Goodnight, George! The World’s Best-loved Cigar Smoker Takes His Final Bow
[Published in The Pipe Smoker’s Ephemeris, Edited by Tom Dunn, Winter-Summer 1996.]
By: Henry Zecher
According to George, he made his entrance singing: “The doctor held me up by my heels and kept slapping me, but I wouldn’t stop until I finished two choruses of Red Rose Rag. Then when I started singing My Gal Is a High-Toned Lady he put me in the incubator and turned off the heat. If I hadn’t been smoking a cigar, I might have frozen to death.”
When George was born Nathan Birnbaum on January 20, 1896, on the Lower East Side of New York City, there were people still living who remembered Andrew Jackson. He was two years old when Teddy Roosevelt led the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill, where they found George at the top smoking a cigar. He and the Peewee Quartet were already singing for a living when the Wright Brothers achieved motorized flight. He was a 19-year-old vaudeville hoofer when e equaled mc2; a 49-year-old radio star telling wife Gracie to say goodnight when the atomic age began; and a 73-year-old never-was when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. He joked about being older than most countries, but he was old enough to vote when the Bolsheviks overran Russia in 1917, and was seen performing on satellite when the Soviet Block fell 74 years later.
At the age of 79, when so many have long since called it a career as well as a life, George won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in The Sunshine Boys, his first film since 1939 and the first time he played somebody other than himself. He was the oldest Oscar-winner up to that time. “This is all so exciting,” George said as he accepted the statuette. “I’ve decided to make one movie every 36 years. You get to be new again.”
He certainly was new again. Movie roles came his way. His nightclub act flourished. Suddenly we all began to notice that this wrinkled little leprechaun might just live forever, and he became a major celebrity all over again: a stand-up comic who could still deliver, a talk-show guest of enormous wit, the author of ten best-selling books, a revered recording artist, and a man whose fountain of youth came mixed twice a day ~ extra dry and with an olive in it. At the age of 92 he earned a Grammy for his recording of Gracie, A Love Story. And on January 20, 1996, the world applauded with all its collective heart as he celebrated his 100th birthday. Less than two months later it was George’s turn to say Goodnight.
His books, every one of them a warm fuzzy, in spite of often repeated anecdotes and shaky veracity, form the greatest show business memoir ever written; and they should be required reading for anybody who cherishes life. George certainly did. As Mike Robinson of Sundail Services put it, Oh, to be served a cup of life that full and get to drink it down. But served it he was, and he did drink. Just like the connoisseur he was, he relished it to the very last swallow. Then he carefully set the glass down beside his ash tray, made sure his cigar was put out, turned out the lights ~ and died.
To fans around the world his death was a personal loss. Connie Eck of Prospect, Pennsylvania, felt the emptiness: “I feel sad. My kids won’t grow up to know him.” Michael Idato of Sydney, Australia, gave it global meaning: “He was such an enormous person. The fact that he’s gone leaves a hole in American public culture. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t know him.” And Mark Rinehart summed it up: Was there anybody who didn’t absolutely love this man?
Myrna Oliver wrote in The Los Angeles Times that George was “the indefatigable entertainer whose staying power became the last, most endearing gag in a graceful, laugh-filled career,” adding that, “in the raw and cynical world of many of today’s performers, Burns was a cheerful and reassuring anachronism ~ whose silly songs and arid one-liners often targeted his own foibles and his legendary affinity for a pretty girl, a stiff drink and a good cigar.”
His act was the culmination of a lifetime of hard work. “It was what a person’s act should be after a lifetime of practice,” biographer Martin Gottfried continued. “It was comfortable, it was experienced, and it was secure unto itself. For the benefit of all cynics and pessimists, here was the hitherto inconceivable ~ an acceptable, attractive, and vital elderliness.”
In the age of the baby boomers, the image of the elderly certainly needed a facelift. George joined a select group of show business centenarians, including Broadway playwright George Abbott, actress Estelle Winwood, songwriter Irving Berlin, songwriter and bandleader Eubie Blake, and film producers Hal Roach and Adolph Zukor. And his was a fast-growing minority of the aged. Andy Edelstein wrote in the Houston Chronicle, “Speaking of long lives, Mr. Burns, joined some 56,000 Americans 100+ years of age, the fastest growing age group in this country. In 1980, when Willard Scott of NBC TV started recognizing 100th birthdays, there was just a trickle of letters weekly; now he receives over 400 per week. Notwithstanding how remarkable becoming 100 years is and how many we have now, if demographers’ projections are anywhere near accurate, by the middle of the next century when many of our children and grandchildren will be living, there may be as many as 2.5 million centenarians!”
George first got his taste of show business at the age of seven while singing with the Peewee Quartet. They sang in saloons, in back yards, at amateur nights, and on ferryboats. They sang such prize-winning songs as Good-bye Girlie, Remember Me When You’re Far Away, and Roll, Roll, Roll Those Bones (a gambling song), and passed the hat around for money. One song they sang made no sense at all.
Mary Ann, Mary sat in the corner. Night and day, night and day.
She was so lazy we thought she was crazy…
Some say the Bowery is not very flowery when Johnny comes marching….
Johnny get a gun, get a gun, get a gun and beat McNulty, too.
On at least one occasion, such timeless classics as these got them tossed off the ferryboat into the East River. But George wasn’t discouraged. “You couldn’t drown in the East River, because the garbage was so thick. You could always just jump on a pile of garbage.
All he ever wanted to do ~ to the absolute exclusion of anything else ~ was to be in show business. As far as he was concerned, he was a success. “I thought I had made it. Sure, I was awful, so bad that I thought I was good. But look, I had make-up, I had music, I had skates ~ we used to dance on roller skates. I didn’t have a job, but I had everything to go with it. If somebody said, ‘What are you doing?’ I’d say, ‘Are you kidding? I’m in show business!'”
It may be hard to imagine today, but he was no overnight success, toiling on street corners and stages for 20 years: “I was a small-time vaudeville actor until I was twenty-seven years old. And when I say small, I mean the smallest. But I loved show business and never let anything discourage me. I was a singer, a dancer, a yodeling juggler, I did a rollerskating act, an act with a seal, I worked with a dog…you name it, and I did it… I never thought I wasn’t doing well. I felt sorry for the audiences when they didn’t get what I was doing.
Then he got his first big break and he married her. As he said in Gracie, A Love Story, “For forty years my act consisted of one joke. And then she died.”
George’s big break was a diminutive Irish pixie with brown curls, an infectious smile, a dazzling wit and a totally unassuming manner. She became half of the greatest husband-and-wife act in the history of show business, and she became a legend before she was even aware that she was a star.
She was an anomaly in show business in that she achieved national attention by losing and not finding her brother, then by holding an exhibition of her paintings (the only straight line she could draw was a curve), and finally by running for President of the United States in 1940 on the Surprise Party Ticket. According to her husband, he fed her lines and she fed him. She raised two children (very well, as it turned out), maintained an immaculate house, and was on a first-name basis with America.
“Lovable, confused Gracie,” her husband called her, “whose Uncle Barnum Allen had the water drained from his swimming pool before diving one hundred feet into it because he knew how to dive but didn’t know how to swim; and who once claimed to have grown grapefruits that were so big it took only eight of them to make a dozen; Gracie, who confessed to cheating on her driver’s test by copying from the car in front of her; who decided that horses must be deaf because she saw so few of them at concerts; who admitted making ice cubes with hot water so she would be prepared in case the water heater broke; and who realized it was much better for a quiz show contestant to know the questions beforehand rather than the answers because, ‘The people who know the answers come and go, but the man who asks the questions comes back every week.’
“Just Gracie, who stated with absolute certainty, ‘I’ve got so many brains I haven’t used some of them yet.'”
George: “Did the maid ever drop you on your head when you were a baby?”
Gracie: “Don’t be silly, George. We couldn’t afford a maid. My mother had to do it.”
Gracie: “Guess what, George, my sister had a brand-new baby.”
George: “Boy or girl?”
Gracie: “I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out if I’m an aunt or an uncle.”
Gracie: “My husband is a cat fancier, too.”
Pamela Mason (wife of James Mason): “Oh really? How many do you have?”
Gracie: “Just one. In this country we’re only permitted one husband.”
Pamela Mason: “Well, what is your method of raising cats?”
Gracie: “Same as yours. Put both hands under their belly and lift.”
Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen ~ Nitwit of the Networks, Airhead of the Airwaves, America’s Most Scattered Brain ~ was born in San Francisco on July 20, 1906. She stood five feet tall, weighed about 100 pounds, and had brown wavy hair and different colored eyes: one blue, the other green.
With equal finesse she would one day trade quips with W.C. Fields, dine with both Al Capone and the Prince of Wales, dance with Fred Astaire, discuss fancy dresses with the world’s top designers, serve as the first Mistress of Ceremonies at the Palace Theater on Broadway, and play jacks on the kitchen table with her children.
She was also partner, best friend, lover, helpmate, and confidant to the man who would one day be named Entertainer of the Century. According to music lovers everywhere, she was probably the only human being on the planet who genuinely enjoyed his singing.
She called him Nattie.
He called her Googie.
We called them George Burns and Gracie Allen.
When George and Gracie met backstage at a New Jersey theater in 1922, each was looking for another partner. They later got together in a flirtation/Dumb Dora partnership, and married in 1926 to create the show business partnership of a lifetime: headliners at the Palace, 13 motion pictures, 17 years on radio, and eight more on television. “The secret of our success was that I knew what to do off-stage and Gracie knew what to do on,” George later explained. “Gracie was my partner in our act, my best friend, my wife and my lover, and the mother of our two children. We were a team, both on and off the stage. Our relationship was simple, I fed her the straight lines and she fed me. She made me famous as the only man in America who could get a laugh by complaining, ‘My wife understands me.'”
When they first stood on stage, Gracie had the straight lines. As George later explained, “I was the comic, with wide pants and a turned-up hat and a bow tie that worked on a swivel. A lousy, smalltime act. I never thought I’d go anyplace, so I built all my acts to be on as number two. That was my ambition in life. Well, we were booked at some theater in Brooklyn, $30 for three days. We walked on stage for the matinee. And I’m no fool. I noticed that this little girl, there was something very charming about her. And the audience noticed it. Gracie would ask me these questions and the audience sort of giggled at the questions. But when I did the joke answers ~ nothing. Not a snicker. Well, when we came offstage, I said, ‘Look, let’s reverse this thing.’ I gave Gracie all the funny lines. If Gracie told a joke, it wouldn’t get a laugh. But if she told sort of an off-center thing, that got a laugh.
“Well, that character fitted her. And the audience found her, I didn’t. The audience didn’t like her to do anything sarcastic. It didn’t go with her. She was too dainty, too ladylike. She wasn’t a girl with big things. She was a beautiful little girl, like a little doll, a little Irish doll. So I started finding those off-center, illogical logical lines for Gracie, and we started to do well. To give you an idea of how much the audience really liked Gracie ~ I smoked a cigar. The reason I smoked a cigar is I never knew what to do with my left hand. I could smoke with my left hand, and I got so good I was able to smoke with both hands. That was my big talent. Anyway, the first thing I’d do before the matinee, I’d always find out which way the wind was blowing on stage. So I stood on the side where my smoke didn’t go in Gracie’s face. If the smoke hit Gracie, the audience would hate me.”
Gracie was not the first Dumb Dora, nor would she be the last; but what made her the best, George insisted, was her sincerity. She didn’t try to be funny. Gracie never told a joke in her life, she simply answered the questions I asked her as best she could, and seemed genuinely surprised when the audience found her answers funny. On stage, Gracie was totally honest, and honesty is the most important thing a performer can have. And if a performer can fake that, he can do any-thing…
“The thing that continued to amaze me about Gracie was how easy she was to work with. She was the most natural performer I’d ever seen. She simply came on stage and said her lines the way she felt that night. She never tried to act, that was probably the main reason she could make the audience believe that she really believed that by shortening the vacuum cleaner cord she could save on electricity. And because she said her lines differently every performance, those lines always sounded fresh…
“It was Gracie’s ability to make her character come alive that made her the most popular and successful woman in radio history, as well as a television and motion picture star. The character she created obviously struck a responsive chord in people. We got hundreds of letters every week from husbands claiming to be married to a real Gracie Allen, and office workers who swore they worked with the real Gracie Allen, and even people who happily confessed that they were the real Gracie Allen. Never have so many people boasted of being so silly.
“Gracie became the national symbol of misunderstanding and ineptitude. The federal government even created a safety campaign warning Americans, ‘Don’t Be a Gracie Allen.'”
She made her character believable, and audiences fell in love with her. Everyone either knew a Gracie, was married to a Gracie, or was a Gracie; and they cherished her zaniness.
To hear George tell it, “Gracie did it all. All I had to do was smoke a cigar and ask, ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?'” But the brains behind the act was the straight man who put those zany lines in her mouth: “I would think of it; Gracie was able to do it. That made us a good team”.
Chip Deffaa wrote in The New York Post, “Offstage, he projected a quiet strength, a certain toughness of spirit that was all the more surprising because his stage persona was so mild, congenial and unassuming. Onstage, he enjoyed playing the hapless husband, bewildered by Gracie’s remarks. That was a role. When Gracie stepped off stage, she became a wife, mother, and window-shopper. When George stepped off stage, it was he who worried about scripts, bookings, settings, the lighting, and a thousand-and-one other things. George composed the act and scripted their lines. He even scripted Gracie’s interviews. “What’s been overlooked in many writeups on Burns, Deffaa continued, is that he was the author of many of Gracie’s best-remembered witticisms. Burns was the one who wrote their acts in vaudeville, early radio, and even their first film shorts.”
Cheryl Blythe and Susan Sackett wrote in Say Goodnight, Gracie, “If Gracie and her dizziness were the centerpieces of ‘The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show,’ it was George who gave the program its sense of balance and kept her balloon from leaving earth too frequently. His key role was among the most difficult ever seen in television. He was not only the weekly actor in a play ~ he was also the narrator, the observer, and the offstage kibitzer.
“George was the calm in the eye of Hurricane Gracie. Seldom did we see him rattled by her latest scheme. She might have just bought thousands of dollars’ worth of unwanted goods, invited a robber to tea, or planned yet another surprise party. Through it all was George ~ a rock, eagerly sharing his reactions with us.”
Their film debut began most inauspiciously. “One night Gracie and I were at a party at Arthur Lyons’ ~ he was Jack Benny’s agent ~ and in the middle of the party, the phone rang and Arthur came over to us and said, ‘Look, how would you and Gracie like to make $1700 tomor-row?’ I had never heard of $1700 in my life. I said, ‘Doing what?’ He said, ‘Fred Allen is supposed to do a short in Long Island, for nine minutes, and he can’t make it, he’s not feeling well. You want to go do nine minutes and get $1700?’
“Of course, it was very easy for us to do nine minutes. Seventeen minutes of material, that’s all we had. Anyway, the short was to be filmed in the interior of a living room. Well, our act didn’t fit that, because we did a street-corner act ~ Gracie would pass, I’d tip my hat and flirt with her. We couldn’t do that in a living room. So I had to concoct something. Didn’t want to lose that $1700.
“So we came out in the living room. I took off my hat while Gracie was looking in ashtrays, under ashtrays, behind sofas. I said, ‘What are you looking for?’ She said, ‘The audience’ ~ which took us right out of the living room. I said, ‘You see the camera there, you see the little lens? If you look in that little lens, that’s the audience. Now, Gracie, we’re taking somebody’s place, we’re supposed to do nine minutes. And if we can do nine minutes, we’ll get $1700. Do you think we can do nine minutes?’
“She said, ‘Ask me how my brother is.’ I said, ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?’ And she kept talking, I kept doing straight, and she was in the middle of a joke and I looked at my watch and I said, ‘Hold it. You can’t finish that. Our nine minutes are up. Ladies and gentlemen, we just made $1700.’ And Gracie waved goodbye. And that short was a big hit. They signed us for four shorts a year for $3500 each. That meant $14,000 a year. We were in the big time.”
George was the straight man, the unruffled but confused fellow whose simple questions elicited nitwit answers from the daffy but unflappable girl. He asked her, “Gracie, how’s your brother?” And she talked for 37 years.
Off stage, Gracie had a natural and incisive wit, but George was the funnier of the two. His private sense of humor was described by Milton Berle as “all non sequitur and tongue-in-cheek.” He could not reveal that to audiences while standing next to Gracie; it was only in his third incarnation that he could finally let the cat out of the bag. Charles Champlin in The New York Times maintained that George was “one of the great show business raconteurs,” telling anecdotes which “flowed from an apparently bottomless memory.”
At the Hillcrest Country Club’s Comedians Roundtable where he lunched every day with Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Al Jolson, Danny Thomas, all three Marx Brothers, Danny Kaye, and Georgie Jessel, there was never any argument (except from Groucho) that George Burns was the funniest man at the table. The measurement of funny was how many times Jack Benny slapped his thigh, or the pounded the floor, in uncontrollable hysterical laughter over something one of the others had said. The all-time record was eight slaps of the thigh over something said by George.
Imagine, Arthur Marx suggested in his Cigar Aficionado interview with Burns, sitting at a table with that group, each one trying to out-funny the other, and all but Harpo, Chico and Danny Kaye puffing on long, fragrant Havanas. If you didn’t die laughing, you could have choked on the smoke.
The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show ran for eight seasons until Gracie’s retirement in 1958. It continued for one more year but folded. When Gracie’s heart finally gave out in 1964, George was heart-broken. For the rest of his life, once a month, he brought flowers to Gracie’s tomb, sat down on the marble bench, lit up a cigar (Who can object? he’d quip) and talked to the woman he loved.
“I tell her everything that’s going on,” he explained. “I don’t know if she hears me, but I do know that every time I talk to her, I feel better.” He also asked Gracie to intercede for him. “When I was up forThe Sunshine Boys, I asked her to talk to the fellow up there and make sure I got the part; but don’t talk to Him, I told her, talk to His son, because he’s Jewish, too.”
After Gracie’s retirement, Burns maintained that at his age he was too old to retire; so he took to the stage, alone for the first time since 1923. He didn’t need the money.
Thanks to early earnings, wise investments, and later business deals, he was a multi-millionaire; but money never meant anything to Burns except as an indicator of people’s acceptance of what he did. All he ever wanted was to be on stage. And for ten years after Gracie’s retirement he struggled to reinvent himself. He discovered Ann-Margret, and he worked with Connie Stevens, Dorothy Provine and Carol Channing. They were successful enough, but it wasn’t center stage. No one seemed to want an elderly comedian, and George drifted in a theatrical twilight zone, too young to retire and too old to make center stage.
And then his best friend of more than half a century gave George his life back. Jack Benny (with George left) had been signed to play Al Lewis, a long-retired vaudevillian, opposite Walter Mathau in The Sunshine Boys; but Benny was suffering from stomach pains caused by the pancreatic cancer that would soon kill him. He telephoned director Herbert Ross and said he would not be able to report for work.
“If I can’t do this,” Benny asked Ross, “please consider George. He would be wonderful in the part.” Ross agreed, and so it was that, at the age of 79 in 1975, George Burns became a film star in his own right, winning the Academy Award for his stunning performance in The Sunshine Boys.
He followed this success with his greatest and most famous role, Oh, God! in 1977, and never looked back. He was now one of the major stars in show business.
“When I was a kid I was always singing, but nobody liked it, so I started dancing, and nobody liked it. Then I started telling jokes, and nobody laughed. Then I tried to be dramatic, and everybody laughed. So I figured as long as I couldn’t be a singer, or a dancer, or a comedian, or a dramatic actor, there was only one thing left for me to do. And I did it ~ I went into show business. By the time I found out I had no talent I was too big a star to do anything else.”
A star can’t get to be any bigger than playing God. George did it three times.
Myrna Oliver wrote, “His stints as the Almighty later became so ingrained in the national culture that moviegoers would approach him after airplane flights and thank him for a safe trip.”
How big a star he had become was realized in 1983, when his office put out this press release:
In 1983 a poll of a thousand comedians selected George as “King of Comedy.” A poll of People Magazine found George preferred by women as their “favorite well-known older American.”Playgirl found George Burns to be one of America’s ten sexiest men. US Magazine readers named George Burns “Man of the Year.” And Harper’s Bazaar picked him as one of America’s Seven Sexiest Bachelors.
And this was an 87-year-old man whom they were talking about, an octogenarian in the third stage of his career. “I’ve had a very exciting life,” he declared at the age of 98, “and I expect the second half to be just as exciting.” Not only was George’s old age exciting, it was indulgent. He enjoyed all the things the rest of us felt we had to do without to live as long as he was living: the good food, the martinis, the cigars, the women. And, with a twinkle in his eye, he flaunted it in our faces.
Since his popularity rested, to a great extent, on the fact that he was intent on living forever, his act and his new persona centered on his age. He broke the ice with audiences by announcing that he received standing ovations just for standing. He still had the first Social Security card, issued with the Roman Numeral I. He was so old, he said, that “I remember the Dead Sea when it was just sick.” In fact, it was appropriate that he play God because, as he put it, “I was the closest one to His age. Since Moses wasn’t around, I suppose I was next in line.”
He was going to stay in show business, he said, “until I’m the only one left.” He almost was. He was around for so long that “I was brought up to respect my elders and now I don’t have to respect anybody.” He did it by doing everything his doctors told him not to do: “I like my food hot, I exercise, I smoke 15 to 20 cigars a day and I dance very close.” He also drank martinis. What did his doctors think of all this? he was asked. He said he didn’t know because they were all dead.
On stage he just stood there, holding his cigar in his hand, telling funny stories, singing snatches of old songs, and smoking. Fred de Cordova, one the directors of the TV program, called George a “little performer,” by which he meant, “all the takes are small, all the gestures are small. He minimizes the gestures, and, oddly enough, it amplifies the joke.” He was the professor of timing and the deadpan quip. No comedian ever delivered lines as perfectly as he did. Probably no one ever will. As Mel Brooks put it, “He was probably the most focused and economical comedian who ever lived.”
But Burns was more than just an economical entertainer with an acute sense of timing. He was a genuinely good and loveable man who served as a splendid example of how to enjoy life and grow old gracefully. He made us comfortable with his age by making it the butt of his humor and the source of his anecdotes, and in so doing gave a luster and a shine to growing old. Nobody ever aged with more finesse than he did. Champlin wrote, “With his cigars and martinis and his fondness for the company of pretty young women, he made old age out to be not a gray back bedroom but an extension of the prime of life. The great achievement of his career may well have been to convince millions, who may have been doubtful, that life begins or begins again, not at 40 but at 79, as his did when he made ‘The Sunshine Boys’ after a hiatus from the cameras of 36 years.”
Burns always said he stayed young by doing what he loved and keeping busy. When Gracie quit their television show in 1958 because of her bad heart, many expected them both to retire. “But I wasn’t ready to retire,” Burns later wrote. “I was only 62 years old and fresh as a daisy. After all, I’d been retired all those years I was on stage with Gracie.”
But, if his age had become his new persona, his cigar remained his most important prop. It gave him something to do while the audience was laughing: When I tell a joke, I pause and puff on my cigar. That way, when I take a puff on my cigar, the audience knows I’ve told a joke. And “When the people laugh, I smoke. When they stop laughing, I stop smoking and start to talk.” To George, his cigar was many things: prop, crutch, a straight man in its own right, and a timing device, not to mention a good smoke. “A comic’s hands must become his straight man,” he told TV Guide in 1954. “In that time [while I puff the cigar] the audience hears, digests, interprets, understands, and finally reacts to the joke.”
And he told Ellis Walker of the Palo Alto Times, “If I get a laugh with a joke, I just look at the cigar or twiddle it a little while I’m waiting for the laugh to die down. If I don’t get a laugh, it’s nice to have something to hang on to. When a joke calls for a delayed laugh, I exhale my smoke slowly. If the laugh never comes at all, I swallow.”
In his recent biography of Burns, The Hundred-Year Dash, Gottfried described a typical Burns performance:
He began the new, post-God act by disarming his audiences of any defensiveness about his age. Since he always received a standing ovation, he had plenty of time to light his cigar, look at it, take a puff, and then smile until the audience quieted down.
“If I can stand, you can,” he’d croak. Or he’d use the line he had been using for ten years, “I get a standing ovation just standing.” Or, “I can hear you saying to each other, ‘How do you like that? And he walks too!”‘…
“You know,” he would say to his audience, “people ask me about the young girls I go out with.” He inserted his El Producto into a little plastic holder, struck a match, and inhaled. Blowing out the smoke, he looked at the cigar to make sure it was lighted.
It was all in the timing.
“I would go out with women my age,” he’d say, and pause. “But there are no women my age.”
Gracie once told the audience, “I wish I could have seen him when he was with the Peewee Quartet. Imagine an eight-year-old boy with a head of blond curls smoking a cigar.” Actually, according to George in an interview with Groucho’s son, Arthur Marx for Cigar Aficionado (Winter 1994), he was an older and worldlier 14 when he began smoking cigars because I wanted people to think I was doing well. When they saw me walking down the street smoking a cigar, they’s say, ‘Hey, that 14-year-old kid must be going places.’
At first he smoked Hermosa Joses, about two a week, since he couldn’t afford more. Hermosa Joses were long cigars, and I’d let them go out when I wasn’t on stage or trying to impress someone.
The cigar did more than make him look successful, however; it became his trademark, like Bing Crosby’s pipe. Many comedians ~ including Alan King, Milton Berle, and Bill Cosby ~ have walked out on stage puffing on cigars. For one thing, they smoked them; and, for another, the cigar was a handy prop. As Burns explained, That’s why so many performers…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.
At some point, George abandoned Jermosa Joses for El Producto: It’s a good cigar… 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. Because he smoked them, George received his El Productos for free from the Tobacco Institute in Washington, D.C.
Burns made his El Producto the center of visual attention. Gottfried described George’s onstage appearance: “George Burns had been dapper as a young man and he remained that way. He was strictly a tuxedo man, with a red silk handkerchief in his breast pocket, a pair of patent leather shoes on his feet, and on the ring finger of his left hand, Gracie’s good-luck ‘cat’s eye’ ring. Canny vaudevillian that he was, he knew that an audience’s eyes are attracted by a moving prop. The prop was the cigar in his left hand, so that hand was where he wore the cat’s eye ring for good luck.”
Early in his partnership with Gracie, George learned how to best use his cigar onstage: I used my cigar as a prop. It gave me something to do with my hands. I always held the cigar in my left hand so I could use my right hand to adjust the microphone. I probably could have just as easily held the cigar in my right hand, but I would have looked pretty funny trying to smoke the microphone.
Audiences were so protective of Gracie that George had to be careful not to do anything to her which they might not like. “I could smoke with my left hand, and I got so good I was able to smoke with both hands. That was my big talent. Anyway, the first thing I’d do before the matinee, I’d always find out which way the wind was blowing onstage. So I stood on the side where my smoke didn’t go in Gracie’s face. If the smoke hit Gracie, the audience would hate me.”
George smoked his cigars at home as well as on stage. “Gracie never objected to my smoking cigars,” George recalled. “She knew how important they were to me ~ if I didn’t have a cigar, how would anybody know when I’d told a joke? One of the first things she did after we’d gotten together, though, was buy me a cigar holder and tell me to use it. The only rule she made about my cigar was that I wasn’t to get her clean ashtrays all dirty with cigar ashes. We had two lovely standing brass ashtrays in the living room, and Gracie made sure they were always shining. I wasn’t permitted to use them for ashes.” Instead, Gracie got him an ashtray from the kitchen to use.
“Sandy (their daughter) never objected to my smoking cigars either. She thought I was pretty funny. One Sunday afternoon soon after she’d gotten married, Gracie and I went to her new house in Westwood. We were all standing in the backyard and I casually flicked my cigar ash on the ground. ‘Daddy!’ Sandy practically screamed, ‘don’t do that. I’ll get you an ashtray.’ I didn’t know whether to be proud of her for being just like her mother or angry at her for being just like her mother. So she went into the house and returned with an ashtray. Not using an ashtray for ashes was one thing ~ but the ground?”
In a TV episode in which he supposedly dove into a swimming pool but appeared moments later bone dry, he said to the audience, You don’t believe that was me in the pool, huh? And he took out a sopping wet cigar and wrung it dry. Convinced?
Whenever he was introduced on stage, a puff of smoke would appear from behind the side curtain, followed by his appearance, strolling out onto center stage. As in his television program when he addressed the camera directly, he just stood there, his cigar in his hand. On TV, he had taken particular time, and focused particular attention, on lighting and drawing on his cigar. In his 90s, he was doing it no differently; and, since he himself hardly moved at all, the only thing the audience’s eyes could cling to was his cigar.
In one way, George was the antithesis of other celebrity cigar-smokers who enjoyed only the best and higher-priced cigars: “If I paid $4 for a cigar, I’d sleep with it.” A running gag between him and Milton Berle was for Berle to ask, “George, are you sure you don’t want to try a Monte Cristo?”
In Dear George, Advice and Answers from America’s Leading Expert on Everything from A to B, Betty in Barstow asked George to do a nude scene, to which he responded, “In The Sunshine Boys I appeared topless ~ no toupee. In Going in Style I appeared bottomless ~ no shoes. Sorry, kid, that’s as far as I go. If I smoke my cigar without a holder on it, I catch cold.” And he told audiences he was so shy about sex and nudity that, when he put his cigar into his cigar-holder, he closed his eyes.
Throughout the God trilogy, of course, Burns never smoked ~ not as God, anyway. But in Oh God, You Devil, he also played the devil and smoked his El Productos (using the cigar holder, of course). As they sit down at the card table to play one hand of poker for Bobby Shelton’s soul, God tells the devil, “Those cigars are gonna kill ya.” To which the devil replies, “I love smoke.”
As he got older and ~ according to him ~ sex became more of a spectator sport, his favorite companion was his cigar. In The Third Time Around (1980), he wrote, “Now I spend my evenings in a comfortable chair watching television and smoking a cigar. I found out that smoking a cigar is much easier for me than being a great lover. With a cigar I don’t have to remember its birthday; I don’t have to worry about meeting its mother; I don’t have to take it out dancing; I don’t have to get undressed to smoke a cigar; and when I’m through with a cigar I don’t have to call a taxi to take it home.”
By the age of 98, he was down to 10 cigars a day when not working, 15 if he was working. This led, by Arthur Marx’s reckoning, to a 70-year lifetime use of more than 300,000 cigars. Of course, in his early years, George couldn’t afford that many, and in his final years was down to just three or four a day. Also, anti-smoking laws curtailed his smoking in public places. For me, Hillcrest passed a special bylaw: anyone over 95 is allowed to smoke a cigar in the card room. Elsewhere, however, If people object, I don’t smoke.
