Newsletter : 6fax0119.txt
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Publisher\Editor Don Canaan
Jan. 19, 1996 V4, #10
All the News the Big Guys Missed
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Happy Birthday George Burns
By Alan Silverman (VOA-Los Angeles)
Entertainer George Burns will be 100 Saturday. He began in
vaudeville at the turn of the century and continued into the
1990s: George Burns knew only one way to deal with growing
older; he made jokes about it:
"People are always saying to me: "George, when are you going to
retire?" Who would support my mother and father?" (Laughter)
Physically frail, especially after injuries from a fall at home,
Burns was finally forced to end his performing days in 1994.
Still, he kept up his writing -- "A Hundred Years - A Hundred
Stories," his 10th book, is in stores to mark the comedian's
centennial; his daily routine also includes bridge-playing, a
martini cocktail with lunch and, of course, the ever-present cigar:
"I smoke between 15 and 20 cigars a day. At my age, I have to hold
on to something."
He was born Nathan Birnbaum Jan. 20, 1896, one of 12 children in a
hard-working but poor Jewish family on New York's Lower East Side.
He was five years old when his father died; reminiscing years
later, Burns was convinced the deeply-religious man would have
disapproved of his son's career choice:
"I started in show business when I was eight years old with three
other kids. We called ourselves the "Peewee Quartet." We went on
ferry boats and street yards and we sang; we passed around our
hats. Sometimes they would throw something into the hats... And
sometimes they would take our hats. We lost a lot of hats."
At age 13, he left street-corner singing... and school for the
stage as a singing, joking roller skater. In 1922 Burns joined up
with fellow vaudevillian Gracie Allen; they married in 1926 and, as
pioneers in the new medium of radio, "Burns and Allen" became
America's best-known, and most-loved, comedy couple:
"I have been in show business practically all of my life. We were
on radio for 19 years, Gracie and I, and television for eight
years. Then Gracie retired and I went into show business. I was
retired when I worked with Gracie. I did nothing. I said to Gracie
'How is your brother?' and she talked for 40 years."
Burns: What about Willie?
Allen: Well, he broke his back.
Burns: How did he do that?
Allen: Well, because he is left-handed.
Burns: He broke his back because he is left-handed?
Allen: Well, you see, what happened was he had a donut
in his right-hand pocket and when he went to take it out with his
left hand, he broke his back. (Laughter)
They were almost constantly together, onstage, on the air and on
screen, until Gracie Allen died in 1964. Continuing as a solo
performer, George Burns became a movie star in his 70s, headlining
with Walter Matthau as a cantankerous pair of aging vaudeville
performers, "The Sunshine Boys."
Burns: "Knock, knock, knock."
Burns: "What do you mean 'enter?' What happened to 'come in?'"
Matthau: "It's the same thing -- enter or come in; what is the
difference, as long as you are in?"
Burns: The difference is we have done this sketch 11,000 times and
you always said come in. Suddenly today it is enter. Why
today, after all these years, do you suddenly change it to
Matthau: "I'm trying to freshen up the act."
Burns: "Who asked you to freshen up the act."
The performance earned burns his first Academy Award and he went on
to star in a string of film comedies. He was 81 when Carl Reiner
directed him in "Oh God."
His fragile health forced Burns to cancel a planned 100th birthday
performance in Las Vegas; instead, there's a gala Beverly Hills
salute to his career and generous contributions to the Cedars-Sinai
Author and performer Steve Allen, a longtime friend, says that is
most fitting: "I admire him so much as a human being. He is, to use
a very simple term, a 'good guy.' If the public likes your singing,
trombone playing or comedy, they want to believe you are a
wonderful person. Some of us are, some of us are not. George is not
only one of the funniest people around, he is a dear person. I have
never heard him say anything critical about anybody; I have never
heard him involved with anything negative. He is just a
Carl Reiner believes George Burns was most comfortable on stage in
front of an audience: "He lived to work as an entertainer and he
blessed every day that he had a job...that he had a booking."
"I'll be around a long time. I don't believe in dying. I'm booked."
"I tell you something: I would rather be a failure in something
that I love to do, than be successful in something that I hate,"
George Burns, hailed as a "national treasure," 100 years old Jan.
Burns: "Gracie, say goodnight."
Allen: "Good night."
Burns: "Good night." (Applause)
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