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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Although they liked each other, there was a running feud between Burns and Groucho that revealed itself in various comic ways. Burns' favorite dish was sea bass and he always ordered it when he was having lunch at the Round Table. But every time Burns ordered sea bass in front of Groucho, who wasn't averse to making a corny pun if he thought he could get a laugh from the group, would start to sing in a loud voice, "If you can't sea bass every night, you can't see mama at all," a parody of the famous Sophie Tucker lyric, "You've got to see mama every night, or you can't see mama at all."
Burns thought it was funny the first time Groucho sang it and mildly funny the next time. But after Groucho kept it up every day for a month, Burns finally stopped ordering sea bass. He figured it was the only way to stop Groucho, who, once he latched onto a gag, loved to keep repeating it to bug his victim. "But I liked sea bass a little better than I liked your father," says Burns, "so one day at lunch I called the waiter over and whispered into his ear, 'bring me some sea bass.' And the waiter whispered back to me, 'if you can't sea bass every night, you can't see mama at all.' "
At a party one night, Burns and Groucho got into a discussion about who was the funniest comedian in history. Burns said Charlie Chaplin. Groucho said, "I think I am." Whereupon Burns shot back, "Well, if you think you're the funniest, then I must be, because I know I'm funnier than you." Groucho didn't talk to him for a month.
Although Burns loved to rib Groucho when he got the chance, he simply loved Harpo. They played golf together every afternoon before Burns gave it up. "I absolutely hated the game. I hated it because I was never very good at it. I just enjoyed the company. And I loved to sing while I was on the course. Harpo, on the other hand, was a good golfer. He shot in the low 80s regularly."
One day Burns was playing with Harpo, who was shooting the best round of his life. He was one under par for the first three holes. The fourth hole was a 600 yard par five, with a small green surrounded by sand traps at the top of a steep incline. It is considered to be the toughest hole on the course. Harpo's third shot landed in one of the traps around the green.
"Because I didn't want to disturb Harpo or make him nervous, I stayed at the bottom of the hill while he climbed to the top of the hill and got ready to hit his ball out of the trap," remembers Burns. "Suddenly he looked down at me standing at the bottom of the hill and said, 'what are you doing down there, George?' I called back, 'you're one under par. I don't want to upset you by watching you hit out of the trap.' And he said, 'you are upsetting me. Come on up here, like you always do.' So I told him OK and I trudged up the hill and stood on the edge of the trap while he was preparing to strike the ball. I looked the other way so I wouldn't upset him. But then he asked, 'why aren't you watching me, George, like you always do?' And I explained again, 'Harpo, I don't want to upset you. You're one under par.' And again he said, 'you are upsetting me. Do what you always do.' So just as he took his backswing, I started to sing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" in a very loud voice. And he missed the ball completely, which of course was the end of his under-par round. But we stayed friends anyway."
On an unusually hot August day, when the temperature was about 100 degrees in the shade, Harpo and Burns elected to play golf without their shirts. When they returned to the clubhouse, the manager reminded them that there was a club rule forbidding members to play in their bare chests. "That's an outrage," protested Burns. "We can go swimming on a public beach without a top, why do we have to wear one here?" "Sorry," said the manager. "A rule is a rule." The next day Harpo and Burns appeared on the course wearing shirts but sans pants--just their undershorts--and played 18 holes that way. When this news reached the manager, he intercepted these two grown delinquents on the 18th green and demanded an explanation. "You were right," said Harpo. "The rules say you have to wear a shirt, but they don't say a word about having to wear pants."
For George Burns, the '50s were more than just golf, bridge, sea bass and trying to top his peers at lunch. He was also busy making money. In 1955 Burns and Allen founded McCadden Corporation, which had its headquarters on the General Service Studio lot in the heart of Hollywood, to film television shows and commercials. Besides "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show," which was very successful, the company produced for television "The Bob Cummings Show," "The People's Choice," starring Jackie Cooper; "Mona McClusky," starring Juliet Prowse and "Mister Ed," starring Alan Young and a talented "talking" horse. The "Burns and Allen Show" ran through 1958, when Gracie decided to retire because her heart condition was getting worse.
Gracie easily fit into the role of Hollywood housewife, throwing all her energy into raising, Ronnie and Sandra, who are now parents and grandparents themselves. Sandra is a kindergarten teacher in San Diego, California, and Ronnie is a television executive. George, meanwhile, continued on alone as the star of "The George Burns Show." That program wasn't quite so successful without Gracie, and the following television season Burns teamed with Connie Stevens in a series called "Wendy and Me," which might have made it if it hadn't been for the fact that it drew a time slot on NBC opposite the most successful sitcom of all time: "I Love Lucy."
After Gracie died of a heart attack in 1964, Burns immersed himself in work. His company coproduced the television series "No Time For Sergeants," based on the hit Broadway play. Simultaneously he toured the country playing nightclub and theater engagements with such diverse partners as Carol Channing, Dorothy Provine, Jane Russell, Connie Haines and Berle Davis. Burns also embarked on a series of solo concerts, playing university campuses, New York's Philharmonic Hall and winding up a successful season at the prestigious Carnegie Hall, where he wowed a capacity audience with his show-stopping songs, dances and jokes.
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