Two things George never smoked were cigarettes and marijuana. When asked if he inhaled smoke, he told Marx, No. I’ve never smoked a cigarette. Just cigars. They’re better for you. Regarding marijuana, he said, Look, I can’t get any more kicks than I’m getting. What can marijuana do for me that show business hasn’t done?”
George used life’s experiences as fodder for his act, but he had one smoking experience that was not commonly known because he never mentioned it. As a young flashy vaudellian, George was a true dandy but was nevertheless rather naive, while his friend Luther Adler knew his way around. One night Luther took George to an opium den. Gottfried wrote, Burns remembered only that the ‘den’ was an apartment, that it was dark, and that mattresses were spread on the floors throughout the place. He was given a pipe and shown how to inhale the sweet fumes. After he did, he stretched out on one of the mattresses. Beyond that, he remembered nothing of the evening.
It was one story he never tried to revise into vaudeville material.
George Burns was a loving and generous man who worshiped his wife, cherished his friendships, and took care of his family. As the years began to take their toll on ex-vaudevillians, Burns supported many of them. He donated millions of dollars to hospitals and other worthy causes. He never met a stranger and didn’t have an enemy in the world. Steve Allen recalled, “There was something about his innate goodness, his good spirits. I never heard him swearing or grousing about his competitor. I don’t think he saw any competitors in the world and, in a sense, he had none. He was the champ at what he did.”
Writer Arthur Cooper interviewed this “promising young comedian, actor and singer” for Playboy in 1978 and had this to say: “George Burns…lives in a large, expensively appointed house at one of the country’s most fashionable addresses, in Beverly Hills. He wears modish, finely tailored suits and sports coats and colorful turtleneck sweaters. He dines at the trendiest restaurants and is invited to all the chichi parties. He can usually be found behind a blue cloud of cigar smoke and on the arm of some curvaceous young beauty. He tools around town in a new dark-blue Cadillac Seville.
“In truth, Burns is one of the gentlest and kindest of men. Even when prodded, he cannot find a mean word to say about anyone. If he ever had any enemies, he has managed to outlive them. He is considerate to the point of using a plastic cigar holder to spare those around him the sight of the wet tip of his cigar… He is an informal fellow, a charming raconteur, a dignified relic who, ironically enough, has never known greater fame.
His world was truly shattered twice: in 1964 with the death of his wife, and ten years later with the passing of Jack Benny, his closest friend for half a century. Both times, work was the distraction that kept him going. “You know, you cry and you cry and you cry. And finally there are no more tears. Then you go back to work.” But he never really dealt with their deaths, nor with death itself. When he was asked what he’d like for his own epitaph, his response was, “I’d like to be standing there reading it.” When death came knocking at his door, he said, he simply wouldn’t answer it.
George believed in finding something you love and doing it. He loved show business. Unlike Dean Martin, who couldn’t wait to die, George relished the challenges each new day brought. And for him, family and friends, work and activity, martinis, cigars and women, were not reasons to live, they were the substance of life itself. His journey was long, rich in experiences and friendships, and highly adventurous in a profession that thrives on adventure. His life spanned four distinct ages from the horse and buggy to the world-wide web. He began his stage career in the acoustic age, before electronic amplification, and became a star of radio, television, movies, records, and cyberspace. And along the way he became a living relic of the goodness of it all. Myrna Oliver observed, “He began the century singing for pennies on New York street corners. He nearly ended the century wise-racking on compact disc and playing, by satellite, to audiences worldwide.”
For more than 90 years he entertained us, “from vaudeville to video,” as People Magazine put it. Having spent his “best years” feeding jokes to his wife, he had reached the point of being rightly named Entertainer of the Century. He had also become “a wry advance man in the world of very old age,” People noted, “scouting the fringes of life and sending back funny dispatches to the rest of us.”
Stage entertainment hardly began with Burns, but The New York Times wrote that “vaudeville and Burns have a claim to immortality for having greatly influenced the forms of radio and TV entertainment that supplanted popular stage amusements.”
He did more than that. Andy Edelstein thanked George “for so ably demonstrating how older people improve the quality of our lives.” And Charles Champlin concluded that “no small part of the fondness audiences of all ages had for him was that he bespoke times when things seemed simpler, more innocent, less frazzled and cynical, when a few bars of soft shoe and lines of a foolish song from an ancient vaudeville act carried a strong and particular magic.”
© 2006 Henry Zecher