Allen were rehearsing a new routine, described by Burns as a “street-corner comedy act.” It was his first attempt at comedy, and Allen was the “straight man,” providing the cues for Burns’s punch lines.

At their first performance, Burns’s losing streak remained intact. He was no more successful at comedy than he’d been at singing and dancing. But also intact was Allen’s winning streak; she got more laughs with her set-ups than he got with his punch lines. “I didn’t have to be a genius,” Burns later recalled, “to understand that there was something wrong with a comedy act when the straight lines got more laughs than the punch lines.” His friend and fellow vaudevillian Jack Benny, who was in that first audience, agreed. And so, between the first and second shows, Burns—more interested in being a hit than in being a star—revised the routine, giving Allen some of the funnier material.

ALLEN: My sister had a baby.

BURNS: Boy or girl?

ALLEN: I don’t know, and I can’t wait to find out if I’m an uncle or an aunt.

The audience rewarded his efforts by making them a smash hit, and Burns realized that his gift was indeed a sense of humor—a sense of Allen’s humor and the know how to deliver it to an audience. His talent was for directing and writing—for capitalizing on Allen’s sincerity and vulnerability, and for focusing the audience’s attention on what he called her “illogical logic.” He made her endearingly hilarious, and she became a Galatea to his Pygmalion.

The duo’s act quickly rose through the ranks of vaudeville, and only two years later they were starring on the big time (vaudeville status was described as the “big,” “medium,” or “small” time). While reviews were often dismissive of Burns, he knew how essential he was to the team, and so did Allen. Moreover, she had fallen in love with him, as he already had with her. They were married, with Jack Benny as best man, on 7 January 1926, while on the road, in Cleveland, Ohio. They later adopted two children.

Burns was not only the mastermind behind the act but also its canny business manager. By 1928, he and Allen were headlining at vaudeville’s mecca, the Palace Theater in New York City. And he was smart enough to keep out of the stock market, whose crash devastated some of their colleagues—Eddie Cantor, for instance, and Al Jolson. Moreover, Burns anticipated the death of vaudeville, quitting it to take himself and Allen into movies and the new medium of radio.

In Hollywood the couple was paid huge fees for short films and bit parts. The only movie in which they played characters other than themselves was “Damsel in Distress” (1937), in which they also can be seen dancing brilliantly with their close friend Fred Astaire. The picture is the only remaining evidence of Burns’s considerable ability as a dancer.

The team’s greater success was in radio, where they quickly rose to top popularity, as did their pal Benny. This lasted from 1932 into the 1950s, when they took the half hour “George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” into television. As in radio, it always began with their theme music, “The Love Nest,” and always ended with the lines:

BURNS: Say good night, Gracie.

ALLEN: Good night.

Many people would insist that her final line was to mindlessly repeat, “Good night, Gracie,” but in so doing she would have appeared a “Dumb Dora” (as such acts were sometimes called). Burns knew that her appeal was based instead on innocence and dearness. The character she played was literal minded and blithe, but not stupid. It was one of several strict rules he followed. For instance, Allen would never look at the audience—not even a radio studio audience—but only at George. Then he would glance at the audience, in effect pointing out the way to find her funny in an endearing way, rather than laughing at her expense.

Likewise, Burns would never be mean or sarcastic with her, would never even touch her, and the cigar that he used for a prop would always be kept away from her face. These were sacrosanct rules, for he knew how thoroughly the act depended on the character she was playing, just as it depended on his timing, shaping, writing, and direction. He was convinced that without her, his act would be finished.

By 1958, Allen had become weary of performing and wished to pursue a life beyond show business that focused on her children as well as her family and friends. She was also suffering from agonizing migraine headaches. But with every contract renewal, Burns convinced Allen to go on, both to take them into the new medium of television and to perpetuate his own career. She went along with him until suffering a heart attack in 1958.

With the final broadcast of “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” on 4 June 1958, they never worked as a team again. At first, Burns attempted to be a solo performer, but the television audience wanted Allen, and the CBS weekly “The George Burns Show” (1958–1959) was canceled after one season. Then he tried to re-create the act, giving Allen’s old material to such new partners as Carol Channing or Ann-Margret. Their imitations only reminded audiences of the beloved original.

