THE ARKANSAS TRAVELER
Occasionally during Network Radio’s Golden Age the Second Bananas, (supporting comedians), on one show, would move on to their own successful starring vehicles.
Hal Peary, whose Throckmorton P, Gildersleeve was established on NBC’s Fibber McGee & Molly, then scored nine consecutive Top 50 seasons as the character on his own show is the prime example. (1) Dennis Day and Phil Harris from Jack Benny’s cast and Joan Davis and Eve Arden from Jack Haley’s Sealtest Village Store are others who successfully made it in their own.
Few lists, however, contain the name of Bob Burns - clean shaven, smartly dressed and highly intelligent Bob Burns - who became America's favorite hillbilly for over a decade.
Arkansas native Burns was 45 years old and virtually unknown in 1935. Within a year he became a star as Bing Crosby’s Second Banana on NBC's Kraft Music Hall and in Paramount movies. A popular subject of profiles in magazines, Newsweek described him this way: “He looks like (handsome boxing champion) Gene Tunney and sounds like Will Rogers.”
Burns graduated from the Crosby cast and became host of his own Top 50 network shows from 1941 to 1946. But his ratings stalled in 1947. Then, almost as quickly as he became famous, he was virtually forgotten by the end of the decade. By his own words, however, he was happy with his quickly made and well preserved fortune which he invested in San Fernando Valley real estate. As he told producer Carroll Carroll when he turned down $50,000 to record his tales of Arkansas life for a series of five-minute shows on CBS in 1955, “I can’t afford to make another dollar this year. All them lies I used to tell on the radio make sense when put up against what’s happened to me.” (2)
What happened to Robin Burn of rural Arkansas would rival Horatio Alger. Born in Greenwood, Arkansas in 1890, his family moved to nearby Van Buren when he was three. A bright student, young Robin was also musically inclined, joining a local band in his early teens as a mandolin player and trombonist. At age 15 he discovered the sounds that could be made by blowing through a length of gas pipe. He combined it with a second piece of pipe and a whiskey funnel to create a trombone-like “musical” instrument which he called, the Bazooka. (3) The Bazooka would become his lifelong prop on the stage, in radio and films.
By 1917, Burns was a 27 year old college engineering drop-out and eight year vaudeville veteran, having toured the country with his older brother Farrar in The Black Cat Minstrels. His patriotic streak, plus the promise of a small but guaranteed monthly income, took him into the Marines for World War I. If anything, the Marines sharpened his stage presence, making the newly appointed Sergeant Burns the leader of its European-based jazz band. Once out of the service he toured in a blackface vaudeville act with partner Claude West as Burns & West and then as a solo hillbilly comedian with his Bazooka. (4)
Burns eventually landed in Hollywood where he picked up bit character parts, (mostly unaccredited), in a string of 14 forgotten films from 1930 to 1935 and occasional radio work at Los Angeles stations KHJ and KNX. But as he later told Radio Mirror magazine, weeks in which he made as much as $75 were rare. With a wife and young son to support, Burns decided to risk the price of a trip to New York City and take a shot at big time Network Radio.
His 1935 gamble involved an audition at J. Walter Thompson, the advertising agency responsible for two hit variety shows on NBC’s Thursday night schedule, Standard Brands’ Fleischmann Yeast Hour with Rudy Valley and National Dairy Products’ Kraft Music Hall hosted by Paul Whiteman. His audition - a 20 minute, Southern-drawled monologue about his Arkansas roots and the doings of his fictional relatives, (Aunt Doody, Uncle Fud, etc.), was a success. It won him an appearance on the Vallee show for the princely sum of $75. The response from that first Fleischmann broadcast gave the Thompson agency and NBC the idea that they might have a new Will Rogers on their hands. When Rogers was killed in an August, 1935, airplane crash, that opinion became a prophecy.
Bob Burns, with his down-home, Southern monologues was suddenly an overnight success at age 45 with more appearances on the Fleischmann Hour. He was then moved over to the Kraft Music Hall on November 7, 1935. Burns reminisces about his Kraft experience in a ten-minute guest shot on NBC’s Paul Whiteman Presents from July 11, 1943.
Burns probably didn’t know it at the time, but his Kraft Music Hall appearances with Paul Whiteman were also his auditions for the new Hollywood-based Kraft Music Hall hosted by Bing Crosby who replaced Whiteman on January 2, 1936. The sponsor and its singing star both saw the perfect counterpoint between Crosby’s smooth sophistication and Burns’ rough rural charm. He was offered a 26-week contract from Kraft that would eventually stretch to five years and his East Coast gamble paid off beginning at $550 per week.
Burns headed back by train to California by way of Van Buren, his Arkansas hometown that he was making famous on Network Radio with his gentle humor. The town turned out in full-force with an army of townsfolk, bands, banners, a parade, banquet and pickups by NBC affiliates in the region. (5) On his first Kraft Music Hall appearance with Crosby on January 2nd, Bing asked him to describe his Van Buren homecoming and, “How does it feel to be met at the train by three bands?”
