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GEORGE BURNS 1896 - 1996 // Comedian for the ages dies

George Burns _ the indefatigable entertainer whose staying power became the last, most endearing gag in a graceful, laugh-filled career _ died Saturday morning at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 100 years and 49 days old.

The comedian, actor, singer and author apparently died of heart failure not long after his nurse found him shaking and barely breathing in his bed. His son, Ronnie, was with him at the end.

There were no last-second one-liners or pithy sign-offs, said Burns' longtime manager and friend, Irving Fein. But for years, Burns had insisted in gravelly monotone: "I don't believe in dying. . . . It's been done."

Condolences poured into the Burns home from around the United States, recalling the comedian's many incarnations _ as the vaudevillian, the hit radio and television act with his beloved wife Gracie Allen and as the irascible elder statesman of comedy.

His friend of nearly eight decades, comedian Milton Berle said: "He's up there in heaven with Gracie, doing their act. And if I know George, he'll be throwing one-liners at St. Peter."

Burns had been in ill health since July 1994, when he slipped and fell in the shower at his home in Las Vegas. His frailty caused to him to cancel performances celebrating his centenary at the London Palladium and Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. He was also too ill with the flu to attend his own 100th birthday bash in January.

Burns will be buried alongside Allen at a private funeral service Tuesday at Forest Lawn cemetery in Los Angeles, Fein said. A public memorial may be scheduled later.

In a 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.

Into his final days, Burns was still attending his regular bridge game at Hillcrest Country Club near Beverly Hills and talking vaguely with Fein about another comeback. He was tickled that his last of several books _ 100 Years, 100 Stories was atop the bestseller list.

As much an institution as he became in his final decades, there are few who recall that Burns had come up as a struggling performer on the vaudeville circuit. He began the century singing for pennies on New York street corners. He nearly ended the century wise-cracking on compact disc and playing, by satellite, to audiences worldwide.

"It's been hard to imagine show business before George Burns," said Bob Hope, who now, at 92, becomes comedy's elder statesman. "Now, it's difficult to imagine show business without him. . . . This is once when 100 years seems so short a time."

Burns often said that none of his success would have been possible without Gracie, even though his career took on even greater dimensions after her death in 1964.

His 90th birthday party in January 1986 featured President Reagan and Frank Sinatra. Burns told a national television audience: "I'm gonna stay in show business until I'm the only one left."

He was always busy, noting that the older he got the more he seemed to do. "The main thing," he advised, "is to get a job and love what you do. That keeps you young. I was old at 27, because I wasn't working. Now I'm young."

He was born Nathan Birnbaum on the Lower East Side of New York City on Jan. 20, 1896, into a family of seven girls and five boys.

When he was 7, his father died and he tried to help the family, selling newspapers, shining shoes and, he later told an interviewer, dabbling in such petty hustles as stealing empty seltzer bottles and melting the lead tops for resale. With three other boys on the block, he formed the Peewee Quartet, a roving band of singers that performed for spare change on street corners and on the Staten Island Ferry. "We'd clear 30, 35 cents a day," he later recalled. "Big money, but no broads."

At 16, he began smoking cigars to look like an actor _ and never gave them up, at one time puffing his way through 20 El Productos a day, but eventually cutting down to five.

One day, as a booking agent came looking for a monologist named George Burns, he jumped up and said, "I'm George Burns." That got him a job at a Brooklyn theater _ $15 for three days.

But he was called offstage and fired after the first joke.

At 17, still practicing but rarely working, Burns taught ballroom dancing to immigrants, won money in dance contests and raced through a series of stage personas _ he was Jimmy Delight, then Billy Pierce, then worked in an act called Burns and Links. He was Links.

He married one vaudeville partner, Hannah Siegal, in part because her parents insisted the two couldn't go on the road together otherwise. They had a 36-week road contract, which they fulfilled before returning to New York and ending the act, and the marriage.

Then a jobless, 17-year-old Irish-American dramatic actor who had been thinking about becoming a secretary ventured backstage to meet him. She was Gracie Allen.

Burns had her feed him straight lines so he could tell the jokes. But in their first performance, before an audience of only 40 people, nobody laughed at Burns' gags. Instead, they broke up over Gracie's questions.

