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George Burns

by Paul Franson

When a comedian gets a laugh, it is often because the joke is rooted in exaggeration, but the irrepressible George Burns is remembered for spouting the truth while holding a cigar. Therefore, it really wouldn't be too surprising if comics today might wish they had the benefit of his experience (though cuteness may have helped).

Nathan Birnbaum was born on Jan. 20, 1896, in New York City, to Louis and Dorothy Birnbaum, becoming the ninth of 12 children. His father died of the flu during the epidemic of 1903, and "Nattie," as he was called, went to work. He was only seven years old when he was shining shoes and selling newspapers until landing a position of a syrup maker at a candy store

George Burns Burns claimed he was discovered by a talent scout and quit school in the fourth grade to go into show business. (He also adopted the stage name "George Burns" by combining the first and last names of two major league baseball players he admired.) He also became an extremely flexible performer during those vaudeville days with comedy as his strong suit, but the only partner with whom he was comically compatible was Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen.

After they met in 1923, "Gracie" was playing it straight and Burns was the joker, but she was getting the most attention and laughs with her illogical questions. They switched roles and built a following of admirers afterward, and were considered very reliable and became a standard act from then on. Their dedication allowed them to fulfill their lifelong dream of playing to the crowd at New York's famous Palace Theatre, and because George was such a brilliant writer, his sketches were not in need of editing. This talent was necessary for their later assignments in films, radio and TV.

Although many think of Burns and Allen as a married couple (together for 38 years), Gracie was actually engaged to someone else as she toured the vaudeville circuit with Burns. But, he was in love with her and even carried a ring in his pocket until she finally agreed to marry him. They were married in Cleveland, OH, on Jan. 7, 1926.

Contrary to securing radio popularity first, the couple broke the mold with film shorts such as The Big Broadcast of 1932; International House in 1933; Six of a Kind in 1934; The Big Broadcast of 1936 and The Big Broadcast of 1937. In A Damsel in Distress (1937), they kept up with dancing king Fred Astaire, a testament to their skills from vaudeville.

Originally, the script for Road to Singapore had been written for Burns and Allen, but since it didn't seem right for them, the script was rewritten and the movie made Hope and Crosby household names, spawning a succession of Road movies afterward.

The couple began their first radio show on Feb. 15, 1932, which capitalized on their earlier comedy routines, but after 17 years the show moved to CBS. The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show debuted in 1950 and ended in 1958 because Allen had heart trouble.

After fighting a long battle with heart disease, his wife had a fatal heart attack on Aug. 27, 1964. Burns was heartbroken after her death and immersed himself in producing television shows for the next several years.

A decade would pass before George Burns would suffer another loss: the death of his beloved friend, Jack Benny, who endured pancreatic cancer until Dec. 26, 1974. Burns said that the only time he ever wept in his life other than Gracie's death was when Benny died, saying at his funeral: "Jack was someone special to all of you but he was so special to me…I cannot imagine my life without Jack Benny and I will miss him so very much."

As life would have it, Jack Benny's death revived the career of the79- year-old, though he could never know this in the midst of grief. Burns was asked to play a role intended for his friend in Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys (1975) and he earned an Oscar for best supporting actor. He then played the title role in Oh, God! (1977), a film so well-received that the Water Tower Theatre in Chicago sold out of tickets. Again, he was terrific in Going in Style (1979), causing one to reconsider the implications of aging gracefully.

Amazingly, he still put on nightclub performances and was seen on television before his death at age 100 of heart failure.

Joan Voss is a freelance writer living in Libertyville, IL.


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