Finally, Burns seemed broken beyond repair by Allen’s death in 1964, at the age of fifty-four. Photographs of the funeral depict him leaning on Jack Benny, and for ten years afterward, Burns was a virtual nonentity in show business. Having produced not only the Burns and Allen television show, but also several other series, such as No Time for Sergeants (1964), he was a wealthy man. But retirement was the same as death to him, and in 1974, he suffered a near-fatal heart attack. However, with the new development of open-heart surgery, Burns became the oldest patient to undergo a triple-bypass operation.

While still recovering from surgery, Burns was asked by an ailing Jack Benny to substitute at a one-night hotel engagement and Benny gave him more than the brief assignment. When Benny’s illness proved to be pancreatic cancer, he recommended—on his deathbed—that Burns replace him in the movie The Sunshine Boys.

This proved to be the second miracle in Burns’s life. Just as Allen’s partnership had enabled him to become a hit, now Benny made it possible for him to be a star on his own. He showed up for the movie audition with apparent confidence (”I’m perfect for the part,” he told a friend. “They’re looking for an old Jewish vaudevillian and I’m an old Jewish vaudevillian.”), but in fact, having never learned to read fluently and fearful of being handed an unexpected scene, he had memorized his character’s entire part. He got the role, and not only accepted minimum pay, but leapt at the opportunity.

With The Sunshine Boys, Burns won in 1976 the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The movie began a second life for him—a second career in show business, even more successful than the first. In 1977 he starred in the phenomenally successful movie, Oh, God! playing a deity of unexpected whimsy. Audiences took the wisely comic God to their hearts, and Burns became America’s favorite old man. Between 1975 and 1979, he wrote two books, appeared in five movies (including You and Me, Kid; Going in Style; and two sequels to Oh, God!), and starred in countless television specials. Appearing in Las Vegas and Atlantic City nightclubs, he earned between $25,000 and $50,000 a week. Entering his eighties, he became a symbol of optimism and productivity. He was perhaps the most famous and popular old man America had ever known, surely the funniest, and his appeal crossed all age boundaries. For the elderly, he represented vitality, for the young he stood for wisdom. Still the canny vaudevillian, he perfected his old performing trademarks, and they faithfully served the same purposes. His stammer, for instance, gave him time to set up the next line, while his puffs on a burning cigar allowed the audience to laugh, and the length of its ash let him know how long he had been on stage.

Burns had always specialized in unexpected comedy, but even he had never figured on age as a gold mine of humor. It proved to be exactly that. Instead of concealing his interest in younger women, he would tell audiences, “I would go out with women my age, but there are no women my age.” He made it clear, however, that he still loved Allen, reminding audiences of his “chats” with her during regular visits to her grave. The “God” movies had lent him an aura of sagacity so that he could play the role of benign grandfather. “You can’t help getting older,” he would say, “but you don’t have to get old.” With his courtly manner and elfin glee, he was able to talk straight to the elderly about overcoming infirmities. “When I walk,” he would tell them, “I take steps, and not little ones. Little steps, you’ll never get there.”

As he entered his middle nineties, it seemed as if Burns would continue to perform forever, certainly to the magic number of 100 years. The country cheered him on toward the mark. He continued to star in television specials and perform in casinos. Plans were made for his centennial—a television special, a show at the London Palladium, and an appearance in Las Vegas that sold out immediately upon its announcement. “I can’t die now,” Burns said, “because I’m booked.” But those centennial engagements were canceled when, in 1994, he fell in his bathroom and suffered a concussion. He recovered enough to resume his habit of drinking at least one martini every day. Although now wheelchair-bound, he continued his regular lunches at Hillcrest, the Hollywood country club. Already shrunken and wizened, he seemed determined to make it to 100 years of age, and he did, but just barely; Burns died two months later at his home. He is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.

Burns was a phenomenon in American cultural as well as entertainment history. In show business, he had two distinct careers, first as the partner of Gracie Allen in a comedy team that spanned vaudeville, radio, movies, and television. Although they reached the top in all of these fields, Burns surpassed it after his wife’s death, winning an Academy Award at the age of eighty. For the next twenty years he was America’s favorite grandfather, a raconteur and comic philosopher starring in movies, nightclubs, and television specials. It was a long, rich life spanning and celebrating all the periods and styles of American entertainment, and he lived it with such zest and relish that he became an icon, symbolizing affirmation and continued productivity for the elderly.