Burns confessed it broke his heart to take the role of straight man, but "not being a fool, and wanting to continue smoking cigars, I got all the dumb jokes out of College Humor and Whiz Bang, switched character and gave them to Gracie."

The secret of her success with an audience, he said, was that she always sounded sincere. The things she said seemed to make perfect sense to her:

George: Did the nurse ever drop you on your head when you were a baby?

Gracie: Oh, we couldn't afford a nurse. My mother had to do it.

They were married in 1926.

They finally played the Palace and did their first radio shows in England. Back in the United States, they filled in for an ailing Fred Allen to do one of their standard routines, "Lamb Chops." A series of movies followed but, all the while, their weekly radio show was their bread and butter. It ran from 1932 until 1950.

In October 1950, Burns and Allen moved over to television, with a biweekly (subsequently weekly) domestic situation comedy. The program always ended with Burns' rasping, "Say good night, Gracie." To which Allen obligingly replied, "Good night, Gracie."

Gracie Allen died in August 1964 of a heart attack. She was 58.

She and Burns were married for 38 years.

"The biggest thing in my life was meeting Gracie," he said later. "I don't think I would have made it if I hadn't met her. I'd have remained a small-time vaudeville act and when small-time vaudeville went out, I'd have gone with it."

He continued to live in the big white Beverly Hills home they shared, visiting her grave daily at first, and then, after a time, once a month, keeping her tiny wedding ring in his pocket on a watch chain.

Burns was keenly aware of the irony of the fact that it was the death of his closest pal, Jack Benny, that made him a film star.

Benny was to have starred with Walter Matthau in the film The Sunshine Boys. But Benny died as production began. Burns was so shattered by Benny's death, he could not get through the eulogy at the funeral.

He replaced Benny in the movie, which was released in late 1975 and was a hit. Although Burns had not been in a film since 1938 and had never played anyone but himself, he studied the script assiduously and ended up with an Oscar as best supporting actor.

Then he starred in Oh, God! with John Denver, in Just You and Me, Kid with Brooke Shields, Going in Style with Art Carney and Lee Strasberg and sequels to the film in which he got away with playing God. 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.

"Of course I was a little nervous about playing God," Burns said later. "We're both the same age, but we grew up in different neighborhoods."

Well into his 90s, he was still doing up to 30 live shows a year, from stand-ups at glitzy Caesar's Palace to meat-and-potatoes gigs on the convention circuit; at the end of his act, he would often hop into a wheelchair, exiting the auditorium with a cloud of gray-brown cigar smoke trailing in his wake.

_ Information from the New York Times and the Washington Post was used in this report.

Credits

MOVIES

The Big Broadcast, 1932

College Humor, 1933

International House, 1933

Six of a Kind, 1934

We're Not Dressing, 1934

Many Happy Returns, 1934

Love in Bloom, 1935

The Big Broadcast of 1936,

1935

Here Comes Cookie, 1935

The Big Broadcast of 1937,

1936

College Holiday, 1936

A Damsel in Distress, 1937

College Swing, 1938

Honolulu, 1938

The Sunshine Boys, 1975

Oh God! 1977

Sergeant Pepper's Lonely

Heart's Club Band, 1978

Movie Movie, 1978

Just You and Me, Kid, 1979

Going in Style, 1979

Oh God! Book II, 1980

Oh God! You Devil, 1984

18 Again! 1988

TELEVISION

The Burns and Allen Show,

1950-57

The George Burns Show,

1959-60

Wendy and Me, 1964-65

The George Burns One-Man

Special, 1977

George Burns Comedy Week,

1985

VIDEO

George Burns: His Wit and

Wisdom, 1989

BOOKS

I Love Her, That's Why, 1955

Living It Up, Or They Still Love

Me in Altoona, 1976

The Third Time Around, 1980

How to Live to Be 100 _ Or

More! The Ultimate Diet,

Sex and Exercise Book, 1983

Dear George, 1985

Gracie: A Love Story, 1988

All My Best Friends, 1989

Wisdom of the 90s, 1991

A Hundred Years _ A Hundred

Stories, 1996

ALBUMS

I Wish I Was 18 Again, 1981

George Burns in Nashville,

1981

Gracie: A Love Story, 1990

(Grammy winner, best

spoken-word recording)

An Evening With George Burns,

1992

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