March 12, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
The legendary character actor David Burns left this earth on this date forty-seven years ago tonight. He exited in grand fashion — an actor’s death — dying immediately following his big number in an out of down musical in Philadelphia. There have been many versions of how this story played out, but I have what I believe are the full facts (based on recent conversations I had with his best friend, the actor Jim Brochu). But more than just highlighting his departure, here are some stories about his long and durable career.
Born on June 22, 1902, David Burns (or Davy, to all who knew him) grew up on Mott Street in Chinatown and became an actor while still a teenager. His first Broadway show was 1923’s Polly Preferred, making such a name for himself that he was invited to do the show in England. Finding gainful employment on stage and in films there, he didn’t return to Broadway for eight years. Finally, he was lured back, and though his first show upon his return was a failure, a comedy entitled Wonder Boy, his second was the hit Irving Berlin-Moss Hart revue, Face the Music.
From then on, rarely was there a time over the next four decades, that David Burns was not appearing in a Broadway show (usually a hit). He created the role of Banjo in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s iconic The Man Who Came to Dinner and supported magnificently in Billion Dollar Baby, Out of this World, Two’s Company, A Hole in the Head and Do Re Mi. He won the first of his two Tony Awards when he created the part of Mayor Shinn in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. Winning a Tony for a musical is usually when you get to perform some great songs, but the Mayor of River City doesn’t participate in any or sing a single note. Without any film of Burns playing the part, one is only left to imagine the raspy sound of his voice and the comic delivery with which he must have had audiences in stitches.
His second Tony was for his Senex, that dirty old man, in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Again, no film survives, and the 1962 cast album (unfortunately) conveys little of the free-wheeling, high-bound energy for which the show was renowned. However, I do own an audiotape, recorded through the theatre’s sound system, of that insanely hilarious original cast and hearing the live laugher makes it clear that as funny as Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, John Carradine and Raymond Walburn were … none so masterfully displayed their comedic art as Burns.
Hard to believe, but Burns wasn’t even Tony nominated for what might have been his most famous creation on Broadway: that of Horace Vandergelder in 1964’s Hello, Dolly! He stayed in the show for three of the seven years of the show’s record-breaking run, with diversionary trips to Los Angeles and San Francisco, where he appeared opposite Broadway’s second Dolly, Ginger Rogers.
In 1968, he was tapped by Arthur Miller to bring to life one of the most eccentric characters the playwright ever wrote: Gregory Solomon, the ancient furniture dealer in The Price. But on the play’s opening night, Burns was in the hospital with a burst intestine. His understudy, Harold Gary, was who the critics saw, and thus Burns was robbed of what would have been his single greatest set of reviews. For when his health improved and he returned to The Price, he took over his rightful ownership of the part. His Solomon was thankfully preserved on tape when he recreated it for TV’s Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1970 — and won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama. That version hasn’t been available beyond the one night it aired, but I will never forget, as a thirteen-year old being glued in front of my TV set, how fully aware what a special performance it was (I even own a bootleg copy of it, which I take out on occasion to remind myself what great acting is).
In December of 1970, in what would be the last time critics had the chance to sing his praises in the musical Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen, Clive Barnes said it best for everyone when he wrote: “Whatever you think of the show, I challenge you not to adore Mr. Burns.” This was indeed the sort of thing that informed the tidal wave of love Burns rode his entire career, one that was cut short by that heart attack in Philadelphia a few months later. The show was 70, Girls, 70, a new musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb, that concerned a group of people at a retirement home who are bored with their empty lives and start robbing banks and department stores in the style of Robin Hood. At the time, ninety-nine percent of the cast were eligible for social security (Burns was sixty-eight at the time), which made it a delightful excuse for many eccentric and talented performers to strut their stuff and show that they still had it. And on that night in Philadelphia forty-seven years ago, right after Burns performed his big number “Go Visit Your Grandmother,” he got his usual big hand after the song. Comedic business followed with policemen entering to interrogate the aged criminals, with a running gag popping up every time the word “operation” was mentioned. Burns would pull up his shirt and say, “I had an operation! Here’s the scar!” But on the third go-round with the bit, he barely got the word “operation” out. Seeing that Burns was failing, the two quick-minded actors playing the cops proceeded to carry him off into the wings, where he expired almost immediately. The audience thought it was a joke, and the laughter marked the last time anyone ever heard from the great Davy Burns on stage.
When the Tony Award nominations were announced in the Spring of 1971, for his brilliant turn as Col. Purdy in Lovely Ladies, Burns was nominated as Best Actor in a Musical. He had been gone for four months, but he had not been forgotten. For those lucky enough to have seen him turn every play and musical in which he appeared into a memorable event (even the not-so-good ones), his tremendous comedy timing and enormous skills as a stage artist are with us forever.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.