George Burns: 100 Years of Laughter
From vaudeville to movies, the actor delighted audiences with his wry humor
HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — GEORGE BURNS, born Nathan Birnbaum Jan. 20, 1896, once said, ''I have two wishes - always leave 'em laughin' and live to be 100.''
Burns, who died Saturday morning, got both wishes. He was the elder statesman of one-liners, the singer of obscure songs, such as the forgettable ''If You Talk in Your Sleep, Don't Mention My Name,'' and writer of half-a-dozen bestsellers.
He always gave the nation hope, he made growing older ''the best time of life.''
A few minutes after the news of his death was announced, friends Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle, Carol Channing, and Ann-Margret were among the first to be on the phone calling the Burns home in Beverly Hills, Calif., and talking with his son, Ron, and his longtime friend and agent, Irvin Fein.
Their feelings were summarized by Mr. Hope, who concluded, ''I never thought 100 years was so short a time.'' The public wanted their sentiments known and many left flowers and notes on Burns's star on the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Blvd.
Saturday night, others lit candles in the forecourt of the Chinese Theatre where the comedian's hand and and footprints were imprinted.
His career spanned vaudeville, radio, motion pictures, television, books, records, laser discs, and CD-ROMs.
Born the ninth child in a family of 12, Burns could always coax a smile from his mother. ''At home,'' he said, ''I played to a full house.''
At six years old, he was singing in the neighborhood streets, the lower East Side of Manhattan, and bringing the pennies home to mom. His father died when he was 7, and Burns formed the Peewee Quartet and got into the ''big time'' singing in saloons and tenements - at 35 cents a day.
By the fourth grade, he dropped out of school. ''I seldom dropped in,'' he once said. ''I think you've got to love what you do. I was a kid, but already an old man. Why? Because I didn't have a job in show business.'' To help support his family, he sold newspapers and then, as a teenager, he performed song and comedy routines in small theaters.
Later, after a series of vaudeville acts when ''usually the trained seal got more applause than I did,'' he met an Irish girl named Gracie Allen.
She was a part-time secretary and daughter of a song-and-dance man. She came backstage looking for a partner for an act she wanted to perform. She met George Burns. He was the one with experience, so their new partnership had Gracie feeding him the straight lines and George doing the jokes.
It didn't work. As a kid, Burns had once received $25 not to go on stage. Since those days, he'd become a master at what audiences liked. Before their second show, he told Gracie they were going to change the act. He'd be the straight man, she'd deliver the jokes.
It was a winning combination - in vaudeville, then as one of the most popular radio shows of all time, and later as a top weekly TV series.
Burns was always improving the act. He was upset when their TV show didn't start off as a success. Then, he told Gracie, ''Everyone knows we're married, so why are we playing boyfriend-girlfriend on the show?''
Burns & Allen switched to exactly what they were in real life, a married couple, and even added their son, Ronnie, to the cast.
Burns's biggest regret was that he hadn't insisted Gracie retire earlier. She'd wanted to, but they were so successful and were having so much fun, he thought, that they kept going.
After she retired, he continued the TV series for one season. It was a disaster. Then came what Burns described as the hardest time of his life. His beloved wife of 38 years passed away, and a few years later, his best friend for 50 years, Jack Benny, also died.
For the next 10 years, George Burns kept busy, but he wasn't happy. Then, the producers of a movie called ''The Sunshine Boys,'' written by Neil Simon, came to him. They wanted him to replace the late Benny and costar with Walter Matthau in the movie.
Life began again for Burns with this film, and he was awarded the Academy Award in 1975. He then starred in ''Oh, God'' and its two sequels, which made him popular with yet another generation.
He was a great raconteur. At a New Year's Eve party a few years ago, Burns told me that when his time came, he wanted to be remembered behind Gracie. ''That's the way I want it, Gracie should always have top billing.''