The Ultimate Cigar Aficionado
Ninety-eight-year-old George Burns shares memories of his life.
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95
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"I was about 26 at the time," recalls Burns. "I never knew Gracie's age. I knew her birthday, but not her age. Anyway, we were playing a split week at a vaudeville house on Long Island and were on the bill with an act called Rene Arnold and Co. Rene was the headliner. But it was a small-time theater: four acts and a movie. I don't remember what our act was called. Brown and Williams or Brown and Brown or Williams and Brown. Or maybe even Burns and Brown. I was always changing it to confuse the booking agents. If they recognized the name of my act, they wouldn't hire me. Anyway, it was something like that.
When they first teamed up, George was the comic and Gracie was the "straight" woman. But they switched roles after their first performance in Hoboken, New Jersey, when she drew all the big laughs. As a result, their act quickly evolved into what was known in vaudeville circles as a "Dumb Dora" act.
"What made us a good combination was that the audience loved Gracie, and I was able to think of the things for Gracie to say. For instance, I wrote a joke once. I think it's the best joke I ever wrote. At the time we were just a small-time act. We walked out on the stage, holding hands. While we were holding hands, she'd wave into the wings with her other hand and motion for someone to come out. A good-looking man would suddenly appear and put his arms around Gracie. And then she'd put her arms around him, and they kissed. And then he'd walk into the wings. And Gracie would turn to me and say, 'who's that?'
What made that a great joke was that with just one line, the audience knew Gracie's character."
Another of Gracie's character lines that George was crazy about was something she said on one of their radio shows. She was saying that a person should stick to his guns no matter how much opposition or ridicule he meets. "They all laughed at Joan of Arc," said Gracie, "but she didn't care. She went right ahead and built it."
Burns and Allen worked together, growing more and more successful with their Dumb Dora act and establishing a reputation for themselves until they wound up playing the Palace, the fulfillment of every vaudevillian's dream. With success came love, and George and Gracie were married on January 7, 1926, in Cleveland.
Here I interrupt George's story, by asking, "did you know that my father used to date Gracie before the two of you were married?"
"No I didn't. Where did you hear such a thing?"
I told him that my mother had told me. She had been my Uncle Zeppo's dancing partner in the Marx Brothers' first successful vaudeville act, "Home Again." Zeppo liked my mother and took her to dinner one night at Luchow's, a well-known German restaurant in Manhattan. Zeppo introduced her to my father, who was sitting at a table having dinner with a young actress named Gracie Allen.
"Gracie never told me about that," says George with a faraway look in his eyes. "I'll just have to ask her about it the next time I see her."
George is referring to the monthly visits he pays to the vault at Forest Lawn cemetery where his late wife is entombed in the wall. Once a month--ever since Gracie died following a heart attack in 1964--Burns gets into his Cadillac limousine and instructs Conrad, his six-foot-six-inch chauffeur to drive him to Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. There in the entombment chamber he sits on a marble bench in front of Gracie's vault and lights a cigar. (In the entombment chamber he doesn't have to worry about polluting the air with secondhand smoke. "Who can object?" he quips.) Then he says a little prayer and tells Gracie everything he's done in the past month.
Burns believes that's the least he can do for her, because without any question in his mind, the biggest turning point in his life was when he met Gracie Allen.
"Until Gracie came along I was going no place. No matter whatI tried the audience disliked it. I got so used to being disliked I thought I was doing well. I didn't know what failure was. How could I? I never had any success to compare it to.
"But the good things for me started with Gracie and for the next 38 years they only got better. It wasn't a marriage we had to work at. I made her laugh, and when she was around I was happy. And then one day she wasn't around anymore. It still doesn't seem right that she went so young and that I have been given so many years to spend without her."
Until he was 93, Burns didn't need Conrad to drive him to Forest Lawn. He did his own driving. But when he had four accidents in one month, he decided it was time to get out from behind the wheel--even though only three of those accidents were his fault.
Burns still hasn't been able to figure out why the Department of Motor Vehicles allowed him to drive until he was 93. As a matter of fact, he isn't sure why he was ever allowed to drive. "I was a lousy driver when I was 33," he asserts. "I not only went too fast, but my mind was always on shows and scripts. I was constantly making left turns while I was signaling right turns. But at least in those days I could see over the steering wheel. By 93, I had shrunk quite a lot. My car was known as the Phantom Cadillac. People would see it whizzing by and they would swear there was no driver.
"Look, who am I kidding? I kept driving because I wouldn't admit to myself that I'd become too old to do it. It's a thing called male pride. It's the same reason I can't give up working today. The only difference is I can't kill anybody if a joke misfires."
By the time Burns and Allen hit their stride in the late '20s, they were "killing" a lot of audiences in big-time vaudeville. But their big break came when they were given a chance to substitute for the ailing, sour-faced comedian Fred Allen in a one-reel comedy short for Columbia Pictures in 1929.
