Geo r ge Bur ns ’ Le gac y

Old age can be the richest stage of life
By Sunny Merik Lockwood

Dedicated to those who find life rich and good at every stage.

Copyright 2009 by Merikay McLeod All Rights Reserved First electronic publication, June 2009

In 1980 when I learned that comedian George Burns would perform at the Flint Center in Cupertino, California, near my home, I immediately bought tickets. I feared that at his advanced age of 84, he could drop dead any minute and this might be my last chance to see him perform in person. And I certainly wanted to see the grand old man of show biz in person. I had been a fan of George Burns ever since I saw the movie “The Sunshine Boys” in 1975. He won an Academy Award for his performance in that film, and was at the time, the oldest Oscar winner ever. When his country music album, “I Wish I Was 18 Again” hit the charts in 1980, I wrote him a letter expressing gratitude for a lifetime of laughter inspired by his writing, acting and singing. He wrote back: Dear Sunny, Thank you for your letter. It was so complimentary that my toupee no longer fits my head. George Burns. I could just hear his gravely voice delivering those lines! When my brother, an ordained minister at the time, asked what I thought of the 1977 movie “Oh God,” starring George Burns, all I could say was, “It makes you like God a lot, and absolutely love George Burns.”

George Burns elicited love. When he walked out on the Flint Center stage that evening, the entire auditorium audience rose to its feet to applaud the little man in the big cloud of cigar smoke. We loved him. And it was obvious that he loved us. His 60-minute performance – all about growing old – included songs, stories, jokes, and even a dance. He was very funny – his timing perfect, his lyrics delightful. About half way through, he leaned against a stool while weaving his tales – the only indication that he might be growing tired. Besides his stories about Gracie, his wife and show biz partner for 38 years, he had a running gag – coffee as a metaphor for sex – that grew funnier as his act progressed. He described how when he was young he loved a steaming pot of coffee at night and sometimes in the morning he liked a little demitasse, but as the years had passed, the coffee had cooled. Throughout the show, whenever he mentioned coffee, we laughed. By the end of his act, we were roaring about his permanently cold coffee. He seemed to enjoy us and our laughter as much as we were enjoying him. When his act was over, he stood at the front of the stage drinking in our applause as smoke from his cigar floated wreath-like around him. Then he said, “You’ve been a great audience. I enjoyed myself. Thank you very much.” And he left the stage.

George Burns was a consummate professional. But more than that, he was an old person, a really old old person, who loved life. He didn’t complain about aches and pains, or the losses that accompany aging. Instead, he reveled in the pleasure of work, the joy of love, the enduring comfort of friendship, and the ability to have fun, to laugh. These themes filled his act – every act – and, through the years, every interview. “Don’t retire,” he was fond of saying. “Do what you love ‘till you die.” Gracie was as present as if she’d been sitting beside him. Stories about her and their life together flowed through his conversations both on and off the stage. Stories of his friends and friendships also sparkled through his patter. George’s bemused modesty was endearing. He seemed a playful sage and graceful gentleman as he talked about his passion for work and for his beloved Gracie. Watching him at the Flint Center, I knew I was witnessing the show of a lifetime. And, he did not drop dead that year, as I had feared. Nor did he die for 16 more years. He continued to perform on stage and appear on television talk shows. He wrote books. He seemed eternal, and often joked about his longevity, saying, “I’m not leaving until after everyone else goes first.”

When, on the morning of March 10, 1996, I heard on the news that he had died the day before, a sweet sadness filled me. Of course it was time to go. After 100 years and 49 days he deserved to move on. But I had hoped he would never leave us. I had hoped he could continue doing what he and we loved – making us laugh – forever. Hearing of his death brought back the Flint Center performance, and the amazing gift he gave me that night. Watching him perform with such ease and pleasure, I was totally caught up in his stories, his memories, his nimble imaginings. I felt happy for days afterwards, and I knew why – because I’d seen George Burns do what he does best. I’d watched the master weave his magic. A few weeks after that show, I was maneuvering my grocery cart through a crowded store, searching for a short checkout line, when an elderly woman in the aisle ahead of me brought me to a stop. A slightly bowed figure, her white curls tumbled over the top of her collar as she carefully studied a package of cereal, and then studied it some more before returning it to the shelf and shuffling on. Instead of feeling irritated at her slow shuffle, I felt love. I wanted to hug her and say, “Don’t you feel wonderful to be alive! And aren’t you lucky to be part of the George Burns

generation!” I almost expected her to burst into song right there in front of me. I suddenly realized that for my entire life I’d always felt pity when I saw an old person. But now, I felt love. Now I saw old age as full rather than empty, as rich with life rather than depleted of youth. George Burns gave me aging-as-a-positive-experience. The attitude shift has remained. I am still happy at the sight of an old person, still filled with a feeling of delight. The news hour tributes to him the day after he died usually ended with a film clip of him singing “Young At Heart.” But I glimpsed a moment that I believe more accurately represents what he would have said if he’d left us with any parting words. In my memory he has just completed his performance. The audience is on its feet applauding. He’s facing them at the edge of the stage, nodding and smiling. And when the applause lessens, he says, “You’ve been a great audience. I enjoyed myself. Thank you very much.”

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