Tribute to Fred Burns, old Friend, Comedian
I don't normally publish close personal notes on this blog, but this one is indeed special...
An old friend of mine, Frederick Burns passed away recently. Fred and I were close friends for many years, but I'd have to be hypnotized by a professional to retrieve all the memories that my mind has blocked to maintain my sanity.
Yes, there are many stories about Fred in his professional career as a talented comedian and 12 year manager of famed The Comedy Store, where so many famous comics got their start. But, long before that, in our younger years, Fred and I made movies together...
We "spared no effect" for this last film, with one scene requiring three separate cameras filming a bicycle (ridden by Houston) that goes out of control and bursts into flames as it flies off a 100 foot cliff. Then, true to the TV show, we fade up on an operating room scene with music intro and a voice-over with Fred's parody script in my very best ABC announcer's voice:
The movie also included a high speed car chase, stop action "kung fu" fistfight, and eventually the canoe boat demise of the villain who meets his end in Lake Benbow. I'll always remember Fred's line as he enters the boat while fleeing Houston but stops first to put on a life jacket: "There's fun in the water, but there's safety too..." And, of course, who can forget the 40 gallon vat of Jello scene (used to bind the feet of Houston). I never thought we'd get that scene filmed, because I never thought Fred could really make that much lime Jello.
I first met Fred in 8th grade Spanish class when the teacher asked if anyone wanted to make a Spanish film for extra credit. Fred, Ron Ward, and myself figured it might be fun, and that was just the beginning. Fred was an amazing writer, comic, actor. I was the filmmaker, photographer, editor. After Galleria we went on to make the two other films, spending hundreds of hours and hundreds of dollars on each one (a lot for those days). Those films were our passion.
We called ourselves "BS Productions" (Burns and Sassenrath) and our films were entertaining, funny, and professional for the day. We spent every dime we had making those films, and to help fund them, Fred would show them at lunch for a small charge at the Eureka courthouse. We always got great reviews.
In 1974 I somehow convinced the local TV station (KVIQ, where I worked as a technical director), to let us co-produce a weekly half-hour series called EHS Newscene. It was supposed to be a serious news show for the teenage audience, but for Fred, it became more like Saturday Night Live. There was one show where Fred ambushed Rick Slack (EHS class president) during an on-camera interview. Fred had collected odd words that sounded bad, like "formicate" (the sensation of ants on your skin) and he asked Rick during the interview if he liked to "matriculate" (which actually means to be admitted to college). Those were crazy days, and I still have nightmares about those productions... like the time the script wasn't finished at air time, or when I punched the wrong button and accidentally broadcast 10 minutes of a rehearsal live over-the-air. Fred thought that goof was hilarious. I thought I'd lose my job.
Fred moved on to a professional career as a comedian, with hundreds of live performances worldwide. He became the manager at The Comedy Store for more than a decade, and if you're into live standup comedy, that's the place to be. Fred also played parts in a few movies, including Fred, a documentary about his history, directed by Ron Ward. The film won international recognition and awards.
I last met up with Fred a few years ago in Eureka, and we planned out our next "big film". There was always magic in working with Fred on creative projects... an irreplaceable wit to the man, a special genius. You never knew what was coming next.
Fellow comedian Lamont Ferguson recently noted: "He was highly respected among his peers and a prime example of living life to the fullest in spite of his disability."
You see, Fred was born with a birth defect, spina bifida... and I know the effect it had, but if you dared to feel sorry for him, you'd get whacked by one of his crutches. For Fred I think the words from his script above, "We can make him better than he was before" had a deeper meaning.
Fred died May 11, 2007. Considering his unbounded personality and our movie endings, it is some kind of ironic fate that he passed away while at sea on a cruise ship named "Infinity".
This month (June), we'd both be celebrating our 50th year.
Fred will be dearly missed. I send my condolences to all of his family and friends. But, if he knew I was making all this fuss, I'd get whacked by one of his crutches.