In his typical self-deprecating manner, Burns replied, “Bing, I have touched the high spot in my life! Besides the Van Buren band there was a band from Fort Smith and the jug band from Babylon, another suburb of Van Buren. I never saw such a parade in my life. They had ox teams, men leading hound dogs and some more men leading my kin-folks that they had brought in from the mountains. I think one of the main reasons that they gave me the homecoming was so they could have an excuse for bringing my relatives into town. Van Buren wanted something to laugh at. I left Van Buren in the first place because they laughed at me. They laughed at me this time until I started telling jokes. Then they stopped.”
At the 10:00 minute mark of the January 9, 1936 Kraft Music Hall, Burns heads into one of his early monologues followed by a Bazooka interpretation of Ida accompanied by Jimmy Dorsey‘s orchestra. (6) Bob returns at 39:30 with another story from his Arkansas home.
By this time, Crosby and Burns were preparing for production of Rhythm On The Range, their first of two Paramount musical comedies together and Burns was receiving a lot of notice. Variety pointed this out in its February 12, 1936 issue: “Coast columnists are taking credit for discovering Bob Burns for pictures. Burns was recently set for Bing Crosby’s next, “Rhythm On The Range.“ Before getting his break on the Paul Whiteman hour and later being switched to the Crosby etherer, Burns had been in pix for five years!”
Crosby & Burns were a potent one-two combination for NBC and Kraft, but not the immediate blockbuster the network and sponsor had envisioned. The singer and his sidekick actually lost 1.3 rating points in their half of the 1935-36 season, (16.9), compared to Paul Whiteman’s 18.2 in his September through December half. Nevertheless, Kraft Music Hall remained in the Annual Top Ten and everyone looked forward to better seasons ahead. They weren’t disappointed.
Rhythm On The Range was released on July 31, 1936, and was well received, prompting Paramount to plan a second Crosby & Burns film, Waikiki Wedding, for following spring. (7). During the summer a new toy also hit the market, The Bob Burns Baby Bazooka. Then Kraft tore up his $550 a week contract and increased it to $1,750 with automatic raises through 1938 to $4,000 a week. Then, in a summer when nothing seemed to go wrong in his life, tragedy struck.
Elizabeth Fisher Burns, Bob’s wife of 15 years and mother of their young son, died from post-surgical abdominal causes on August 2nd. (8) Burns was heartbroken at the loss of Elizabeth and threw himself into his radio and film work.
By the May 27, 1937, broadcast of Kraft Music Hall, Burns had become a fixture on the show, introduced with a lengthy gag by Crosby at the 3:00 mark followed by an exchange that smacks of a co-host arrangement The final figures for the 1936-37 season gave KMH a 17.4 and ranked it as NBC’s top show on Thursday night. The producers had so much faith in Burns that they made him host of the show during Crosby’s 1937 summer vacation from July 8 until October 17. The move added to the comedian’s popularity because by the end of the 1937-38 season Crosby & Burns became Thursday night’s overall leader at 22.7. (9) Their rating also was the first of Kraft Music Hall’s two consecutive seasons as the fourth most popular show of the year and Network Radio’s highest rated music-based program.
The Kraft hour slipped to sixth in the 1939-40 rankings but remained first on Thursday night with its 21.1 rating at 10:00 p.m. Evidence of Bob’s marquee power and acting ability was his Lux Radio Theater appearance on December 4, 1939, in its adaptation of the RKO melodrama, A Man To Remember.
Meanwhile, Bob Burns had became the regular host of Kraft Music Hall for 25% of the time during Crosby’s annual 13-week hiatus. A rare sample of these Burns-hosted shows is this KMH broadcast from October 10, 1940, during Crosby’s absence from August 15 through November 7, 1940.
But change had come to Kraft Music Hall during Burns’ own brief vacation on July 4, 1940. The show was moved back one hour from its unchallenged timeslot at 10:00 p.m. into direct competition with Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour on CBS at 9:00. The immediate consequences were a 25% ratings drop for Crosby & Burns and panic at NBC and Kraft.
The sponsor and its J. Walter Thompson agency asked themselves if Kraft Music Hall, with one of the highest production costs in Network Radio, was worth the cost to deliver its lower ratings in the teens against the more popular and cheaper Amateur Hour. If not, where were budget cuts possible?
Bob Burns, with his weekly salary which had risen to $5000, was deemed expendable and his last Kraft Music Hall broadcast was January 23, 1941. Burns had also parted company with Paramount Pictures, disputing a film offered to him which he thought to be demeaning to rural America. He wasn’t out of work long. He debuted on CBS as Campbell Soups’ Arkansas Traveler at 8:30 p.m. on September 16th. The new program required a cut in pay - its entire production cost was $6,000 - but Burns had something to prove. His half-hour show, featuring vocalist Ginny Simms finished the 1941-42 season in 28th place and was CBS’s top rated program on Tuesday night with a 14.0. (10) Burns also began a syndicated newspaper humor column, Well, I’ll Tell You, which added to his popularity.
