BURNS: Because I don't do anything! Look, what the hell is wrong with going out with me? I take them to nice restaurants, they meet nice people, they eat good food. When I take them to Chasen's for dinner, in between courses they have time to do their homework. I figure some of their youth may rub off on me and some of what I've got might rub off on them. That is, if it doesn't drop off before I meet them. I'm sure I can't hurt them. Look, I'd go out with women my age, but there are no women my age.
PLAYBOY: Groucho and George Jessel in their later years built their image around being lusty old men. And, of course, we're told that we can enjoy sex when we're 90. Excuse us for asking, but do you still have sex?
BURNS: I can have sex, sure. Look, it's just as good now as it was then, and it was very bad then!
PLAYBOY: Is it true you have sex four times a week?
BURNS: No, that's not true. Four times a night, maybe, but not four times a week. Are you a sex maniac or something? Ask me something else. Wait. I'll ask me something else. You mentioned Georgie Jessel. I'll tell you a good Jessel story. I saw Jessel in The Jazz Singer on Broadway. He was absolutely great. A smash. He sang Kol Nidre . Well, it just knocked me out. I was sitting there crying. I ran back to tell Jessel how great he was. And Bob Milford, his cousin, was working for him and Milford says, "You can't go in the dressing room." "I want to tell Mr. Jessel how great he is." He says, "You can't go in and see Georgie Jessel now. He's in his dressing room with his clothes off." I said, "Look, I've seen a naked Jew before." Milford says, "You can't go in and see him. He's got a dame with him in there." I thought nothing could follow Kol Nidre ; but I guess that could!
PLAYBOY: So Jessel earned his campaign medals?
BURNS: Yeah. When he took The Jazz Singer on the road, he'd have a beauty contest in every city and he'd pick eight beautiful girls and put them in the show. So Jessel had all these broads--every night a different broad. And he was married then, I think to Courtney, and every time she caught him in bed with some girl, she'd hit him over the head with something, a lamp, anything. Jessel was getting a lot of headaches.
PLAYBOY: Jessel was one of the round table regulars at Hillcrest, the predominantly Jewish country club in Los Angeles, to which you and so many of your showbiz friends belonged, wasn't he?
BURNS: Yeah, Jessel, Jack Benny, Groucho, Al Jolson, Danny Thomas, Danny Kaye, Milton Berle. Jessel held court. He was the storyteller. A very funny man, Jessel, and a very talented fellow. His career went a little bit haywire because he spread it out too far. He went in all directions instead of going in that one direction. Anyway, at the table, everyone was fighting to get on. If you told a story about two fellows in a saloon, no one was interested in where the saloon was or how the guys were dressed. Just get to the point. And there was one fella at the table, Patsy Flick, whose preambles were outrageous, took up all your time. He'd say, "This fellow was about 5'2" and he wore a blue suit and the other fellow was, oh, maybe 5'7", no, maybe 5'8" and wore spats. . . ." Well, who the hell cared? Whenever he'd meet you, he'd stop you and tell you a story. He'd kill the whole season with one story. So whenever I met him, he'd start to tell me a story and I'd say, "Patsy, I know the story, it's a switch on the pineapple story." "Oh, OK." So finally, after I hit him with that five or six times, he said, "George, tell me the pineapple story." And I said, "There is no such story."
PLAYBOY: With that crowd, there must have been a tremendous clash of egos--and a few insults, too.
BURNS: Oh, yeah. I'll tell you this story about Groucho. I've never told it. It didn't happen at the round table, it happened at a party Edward G. Robinson gave. Groucho didn't like me. In fact, he later said, "Jack Benny was a very talented man and George Burns had no talent." If that's the way he felt, fine. But what caused him to say it was we were at Eddie's party, about 20 of us for dinner; this is about four years ago. well, sometimes I'm funny and sometimes I'm not. But I was good for two or three minutes at the table--and Groucho resented it. So Groucho said, "Just a minute, George, don't take over. I'm in show business, too." I said, "Well, OK. Quiet, everybody, Groucho is going to do two funny minutes." Well, I shouldn't have said that; it wasn't too nice. But anyway, one thing led to another and one woman said something like, "George, name the top ten comedians." I said, "Look, I can't do that. They're all funny--Groucho, Ed Wynn, Jack Benny. But if you want to know who I think is the funniest comedian, I would have to say Charlie Chaplin." And Groucho resented that. He said, "Charlie Chaplin isn't the funniest comedian. I am. I'm funnier than Charlie Chaplin." So I said, "Well, then I must be funnier than Charlie Chaplin, too, because I'm funnier than you." And, to make matters worse, I said, "And Chaplin did it without his brothers!" Oh, Christ! Then Groucho came out and said, "George Burns has got no talent."
PLAYBOY: Was he angry with you until his death?
BURNS: Oh, no no. I finally called him--I knew he wasn't feeling well--and I said, "Groucho, I changed my mind. You're funnier than Charlie Chaplin."
PLAYBOY: What did you really think of Groucho?
BURNS: He was great. Look at those movies. He was absolutely fabulous. Groucho made it up. All those guys who made it up lasted. Elvis Presley made it up. Chaplin made it up. Jolson made it up. Eddie Cantor was a very clever fellow, but nobody ever talks about him. He didn't make it up. Sinatra, Bing Crosby, they made it up, they'll last.
PLAYBOY: What about Jolson? Was he the greatest entertainer who ever lived?
