Abe Burrows - Biography
Abe Burrows (December 18, 1910 – May 17, 1985) was a Tony and Pulitzer-winning American humorist, author, and director for radio and the stage.
Born Abram Solman Borowitz in New York City, Burrows graduated from New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn and later attended both City College and New York University. He began working as a runner on Wall Street while at NYU, and he also worked in an accounting firm. After he met Frank Galen in 1938, the two wrote and sold jokes to an impressionist who appeared on the Rudy Vallée radio program.
His radio career gained strength when he collaborated with Ed Gardner, the writer and star of radio legend Duffy's Tavern. The two created the successful series after Gardner's character, Archie, premiered on the earlier radio program, This Is New York. Burrows was made the show's head writer in 1941, and he credited the experience with investing the Runyonesque street characters he fashioned for Guys and Dolls. "The people on that show," Burrows once said about Duffy's Tavern, "were New York mugs, nice mugs, sweet mugs, and like (Damon) Runyon's mugs they all talked like ladies and gentlemen. That's how we treated the characters in Guys and Dolls."
Burrows also wrote for Danny Kaye's short-lived mid-1940s radio comedy show, helping head writer Goodman Ace fashion material for Kaye and co-stars Eve Arden and Lionel Stander. He quit Duffy's Tavern in 1945 to work at Paramount Pictures but soon returned to radio. As a guest on Here's Morgan in 1947, Burrows performed "I'll Bet You're Sorry Now, Tokyo Rose, Sorry for What You Done."
Meanwhile, he became a popular guest on the Hollywood party circuit, performing his own satirical songs ("Darling Why Shouldn't You Look Well Fed, ‘ Cause You Ate Up a Hunka My Heart?" and "The Girl with the Three Blue Eyes"). Such informal performances led to a nightclub act and regular appearances as a performer on CBS radio programs, eventually hosting his own radio program, The Abe Burrows Show (CBS) in 1948, a 15-minute weekly comedy Burrows wrote and directed as well. As he recalled years later, his show came about while he was scripting a radio show for Joan Davis when George Jessel asked him, "When the hell are you gonna become a professional?" Burrows continued as Davis' head writer while doing his own show.
Mixing comic patter ("I guess I could tell you exactly what I look like, but I think that's a lousy thing to say about a guy") with his clever comic songs, The Abe Burrows Show was popular with listeners and critics but not with its sponsor, Lambert Pharmaceutical, then the makers of Listerine mouthwash but promoting a Listerine toothpaste on the show. Lambert, according to Burrows, complained that the show wasn't selling much of the toothpaste. "It seems that my fans were being naughty," he wrote. "While they were laughing at my jokes, they were sneering at my toothpaste."
Both of Burrows' radio shows originated from CBS's Los Angeles affiliate, KNX, whose program director Ernie Martin encouraged Burrows—who had done some film work—to think about writing plays. "I told him I felt my funny stuff was okay for radio, but I didn't think people would pay theater prices to hear it," Burrows recalled.
Burrows credited his success in the theatre to his work under the theatre legend George S. Kaufman. In the Kaufman biography by Howard Teichmann, Burrows is quoted as saying that what he said (as a director, to his cast), was what he heard Kaufman say in their collaboration on Guys and Dolls.
Eventually, Burrows wrote, doctored, or directed such shows as Make a Wish, Two on the Aisle, Three Wishes for Jamie, Say, Darling, Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Cactus Flower, Four on a Garden, Can-Can, Silk Stockings, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Good News (1974 revival), and many others. With his collaborator Frank Loesser, Burrows won a Pulitzer Prize for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Burrows also became a famous script doctor, enough so that the desperate call of a producer, "Get me Abe Burrows!", remained Broadway shorthand for a script that needs repair for many years. Yet Burrows himself downplayed that role in his memoir, while discussing his fixing of Make a Wish:
- I have... performed surgery on a few shows, but not as many as I'm given credit for. I've been involved in 19 theatrical productions, plus their road company offshoots. Only a few of these have been surgical patients. And I don't usually talk about them. I feel that a fellow who doctors a show should have the same ethical approach that a plastic surgeon has. It wouldn't be very nice if a plastic surgeon were walking down the street with you, and a beautiful girl approached. And you say, "What a beautiful girl." And the plastic surgeon says, "She was a patient of mine. You should have seen her before I fixed her nose." Doctoring seldom cures a show. The sickness usually starts at the moment the author puts the first sheet of paper in his typewriter. All the redirecting and recasting can never help much if the basic story is wrong.
Guys and Dolls was apparently selected as the winner for the Pulitzer Prize in Letters. However, because of Burrows' troubles with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), no Pulitzer for Letters was awarded in 1951, as the Trustees of Columbia University had the right of veto.
Burrows wrote the screenplay for the 1956 film, The Solid Gold Cadillac, as well as producing a pair of television series, Abe Burrows' Almanac (1950) and The Big Party (1959).
In 1980, he published his memoir, Honest, Abe: Is There Really No Business Like Show Business?, in which he recalled the meat of his career, including his mentoring of several comedy writers including future M*A*S*H writer Larry Gelbart (who was once a Duffy's Tavern writer), Nat Hiken, Dick Martin and Woody Allen, the latter a distant cousin of Burrows'.
Over three decades, Burrows appeared as a panelist on such programs as This Is Show Business, What's My Line?, To Tell the Truth, all on CBS.
He was twice married and had one son and one daughter. Burrows's son, James Burrows, became an influential television director whose credits have included The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Cheers. Burrows's daughter, Laurie Burrows Grad is the author of four cookbooks and host of her own cooking show on The Learning Channel.
Abe Burrows died from Alzheimer's disease in his native New York City. His daughter Laurie and her husband former television executive Peter Grad are Co-Dinner Chairs of "A Night at Sardi's", a benefit which has raised over 16 million dollars for the Alzheimer's Association.
- Burrows, Abe. Honest Abe: Is There Really No Business Like Show Business? Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1980. ISBN 0-316-11771-4
- Sies, Luther F. Encyclopedia of American Radio, 1920-1960. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2000. ISBN 0-7864-0452-3
- New York Public Library: Abe Burrows Collection
- Abe Burrows collection of sound recordings, at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
- Duffy's Tavern: "Leave Us Face It" (14 December 1943) with guest star: Dinah Shore
- The Abe Burrows Show, four surviving episodes