Burns’s autobiographies include I Love Her That’s Why! (1955), The Third Time Around (1980), How to Live to Be 100—Or More (1983), Prescription for Happiness (1984), Gracie: A Love Story (1988), and All My Best Friends (1989). See also Cynthia Hobart Lindsay (with George Burns), Living It Up (Or, They Still Love Me in Altoona) (1976), and Martin Gottfried, In Person: The Great Entertainers (1985). An obituary is in the New York Times (10 Mar. 1996).

Martin Gottfried

George Burns

views updated May 18 2018

George Burns

Comedian and actor George Burns (1896-1996) is a show business legend. When he died at the age of 100 in 1996, he had spent 90 years as a comic entertainer, making numerous television and film appearances and earning an enduring popularity with his obligatory-cigar-in-hand comedy routines.

In his ninety years in show business, George Burns had time for three careers. His first two decades were spent as a small-time vaudeville performer. Later, as part of a comedy duo with his wife, Gracie Allen, he achieved wide popularity on the stage, radio, television, and in films. Finally, after Allen's death, Burns performed as a stand-up comedian and comic actor, winning an Academy Award at the age of 80.

George Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum on January 20, 1896, the ninth of twelve children of an Orthodox Jewish family. The Birnbaums, recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, lived on New York City's impoverished lower East Side. His father was a cantor (a painfully out-of-tune one, according to Burns's account), who worked as a last-minute substitute at various New York synagogues.

After his father's death, Burns began a career in show business at the age of seven. To help support the family, he formed the Pee Wee quartet, a group of child performers who sang and told jokes on street corners. He and his brothers also helped out by stealing coal from a nearby coal yard—earning the nickname the Burns Brothers. He would later settle on this as a stage name, changing his first name to George after an idolized older brother.

Burns's early performing years were spent doing whatever he could to earn money. In 1916, under the name Willy Delight, he performed as a trick roller-skater on the Keith Vaudeville Circuit. Later, as Pedro Lopez, he taught ballroom dancing. Over the years, he tried several other names—Billy Pierce, Captain Betts, Jed Jackson, Jimmy Malone, Buddy Lanks—appearing in a wide range of vaudeville acts with many different partners. "When I first started in vaudeville I was strictly small-time," he reminisced in his book, How to Live to be 100—or More. "I'd be lying if I said I was the worst act in the world; I wasn't that good."

Formed Partnership with Gracie Allen

By 1923, he was appearing at the Union Theatre as George Burns, comedian, when he met his future partner, Gracie Allen. Allen, ten years younger than Burns, came from a San Francisco show business family, and had also been performing since she was a child. However, by the early 1920s, she had given up her fledgling career in entertainment to train as a stenographer. Allen was accompanying a friend on a backstage visit at the theater when she was introduced to Burns. In tune with her scatterbrained image, she confused him with someone else, and called him by the wrong name for several days.

Burns and Allen made their performing debut in 1924. In his previous act, Burns was both the writer and the comedian, while his partner played the straight man. Burns initially stuck to this format in his act with Allen, but quickly learned that she was the funny one. "Even her straight lines got laughs," Burns was quoted as saying in The Guardian. "She had a very funny delivery …. they laughed at her straight lines and didn't laugh at my jokes."

Soon Burns and Allen developed the act that would make them famous: he played the bemused, cigar-smoking boyfriend and comic foil to her dizzy, muddled girlfriend. In a distracted, little-girl voice, Allen told rambling stories about her family, while Burns asked questions. "I just asked Gracie a question, and she kept talking for the next 37 years," he later recalled (quoted in The Daily Telegraph).

After performing together in vaudeville for three years, Burns and Allen were married in Cleveland on January 7, 1926. Theirs was a famously happy marriage. "I'm the brains and Gracie is everything else, especially to me," Burns once said (quoted in The Daily Mail). Later, they adopted two children, Sandra Jean and Ronald John.

Around the time of their marriage they were signed to a six-year contract with Keith theaters, which took them on tours of the United States and Europe. In 1930 Burns and Allen joined Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, and others in a headline bill marking the end of vaudeville at the Palace Theatre in New York. After this appearance, as well as appearances on the Rudy Vallee and Guy Lombardo shows, CBS signed the team for their own radio program.

Launched Successful Radio Show

The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show debuted on February 15, 1932. The team became famous for one exchange that ended that show, and every show. After a program filled with one non sequitur after another, Burns would say, long sufferingly, "Say goodnight, Gracie" and Allen would respond brightly, "Goodnight, Gracie."

During nineteen years in radio, Burns and Allen attracted an audience estimated at more than 45 million listeners. In 1940 their salary was reported to be $9,000 a week. Always modest about his role in the series, Burns claimed that Allen was solely responsible for their enduring success. "With Gracie, I had the easiest job of any straight man in history," he said (quoted in The Guardian). "I only had to know two lines—'How's your brother?' and 'Your brother did what?"'

Meanwhile, in 1931 they signed a contract with Paramount Studios to star in short films and, when not making pictures, to play on the stage of the Publix theaters. Their first full-length movie was The Big Broadcast of 1932. In addition to many short films, the team made an average of two films a year for Paramount. Their last film for Paramount was Honolulu (1939), which starred Eleanor Powell and Robert Young.

To attract attention for their radio show, Burns masterminded several publicity stunts. In 1933, Allen appeared on radio shows throughout the country, searching for her imaginary lost brother. The joke was so convincing that her real brother, an accountant in San Francisco, had to go into hiding until public interest in him had waned. During the 1940 election, Allen declared herself a nominee for the "Surprise Party," and campaigned on various radio shows, even holding a three-day convention in Omaha. She received several thousand write-in votes.

In October 1950, The Burns and Allen Show made the transition to television. The program used the same format as the successful radio program. The following exchange was typical of their humor: "Did the maid ever drop you on your head when you were a baby?" "Don't be silly, George. We couldn't afford a maid. My mother had to do it" (quoted in The Independent).

Began to Perform as Solo Act

In 1958, angina forced Allen to retire—an event that merited the cover of Life magazine. At the time, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show was then television's longest-running sitcom. Burns continued to perform in The George Burns Show, but the series only lasted one season. "The show had everything it needed to be successful, except Gracie," Burns recalled (quoted in The Independent).

Six years later, Allen died of cancer at the age of 59. Burns was devastated, and made almost daily visits to her grave. "The good things for me started with Gracie and for the next 38 years they only got better," he was quoted as saying in The Guardian. "But everything has a price. It still doesn't seem right that she went so young, and that I've been given so many years to spend without her."

After Allen's death, Burns devoted his time to McCadden, his television production company, which made such popular programs as The People's Choice (1955-58) and Mr. Ed (1961-66). Burns also appeared as a guest in various television specials throughout the sixties. However, his attempts to develop a new double act failed; he was unacceptable to the public with new partners like Carol Channing or Connie Stevens.

Won Academy Award at Age 80

It was not until 1975 that Burns was given the opportunity to re-launch his performing career. After the death of Jack Benny, a contemporary and close friend from the vaudeville days, Burns took Benny's role opposite Walter Matthau in Neil Simon's film, The Sunshine Boys. The role of the ancient straight man, coming out of retirement for one last get-together with his shambling former partner, could not have been more perfect for Burns. At age 80, he won an Academy Award for best supporting actor—the oldest person to do so. "My last film was in 1939," he said at the time (quoted in The Daily Telegraph). "My agent didn't want me to suffer from over-exposure."

He followed his success with Oh God!, in which he played the deity wearing baggy pants, sneakers, and a golf cap. Two sequels followed, Oh God! II (1980) and Oh God! You Devil (1984), as well as several other comedies. None of these films was very successful, but Burns was undisturbed. "I just like to be working," he was quoted as saying in The Daily Telegraph.

Throughout the 1980s, Burns appeared often on television, hosting 100 Years of America's Popular Music (1981), George Burns and Other Sex Symbols (1982) and George Burns Celebrates 80 Years in Show Business (1983). By this time, his comic material, mostly one-liners, centered almost exclusively on his age and longevity.

Burns also published various books, including Dr. Burns' Prescription for Happiness (1985) and a tribute to his wife, Gracie, A Love Story (1988), in which he revealed that Allen was actually his second wife. During his vaudeville days, Burns had formed a dancing act with Hannah Siegel, whom he had rechristened Hermosa Jose, after his favorite cigar. When their act was booked for a 26-week tour, her parents refused to let her travel the country with Burns unless he married her. The marriage lasted as long as the tour, and then was dissolved.

Although Burns never remarried, during his 80s and 90s he developed an enthusiasm for taking out young women—which became another endless source for comic material. At 97, Burns was still writing, making stage appearances, and numbering Sharon Stone among his escorts.

Burns had planned shows to celebrate his 100th birthday at the London Palladium for January 20, 1996. However, after a bad fall in 1994, his health declined, and the performances were canceled. A few days before his 100th birthday, he was suffering from the flu, and was unable to attend a party in his honor. Burns died at his home in Los Angeles on March 9, 1996.

Further Reading

Daily Mail, March 11, 1996, p. 23.

The Daily Telegraph, March 11, 1996, p. 23.

The Guardian, March 11, 1996, p. 12.

The Independent, March 11, 1996, p. 16.

The Times (London), March 11, 1996. □

Burns, George

views updated May 08 2018


BURNS, GEORGE (1896–1996), U.S. comedian. Born in New York City, Burns was one of 12 children. He supported his family with his show business earnings after his father died.

As Nathan Birnbaum, the young Burns sang for pennies at street corners. He started his career at the age of seven, singing in the Pee Wee Quartet. He went on to vaudeville, where he worked as a seal trainer, a trick roller skater, and a dance teacher. In 1923 he teamed up with his future wife, Gracie Allen. Their act starred Burns as funny man, but later they exchanged roles. They appeared in big vaudeville houses and in 1932 were hired for a radio program, The Burns & Allen Show, which ran for 17 years.

In 1950 they starred in their own tv program, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, which ran until 1958 when Gracie retired. Essentially using themselves and their family life as the main premise for the show, Burns added an unprecedented and seemingly original dimension to programming for television viewers. But, as Burns put it, "My major contribution to the format was to suggest that I be able to step out of the plot and speak directly to the audience, and then be able to go right back into the action. That was an original idea of mine; I know it was because I originally stole it from Thornton Wilder's play Our Town." Eventually, the show's writers (Burns was head writer) gave him additional omniscience by placing a closed-circuit tv in his den, which enabled him to watch the goings-on in the household and comment on the activities even when he was not a participant.

His production company, McCadden, produced the sitcoms The Bob Cummings Show (1955–59), The People's Choice (1955–58), and the highly popular show about a talking horse, Mister Ed (1961–66).

When Gracie died in 1964, Burns continued performing on his own, taking on dramatic roles as well as comedic ones. In 1975 he co-starred with Walter Matthau in the film The Sunshine Boys, which won him an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. At 80, he became the oldest Oscar recipient. Still going strong, Burns appeared in several other movies, namely Oh God (1977); Going in Style (1979); Just You and Me, Kid (1979); Oh God! Book ii (1980); Oh God! You Devil (1984); and 18 Again (1988). He also recorded several albums, and at age 84 won the 1990 Grammy for Best Spoken-Word Recording for Gracie: A Love Story. In 1994 The Burns & Allen Show was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.

Burns' signature feature was his ever-present cigar. Not just a prop, he actually smoked at least ten a day, and lived to be 100. When someone asked him what his doctor's opinion of his frequent smoking was, Burns responded, "My doctor is dead." For his body of work over the many years, Burns received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the American Comedy Awards (1987 and 1978), the British Comedy Awards (1991), and the Screen Actors Guild (1995). In 1988 he was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honor.

Burns produced his first book of memoirs in 1955, entitled I Love Her, That's Why! He went on to write Living It Up, or They Still Love Me in Altoona (1976); The Third Time Around (1980); How to Live to Be 100: Or More! The Ultimate Diet, Sex and Exercise Book (1983); Dear George: Advice and Answers from America's Leading Expert on Everything from A to Z (1985); Gracie: A Love Story (1988); All My Best Friends (with David Fisher, 1989); Wisdom of the 90s (with Hal Goldman, 1991); and 100 Years, 100 Stories (1996).


C. Blythe and S. Sackett, Say Goodnight Gracie! The Story of Burns & Allen (1986); M. Gottfried, George Burns and the Hundred Year Dash (1996).

[Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]

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