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Cigar Culture

George Burns

J. Bennett Alexander Alexander's picture

J. Bennett Alexander

What if you could do your job while smoking a cigar? If you think that’s a great thing, you’d have something in common with George Burns.

WHO WAS GEORGE BURNS?

It’s entirely likely that many of you are too young to remember George Burns. Burns, born Nathan Birnbaum in 1896, was an entertainer who lived to be 100 years old. He was a singer, actor, comedian, and writer who worked in vaudeville, radio, TV, and movies, and he always had a cigar while he performed onstage. If you remember Burns at all, it’s likely from his later appearances in movies.

BURNS PLAYS GOD

In the 1977 movie Oh, God!, Burns plays God. The movie is full of one-liners, delivered with impeccable timing. The plot is that God has chosen Jerry (played by John Denver) to spread his message to everyone. Among the better lines is when God explains to Jerry that he doesn’t do a lot of miracles anymore.

“The last miracle I did was the 1969 Mets,” God explains. “Before that, I think you have to go back to the Red Sea.” You get the idea.

Burns had made a movie three years earlier, The Sunshine Boys, for which he won an Oscar. His previous movie was made in 1938.

"This is all so exciting,” Burns, then 79, said in his acceptance speech. “I've decided to keep making one movie every 36 years."

BURNS & CIGARS

George Burns often performed with his wife, Gracie Allen. The two married in 1926. Allen died in 1964. After that, Burns performed alone onstage. Well, he partnered with his favorite cigars, the El Producto Queens. Burns explained that the reason he favored the El Producto, a relatively inexpensive cigar, was that it didn’t go out while he was delivering his routine. He called his choice a “domestic cigar.”

“Now the reason I smoke a domestic cigar is because the more expensive Havana cigars are tightly packed,” Burns told Cigar Aficionado. “They go out on the stage while I'm doing my act. The El Producto stays lit. Now if you're onstage and your cigar keeps going out, you have to keep lighting it. If you have to stop your act to keep lighting your cigar, the audience goes out. That's why I smoke El Productos. They stay lit."

STARTING YOUNG TO IMPRESS

Burns said that he began performing and smoking cigars at a very young age and that he wouldn’t spend much. He wasn’t particularly picky.

"Any five-cent cigar. I was 14 years old,” Burns said. “But I liked a nickel cigar called Hermosa Jose’s the best." He smoked them to convey that he was successful.

"I smoked them because I wanted people to think I was doing well. When they saw me walking down the street smoking a cigar, they'd say, 'Hey, that 14-year-old kid must be going places.' Of course, it's also a good prop on the stage. That's why so many performers ... use them. When you can't think of what you are supposed to say next, you take a puff on your cigar until you do think of your next line."

Burns would smoke judiciously in the early days.

"I'd say two cigars a week would last me. Hermosa Jose’s were long cigars, and I'd let them go out when I wasn't on the stage or trying to impress someone."

“MY LITTLE LADY”

Many comedians who worked in Vaudeville and the Borscht Belt (the Jewish hotels in the Catskills in New York), smoked cigars, both on and off the stage. The stars of the day would frequently gather at their country club and kibbitz, Yiddish for chatting, if defined broadly, but more precisely it means to offer unwanted and unsolicited advice. Like the efforts by Milton Berle, a legendary comedian of the day, to get Burns to upgrade his smokes.

"Come on George, try one of these Havanas," Berle and other comedians would kibbitz. "Live a little. Get rid of those damn Queens, and try something sweet and delicious."

Burns turned down the Cuban Montecristos and H. Upmanns, responding that he was true to the El Producto Queens, “my little lady,” as he called them.

"I'll never smoke anything else," promised Burns, a 10-a-day El Producto man. "I just love the taste of Queens. They never go out on the stage while I'm doing my act, and besides, I get them for free."

THEY WERE BETTER THEN

Today’s El Producto is not your, um, great-grandfather’s El Producto. Back in the day, mainly between 1910 and 1960, the El Producto Queens, a large Perfecto, along with other vitolas, were made with a premium blend of Cuban and Puerto Rican tobaccos. Even Elvis Presley enjoyed the brand. Today, the cigars are a shadow of their former selves, using a short natural filler with a wrapper made of “sheet” tobacco, scrap tobacco that’s ground into powder and held together with adhesives.

LOYAL TO THE END

Every month, Burns would receive a delivery of 300 El Producto Queens to his home in Beverly Hills. If for some reason the delivery was late, Burns would send his butler to scour the local Walgreens and Thrifty stores to buy all the cigars he could find.

If Burns smoked 10 cigars a day, for 86 years, he easily enjoyed more than 313,000 cigars in his lifetime.

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