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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 5)

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.

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