BURNS: Oh, Good-bye Girlie and Remember Me When You're Far Away . That was one. And then we sang Roll, Roll, Roll Those Bones . Every quartet sang that. It's a crap-game song. And then we sang a song that made no sense at all. It went, "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 marching. . . . Johnny get a gun, get a gun, get a gun and beat McNulty, too." It made no sense, but there was harmony there.
PLAYBOY: No wonder they kept tossing you off ferryboats.
BURNS: That only happened once. A guy on the upper deck was making love to this broad and we four kids wanted to make a few pennies, so we got in front of him and we started to sing harmony. He didn't want harmony. He wanted to kiss this girl. We were singing songs like Always Think of Mother and She'll Always Think of You . And he was making love to this girl, who was maybe a virgin or something. So he grabbed us and threw us overboard. But you couldn't drown in the East River, because the garbage was so thick. You could always just jump on a pile of garbage.
PLAYBOY: See, you're the one who keeps bringing up sex. So we may as well ask you how you lost your virginity.
BURNS: Oh, I ran two dancing schools when I was 14. There was this pupil--well, I thought she was an old woman--must have been 23. Married, had a couple of kids. We did it in one of the meeting rooms about the dance place. She had to help me. I didn't know what to do with her. I just looked at it and she did it. I could do that myself. I didn't need anybody. And it got so, when I was doing well, I'd do it with gloves on.
PLAYBOY: Vaudevillians must have had their groupies. Were you a ladies' man?
BURNS: No. Never. I was a very, very good ballroom dancer. I was a great Peabody dancer. Once, I had dates with two girls. And one girl was a great Peabody dancer and the other one I could have gone to bed with. Well, there was a contest, a Peabody contest, so I took out the Peabody dancer. I told you, the other thing I could do myself.
PLAYBOY: You started in vaudeville when you were 14. What were the names under which you performed?
BURNS: Oh, it didn't make any difference what my name was, because I was always being laid off, getting canceled. I was Harris of Pierce and Harris. I was Smith of Garfield and Smith. Then there was an act, Brown and Williams, Singers, Dancers and Roller Skaters, and they were doing pretty good, getting maybe $100 a week. A lot of money. Even with commission, that's 90 bucks for two guys. Anyway, they split up and I went to work with Brown. And we did the same act. Well, everybody did that act and we didn't even have enough sense to change our names. Everybody was named Brown or Williams. There was Brown and Williams and Williams and Brown and there was Brown and Brown and there was Williams and Williams and there were the Brown Brothers and the Williams Boys. We all did the same act and we were all laid off together. Later there was a guy called Willie Delight and he had 2000 cards printed, Willie Delight, Songs, Dances & Syncopated Patter. But he left vaudeville for another job. He had 1920 cards left, so I bought them for two dollars. And I changed my name to Willie Delight until I had used up the cards. But no matter what my name was, I was always laying off.
PLAYBOY: How did you become George Burns?
BURNS: First I was Nat Burns. When I was a kid, Burns Brothers was a coal-delivery company on the East Side. And there was a little fellow I palled around with, Abie Kaplan, who was later Brown of Brown and Brown. Anyway, Abie and I would open the chute on the coal truck and fill our knickers with coal for our mothers. And when they saw us coming down the street, everybody would say, "Here come the Burns boys." And that stuck. Later I changed my name to George, because there was another Nat Burns in show business and he was stronger than I was.
PLAYBOY: Early in your career, you were married briefly, weren't you?
BURNS: An hour.
PLAYBOY: Tell us about it.
BURNS: Hannah Siegal was her name. We did a Latin dance act and we were booked for 36 weeks on the small time. We opened the show. Pretty bad act. But I thought it was great. At least I was in show business. And this girl, her father wouldn't let me take her out of town unless I married her. Well, I wasn't going to cancel 36 weeks, so I married her. I think I was about 22.
