4 December: The backwoods renaissance man

Bob Burns, at the height of his radio career. (Photo: NBC.)

Bob Burns, at the height of his radio career. (Photo: NBC.)

Bob Burns only sounds like an Arkansas bumpkin, normally. Though he was born and raised in the Natural State, Burns (born Robin Burns) actually has a college education and an early life that includes serving as a civil engineer and a member of the U.S. Marine Corps’ early jazz band as a trombonist. In due course, he would become a farmer, carpenter, fisherman, toymaker, sailor, gunsmith, and even amateur astronomer.

In short, Burns is a kind of renaissance man of remarkable sanity and balance. And it was a very good thing, too, considering how long it took him to establish himself as an entertainer.

As an early teenager, Burns played mandolin and trombone before inventing an unusual instrument in which he fitted two pieces of pipe to a whiskey funnel at one end. After World War I, among his other interests, Burns toured as a comic who played funny songs on his unusual instrument and turned toward radio only when bookings in the onset of the Depression became impossible to find.

He auditioned at Los Angeles’s KNX in 1930. The station was less impressed with his prepared material than they were with his improvised material, after he came prepared for a ten-minute audition but was asked for half an hour. They hired him to play a character named Soda Pop on an afternoon program known as The Fun Factory. He also played on a show called Hi Jinks. But the pay for both shows was so small that Burns was all but broke. And by 1935 he was out of work and looking for any kind of break approaching 45 years of age.

On a near-whim, and figuring his lack of name recognition kept him down. Burns threw the dice. He hit the road for New York and wandered into the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. After listening to him for twenty minutes, the agency placed him exactly where he’d hoped to be—into a slot on Rudy Vallee’s Fleischmann Hour.

His “rustic, backwoods manner” prompted Vallee’s people to set Burns up as a political humourist a la Will Rogers, even though he resembled heavyweight champion boxer Gene Tunney physically. Burns’ improvised political monologue got him a return engagement on the show, but then Rogers himself was killed in the same plane crash that claimed legendary aviator Wiley Post.

Burns had no choice but to return to his original act—talking about anything he could think of while playing assorted instruments including his unusual pipe-and-funnel contraption. This time, he was a smash. Over several network gigs to come with Vallee and with bandleader Paul Whiteman, Burns became radio’s hottest new comedian since the shooting-star Joe Penner.

Unlike Penner, Burns wasn’t quite a one-trick pony despite his backwoods rural persona. And it brought him an even better plum soon enough: twenty-six weeks aboard Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall beginning in January 1936. En route Hollywood, Burns stopped in his hometown Van Buren and was given a hero’s welcome. And he’s kept it up on Kraft Music Hall through tonight.

Two years from tonight, however, Kraft will let Burns go, because his salary will have grown to $5,000 per week and the dairy product maker will fear his becoming even more expensive. That will enable him to deliver The Arkansas Traveler for CBS, a somewhat ahead-of-its-time comedy drama in which he will play a backwoods sage going place to place across America doing good deeds, a show that proves the antecedent for such later successful exercises as television’s Route 66, Then Came Bronson, Highway to Heaven, Touched by an Angel, and Promised Land, which will feature characters likewise roaming and aiding.

By 1943, Burns will drop The Arkansas Traveler as a title in favour of The Bob Burns Show and move to NBC for Lifebuoy Soap. Here he will be considered to have hit his top stride at long enough last, with ratings respectable enough to keep him popular through and after the war years, and several film appearances, until his 1949 retirement, with a final performance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955.

Widowed with one son in 1936, Burns married Judy Canova—then beginning her own career as a bumpkin-like singing character—later the same year, but the marriage ended in 1939. Burns re-married a third time, to Harriet Foster, later in 1939, and they had three children while living happily enough until Burns’s death of kidney cancer in 1956.

The bad news for old-time radio collectors of later generations is that only a few installments of The Bob Burns Show—all from the 1943-46 NBC run—will survive for their listening.

Burns will achieve another piece of immortality thanks to the unusual instrument he invented and performed upon to near-endless delight, particularly when he played it as a soloist in front of orchestral accompaniment. The U.S. Army names its two-way armour-piercing gun after the Burns instrument—the bazooka.



Lux Radio Theater: A Man to Remember (CBS, 1939)

The slightly over-idealised 1938 film may prove to be remembered best for being Garson Kanin’s first full credit as a film director. It may also be remembered for the screenplay written by future Hollywood Ten figure Dalton Trumbo. Tonight, however, it receives a radio adaptation that keeps the slight over-idealisations but manages a few touches of subtlety.

It also casts Burns in a somewhat unusual dramatic role for him: Widowed Dr. John Abbott (Burns, in the Edward Ellis film role) spends his career practising in a small town where he often has to repel the astonishing greed of its residents—including and especially that of his own son. At times, the good doctor has to play their game no matter how worthwhile is the end, until even his son comes to see him as something other than the obstructionist light through which the town misunderstands and tries to obstruct him.

It sounds soapish, one supposes, but you may be pleasantly surprised by how the performers manage to overcome that flaw.

Jean: Anita Louise (in the Anne Shirley film role). Additional cast: Unidentified. Host/producer: Cecil B. DeMille. Music: Louis Silvers. Adapted from the screenplay by Dalton Trumbo.

Further Channel Surfing . . .

Texaco Star Theater with Fred Allen: Death of a Mystery Story Writer (comedy; NBC, 1940)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Winter Walk to Dugan’s Lake (NBC, 1945)
Maxwell House Coffee Time Starring George Burns & Gracie Allen: Gracie Wants Bing Crosby to Retire (comedy; NBC, 1947)
My Favourite Husband: Be Your Husband’s Best Friend (comedy; CBS, 1947)
Our Miss Brooks: The Weighing Machine (comedy; CBS, 1949)
The Whistler: Impulse (crime drama; CBS, 1949)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Floorwalker McGee (comedy; NBC, 1951)

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