Lever Brothers took over the show in October, 1942, and moved it to CBS on Wednesday opposite Fred Allen’s Time To Smile on CBS which wasn’t a good idea. Levers corrected the mistake in January and moved Burns to open NBC’s powerful lineup on Thursday nights at 7:30 just 90 minutes earlier than his old home on Kraft Music Hall. It also helped to add Spike Jones and his suddenly popular novelty band, The City Slickers, and to pump up with show with guest stars as evidenced by this show from February 18, 1943, featuring George Burns & Gracie Allen. (11) The maneuvering all resulted in doubling Bob’s ratings from a 9.1 on CBS in November to an 18.4 on NBC in January and allowed him to finish in Thursday’s Top Ten with a 13.8 average rating for the 1942-43 season.
His 15.6 rating in the 1943-44 season helped NBC to sweep the Thursday Night Top Ten and he finished in 23rd place for the season. A sample from that well rated season, May 25, 1944, features guest Frank Sinatra.
Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall regained first place on Thursdays in 1944-45 and Bob Burns was right up there in fifth place for the night and a 20th place ranking among all prime time shows for the season with a 14.9. The same good fortune held true in 1945-46. Crosby led Thursday night and Burns was in the middle of the night’s Top Ten, finishing the season in 33rd place.
But the end of NBC’s dominance of Thursday had begun in October, 1945, when Crosby refused to appear on Kraft Music Hall because the sponsor and network refused to allow him to record his weekly programs, then ranked among the season’s Top Five. (See Thursday’s Distant Thunder at The 1945-46 Season.) Crosby’s defection until February sent ratings shock waves through the entire NBC lineup and opened the door for the CBS mystery anthology Suspense to break into the night‘s Top Ten, creeping into eighth place, three-tenths of a rating point behind its 8:00 p.m. comedy competition on NBC, The Burns & Allen Show. (See Sus…pense!)
With the Thursday turmoil on NBC, Lever Brothers smartly kept its Burns & Allen Show which became the night’s top rated show of 1946-47. But lost in the budgetary fight was Bob Burns, whose (higher rated) show was cancelled. He was quickly picked up by American Home Products for NBC on Sunday nights at 6:30 before Jack Benny’s top rated show at 7:00. The Burns broadcast from October 6, 1946, features guest Shirley Ross. But against the popular Kate Smith on CBS, Nick Carter on Mutual plus the Willie Piper sitcom on ABC to drain his audience, Burns dropped to a 9.4 average rating and was cancelled at the end of the season on May 25, 1947.
Bob Burns left Network Radio and never returned, joking, “A man can get mighty tired working 30 minutes a week.”
But during the decade of his fame and fortune, Burns had acquired a 500-acre vegetable and hog farm in Canoga Park, California, where he, his wife, Harriet Foster Burns, and four children lived in wealthy comfort. Meanwhile, he pursued his many interests which included an acclaimed aviary, astronomy, carpentry, photography, weaving and shortwave radio. Bob Burns died at home of kidney cancer on February 2, 1956, just ten years and one month from his breakthrough as a star with Bing Crosby on NBC’s Kraft Music Hall.
The Arkansas Traveler had traveled a long way in his 65 years.
(1) When Hal Peary left the Gildersleeve role in 1950. Willard Waterman took over and maintained its Top 50 positions for its final three years. (See The Great Gildersleeve(s).)
(2) From Carroll Carroll’s 1970 autobiography, None of Your Business or My Life At J. Walter Thompson.
(3) The name Bazooka was borrowed by the U.S. Army in 1942 for its newly developed, portable armor piercing anti-tank gun.
(4) At one time during this period Burns billed himself as Bill Ozark, The Slow Brain Through Arkansas.
(5) Van Buren’s Welcome Home, Bubba! celebration of late November, 1935, was no doubt coordinated by NBC’s publicity department.
(6) The broadcast is joined four minutes in progress with Bing Crosby’s introduction of jazz violinist Joe Venuti.
(7) Rhythm On The Range was premiered in Little Rock along with a personal appearance by Burns to honor his home state. Burns also appeared in Paramount's 1936 release The Big Broadcast of 1937 and the studio increased his contract to $60,000 per picture. He appeared in a total of ten Paramount films between 1936 and 1939 before he broke with the studio.
8) Many biographies state that Burns was married to singer-comedienne Judy Canova from 1936 to 1939 and then Harriet Foster from 1939 until his death in 1956. However there is no record of a Burns-Canova union and The Los Angeles Times reports that Burns and Foster eloped in July, 1937. Some historians believe that Canova may have married one of the other two Bob Burns who were active in show business at the time.
(9) Burns headed the show again during Crosby’s 13-week summer hiatus in 1938 and delivered a September Hooperating of 22.2, the third highest ranked show of the month behind Edgar Bergen and Jack Benny.
(10) The Bob Burns Show production budget was increased to $7,500 in 1945, then $9,000 in 1944 and it peaked at $10,000 in 1945.
(11) Bob Burns returned the favor on the Burns & Allen Show the following Tuesday, February 23, 1943, also sponsored by Lever Brothers.
Copyright © 2018, Jim Ramsburg, Estero FL Email: firstname.lastname@example.org