Closer To Grace: Burns Dies 100-Year-Old Comic Beloved By Generations
George Burns, who was the best comic “straight man” of his time in a partnership with his wife, the masterfully scatterbrained Gracie Allen, and who then began a brilliant solo career when he was nearly 80, died Saturday.
He was 100 and his career in show business lasted 93 years.
Burns died at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., said his manager, Irving Fein.
When he was well into his 90s, Burns announced with his customary brio that he had arranged to celebrate his 100th birthday, on Jan. 20, 1996, with an engagement at the London Palladium. That being the case, he noted, he could not possibly die - “I’m booked,” he explained.
The diminutive, gravel-voiced Burns, delivering doses of his dry humor and occasionally breaking into a fragment of some long-forgotten vaudeville ditty, all the while savoring a huge cigar, was a beloved figure to several generations of Americans.
He not only survived but triumphed in vaudeville, radio, television, nightclubs, records, books and movies. Even as he aged, he seemed ageless.
In July 1994, however, Burns fell in a bathtub in his home and was hospitalized. Two months later he was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for surgery to drain fluid from the surface of his brain.
He never recovered fully and became increasingly frail. He was forced to cancel his Palladium appearance and a sold-out engagement scheduled for last year at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nev.
Burns already had his opening line ready: “It’s nice to be here. When you’re 100 years old, it’s nice to be anywhere.”
Burns and Allen rose to the heights of the entertainment world in the 1920s and remained there, whether in vaudeville, movies, radio or television, until Allen’s retirement in 1959.
After Allen’s death in 1964 at the age of 58, Burns continued to perform on television in concerts and nightclubs with performers like Carol Channing, Ann-Margret and Dorothy Provine.
In 1975, when he was 79 and after undergoing major heart surgery, Burns made a triumphant movie comeback in Neil Simon’s ” The Sunshine Boys,” in the role of a retired vaudeville performer, and began his remarkable second career.
He had been absent from the screen in a leading role for 35 years, but he won an Academy Award as best supporting actor.
Burns and Allen were products of that golden age in vaudeville that produced many comedians who successfully made the transition to motion pictures, radio and television. Among them were Milton Berle, George Jessel, Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, Phil Silvers, Bert Lahr and Burns’ closest friend for a half-century, Jack Benny.
The Burns and Allen comedy team came into being in 1922, but Burns had been in show business for about 15 years before that.
Burns, whose original name was Nathan Birnbaum, was born on Jan. 20, 1896, on Pitt Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the ninth of twelve children.
At age 7, he joined with a 6-year-old basso and two other boys to form the Pee-Wee Quartet, which performed in saloons and on the Staten Island ferry, where, he said, the only way for people to avoid them was to jump overboard. At 13, he and a friend opened B-B’s College of Dancing.
“We got most of our clients right off the immigration boats at Ellis Island,” Burns late recalled. “We told them one of the first requirements of becoming a United States citizen was a $5 course of dancing lessons. Dishonest, you say? Maybe. But have you ever been hungry?”
Following the vogues of the times, Burns appeared in vaudeville as a trick roller skater and a member of Latin and ballroom dance teams.
Burns’ acts were invariably so awful, he said, that no booker would hire him, so he would constantly be forced to invent new stage names, among them Willy Delight, Captain Betts and Buddy Links. He was part of a song-and-dance act at a theater in Newark, N.J., when he was introduced to Allen in 1922.
Although she was only 16, Allen had four years of vaudeville experience, playing Irish colleens. Burns persuaded her to join him with Allen playing his straight “man.” But it soon became apparent that Allen was a natural comedienne, and Burns rewrote their material to give his new partner most of the laughs.
By 1926, when they were married, Burns and Allen had become stellar attractions in vaudeville.
Their radio debut came in 1929, when they were appearing at the Palladium in London. On their show, which began on NBC in 1932 and lasted until 1950, Burns cultivated Allen’s characterization of the addlepated nitwit. He gave her lines, for instance, in which she explained she trimmed the hedge with an electric razor, or put straw in the water in which she boiled eggs “so they’ll feel at home.”
“The character was simply the dizziest dame in the world, but what made her different from all the other dumb Doras was that Gracie played her as if she were totally sane, as if her answers actually made sense,” Burns once explained. “We called it illogic-logic.”
Their patented humor carried over into movies. They played themselves in more than a score of films.
“Gracie didn’t tell you a joke,” Burns said. “She explained it to you.” Here is an example, from a 1947 radio script:
George: “Gracie, suppose you start explaining these Christmas bills. Who got this $25 hat?”
Gracie: “I gave that to Clara Bagley. I’ve decided to break up our friendship.”
George: “Then why did you give her an expensive hat?”
Gracie: “I have one exactly like it. When she sees me with it on, she’ll stop speaking to me.”
“The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” made the transition from radio to television, on CBS, in 1950, and it traveled well.
The program always ended with Burns’ rasping, “Say good night, Gracie.” To which Allen obligingly replied, “Good night, Gracie.”
Burns never remarried after Allen’s death in 1964, but he made a habit of squiring women many years his junior. Bill Cosby ran into Burns, a beautiful woman on each arm, at a book signing and asked why he always had two women with him. “They’re hipper than canes,” he replied. And he once said, “I’d go out with women my age, but there aren’t any women my age.”
After “The Sunshine Boys” won him an Oscar, he appeared in pictures including “Oh, God!,” a 1977 film in which he played God, “Just You and Me, Kid” (1979) and “Going in Style” (1979).
There was a sequel, “Oh, God! Book II,” in 1980 and, in 1984, another sequel, “Oh God! You Devil,” in which the comedian played both God and the Devil. “Why shouldn’t I play God?” he said when he was 93. “Anything I do at my age is a miracle.”
In 1988, the year he received a John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts award for lifetime achievement, Burns published a memoir, “Gracie: A Love Story,” which remained on best-seller lists for more than five months.
In 1989, he made the best-seller lists again with “All My Best Friends,” a collection of reminiscences about show-business acquaintances. In all, his name appeared on 10 books, which, he noted, “is pretty good for a guy that read only two.”
Though he became a star to a generation that knew little of his career with Gracie, George never forgot the love of his life.
He always carried her tiny wedding ring in his pocket, and religiously visited her mausoleum once a month to talk to her.
“I don’t tell her jokes anymore, though,” he told The New York Daily News in 1991. “She’s heard them all.”
Death, Burns said, held no fear or mystery for him.
“When you die, you’re dead,” he once said. “You’re out. If I don’t make them laugh here I’m not going to make them laugh anywhere else, and I don’t think there’s an audience where I’m going.
“But I think I’ll take along my music just in case.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TOO BUSY TO AGE George Burns credited love for his work and love from the audience for his legendary longevity: “For me, show business was always so exciting, so satisfying, so full of laughs and fun, that it never seemed like work. And people sense that.” “Age to me means nothing. I can’t get old: I’m working. … When I’m out in front of an audience, all that love and vitality sweeps over me and I forget my age.”
This sidebar appeared with the story: TOO BUSY TO AGE George Burns credited love for his work and love from the audience for his legendary longevity: “For me, show business was always so exciting, so satisfying, so full of laughs and fun, that it never seemed like work. And people sense that.” “Age to me means nothing. I can’t get old: I’m working. … When I’m out in front of an audience, all that love and vitality sweeps over me and I forget my age.”