One On One With
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
Aug. 3, 2015 — Anyone who ever spent any appreciable amount of time with George Burns (either in the audience or in his expansive circle of friends) came to find that the comedian was a walking repository of vaudeville lore.
One of the things he loved best was to reminisce about the time he spent touring the Orpheum Circuit with his wife and partner Gracie Allen.
We first interviewed Burns in 1980 in his West Hollywood office and fired a few questions at him about our own hometown Orpheum Theater in St. Paul, Minn., a show palace that played host to a glittering parade of stage entertainment after its cornerstone was laid back in 1917.
As a downtown vaudeville house, the St. Paul Orpheum’s footlights illuminated some of the finest stage performers in America. Stars of the caliber of George Jessel, Jack Benny and, of course, Burns & Allen played the “two-a-day” in St. Paul to audiences that could afford the 75-cent admission.
Here’s what George had to say about the heralded and the unsung; all of whom worked without a net or a microphone.
RtoR: When were you first hired by the Orpheum Circuit?
Burns: In 1925. I was 83 then.
RtoR: Did you play the St. Paul Orpheum before you teamed with Gracie?
Burns: No. Before I met Gracie, they wouldn't let me into St. Paul.
RtoR: What did your act consist of when you teamed with Gracie?
Burns: We did an act called “Burns & Allen in ‘Lamb Chops.’” I said: “Gracie, would you like a kiss?” She said: “No.” I said: “What would you like?” She said: “Lamb chops.” And that joke made us both stars.
RtoR: What are your recollections of the St. Paul Orpheum?
Burns: Large, beautiful – and with indoor toilets.
RtoR: What were your impressions of playing St. Paul?
Burns: Gracie and I always did love playing St. Paul because there was a great restaurant there … I forgot the name of the hotel we stayed at in St. Paul because I lost the towels I stole.
RtoR: What did you do between shows to kill time in St. Paul?
Burns: We went to Minneapolis.
RtoR: How was the audience in St. Paul?
Burns: That’s why we went to Minneapolis.
RtoR: What were some of the most unusual acts you shared the bill with in St. Paul?
Burns: Power’s Elephants, Fink’s Mules, Madame Burkhardt and her Cockatoos and Dainty Marie.
RtoR: What was your salary on the Orpheum Circuit?
Burns: The team got $400 per week. That was good money in those days.
RtoR: Were there any other unusual incidents or events that happened while playing St. Paul?
Burns: I’d say that during our careers Burns & Allen played the Orpheum Theater about 15 times, and we were never cancelled. That was very unusual.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
MTM Exclusive: João Cerqueira When Jesus of Nazareth comes back to Earth — maybe for the third time, maybe not — he finds that not all of those known as his most dedicated followers see things from a similar point-of-view.
Four Festivals Fold In Favor Of Touring Mega-Spectacle Coachella, Sasquatch, Bonnaroo, And Austin City Limits Will Be Closing Up Shop As Of 2017 And Changing The Format Of American Music Festivals Forever.