Style Icon: George Burns

“We called ourselves the Peewee Quartet.”

At age 7, Naftaly Birnbaum, aka George Burns, landed a job making syrup in the basement of a local candy store. When the mailman — a sucker for tight harmony — heard Burns and his pals crooning away on a barbershop ditty, he brought them out to the street and a crowd gathered. They played street corners, saloons and ferryboats.

 Sometimes the customers threw something in the hats. Sometimes they took something out of the hats. Sometimes they took the hats.

Burns quit school in the fourth grade to pursue show business full time, which meant singing with a trained seal, trick roller-skating, and adagio dancing in small-time vaudeville acts.

In 1977, Carl Reiner directed Burns in “Oh, God!” opposite John Denver, an assistant supermarket manager chosen to deliver a message to the world.

“George was really a workhorse,” Reiner explained to Investors Business Daily last week. 

He was always so calm you never knew how much preparation he had done before he got there. We once had some weather problems and had to shoot a different scene, so I told him he could have some time to look over his lines. He told me, ‘Before I ever go into a project, I learn every scene and everyone’s part.’ He was ready.

Let’s call it Centenarian style: one hand wrapped around a beautiful lady, the other clutching a lit El Producto cigar.

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I smoke a domestic cigar. It’s a good cigar. It’s called an El Producto. Now the reason I smoke a domestic cigar is because the more expensive Havana cigars are tightly packed. They go out on the stage while I’m doing my act. The El Producto stays lit. Now if you’re onstage and your cigar keeps going out, you have to keep lighting it. If you have to stop your act to keep lighting your cigar, the audience goes out. That’s why I smoke El Productos. They stay lit.

We lost George Burns ten years ago this month.

Sleep softy, sir. (Just remember to tap out the El Produco. They stay lit.)

—C.B.S.

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