Goodnight, George! ~
The World's Best-loved Cigar Smoker Takes His Final Bow
[Published in The Pipe Smokerís Ephemeris, Edited by Tom Dunn,
By Henry Zecher
George Burns told the story, smoking a cigar was what saved his life the day
he was born, which he remembered very well because he was there at the time.
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 Georgeís 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 didnít 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
* * * * *
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
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 wasnít 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."
Georgeís 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
"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
Gracie: "Don't be silly, George. We couldn't afford a maid. My mother
had to do it."
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
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."
"Well, what is your method of raising cats?"
Gracie: "Same as yours. Put both hands under their belly and lift."
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 Gracieís 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
At the Hillcrest Country Clubís 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 didnít die laughing, you could have choked on the
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 Gracieís 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? heíd 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 for The 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,
After Gracieís 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.
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 wasnít 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
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
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
Georgeís 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 Iíve 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
||"I would go out
with women my age," he'd say, and pause. "But there are no women my age."
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 Grouchoís 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,
theyís say, ĎHey, that 14-year-old kid must be going places.í
At first he smoked Hermosa Joses, about two a week, since he couldnít
afford more. Hermosa Joses were long cigars, and Iíd let them go out when I
wasnít 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, Thatís why so many performers...use them. When you canít
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: Itís 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 Iím
doing my act. The El Producto stays lit. Now if youíre 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. Thatís 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
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
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 donít believe
that was me in the pool, huh? And he took out a sopping wet cigar and wrung it
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 audienceís 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
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 Marxís reckoning, to a 70-year lifetime
use of more than 300,000 cigars. Of course, in his early years, George
couldnít 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 donít smoke.
Two things George never smoked were cigarettes and marijuana. When
asked if he inhaled smoke, he told Marx, No. Iíve never smoked a cigarette.
Just cigars. Theyíre 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 lifeís 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 Ďdení 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.
* * * * *
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
didnít 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 couldnít 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
© 2006 Henry Zecher