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The Ultimate Cigar Aficionado

Ninety-eight-year-old George Burns shares memories of his life.
Arthur Marx
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

(continued from page 3)

"We called ourselves the Peewee Quartet. We started out singing on ferryboats, in saloons and on street corners. We'd put our hats down for donations. Sometimes the customers threw something in the hats. Sometimes they took something out of the hats. Sometimes they took the hats."

Burns quit school in the fourth grade to go into show business full-time. He tried various avenues of entertainment. By the time he was 14, he'd been a trick roller skater, a dance teacher, a singer and an adagio dancer in small-time vaudeville. He also took up cigar smoking seriously and changed his name from Nathan Birnbaum to George Burns.

In those days, people used coal to cook and heat their homes. One of the biggest suppliers of coal to Manhattan's Lower East Side was a company called Burns Brothers, whose trucks delivered coal to various customers. Coal was expensive, and Burns' widowed mother, who took in washing and did other menial jobs, couldn't afford to buy it. So George and a friend took to stealing chunks of coal off the Burns Brothers' truck when the driver wasn't around, stashing it in their knickers and delivering it to Mrs. Birnbaum in that fashion.

All the kids in the neighborhood were aware of what George and his friend were doing, and started referring to them as the "Burns Brothers." George liked the way Burns sounded and adopted the name for himself. He got the inspiration for George from his older brother, whose name actually was George. George went better with Burns and looked better on a vaudeville marquee than "Nathan Birnbaum," which immediately stamped him as Jewish. Jews weren't too popular in Burns' Irish neighborhood at the turn of the century. Over his brother's protests, he kept the name George.

Burns usually worked with a girl, sometimes doing an adagio dance, sometimes just funny patter. George's act was constantly changing from dancing to attempts at comedy and didn't seem to be going anyplace until he met Gracie Allen in 1923, when the two of them formed a team.

"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.

gracie allen and george burns portrait.
Allen and Burns on the set of "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show," which ran on CBS through 1958.
"The first time I saw Gracie she came backstage to visit Rene. The two of them were rooming together. Two Catholic girls. Gracie was an Irish-American lass who called herself an actress. She was quite pretty, but out of work. Rene said to Gracie, 'these guys are breaking up Wednesday night.' She was referring to me and my partner. 'Why don't you go out front and take a look at their act? You might want to work with one of them.' So Gracie went out front and saw the act. She liked me, and I liked her. Not only was she attractive, but she didn't object to my smoking cigars."

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."

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