The Ultimate Cigar Aficionado
Ninety-eight-year-old George Burns shares memories of his life.
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95
(continued from page 6)
Comedian George Burns is not only a living legend, he's living proof that smoking between 10 and 15 cigars a day for 70 years contributes to one's longevity.
"If I'd taken my doctor's advice and quit smoking when he advised me to, I wouldn't have lived to go to his funeral," deadpans the 98-year-old comedian from a chair in his Hollywood office the morning I show up to discuss his career as one of the world's most renowned cigar smokers. As if to emphasize his point, he takes a puff of the cigar in his hand and exhales the smoke in my direction. He knows I couldn't object to secondhand smoke since I had spent so many years in the company of another renowned cigar aficionado, my father, Groucho Marx.
He flicks a cigar ash into an ashtray and takes a sip of tea from the teacup that is perched precariously on the edge of his desk near his right hand, which is partially covered by a gauze bandage. I start to shake that hand, then think better of it, withdraw mine and ask him if he has injured his. "No, I just have a little itch," he explains. "The bandage keeps me from scratching it."
George isn't sitting at his desk in the usual manner, but to the left side of it facing visitors, in a straight-backed chair that doesn't look comfortable. He is dressed informally in slacks and a sport shirt, his gray hairpiece is immaculately groomed and his eyes twinkle behind perfectly round, black eyeglass frames.
Burns seems slightly smaller than he had when I'd last seen him 10 years before when he was doing a guest shot on "Alice," the television series I wrote for. His face seems thinner, as if he is on a diet of too much Lean Cuisine. His loafered feet barely reach the carpet. He is frailer all over, as if he has shrunk with age.
"Bring Arthur a cup of coffee," Burns instructs Hal Goldman, a former writer for Jack Benny who now works for him and who is sitting in a chair nearby monitoring our conversation. Now I really am flattered, for Burns has, after all, remembered who I am and even why I am here. "I understand you want to know about my cigar smoking," he says, blowing more smoke past my nose.
"Yes I do," I say. "What kind of cigars do you smoke?"
He looks at the half-finished stogie smoldering between his fingers and says, "I smoke a domestic cigar. It's a ..."
He is interrupted by Irving Fein, his manager, who walks in from the outer office to tell Burns to pick up the phone. "It's your interview with Cincinnati," he reminds him. Burns looks at me apologetically, and I say, "that's OK, George. I'm a little early."
His wood-paneled office seems to be furnished in Early Sears, Roebuck--a sofa, a Naugahyde armchair on which I am sitting, another chair and a couple of inexpensive tables and lamps. The room is coldly lighted by overhead fluorescent bulbs and the walls are covered with framed black-and-white photos of George with various celebrities and co-workers. There is a poster from one of his most successful films, Oh God!
A number of the latest celebrity biographies are heaped on the coffee table in front of the sofa. The room smells of cigar smoke. The whole setting reminds me of a low-rent film producer's office I had once visited. Functional, but not exactly the plush surroundings one would associate with a man of George Burns' means, reputation and good taste. I know he has taste because I have been in his home, and it is beautifully decorated and furnished.
"George is playing Cincinnati next month," explains Goldman, a tall, pleasant man in his mid-60s, handing me a cup of instant decaffeinated. Burns hangs up the phone after about 10 minutes of doing his interview shtick with Cincinnati and turns back to me. "Now what was I saying?" "You were telling Arthur why you smoke domestic cigars," Fein calls from the other room.
"Oh, yes." Burns puffs on his cigar some more and says, "I smoke a domestic cigar. It's a good cigar. It's called an El Producto. Now the reason I smoke a domestic cigar is because the more expensive Havana cigars are tightly packed. They go out on the stage while I'm doing my act. The El Producto stays lit. Now if you're onstage and your cigar keeps going out, you have to keep lighting it. If you have to stop your act to keep lighting your cigar, the audience goes out. That's why I smoke El Productos. They stay lit."
"How much does an El Producto cost?" I ask.
"I don't know how much they cost today. I get them for nothing from the Tobacco Institute [in Washington, D.C.] ," replies Burns. "But about 10 years ago they sold for 33 cents apiece. Figure inflation in, and they're probably 50 cents apiece today."
"What kind of cigar did you smoke when you first started?"
"Any five-cent cigar. I was 14 years old. But I liked a nickel cigar called Hermosa Joses the best."
"Why did you start smoking cigars?" I ask.
"I smoked them because I wanted people to think I was doing well. When they saw me walking down the street smoking a cigar, they'd say, 'hey, that 14-year-old kid must be going places.' Of course, it's also a good prop on the stage. That's why so many performers, including your father, use them. When you can't think of what you are supposed to say next, you take a puff on your cigar until you do think of your next line."
"How many cigars did you smoke when you first started?"
"I'd say two cigars a week would last me. Hermosa Joses were long cigars, and I'd let them go out when I wasn't on the stage or trying to impress someone."
"Do you inhale cigar smoke?"
"No. I've never smoked a cigarette." He pauses while he puffs on his cigar and blows some smoke into the room. "Just cigars. They're better for you. Today I smoke about 10 cigars when I'm not working and 15 when I am working."
Over the years that would be a lot of cigars, more than 300,000, if you consider that Burns has been smoking for more than 70 years. That many cigars could run into big money. Of course, he explains, he wasn't doing well enough in show business to afford 10 cigars a day when he started. Out of necessity, Burns started working when he was seven years old.
The ninth of 12 children, Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum on January 20, 1896, on New York's Lower East Side. His father was a substitute cantor at the local synagogue, but he didn't work very often.
When the cantor at the synagogue became ill, George's father filled in for him. But the regular cantor was a fairly healthy man, so George's father didn't get a crack at being the cantor very often. His great opportunity came during the flu epidemic of 1903. He was looking forward to getting a lot of work, but unfortunately he got the flu, too, and died.
As a result, Burns had to go to work part-time. He started out earning money shining shoes, running errands and selling newspapers on street corners. His first taste of show business came when he landed a job, with three other contemporaries, at Rosenzweig Candy Store, making chocolate and strawberry syrups in the basement.
"We were all about the same age, six and seven," recalls Burns, "and when we were bored making syrup, we used to practice singing harmony in the basement. One day our letter carrier came down to the basement. His name was Lou Farley. Feingold was his real name, but he changed it to Farley. He wanted the whole world to sing harmony. He came down to the basement once to deliver a letter and heard the four of us kids singing harmony. He liked our style, so we sang a couple more songs for him. Then we looked up at the head of the stairs and saw three or four people listening to us and smiling. In fact, they threw down a couple of pennies. So I said to the kids I was working with, 'no more chocolate syrup. It's show business from now on.'
"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.
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