PLAYBOY: You've often said that until you teamed up with Gracie, you were plain awful. Did you ever feel you should give up show business and run your brother's elevator in Akron?
BURNS: No. You see, 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!"
PLAYBOY: Enter laughing, Gracie Allen. How did you meet?
BURNS: It was 1923. I was playing with Billy Lorraine, our last three days together. We were going to split up, not because we were angry with each other but because we couldn't get another job. So Gracie came backstage to visit a girlfriend, Rena Arnold, who was the headliner on the bill. And Rena told Gracie, "Those two boys are splitting up. Maybe you'd like to work with one of them." Well, Gracie was a dramatic Irish actress and she was out of work. So she went out front and saw our act. And she said she'd work with me if I could do away with a gold tooth I had in the front of my mouth. So I got rid of the gold tooth. Well, I didn't get rid of it right away. I found out that Max Factor made whitening that you could put on, white enamel. And I went to work with Gracie.
PLAYBOY: What sort of act did you do?
BURNS: An act I wrote. Actually, I got it mostly out of College Humor and Captain Billy's Whizbang . I'd take the jokes and switch them. I always had a good feel for how to switch a joke. The secret of our success was that I knew what to do offstage and Gracie knew what to do on. Anyway, 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 onstage 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.
BURNS: 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 the hell 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 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 hate me.
PLAYBOY: Didn't Gracie also have an Irish temper?
BURNS: Oh, yeah. Let me tell you what happened once when we were playing New Orleans. Gracie had bought a new dress, which cost $400, to wear in our act. Before we opened, she sent the dress to a place called the Chiffon Cleaners, and when it came back, the dress was ruined. Gracie was heartbroken and went to the cleaners and demanded $400 to replace the dress. Well, she got nowhere. So we were on the stage, the theater was packed and the audience was loving us. When we got to our closing number, we came to the joke where I stopped the music and said, "A funny thing happened to my mother in Cleveland," and Gracie was supposed to answer, "I thought you were born in Buffalo." Well, instead of answering me, she just walked down to the footlights and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, when I arrived in New Orleans, I had a brand-new dress which cost me $400, and yesterday I sent it to be cleaned by the Chiffon Cleaners, which is located at the corner of St. Charles and Canal Street. When it came back, it was absolutely ruined. I went down there, and since I could never wear the dress again, I asked them to make good on it. They not only refused but were very rude to me. I'll be leaving New Orleans at the end of the week, but you people live here. So I'm warning you, don't send your clothes to the Chiffon Cleaners, which is located at the corner of St. Charles and Canal Street." And, with that, she turned and walked back to me and said, "I thought you were born in Buffalo." Of course, the joke did not get a laugh. That night, she made the same speech but in a different part of our act. We still had six more days in New Orleans and I knew there was no stopping Gracie. Fortunately for my peace of mind, the next day there was an envelope for Gracie with $400 in it, compliments of the Chiffon Cleaners.
PLAYBOY: Gracie's approach sounds logical to us. What's an example of the illogical logic of her character?
BURNS: Well, a line where I'd say to Gracie, "Did the nurse ever drop you when you were a baby?" She says, "No, no, no. We couldn't afford a nurse. My mother had to do it." And she didn't say it to be funny. What she meant was they couldn't afford a nurse. Gracie would put pepper in the salt shaker and salt in the pepper shaker and I'd say, "Gracie, why did you do that?" And she looked at me like, "Poor fool," and she'd say, "Well, people always get mixed up and now when they do, they're right." It was so simple for her.
PLAYBOY: How long did it take after you hit on that formula for you to reach the top?
BURNS: Well, eventually we got married and signed a contract for six years for $500 a week, which was a lot of money. And 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 tomorrow?" 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.
PLAYBOY: What was Gracie like offstage, around the house?
