In what felt very much in its own time like observing the Betty White juggernaut does today, it was a hoot in the 1970s and 1980s to watch George Burns, then in his 70s and 80s himself, enjoy an 11th hour career spike and become a bigger star than he ever had been before in all his years in vaudeville, radio, and on TV. Thanks to an Oscar-winning turn in Neil Simon’s 1975 film adaptation of The Sunshine Boys, a starring role as none other than God himself in the 1977 mega-hit Oh God, and an seemingly endless series of television appearances, the lovable storyteller and erstwhile straight man to wife Gracie Allen on radio and TV’s wildly popular Burns and Allen enjoyed tremendous late-in-life cultural presence. With his trademark ever-present cigar and big round glasses, Burns remained a quick-witted and congenial friend to millions until his death at age 100 in 1996.
I recently found this anecdote in Jeffrey Lyon’s wonderful book Stories My Father Told Me: Notes from “The Lyons Den,” a tribute to the author’s father, entertainment columnist Leonard Lyons, who chronicled the comings and goings of Hollywood personalities from the 1930s through the early 1970s in his column “The Lyons Den.” In the book, Burns recounted an anecdote from when he was 7 years old in 1903 which was typical of Burns’ style of humor, more good-natured storytelling than vaudeville jokes.
“Well, we were four kids on the Lower East Side of New York on Rivington Street,” he recalled, going back to his old neighborhood. “And there was a Presbyterian church there, and they had a talent contest sponsored by a department store. And we had a singing group called the ‘The Peewee Quartet.’ And we won first prize. Each of us got an Ingersoll watch, which cost about 65 cents apiece.
“And I ran home and told my mother, who was hanging the wash, that I didn’t want to be a Jew anymore. ‘I’ve been a Jew for seven years, and never got anything. I’ve been a Presbyterian one day and got this watch.’
“My mother said, ‘First help me with the wash, then you can be a Presbyterian.’ So I did and the watch fell into a bucket of water and stopped running, so I became a Jew again.”