Today is the birthday of Bob Burns (1890-1956). Burns was just an Arkansas teenager playing in local brass bands when he invented his own humorous looking trombone-like instrument out of plumbing supplies which he dubbed “the bazooka.” Decades later, when Burns and his instrument were famous, U.S. army personnel were to nickname their well-known hand-held anti-tank weapon the bazooka because of the resemblance. Burns himself served in World War One entertaining troops. Following the war, he toured in night clubs, carnivals and vaudeville as the Arkansas Traveler, telling folksy, homespun stories and playing tunes on his bazooka. From 1930 through the mid 1940s he was frequently in films and on the radio. The film appearances were initially walk-ons and cameos playing his bazooka, and the radio initially local. But in the mid 30s he broke through in a big way, when he became a regular on Kraft Music Hall with Paul Whiteman and then with Bing Crosby, and was also regularly on The Fleischmann Hour with Rudy Vallee. At that point he started getting lead roles in feature films, usually playing hillbilly characters. He also got his own nationally syndicated humor column which ran in 250 newspapers from 1936-1940). (The timing of this is interesting — he seems to have filled a gap left when Will Rogers passed away). In the forties he had his own starring radio series, The Arkansas Traveler (1941-1943) and The Bob Burns Shows (1943-1947). His last film was The Windjammer (1945). After this he made the occasional tv variety appearance, but for the most part he retired and lived on his investments. From 1936 through 1939 he was married to Judy Canova.
Here’s a little slice of Burns from the WWII era:
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc