George Burns, 1896 - 1996

portrait of George Burns
Portrait by Allan Warren (1986)

Born: 20 January 1896, New York City
Died: 9 March 1996, Beverly Hills, California

Born Nathan Birnbaum, his parents were Jewish immigrants from Austria. He started entertaining at a very early age, his own stories talked about singing with the Peewee Quartet and busking at age six or seven, his death certificate listed "years in occupation as 95. He quit school after fourth grade to focus on show business, changing his name to George Burns. He tried a little of everything, including trick roller skating, "adagio dancing", and standup comedy in vaudeville. In 1923 he went on stage with Gracie Allen as his "straight man" and they were an instant hit with the crowd. Burns noticed, however, that Allen was getting the better laughs, so he reversed roles and they created a "Dumb Dora" act which was a hit through vaudeville, radio, and television until she retired in 1958. They married in 1926 and stayed together until her death in 1964. After Allen's retirement, Burns' show lasted only a year. He worked as a producer of other shows and played clubs until Jack Benny's death in 1974, at which point he was asked to take over Benny's role in The Sunshine Boys, the first movie Burns had acted in for 36 years. Based on that success, he played the part of the creator in with John Denver in 1977. He was in nine more films through 1994. He played nightclubs until failing health caused him to cancel his appearance for his 100th birthday show at Caesars Palace. He died of cardiac arrest 49 days into his second century. A cigar smoker since a very early age, possibly as early as seven, he was buried with three cigars in his pocket. According to the New York Times' obituary, he also had ten $100 bills, a five, and three ones in his pocket. Alas, the obituary is not online so I can't tell why he had that cash on him at the time.

Biography from Wikipedia and The Museum of Broadcast Communications

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