Of George Burns
“Maybe you don't believe
the six days to create the
world. Actually I
about it for five days and did
the whole lob in one. 1 9in
really best under pressure.”
SUZANNE CHESSLER SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH NEWS
ello, Suzanne; this is me," the distinctive,
gravelly voice announced on the other end
of the line.
It was four years ago, and George
Burns was about to discuss his upcoming
performance at the opening of the Livo-
nia theater that would bear his name.
Throughout the interview, it became ob-
vious: The decades-popular comedian knew how to steer
the conversation in directions he wanted to go.
"How's Detroit?" he asked. "I'll be glad to get there. I
remember it as a beautiful city."
Burns, who actually played in Detroit vaudeville shows
for many years with his late wife and stage partner Gra-
cie Allen, joked about his Motor City debut.
`The first time I played there was at the beautiful Tern-
ple Theater. That was in 1927. They must have liked me,
because here it is 65 years later, and I've been invited
Burns told me that he was the right person to be in-
terviewed for The Jewish News because he had been Jew-
ish for 96 years.
"I came from a big family — seven sisters and five
brothers," he reminisced. "I'm the only one left, and I was
the only one in show business.
"My family was very Jewish. My mother and father
got married without meeting each other first. Their fam-
ilies arranged the wedding. My mother was 15 years old,
and the day before the wedding she tried on her first shei-
tel (wig). The wig was a little too big, so when my moth-
er turned around — the wig didn't."
When the stage, screen, TV and recording star paused
for just a moment — probably to take a puff from his
ever-present cigar — I slipped in a question about the
importance of religion in his life.
The enduring entertainer, born Nathan Birnbaum,
said that observance was more important on a daily
basis to Gracie, who was Catholic. He did not mention
that he was honored on his 85th birthday with a Hol-
lywood party to commemorate the building of the
George Burns Medical Center at the University of Is-
Burns explained how he loved show business
since age 7, when he sang with the Peewee
Quartet on the streets of New York.
"We passed around a hat," the come-
dian recalled. "Sometimes they put some-
thing in the hat. Sometimes they took
something from the hat. Sometimes they took the
hat — we lost a lot of hats."
Affirming how he loved all the experiences of his
long career, Burns wanted me to report a lesson longevi-
ty had taught him.
"Fall in love with what you do for a living," he advised.
"It's great for my age, at 96, to get out of bed and have
something to do because I can't make any money in
Did he have a Jewish joke for The Jewish News?
"I have a joke, but it's not Jewish," he answered.
"A teacher says to a kid in school, 'What does your
father do?' The kid answers, 'My father's a doctor.'
"She asks another kid, 'What does your father do?' The
second kid answers, 'My father's a lawyer.'
"She says to a third kid, 'What does your father do?'
The third kid says, 'My father is dead.' The teacher goes
on, 'What did he do before he died?' The kid answers, 'He
went, "Ooh!' "
And what jokes did he have planned for his Livonia
"Anything that fits my age," Burns said. "You know,
they were supposed to have the theater finished last
month, but they weren't ready. Here I am 96, and they
This comment brought my
moment of glory. I got
George Burns to laugh
when I said, "It sounds
like you're holding up
better than the build-
Burns twice told me
to stop backstage and
say hello, and that's
what I did on opening
night. Although I fully
expected to talk with him
A JERRY WENTRAUB PRODUCTION
30404 DENVER • "OH, GOD!"
GEORGE BURNS !
"Sometimes I get
TERI GARR • DONALD PLEASENCE
eased on the Novel by AVERY GORMAN • Screenplay by LARRY GELBART
carried away with
Produced by JERRY WEINTRAUB • Directed by CARL REINER
the part I played in
Oh, God! (1977),"
George Bums once
"Yesterday, when I
was on an elevator, a
woman got on and said, 'Nice day.' I said, 'Thank you.'"
after the show, the public-relations director told me
George Burns had asked to see me before he went on
I followed her behind the curtains, passing Florence
Henderson as she was about to be cued as the opening
act. Further back, in front of the star's dressing room,
there was a small crowd gathered close to the open door.
I was introduced to his manager, conductor and oth-
ers he traveled with before meeting Burns, who was seat-
ed toward the back of the room. He was wearing a silk
robe colored in a loud orange and gold print and was smok-
Burns shook my hand, commented that I wasn't even
born when he first went on a Detroit stage and quickly
moved into the same routine he had spoken over the
phone — jokes about earlier Detroit performances,
anecdotes about his career and the advice
about loving work.
I noticed him watching my reactions,
especially when I laughed.
As he reached the point about the the-
ater's not being ready in time, his man-
ager announced it was time for Burns to
get into his tux, and the rest of us left.
I returned to my seat shortly before he
walked on stage, where he got a standing
ovation and seated himself at an elegant chair
near the grand piano, still puffing away on
his cigar. Soon I started to hear the showman
repeat the jokes he told me on the phone and
in the dressing room.
In my head, the stage lights went off and
a light of realization went on. In our private
conversations, he was testing my reaction
to his monologue about Detroit. I laughed
spontaneously each time. In the darkened
theater, my laughter had a lot of company.
Three times I heard how happy he was to have
a performing arts center named in his honor.
He must have been saddened to hear it closed in
about a year.
The George Burns Theatre for the Performing
Arts is dark now as must be many of the theaters
in which he and Gracie performed. But through
films, videotapes, records and even my audio cas-
sette — the technology developed during his own
lifetime — the spirit and humor of George Burns
can shine brightly way beyond his 100 years.