BURNS: Well, she took care of the house and we had two lovely children, Sandra and Ronnie, and she took care of the children. Gracie had a lot of very, very good friends. She liked to go shopping, she liked to wear good clothes. She was busy. We were on radio for 18 years. That was easy, because you could read the script. But on television for eight years, we had a script of 40 pages to memorize and 28 or 29 pages belonged to her. And Gracie wasn't full of show business like I was. Gracie used to like those soap operas. For instance, years ago, I came home after just signing a contract with Chesterfield for another year. It was an awful lot of money. I was all excited and I said, "Gracie, I have some wonderful news." She said, "Not now, Ma Perkins is in trouble." Well, I had to sit there until Ma Perkins got out of trouble. Ma Perkins! Who the hell cared about Ma Perkins?
PLAYBOY: You and Gracie were married for 38 years, in one of show business' ideal matches. Today, a third to a half of all marriages are ending in divorce. What's wrong?
BURNS: There's nothing wrong. That's just the lifestyle. Today the kids live together and they have children and if they like the way the children look, they get married. And if they don't get along, all they have to do is get divorced and live together again, and they're happy again. In the old days, anybody having an affair before marriage, it was hush-hush.
PLAYBOY: But it happened all the time.
BURNS: It was happening but with the door closed. Now they do it with the doors open and they scream to the neighbors, "Look, we're having an affair!" It's entirely different today: "Come over and watch us!"
PLAYBOY: What do you think of all this liberalization?
BURNS: I don't know if it's good or bad. I'm a singer, not a swinger. I couldn't make a dollar in that other business. Nobody would pay me for that. Even in our marriage, I don't ever remember when I kissed Gracie that she applauded me. I made Gracie laugh. Gracie married me because I was funny. Sex was never a part of it. We had sex, of course we had sex. Look, we slept together. We were not only married 38 years, we were married three times that, because . . . don't forget, I slept with Gracie, I ate with Gracie, I dressed with Gracie, I worked with Gracie. When I was with Gracie for 38 years, it was 38 years. And we never got into each other's way with our marriage. It was a wonderful marriage.
PLAYBOY: Did you cheat on each other?
BURNS: Well, I don't know about Gracie, but I'll tell you a story about me . . . OK, I'll tell it. We were married for a lot of years and I had a . . . what's another word for condom?
PLAYBOY: A rubber.
BURNS: A rubber, OK. A rubber fell out of my pants when I got dressed. We were married maybe 20 years. And this silly maid upstairs took the rubber and put it on my dresser. And Gracie saw it. When I came home, I saw his thing and I said to the maid, "Did you put this on here? How stupid can you be?" Well, Gracie wanted a silver centerpiece that cost $750. I thought it was silly to buy it, but when I found out that Gracie saw that rubber. . . . If I'd said to Gracie that the boys at the Friars played a joke on me and they put that in my pocket, I think Gracie would have left me. Gracie was smart. You couldn't do that with Gracie. So I never said a word. The next day, I got the centerpiece and also a $10,000 diamond pin for her. Never said a word. The next night, I gave her the pin and she accepted it. And we never talked about it.
PLAYBOY: So you did you mess around a bit?
BURNS: Well, not a bit. But I did mess around then. Look, nobody is a . . . I don't care if you were married to Marilyn Monroe. If you were married to her, you would cheat with some ugly girl.
PLAYBOY: Since your main acknowledged talent was for smoking a cigar, you must have felt strange going out onstage on your own after Gracie retired.
BURNS: Yeah. But when you're forced to do things, you do them. With Gracie, I did a lot, but not onstage. I sat there with writers; I knew how to finish an act, how to end it; I knew exits, I knew entrances. That's very important; you must know how to get on and you must know how to get off. In vaudeville, if you could take good bows, you didn't have to have a good act. There was a certain knack in taking a bow. You'd walk off the stage and you did a lousy act. Then you'd come on taking a bow with an instrument in your hand. They'd say, "Well, maybe he plays," and give you an ovation. Well, I knew all of that. So I knew all about show business, but I never had to perform onstage.
