Frontlines

A tip of the old toupee

Rita Christopher August 20 1979
Frontlines

A tip of the old toupee

Rita Christopher August 20 1979

A tip of the old toupee

Frontlines

Rita Christopher

"You wanna know what actors eat for lunch? I’ll show you— I canned salmon with a little white vinegar.” George Burns allows himself a slow chuckle, but no old vaudevillian ever made money laughing at his own jokes, so Burns stifles his mirth in a bite of buttered bagel. He is taking a lunch break from the filming of his latest movie, Going in Style, with Art Carney and Lee Strasberg. Appropriately enough, it features three elderly pensioners who decide they want a bit more out of life than collecting social security checks.

At 83, when most of those who remember vaudeville cherish their recollections in rocking chairs, Burns appears to be in the springtime of his career. He won his first Oscar at the age of 80 for his role in The Sunshine Boys, with Walter Matthau. For an encore, he stole the entire movie Oh, God! from under the nose of that wonder boy of the laid-back guitar, John Denver. Burns stars with 14-year-old Brooke Shields in the newly released Just You and Me, Kid (review, page 40) and when he is finished filming his current project in New York, he will return to California to do a sequel to Oh, God! (Denver will not appear in this instalment.)

“I love all this,” Burns admits. “I never want to retire. You can’t make any money in bed —I’ve tried.” He winks—a broad burlesque wink—just to show that you still have to be on your toes when you deal with George Burns. Ironically, for much of his career, George did not rattle off stand-up comedy’s staple one-liners. He was the best straight man in the business, setting up the zany responses of his wife and partner of more than three decades, Gracie Allen. Apart from the hilarious monologues he worked into most shows, “Say good-night, Gracie,” was his most memorable line. “Working with Gracie was just like being retired,” laughs Burns. “She did all the work. I just waited for the laughs to die down and then I’d ask another question. I didn’t have to start working until Grade retired herself.”

To set the record straight, Burns’s career began some two decades before he met Gracie. In those days he was Nathan Birnbaum, the ninth of 12 children of a chronically unemployed immigrant rabbi living on New York’s Lower East Side. “I started in show business when I was five,” he recalls. “I used to dance and hang around with the neighborhood organ grinder. But when I was seven years old my father died and I was forced to go into show business for real.” Show biz meant the Peewee Quartet, with George Burns as lead singer. The pint-size group entertained on street corners, alleys, backyards and anywhere else there was a possibility of cadging loose change from a pickup audience.

But all the practice apparently didn’t help Burns on the vaudeville circuit. “I was absolutely awful,” he recalls. He shuffled his stage names like a deck of cards: Billy Delight, Bill Pierce, Jed Jackson, Jimmy Alone, Buddy Links, Brown of Brown and Williams, and Williams of Williams and Brown. “I had to change my name so often because nobody who knew who I was would ever have me back again,” explains Burns.

“Of course, if I had any sense, I would have changed my act, not my name.” He sang, danced, told jokes and performed tricks on roller skates. “I remember once an agent said he needed a trained animal act. My partner and I bought two dogs, held them under our arms and just roller-skated around with them,” Burns laughs.

What changed George from early Gong Show material to show-business immortal was Grade. They met backstage in Union, New Jersey. Gracie commiserated with George on his terrible act, but shortly thereafter found herself part of it. “At first, since I wrote the act, I gave myself all the jokes and Gracie had the straight parts. But I noticed that when Gracie asked the questions she got more laughs than I was getting with my answers. Anyway, I was no fool, so I gave Gracie the good lines,” says George. “I always knew what to do backstage, how to put together an act, but I couldn’t do it myself onstage.”

Today, Burns claims he can no longer

recall much of their best material. “What I remember is what I’m doing now, the lines for this movie,” he says, but with a little coaxing he reproduces a vaudeville standby: the lamb-chop routine. “In those days the best jokes about women were about food, not about sex. Girls were always supposed to be hungry so I’d say to Gracie, ‘Can a little girl like you eat two lamb chops alone?’ Gracie would say ‘Not alone I couldn’t but with potatoes I could.’ ”

Burns and Allen became a staple of vaudeville, movies, radio and television. But Gracie retired in 1958—six years before her death—and George tried to go it alone. He had his own television show for a year and played club dates, but the laughs weren’t there. “No, I never considered retiring myself. I’d rather be a failure doing something I love than do something I hated,” says Burns defensively, disliking bad notices even after seven decades in the business. Nonetheless, he was well on his way to being relegated to nostalgia at best, trivia at worst, when he was offered, fittingly enough, the part of an old vaudevillian in The Sunshine Boys. “That movie turned it around for me,” admits Burns. He stepped in when his old friend Jack Benny, originally cast for the part, died just as the picture began filming.

“Thinking about what Benny would have done didn’t affect my performance one way or the other,” says Burns. “Look, death is the only exit for all of us. You know in vaudeville, when you were cancelled, the manager would come around and give you your pictures back. That’s how you knew you were through, before he even said anything. Well, in life, we all get our pictures back sometime.”

At this point, Burns looks like he has a remarkably firm grip on his own pictures. He is small (five-feet, seveninches) and elegant, his clothes handtailored, his face dominated by his round glasses and trade-mark cigar. (After open-heart surgery in 1974, Burnscutdownandsayshe nowsmokes from nine to 15 aday.) He freely admits his full head of grey hair is not his own

PORTRAIT

“Look at this toupee. Isn’t it awful? I have trunks full of wigs of my own but the director is nu about this thing.” Burns pauses, feeling his way into a line. “He may be nuts about but I’m the one who has to wear it.”

He kids about women, claiming, “When I’m 100 I’ll probably be dancing with some broad somewhere.” But there was only one lady in George’s life and he still pays call on her regularly. “Oh yes, I visit Gracie about every two weeks or so, just to tell her what I’m doing. I know all her neighbors. On the right is Alan Ladd, on the left is Jeanette MacDonald.

When Burns is in Los Angeles, he’s in his office every morning from 10 a.m. to noon working with his writers on new material. He has no end of opportunities to use the jokes. In addition to playing the nightclub circuit, he performs at colleges and has established a following among an even younger set. “One day I was playing bridge at my club and a kid called and asked to talk to God,” says Burns. “He had seen me in the movie and he wanted me to make it stop raining.”

Between engagements, Burns is working on his memoirs, The Third Time Around, to be published this winter, and he reigns as a dignified elder statesman of the talk-show circuit. Not that Burns spends a lot of time chatting up the host. What he really likes to do is get in front of those cameras and sing, rasping out long-forgotten love ballads with the tonal range of an electric blender. No matter—the audience loves to hear them just as much as he loves to perform. “I do a little singing, I do a little dancing, I do everything but I try to do it all in my age,” observes Burns. “That’s my secret.” Whatever his secret, and whatever his age, George Burns is doing all right.