You are currently browsing the daily archive for January 20, 2011.

Vicki and I saw George Burns perform in Vegas near the end of his life. He was on a roll, signing and telling stories, and did an extra half hour. We loved him. Today, he would have been 115, and it seems he should still be doing Vegas.

Comedian George Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum in New York City on this day in 1896. His dad died in the flu epidemic of 1903. To help his family make ends meet, seven-year-old George Burns got a job in a candy store making syrup in the store’s basement. The other kids working there were about the same age. To relieve the boredom, they sang harmony.

One day, a mailman heard them, came downstairs, and asked them to sing some more. Pretty soon a small crowd gathered at the top of the stairs to listen. The people clapped and threw pennies down the stairs. The child laborers decided they’d take their chances and earn their pay busking instead of syrup-making. So they took to the streets of New York City — elementary school-aged kids singing at bars, in brothels, at busy intersections, and on ferryboats.

He quit school before the end of fourth grade to work as a full-time entertainer. He sang, danced, roller-skated, did tricks with seals, and performed in vaudeville. In 1923, he met Gracie Allen, another performer, and began partnering with her in routines. He would later say, “And all of a sudden the audience realized I had a talent. They were right. I did have a talent — and I was married to her for 38 years.” They had a show that ran on CBS throughout the 1950s, The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show.

He smoked cigars, lived to be 100 years old, and worked up until the end of his life. He was a best-selling author, and his 10 books include Living It Up: Or, They Still Love Me in Altoona! (1976), Dr. Burns’ Prescription for Happiness: Buy Two Books and Call Me in the Morning (1984), and Gracie: A Love Story (1988).

In Just You and Me, Kid (1979), he wrote: “When I was young I was called a rugged individualist. When I was in my fifties I was considered eccentric. Here I am doing and saying the same things I did then and I’m labeled senile.”

January 2011

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