PLAYBOY: And at the age of 62, you were reborn as a performer.
BURNS: Well, I didn't want to retire, I was too young to retire. So I went into show business by myself. I was booked into Harrah's at Lake Tahoe and I had a great show. I got Bobby Darin, who was sensational, the DeCastro sisters, who were wonderful, and Brascia & Tybee, the best dancing act in show business. Three acts. Who needed me? Anyway, the audience liked the show. And eventually I stayed and learned to do monologs by myself.
PLAYBOY: Gracie was in the audience for your night-club debut. What did she think of it?
BURNS: I'll never forget what she said when I asked her. She said, "I thought it was a fine show, it was put together just great." I didn't want that answer. I wanted to know how she liked me . So Gracie said, "Well, you're good, but you recite your monologs." That knocked me on my can. Recite my monologs! That meant I wasn't thinking. I did it like a machine. Gracie's line straightened me out. The next day, I stopped reciting. And all these little songs I'd been doing at parties all my life--I put them in the act. So the act developed. And then you know what happened. Jack Benny was supposed to do The Sunshine Boys and he left us. I took his place and the picture opened up a whole new career for me. And here I am an actor. But I might turn out to be such a great actor that I might never sing again. And you know what happened to Paul Muni. [ Pause ] You're supposed to say, "I didn't know that Paul Muni sang."
PLAYBOY: We didn't know that Paul Muni sang.
BURNS: How about Edward G. Robinson? Spencer Tracy? This could go on and on. I love it. I love to sing. You like my voice?
PLAYBOY: Your voice is . . . interesting. But is it one of the world's treasures, like Marlene Dietrich's legs, worth insuring for $1,000,000, as you did?
BURNS: That was a publicity stunt. They thought it would be a good idea. I think it was a bad stunt. It was too obvious, too obvious.
PLAYBOY: You just mentioned Jack Benny, your closest friend. How did you meet him?
BURNS: Well, Jack was going around with a girl named Mary Kelly, and they pretty near got married. This was before he ever met Mary Livingstone. And Mary Kelly and Gracie Allen and Rena Arnold, three very religious Catholic girls, all lived together. Then I started to work with Gracie and that's how I met Jack. We'd go out together. Even then, he was doing stingy jokes. His writers really didn't find that for him; he was doing it early on the stage. One of his big jokes was that he took a girl out to dinner and he told her a joke and she laughed so hard that she pretty near dropped her tray.
PLAYBOY: There's a rumor that you could crack up Benny as no one else could.
BURNS: That's because I never tried to crack him up. If you told Jack a joke, that wouldn't do it. In other words, if you had to stop the conversation to make Jack Benny laugh, that wouldn't work. But if he started it . . . like Jack said to me once--this might not even be funny in telling it--he said, "I didn't sleep last night." I said , "How did you sleep the night before?" "Great." I said, "Sleep every other night." Well, that knocked him out. There's a story I'd never tell, but I think it's funny. . . . We were handled by the same agent, Tom Fitzpatrick, a wonderful man who just couldn't say, "I've got no job for you." So if he had no job for you, he'd open the drawers of his desk, looking for papers. The minute he started looking for papers, you knew you were laying off. So I was coming out of Fitzpatrick's office in the Palace Theater and Jack was standing in front of the Palace and Jack says, "You and Gracie working next week?" I said, "No, Tom just looked through his drawers." Well, that killed him. He thought that was terribly funny. And I didn't. In fact, I resented Jack's even laughing at this. Lousy joke. But he started to laugh on the street. So I stopped about three or four people, strangers, and he was standing right there, and I said, "Why is this man laughing?" The next thing you know, there was a crowd of 50, 60 people standing around Jack Benny while he was on the sidewalk laughing. And nobody knew why he was laughing.
PLAYBOY: Is it true that he would actually fall off a chair and pound the floor?