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VIDEO VAULT | George Burns celebrates his big break in Las Vegas

With Showgirls at McCarran.jpg
Legendary entertainer George Burns arrives at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas flanked by showgirls in January 1983.

George Burns was an entertainer whose fame was not quite inextricably linked with Las Vegas in the same way as stars like Frank Sinatra, Wayne Newton, Elvis and Liberace.

But he holds a special place in the entertainment history of the Strip both for his decades of performances here and the association that developed with his birthday.

Burns had already been performing on the Strip for decades when he was greeted at McCarran Airport by local media members in late January of 1983.

"Is it really your birthday today?" asked News 3's Elaine Tack.

"No, my birthday is the 20th of January," corrected the entertainer, surrounded by statuesque showgirls and puffing on a cigar. "I'm 87 years old, but I celebrated my 80th year of show business."

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"After 80 years, can you remember one - reminisce with us - one of the most memorable moments in the 80 years?"

"Well, until I was 27 I wasn't doing too well. I did something that I loved doing. In other words, I was always doing well, because I was in love with show business. And even though I was a failure, I would rather be a failure at something that I loved, than be successful making felt hats."

By then, Burns was a beloved figure here with his soft-spoken, self-deprecating schtick, which was on display at the Sahara a couple of nights later.

"Thank you for that standing ovation. I've reached a point now where I get a standing ovation for just standing," quipped Burns after taking the stage. "You know, the last time I played the Sahara it was 1960. They must have liked me because here it is, only 23 years later."

The Sahara had been where Burns debuted on the Strip in 1959 with a two-year contract. He would later headline through the 1960s at the Dunes, the Riviera and the Frontier, never forgetting the break that he credited with making him a star.

"People discovered I had a great talent," said Burns in an undated interview later in his life. "And they were right, and I was married to her for 38 years."

Burns was referring to his wife Gracie Allen. The two had met in 1923 and married three years later. They developed as the comedy team Burns and Allen where he played the straight man while she delivered the laugh lines.

The act began on stage, moved to radio and eventually became a hit on television. It lasted until 1958 when Allen retired and Burns became a solo act. Gracie Allen passed away from a heart attack in 1964 at age 58.

George Burns' career received a new boost at an age when many entertainers were retiring, starting with his performance alongside Walter Matthau in the Neil Simon stage play and later motion picture, "The Sunshine Boys." He would later star in movies such as "Oh God," "Going in Style" and "18 Again," among others, as he entered his 80s and then 90s.

Burns had continued making appearances in Las Vegas when in early 1993 he signed a contract to perform at Caesars Palace for his 100th birthday.

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The comedian was typically modest when, at 99, he responded to an interviewer's question about his status as an entertainment icon.

"I'm an accepted commodity," countered Burns. "When I walk out on stage, the people all stand up and say 'How do you like that? He walks.' And I love what I'm doing. I love it, I love it. I love show business.”

When pressed to describe himself, he responded, "I'm George Burns. I'm in show business. I smoke and I drink martinis, and I don't eat vegetables.’

When January 20, 1996, actually arrived, Burns was not well enough to fulfill the birthday performance engagement. Instead, a giant birthday card was made available at Caesars for fans and well-wishers to sign.

Forty-nine days later, Burns passed away quietly at his Beverly Hills home at the age of 100.

"It was not totally unexpected, of course, because of his age," said Caesars Palace spokesman Phil Cooper the following day. "But as late as last week in the Hollywood trades, it was reported that he was maintaining somewhat of a regular schedule. So right now I think It's easy enough to say that he was a big part of the Caesars Palace family in Las Vegas. And that family will be grieving for George Burns for quite a while."

There are three stars in the Hollywood Walk of Fame to honor George Burns. No such marker currently exists in Las Vegas paying tribute to the performer, but George Burns definitely has a place in the colorful history of the "Entertainment Capital of the World."

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