BURNS: There was nobody, no greater entertainer than Jolie! But Jolie was a tough guy. He wanted everybody in show business to retire. He wanted to be there alone. And Jolson--I don't know if you've heard this story--always had the water running in his dressing room, the sink, so he could never hear how the other acts were doing. Yeah. It could be Powers' elephants onstage--he didn't want to hear any applause. When he walked on, it was Jolson taking it over. He could follow anybody in the world; there was nobody as good as Jolson. That's a big statement.
I don't think he was the biggest talent I've ever seen, but I'd say he was the best entertainer. I saw him follow Caruso at a Liberty Bond rally during World War One. Caruso came out and sang Over There . Caruso! Then on came Jolie. Little guy with a blue suit and a blue shirt, very tan--he had just come from Florida--opened up his collar and said, "You ain't heard nothin' yet!" And he was a riot. You ain't heard nothin' yet! Jolie was marvelous. Let me tell you something: When he wasn't doing well, the Hillcrest Country Club had its 25th or 35th anniversary, I don't remember numbers, and we all entertained, Jack Benny, myself, Danny Thomas, Danny Kaye. And Jolson closed the show. When I say Jolson wasn't doing well, I mean he always had a couple of million dollars, but he wasn't entertaining much. Sang too loud. By that time, the microphone had come out, you whispered. Jolson didn't want to use a microphone. Jolson sang in California and you heard him in Altoona. So after we all entertained, they said, "And now, ladies and gentlemen, Al Jolson!" But instead of Jolson coming on, he had hired eight violinists and they came on and started tuning up, like there was no show on ahead of them. We all looked, they tuned up--bop, bop, bah. Jolie finally came on and when he got through, you forgot there had been anyone on before him. And that was the first time, I think, that any artist brought in his own musicians.
PLAYBOY: We're getting a little ahead of ourself. Tell us about your background. what's the earliest memory you have?
BURNS: Well, when I was very, very young, I did everything. I used to shine shoes--two cents a shine. Carried a box with a little strap, two cents a shine. Very little shine for two cents, just a lot of spit. And I sold newspapers. And I sold crackers, little vanilla crackers. You used to get them in a grocery store, ten for a cent. I'd sell them on the street eight for a cent. Every time I sold a penny's worth of crackers, I made two crackers. I ate the profits, never made any money. Then I joined the Peewee Quartet. We sang in saloons, back yards, at amateur nights, on ferryboats.
PLAYBOY: How old were you?
BURNS: Seven. Passed the hat around. A funny thing happened. We used to sing just in the Jewish neighborhood, but on Halloween, we decided to step out and go into the gentile neighborhood. There wasn't much Halloween on the Lower East Side. And we did very well. We made $17. We had never made that kind of money in our lives before. If we made 50 cents apiece, that was considered a good night. Well, we made $17. And when we came out of this saloon, there were a lot of gentile kids dressed up in all kinds of Halloween outfits, and they wanted to take our money. Jesus, we couldn't give up 17 bucks. So we ran to the Jewish Boys' Club at Tenth Street and Avenue A. Inside, we told them that these gentile kids were trying to take our money. So the boys from the club went out and chased the gentile kids away. And they came back and said, "How much money you got?" And we said, "Seventeen bucks." So they took the $17 and chased us away. So we lost the 17 bucks. To nice Jewish boys.
PLAYBOY: Like so many other comedians of your generation, you grew up on the Lower East Side of New York. What was it like?
BURNS: We didn't know we were poor. We thought everybody was poor. A lot of us used to sleep on the floor, on a mattress. One mattress would handle four kids, because we'd sleep crosswise. And my mother said, "You kids are very lucky. Some kids have no floor to sleep on." We'd try to figure that out. "Where do they sleep with no floor?"
PLAYBOY: Tell us about your mother.
BURNS: She was a great lady, a great woman. Nothing flustered her. She had a marvelous sense of humor. She said things by inference. I do, too. I think it rubbed off. When I sang with the Peewee Quartet, we represented a Presbyterian church. How that church was built in a Jewish neighborhood I'll never know. And Siegel-Cooper, which was a department store, had a Sunday picnic with a singing competition and we won first prize. They gave us four Ingersoll watches, which in those days cost about 65 cents apiece. When I came home, my mother was hanging the wash up on the roof and I told her, "Momma, I don't want to be a Jew anymore." She said, "What do you want to be?" "A Presbyterian. I've been a Jew for seven years, I got nothing. I was a Presbyterian for one day and I got an Ingersoll watch." She said, "First help me hang up the wash, then you can be a Presbyterian."
PLAYBOY: Besides your mother, who influenced your career? Did you have any particular idols?
BURNS: No. Well, one guy I admired was our letter carrier, Harry Farley. He got us together, the Peewee Quartet, and taught us harmony. His name was Feingold, really. He wanted to go into show business, so he called himself Harry Farley. He also wanted to be a policeman and he was too short to be a policeman. He was 5'8" or something and to be a policeman, you had to be 5'9". He put a stretching machine in the basement and tried to stretch himself an inch. And the machine stretched a little too hard. If he had lived, he would have made it. But, anyway, he taught us harmony and I loved harmony.
PLAYBOY: Did your brothers and sisters appreciate your singing and your jokes? Did they encourage you?
BURNS: They didn't want me to go into show business, even though I've been full of show business for as long as I can remember. They didn't think show business was kosher. You go to the Devil, you go to hell if you go into show business. They wanted me to be like my brother who opened a store in Akron, Ohio. He wanted me to come there to run the elevator and later--who knows?--maybe to be a buyer of ladies' dresses at 90 bucks a week. Who wanted that?
PLAYBOY: How long did they feel that way?
BURNS: Until I started doing well. Then they were sorry they didn't go into show business.
PLAYBOY: What were some of the songs the prize-winning Peewee Quartet made famous?