“What’s the difference between a roast and a toast?” said George Burns as he drew on a salami-sized cigar. “Well, a roast is when they roast you and a toast is when they toast you.”
For its 30th anniversary, the gerontocracy of the Friars Club of Hollywood felt a salute was in order (“A roast becomes a toast if ladies are present,” added one local explicator). The subject of the hoo-ha was one of its original members, Burns himself.
At 80, Burns has revitalized his career, winning an Oscar for his performance in The Sunshine Boys. Some 700 friends, among them veteran performers like Don Rickles, Georgie Jessel, Milton Berle, Ray Bolger, Phil Silvers and Tony Martin, gathered at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to note his comeback.
Burns endured three hours of bawdy insults (mixed with maudlin praise) and then evened the score. “During my lifetime I have been introduced by George M. Cohan, Raymond Hitchcock, Jimmy Walker and Frank Fay,” he said. “The reason I was introduced by Don Rickles tonight is that he’s the only one of that group that’s still alive—and he’s such a great actor, he doesn’t look it.”
Burns pronounced the evening a success. “I let them say everything they wanted,” he explained, “and now I think I’ll go home and take a hot bath.”
In the good old days, Nathan Birnbaum, better known as George Burns, made his name on The Burns and Allen Show.
Don Rickles, emcee for the evening, said he had a telegram for Burns from “a man who took time out from his busy schedule of attending Italian rallies.” One sentence read: “Everybody there loves you and they’ll love you even more if you don’t sing.” It was signed “Blue Eyes.” (“Sinatra!” the audience gasped.) Then Rickles began his insults. “Somebody tap George,” he asked, “he’s going into shock.” Rickles assured the crowd: “It’s an exciting night to be here—not knowing why—not caring.” He pointed to Burns’s companion, Lisa Miller, and said: “I don’t know what you do together, but enjoy.”
George Jessel, founder of the Friars Club, escorted the eye-popping Vicki Derrick. As Jessel scattered one-liners, Rickles shouted, “You’re hot, George.” Jessel replied, “I haven’t been hot since Norma Talmadge.” Later he added, “Since the passing of Eddie Cantor, the guest of honor is the best friend I’ve had in the world.”
“This isn’t a roast,” protested Helen Reddy, “it’s more of a sauté. We love George very much, my husband Jeff [Wald] and I do, and if you should ever at any time find yourself alone, George, I’d like you to keep this in mind”—and then Helen sang You and Me Against the World.
“I’m smoking a Lawrence Welk cigar,” said Milton Berle. “It’s a lot of crap with a band wrapped around it. Asking Burns to retire is like asking Linda Lovelace to sing Whistle While You Work. I know why Jessel showed up tonight—he heard we were raffling off a prostate operation. You know, Burns has turned cheap—he’s the kind of guy who makes obscene phone calls to Hermione Gingold and reverses the charges. Tonight we are honoring this sex symbol of the menopause set, this senile Sinatra, a man whose career I can sum up in one word: Lucky!”
“I’m not of George’s generation,” deadpanned Ray Bolger, “I’m only 72. The Sunshine Boys has made a sunshine boy out of you, George. You will live forever like Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Kids still hit me on the knee to see if I’m made of straw—I just wish I got residuals.”
Connie Stevens knew what to wear—a peekaboo dress that left little to the imagination. After belting out two songs, Connie eyed the crowd suspiciously. “You make me nervous,” she said, “I’m used to singing for normal people.”
“I didn’t know I was going to perform,” said Steve Allen, filling in for Cary Grant. “I’m wearing my son’s tux. One woman said I looked young tonight, but who wouldn’t with this group. It’s a great honor—here we are again, Burns and Allen. But fame is fleeting, as I told my waiter, Earl Butz…”
Recalling the early days when Burns helped him break into the movies, Phil Silvers hymned: “In my life he’s a very big factor. He gave me the dignity of being in this society for an evening. I’ll tell you one thing, I never met a man who didn’t like George Burns. Except me. I love him.”
Dinah Shore was feathery: “I read George’s new book because I thought I might find something funny. But my trying to be funny is like George singing Mac Arthur Park. One of the joys of doing my show is that I get graced with a talent like George Burns—I’m in awe of him.”
George Burns arrived for his roasting with cherubic Lisa Miller. He thanked Don Rickles for serving as toastmaster—”Anytime you need a little hair, Don,” said Burns, “let me know. I have a whole trunkful.” It was a festive evening, made solemn only briefly after the show when the guest of honor was asked about his late wife. “I always think about Gracie,” George Burns said. “If it wasn’t for Gracie, I wouldn’t be here tonight. She made it possible.”