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Burns tribute makes its way to Broadway

By Mark Evans
Friday October 11, 2002

NEW YORK — Frank Gorshin may best be known as The Riddler of the 1960s “Batman” television series, dishing out short, corny verbal puzzles aimed at stumping his superhero nemesis. 

In his current role, he is still playing a crafty fellow whose bread-and-butter is one-liners. But Gorshin has traded in TV for Broadway, and his comic book villain for the persona of George Burns. 

Gorshin’s one-man show, “Say Goodnight Gracie,” which opened Thursday at The Helen Hayes Theater, is a mixed bag. A must-see for fans of Burns, it’s likely to hold only marginal appeal for other theatergoers. 

Still, there’s no faulting Gorshin for what is an astonishingly believable portrayal of the gravelly voiced entertainer, who died at age 100 after a legendary career. 

With his neatly combed gray hair, big round eyeglasses, orange turtleneck and sport coat, Gorshin, as Burns, first appears on stage as mist floats in. He says it reminds him of a gray place where nothing seems to be happening — it’s either a state of limbo, or maybe it’s Buffalo. 

That’s the first of many wisecracks that keep the audience either laughing or groaning for most of the 90 minutes. Humorous or not, the lines are delivered perfectly by Gorshin with the slow self-assurance that was Burns’ trademark. As the play pushes on, it becomes eerily easy to forget that the cigar-chomping character on stage is not really Burns. 

Beyond the jokes, the play’s narrative offers a fairly straightforward look back at Burns’ life. 

It begins in New York City’s Lower East Side, where Burns, aka Nathan Birnbaum, grows up quickly after the early death of his father. There’s the discovery of his fondness for show business. His first cigar. His first lunch date with Gracie Allen, who would become Burns’ partner and great love. His close friendship with Jack Benny. 

Burns, who died in 1996, often joked about his advancing age and once said he had “reached the point where I get a standing ovation for just standing.” He would likely have another quip for “Say Goodnight Gracie”.