Renowned for his homespun philosophy and amusing anecdotes about a cadre of fictional relatives from his home town of Van Buren, Arkansas, Bob Burns was a popular presence on both radio and in films throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s. his rise to prominence came as the result of the “Bazooka,” a singularly unique musical instrument of Burns’ own invention, which he created by combining two lengths of pipe with a whiskey funnel. The name for the device was derived, according to Burns, from a local expression for loud-mouthed people who were said to be “blowing their bazoos.” Although Burns’ creation never really caught on with other musicians, it did earn lasting fame when the U.S. Army named their shoulder-mounted artillery cannon after it during World War II.
Musically inclined since childhood, Burns began performing as a youth in local bands and orchestras in and around his native Van Buren. He made his professional debut in black face as part of a traveling show, the Black Cat Minstrels, which toured the South around 1911. Over the next twenty years, Burns struggled to make a name for himself in show business with mixed results, working his way through carnivals, vaudeville and nightclub appearances. During the frequent lean times, Burns would take whatever jobs he could including farm work, door-to-door sales, and barking for a side show in Atlantic City. It was while performing on the Jersey boardwalk that Burns met his first wife, Elizabeth Fisher, who worked in a concession stand a few yards from Burns’ operation.
After their marriage in 1921, Burns returned to vaudeville where he would remain for the duration of the 1920’s, generally performing a black face act that combined comedic patter with interludes on the bazooka. In 1930, with vaudeville in serious decline, Burns thought a great opportunity had come his way when Fox Pictures, who had been looking for actors who could perform Southern dialect, offered him a film contract. After a few lackluster roles, however, Burns was dropped by the studio. It was the necessity to find work after losing the Fox contract that was to lead to the medium where Burns would find true success. His first appearance on the radio came late in 1931 on KHJ’s “Fun Factory” program. This led to other jobs on other Los Angeles stations, and although the pay was not high, it did provide at least a steady income and gave Burns valuable experience and exposure.
In 1935, after nearly twenty-five years in show business, Burns finally got the break he had long prayed for when he was asked to join the cast of Bing Crosby’s Music Hall program on the NBC network. Audiences immediately responded to Burns’ warm, folksy humor and were delighted by the doings of such colorful relatives as “Uncle Fud” and “Grandpa Snazzy.” Within a year, he was earning a reported $1,000 a week and had, at Crosby’s urging, been put under contract to Paramount Pictures. Their first film together, 1936’s Rhythm on the Range, was a popular success and was followed by a number of others, both with and without Crosby, including The Big Broadcast of 1937 (1936); Waikiki Wedding (1937) and The Arkansas Traveler (1938), among others. By, 1941, Burns’ popularity had grown to such an extent that he was starred in his own radio show, which remained on the air until his retirement in 1947.
Perhaps it was the years of uncertainty and poverty, but even after attaining international fame, Burns was extremely hesitant to spend money, continuing to live in a $22.50 a month apartment at 816 1/2 North Las Palmas Avenue in Hollywood while making thousands and thousands of dollars a week. However, after the tragic death of Elizabeth, who died unexpectedly after an operation in 1936, Burns’ lifestyle began to change. The following year he remarried, wedding his former secretary, Harriet Foster, on May 31, 1937. At first they moved to a rented bungalow in Larchmont Heights near Paramount and NBC at 337 North Larchmont Boulevard. The bungalow, which had been designed by architect Harley S. Bradley in 1924, was a step up from the Las Palmas apartment, but it was still a far cry from a radio and movie star’s mansion. Finally, by the end of 1937, Burns decided the time had at last come for a star to live like a star and he went all the way, shelling out an impressive $85,000 for a recently built mansion in ultra exclusive Bel-Air at 1021 Stone Canyon Road.
Sited on four acres of grounds skillfully laid out by prominent landscape architect Katherine Bashford, Burns’ grand new home had been completed early in 1937 for businessman Robert J. Pringle at a reported cost of $90,000. The elegant English County estate, with its whitewashed brick exterior and brown shake roof, had been designed by the very talented H. Roy Kelley (1893-1989), a major figure in Southern California architecture during the period. Kelley was renowned for his exceptional renditions of period revival homes built from Palos Verdes to Pasadena throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, which earned for him a heap of honors from both the architectural press and his fellow practitioners. His design for the Pringle house was no exception, taking the 1938 “House Beautiful” prize from the Architectural League of New York, the fourth time he was so honored.
One of the most admired attributes of an H. Roy Kelley residence is how well it relates to its outdoor setting. Kelley was a master at creating a harmonious flow between the spaces through the use of windows, French doors, loggias and terraces and the Kelley houses, whether they be English like the Pringle house, Hacienda Spanish or Monterey, were always bright and sun-filled. There is nothing gloomy about an H. Roy Kelley house. For the twelve-room Pringle house, Kelley created a series of terraces and loggias surrounding both the front and rear elevations with Bashford continuing the effect through garden terraces leading to the enormous pool and pool house. The effect was one of great charm and easy livability. As House & Garden was to write in May 1937, “Loggias, opening from the house and the pavilion beside the swimming pool, permit shaded comfort out-of-doors while the terrace and garden between the pool and the house invite leisurely loitering in the open air.”
The handsome interior was equally well planned, graceful and relaxed with an easy flow through the principal rooms consisting of a large paneled living room painted a creamy white, an adjacent library and a sunny floral-papered dining room highlighted by a large bow window offering a cheerful green view of the rear gardens. Upstairs were four principal bedrooms and baths with the maid’s rooms placed above the attached garage.
In its overall appearance, Burns’ showplace residence could not have been more diametrically opposed to his folksy, down-home image, looking more likely the place of residence of C. Aubrey Smith or Ronald Colman than “The Arkansas Traveler.” Burns seemed almost immediately sensitive of this disparity or perhaps he wanted a reminder of his humble origins and within a month of moving in, he added a homey touch, an authentic log cabin made entirely out of logs shipped in from the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, which Burns used as his “refuge.”
Ultimately, it appears the grand estate was too much for Burns and his Hillbilly image and in 1940, less than two years after moving in, he and his family relocated out to the 200-acre ranch he had purchased in the then very rural Canoga Park at 20525 Sherman Way. “All them butlers and liveried chauffeurs got into my hair,” declared Bob to Hedda Hopper. After he retired in 1947, Burns devoted his time to his ranch, turning it into what the LA Times declared to be “an agricultural showplace” and becoming Canoga Park’s “honorary mayor.”
The Canoga Ranch was only a part of Burns’ vast land acquisitions in the San Fernando Valley and by the time he died in 1956 at the age of 64, the man who was said to have once ridden the rails as a hobo, was considered one of the wealthiest men in show business. The Canoga Ranch has since been subdivided, but his Bel-Air home remains. I wonder what became of the log cabin?