The short was called I Wanna Buy a Tie and it was based on one of their vaudeville sketches in which George walks up to the department-store counter and attempts to buy a tie from Gracie, a dumb saleswoman. Gracie tries to sell him everything else in the store except a tie.
The short was so successful that the two of them wound up starring in 13 additional one-reelers over the next couple of years. Film audiences liked their brand of comedy--with the result that Paramount signed them to move to the West Coast and appear in features. Mostly they were the kind of features that had an ensemble of stars, lots of music and comedy yet very little story. George and Gracie didn't star in them, but had cameo or supporting roles.
Their feature credits in the mid- to late-1930s were: The Big Broadcast of 1932; International House in 1933; Six of a Kind in 1934; The Big Broadcast of 1936; The Big Broadcast of 1937; A Damsel in Distress in 1937 and College Swing in 1938, in which Bob Hope made one of his early film appearances.
In a strange way, Burns and Allen were indirectly responsible for the Hope and Crosby "road" pictures. In 1938, William LeBaron, producer and managing director at Paramount, had a script prepared by Don Hartman and Frank Butler. It was to star Burns and Allen with a young crooner named Bing Crosby. But the story didn't seem to fit George and Gracie, so LeBaron ordered Hartman and Butler to rewrite their script to fit two male co-stars--Hope and Crosby. The script was titled Road to Singapore and it made motion-picture history.
George and Gracie's last film together was Honolulu in 1939. During their movie period they also continued to play vaudeville and nightclub dates. But by 1932, big-time vaudeville was on its last legs. Fortunately for Burns and Allen, Columbia Broadcasting System liked their one-reel movie shorts and offered to star them in a radio program, beginning in February 1932.
The Burns and Allen program remained on the air, usually with top 10 ratings, until 1950, when they abandoned radio to go into television for CBS.
George and Gracie had a personal life, too. Unable to have children because of Gracie's frail health--she had a congenital heart condition--they adopted two babies from the Cradle in Evanston, Illinois. The Cradle was the "in" place for Hollywood celebrities to adopt babies in those days.
George and Gracie named their infants Ronnie and Sandra and were so delighted finally to be parents that when they found out that their good friends Bob and Dolores Hope wanted to adopt, they recommended that they, too, try the Cradle. "You'll have to pick them up personally, though," George told the Hopes. "They don't deliver." Over the ensuing years, the Hopes adopted four babies from the Cradle. "And Gracie and I never even got a cut," jokes Burns.
Burns looks at me sheepishly and says, "that wasn't too funny. But it's only 10 in the morning. I don't get funny until around 11:30. And by noon I'm a riot."
By noon Burns is usually on his way to Hillcrest Country Club in West Los Angeles to have lunch and play a game of bridge. When I ask him whether all the smoking restrictions in restaurants and country clubs bother him, he gives me a look and deadpans, "Not at all. You see, for me, Hillcrest passed a special bylaw: anyone over 95 is allowed to smoke a cigar in the card room."
"How about when you're not at Hillcrest?" I ask him.
"If people object, I don't smoke," he shoots back.
In palmier days, Burns ate lunch every noon at a corner table in the Men's Grill known to all the other members of Hillcrest as the Comedians' Round Table. The only members allowed to eat there were the comedians who belonged to Hillcrest--Jack Benny, Al Jolson, George Jessel, the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers, Lou Holtz, Danny Kaye, Danny Thomas and, of course, George Burns, who is the Round Table's sole survivor.
In the heyday of the Round Table, in the '40s, '50s and '60s, it was probably the most amusing place to lunch in all the world. Imagine sitting at a table with that group, each one trying to out-funny the other, and all but Harpo, Chico and Danny Kaye puffing on long, fragrant Havanas. If you didn't die laughing, you could have choked on the smoke.
"To me," declares Burns with no false modesty, "the funniest guy at the table was Jessel. I hate to say this, because your father thought he was the funniest, but Jessel was funnier. He had a strange slant and he didn't tell jokes per se. But he had a delivery that nobody else could emulate. For example, I was sitting at the table one day--I'm going back a lot of years--and it was only nine o'clock in the morning. Jessel was at the bar. He was having his third brandy. I said to him, 'Jesus, George, nine o'clock in the morning and you're already on your third brandy. What is this?' And he said, 'Didn't you hear? Norma Talmadge died.' (Norma Talmadge was his former wife.) 'That was 35 years ago,' I reminded him. And he replied, 'I still miss her.'
"He was a strange fellow," Burns goes on without missing a beat. He took a shot at a doctor once--the one who Norma ran away with. And he missed the doctor and hit a gardener two blocks away. The gardener took Jessel to court. And the judge asked him, 'Mr. Jessel, how can you aim at a doctor and hit a gardener two blocks away?' And Jessel replied, 'Your honor, I'm an actor, not Buffalo Bill.' "
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