Sunday, 14 July 2013

Baked Potatoes and Traffic Lights

It’s an era we will never see again. The days of young comedians wearing themselves out for little money, travelling to small towns across North America, with the hope that they will rise to fame and fortune. The days of old comedians sitting around reminiscing about their days as young comedians, having built and maintained friendships over a lifetime, the poverty of small-time show business their common bond.

There’s something cheering about the long friendship of Jack Benny and George Burns. Not because both were talented men who brought instant smiles or laughs to their audiences. Not because Hollywood seems to be an ego-driven place where nobody really likes or trusts anyone else. It’s because you’d like to think that people you like, like each other.

George and Jack met in vaudeville. When radio brought them fame, their families socialised together. They exchanged visits on each other’s shows, both on radio and television. George sprinkled his various books with Benny anecdotes. And when Jack died in 1974, George replaced him in the movie version of “The Sunshine Boys,” winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in the process.

Here’s George Burns about Jack Benny in an Associated Press interview in 1973. It’s supposed to be about Burns but it’s more about Benny. When anyone in the entertainment world gives up a chance for free publicity to give it to their buddy, that’s friendship. And the comedian in George must have realised the story would be funnier that way.

‘Stay With Show Biz’
George Burns Still On Stage

AP Newsfeatures Writer

NEW YORK, March 20 (AP) — George Burns has some advice for young people starting in show business: “Stay with it. But,” he adds, “I think if they don’t make it by 77, they should go into some other business.”
Burns, for years best known as straight man for his wife Gracie Allen, at 77 is more or less starting a new career. He has a recording out, “A Musical Trip with George Burns,” and he gave his first concert as a singer in New York's Philharmonic Hall. The record originally came out, with then-current hits of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, etc., in 1968. Burns says sales of the reissue prove that he was ahead of his time. “Then, nobody bought the album except my sister Goldie and I had to buy it back from her the next week.”
Things are different now than when he was young in show business, Burns says. Then, before radio or TV, a song might take three years to become a hit and equally as long to fade away. A person might stay in vaudeville for years, never realizing whether he had talent or not, while today a recording can come out, sell enough copies so the artist has enough money to retire and the next week disappear so he has to write a new song to remain in the public eye.
He wouldn’t want to be retired, Burns says, or even semi-retired, which he decided he’d try a few years ago. “You get old too fast. “Jack Benny just bought $30,000 worth of rosin. We’re going to stay around. We’re booked.”
George Burns and Jack Benny have been friends more than 50 years. How have they stayed friends? Easy, Burns says. “He tells me I’m a great singer and I tell him he’s a great violinist.”
Burns recounts a usual Los Angeles day’s routine. “I get up early, have orange juice and coffee, smoke a cigar to loosen up my vocal chords. I go to my office at 10:30. At 12 I quit. I go to the Hillcrest Country Club for lunch. I sit at a round table with Danny Thomas, Groucho Marx, Georgie Jessel and Jack. We fight to get on sometimes.
“I play bridge until about 4:30. I go home and have a little sleep until 6. I get up, have a few martinis, have dinner, go out sometimes, sing a lot. It’s a nice life.”
Money was never his goal, Burns says. “I just loved show business.” He says Jack Benny is the same way, more interested in the small discoveries of daily life than in money. “If he signed a contract for $1 million, it wouldn’t interest him. He came to the club one day all excited; he'd found a restaurant that gives four pieces of butter with a baked potato. And he doesn't eat butter.
“One other day he came in looking all excited. He’d signed a contract down-town in Los Angeles. Maybe it was for $1 million. He said, ‘I came out of the parking lot, turned on Wilshire Boulevard, and if you go 27 miles an hour, you miss every red light!’”
The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show ran, after vaudeville, for 17 years on radio, then nine years on TV. Gracie died in 1964. The TV reruns seen these days hold up so well, Burns says, “Because the character Gracie played was so believable. The jokes sound fresh, even now.”

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