George Burns: I dont believe in dying…its been done

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One hundred years ago, he was born Nathan Birnbaum, the ninth of 12 children of a Polish-born immigrant, who eked out a living as a part-time cantor and kosher food inspector

When Nathan was 7, his father died. The young boy supplemented the family income by singing for pennies on Lower East Side street corners and saloons and on the Staten Island ferry. In the fourth grade, he quit school to help support the family.

"I came from an extremely devout Jewish family," George Burns né Birnbaum told a reporter some years ago. "My father had a beard that went from the third floor to the street…He wasn't a sex symbol, but we had no heat in the house."

As for his own theological philosophy, Burns explained that "I'm not what you call a religious man. I don't believe in the hereafter. If I don't make them laugh here, I'm not going to make them laugh anywhere else. I don't think there is an audience where I'm going, but I'll take along my music just in case."

He treated any religious problem arising out of the marriage to Gracie Allen with equal levity. "I'm the only Jew in the family," he said. "Because of Gracie, the two children were raised as Catholics and I've got seven Catholic grandchildren and four [now five] great-grandchildren. I used to eat fish every Friday, but always with my hat on."

When Allen died in 1964, after a 38-year marriage of legendary devotion, Burns arranged for the funeral services. Although she was a Catholic, he opted for an Episcopalian service.

"I want to be buried next to her," he explained later. "Since I'm a Jew, I can't be buried in Catholic consecrated ground. I hope I made the right compromise."

On Tuesday, Burns got his wish and was buried next to Allen at a private funeral service at Forest Lawn cemetery. Burns died Saturday at his Beverly Hills home.

Throughout his life, his closest friends were fellow Jewish comedians, foremost Jack Benny, as well as Milton Berle, Don Rickles, Groucho Marx and George Jessel. They held court at the Hillcrest Country Club, the "official" Jewish country club in Los Angeles. When in New York, Burns usually socialized at the legendary Friars Club.

The Hillcrest became Burns' home away from home and unless he was out of town, he showed up every day from noon to 3 p.m. for his bridge game. A frequent partner was Irwin (Irkey) Goldenberg, a former president of the Jewish Federation Council, who described Burns as a "fairly decent player."

"The last time I saw George was two days before his death, when he arrived in a wheelchair for his bridge game," said Goldenberg.

Burns, who always attributed his show-business success to playing straight man to the ditsy Allen, became an extremely wealthy man. He contributed millions of dollars to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for a research institute, which stands at the intersection of George Burns and Gracie Allen drives, and for studies in cardiology and bio-medicine.

Another beneficiary has been Ben-Gurion University in Israel, where he endowed a program in medical education.

Hailed by President Clinton as "one of the great entertainers of all time," Burns had an amazing 93-year show business career as actor, singer, dancer, author and tap-dancing skater. He performed in just about every medium, from vaudeville and radio to movies and television. A new generation is discovering the old master on CD-ROMS and via satellite broadcasts of his former shows.

His early years in vaudeville, when he changed his names, acts and partners constantly, gave little promise of his future success. He was married briefly to vaudeville partner Hannah Siegel. His fortunes turned in1923, when he teamed up with Allen, a 17-year old Irish American actress from San Francisco.

Their act was an instant success, which peaked during their 18 years of weekly shows on radio, followed by another eight years on television.

After Allen, who had married Burns three years into their professional partnership, retired in 1958, Burns became a solo act, appearing frequently in night clubs in Las Vegas, London and other cities.

His career took another astonishing upturn when at age 80 he won an Oscar as best supporting actor for his role as an old-time vaudevillian in "The Sunshine Boys," taking over the role when Benny died.

He followed up with the film "Oh, God!," in which he played the title role, and in two sequels. "I played God three times," he noted at the time, "and without makeup."

In the 1980s, he continued his night club stints and TV appearances, and his vigor lent credibility to his credo that "I don't believe in dying…it's been done before."

He attributed his longevity to his regular diet of martinis, smoking the big cigars that were his lifelong trademark, and dating pretty women. Burns ignored medical advice to change his lifestyle and dedicated one of his four books to the widows of his last six doctors.

However, after he slipped and fell in a shower in July 1994, he began using a wheelchair and became increasingly frail. He had to cancel scheduled centenary celebrations at the London Palladium and Caesar's Hotel in Las Vegas.

In addition to his son, Ronnie, who was with him when he died, Burns is survived by his daughter, Sandra Luckman of San Diego; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent