Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Born Today January 20 (Not So Silent Edition): George Burns


Born Nathan Birnbaum in New York City to immigrate Jewish parents who came from Romania; he was one of 12 children born to them.  He claims to have been "discovered" while working in a chocolate syrup factory at the age of seven, along with several other kids who worked in the basement with him. He claimed that they were discovered by the company's letter carrier who came down to deliver, well, a letter.  The carrier was a fan of harmony singing, and the kids were in the habit singing harmonies to cut the boredom of making syrup.  He heard singing and complimented them; and stayed for a song or two.  By the end of this little "recital," several other company employees had joined the carrier, who threw some pennies down at them.  Burns related in his own words, "So I said to the kids I was working with, no more chocolate syrup for me.  It's show business from now on."  They formed a group and called themselves the "Pee-Wee Quartet."  They began to perform anywhere that they could, from street corners & ferryboats, to saloons and even brothels.  At this time he still going by "Nate."  He was drafted into the Army during World War I, but his extreme near-sightedness caused him to fail the physical.  Intent of staying in show business permanently, he adopted the stage name "George Burns" in order to hide his Jewish ancestry.  He claimed to have gotten the name from two major league baseball players, George H. Burns and George J. Burns (no relation to each other), who were well known at the time.  Other sources cite that he got the name "George" from his brother Izzy, who hated his first name and changed it to George; and the Burns, from the Burns Brothers Coal Company, whose trucks he used to steal coal from.  He then started partnering with girls for song and dance numbers, with some comedic banter thrown in between the songs.  One of these was with Hannah Siegel (who performed under the name Hermosa Jose); the two wished to take their act on the road, but their parents would not allow it unless they were married--so they married and did the tour.  The marriage was never consummated and they divorced after the tour was over.  In 1923 he met Grace "Gracie" Allen.  The two formed a performance duo as "Burns and Allen," and the act became of huge success.  As they toured the vaudeville circuit, Burns found himself falling in love with his already engaged stage partner, and tried several times to win her over.  Finally succeeding, the two were married on the 7th January 1926 in Cleveland--against the norms of the time given his Jewish ethnicity and her being a an Irish Catholic.  Together they starred in one short comedy in 1929 and that was an early talkie to boot.  That film was Lambchops.  It ran only 8 minutes.  The rest, as they say, is history!  While Allen passed away at age 69, after a long illness with heart problems; Burns is famous for living to 100 years of age, despite his lifelong love of cigars.  He passed away from natural causes in his Beverly Hills home on 9 March 1986, 49 days into 101st year of life.  He is entombed next to his wife, in the Freedom Mausoleum at Forrest Lawn Memorial Park.  

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