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George Burns: an American treasure.

GEORGE BURNS: AN AMERICAN TREASURE

He's just your typical 91-year-oldlegend who was voted one of America's ten sexiest men in a national poll several years ago. But that should come as no surprise to those who know and love George Burns.

Burns has been wowing audiencessince he was seven years old. He began singing for nickels and dimes on the street corners of New York's Lower East Side. "I recruited three of my school buddies," he recalls. "We called ourselves 'The PeeWee Quartet.' We were willing to sing for a buck wherever there was a crowd."

His father had died when Burnswas seven, and young George had to do whatever he could do help support his mother and 11 brothers and sisters. He shined shoes, ran errands, and sold newspapers. "I would have sold The Saturday Evening Post, but Ben Franklin hadn't started to publish it yet," he says.

George quit school after the fourthgrade. By age 14 he was a trick roller skater, a dance teacher, and a novice vaudeville comedian who also sang and danced. At various times he was billed as "Eddie DeLight," "Billy Pierce," and "Led Jackson." When he worked as part of a team, he was "Brown" of "Brown and Brown," "Harris" of "Dunlap and Harris," and "Williams" of "Brown and Williams."

"That was necessary," he confesses. "OftenI was canceled after my first performance. I had to change the name of my act if I ever hoped to get work again."

Burns was a fair comic at best untilhe teamed with a 17-year-old unemployed Irish-American actress named Gracie Allen. Oddly enough, George was the funny man at first, and Gracie was the "straight" person. But they soon reversed roles. "She got all the laughs," Burns admits.

"Actually I didn't do much workat all," he says. "Gracie and I would come out on stage. I'd ask her, 'How's your brother?' Then I simply stood back, and she talked for 22 minutes. The audience laughed. When she was through, we both took our bows, and we left."

After performing together for threeyears, they were married. They went on to become the most famous husband-wife team in the history of show business. Their big break came in 1929 when they were asked to substitute at the last minute for an ailing Fred Allen in a one-reeler movie. Fourteen shorts and more than a dozen feature motion pictures followed, including The Big Broadcast, Six of a Kind, A Damsel in distress, and Honolulu.

Burns and Allen's weekly radioshows on CBS and NBC ran from 1932 until 1950, and their subsequent television program aired for nine years, until Gracie retired in 1958. The classic reruns of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show still draw laughs from millions of viewers through syndication.

When Gracie died of a heart attackin 1964, a part of America died with her. But George Burns refused to spend the remainder of his life in mourning. Instead, he immersed himself in work. He produced several television series, including No Time for Sergeants.

A new concert careeropened opportunities for people in Buffalo, Erie, Omaha, and Altoona--near those once-famous vaudeville houses he worked 40 years earlier--to see in person this man who had become a national treasure. Some of his most appreciative fans were college students. They packed concert halls and greeted him with standing ovations as he walked on stage to the strains of his current theme song, "Ain't Misbehavin'." A popular teen magazine editorialized: "Our younger generation thinks it discovered Gracie Allen's husband."

In his late 70s, Burns begana comeback career in movies. The Sunshine Boys, released in November 1975, broke the all-time single-day box-office record at Radio City Music Hall. His performance earned him an Oscar for Best supporting Actor.

Perhaps his most famousmovie role was as the title character in Oh, God, co-starring John Denver. "I played the part without make-up," Burns says. "Sometimes I get carried away with the part I played. Yesterday, when I was on an elevator, a woman got on and said, 'Nice day.' I said, 'Thank you.'" Oh, God has spawned to sequels to date, and another is planned.

In 1981 Burns began yet one morecareer, this time as a recording artist. He cut an album of country music. "Why not?" he asks. "After all, I'm older than most countries." His Mercury recording "I Wish I Was 18 Again," an instant hit, was played on radio stations with every format from "country" to "easy-listening."

Burns, who wrote a book called ILove Her, That's Why in 1955, has written severalmore books since he turned 80, including How to Live to Be 100 or More! and Dr. Burns' Prescription for Happiness--a New York Times best seller for 18 consecutive weeks.

Burns frequents television specialsand talk shows, andhe's the star attraction at some 90 sell-out engagements a year in theaters and night clubs throughout the country. "You see, I can't die now," he says, "I've got too many bookings."

As a comedian, Burns, to his knowledge,has never used foul language or taken a cheap shot at someone to get a laugh. He will not insult his audience, and throughout his multifaceted career he has never been the subject of a scandal.

Some antismoking advocates, nonetheless,criticize Burns for appearing on stage with his ever-present cigar. But he responds with one of his famous one-liners: "At my age if I didn't have something to hold on to, I'd fall over."

At 91, Burns shows no signs offalling over or even slowing down. "There's a big difference between growing older and growing old," he says.

Others agree. A national poll takenfour years ago revealed that women considered George Burns to be one of America's ten sexiest men--an accolade that resulted, in part, from his admission that he dates young women. "I liked dating them when I was younger; I still like 'em," he says.

Another survey of nearly a thousandprofessional comedians that same year named him as the "King of Comedy"--an honor he especially appreciated because it was given to him by his peers.

How does he want people to speakof him 100 years from now? "I want them to say I look good for my age," he quips.

Looking back over his career,would he do anything different? "Not really," he says. "I'd rather be a failure at something I'm in love with than be successful at something I hate. I'm very fortunate, because I'm doing well in a business I've always loved. I've always been in love with show business, and I still am. I love it today as much as I did for the 20 years I flopped in it."

A current rumor in Hollywood isthat there are plans to make a movie of George Burns' life. "They may," Burns admits, "but they can't find an actor old enough to play me."

Vaudevillian, singer, dancer, author,monologist, star of radio, television, and movies--George Burns has enough credentials to establish his ownhall of fame. Over his long and distinguished career, what has he regarded as his greatest asset? Burns answers without hesitation: "I was married to her for 38 years."
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:McCollister, John
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:May 1, 1987
Words:1190
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