Abe Burrows

Abe Burrows

Radio humorist, songwriter, singer and pianist, television personality, panelist, playwright, and stage director Abe Burrows (b. New York, NY, 18 December 1910; d. New York, NY, 17 May 1985) is perhaps best remembered as one of the creators, with Frank Loesser, of two of the greatest Broadway shows in history, Guys and Dolls (1950) and How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying (1961). In the decade between these monumental bookends, Burrows was ever-present on Broadway, directing Two on the Aisle, (1951), Three Wishes for Jamie (1952), Can-Can (1953), and Happy Hunting (1956) and collaborating on the scripts of Make a Wish (1951), Silk Stockings (1955), and Say, Darling (1958). He won four Tony Awards®, three for authorship and one for directing, and How To Succeed was also awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

Educated at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, City College (1928–29), and New York University (graduated 1931), Abram Solman Borowitz first worked as a Wall Street runner, then as an accountant. In 1938 he met comedy writer Frank Galen (later the creator of a 1950s television comedy series called Meet Millie) with whom he – as Abe Burrows – formed a partnership writing jokes for night clubs and radio broadcasts.

Their material had some success on Rudy Vallee’s radio variety program in 1940, and on a short-lived Danny Kaye vehicle that introduced Eve Arden. A writer and director with the Vallee Hour, Ed Gardner, soon created his own radio show, the very popular Duffy’s Tavern, with Abe Burrows as head writer for the first five years (1941–45) of its ten-year run. Gardner played Archie, the bartender (Duffy never materialized), who would open the show with, “Duffy’s Tavern, where the elite meet to eat. Archie the manager speakin’. Duffy ain’t here – Oh, hello, Duffy!” Guest stars over the years included Fred Allen, Nigel Bruce, Billie Burke, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Boris Karloff, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Peter Lorre, Tony Martin, Gene Tierney, Arthur Treacher, Shelley Winters, and Gardner’s first wife, Shirley Booth. Regarding the Duffy’s Tavern experience, Burrows later revealed, “The people on that show 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 [developed] the characters in Guys and Dolls.”

He left Duffy’s Tavern for the west coast in 1945, at first to work at Paramount Pictures, but soon found himself back in radio. He performed his own satirical songs (“I’ll Bet You’re Sorry Now, Tokyo Rose, Sorry for What You Done;” “Darling Why Shouldn’t You Look Well-Fed, ’Cause You Ate Up a Hunka My Heart?;” “The Girl with the Three Blue Eyes;” “Leave Us Face It, We’re in Love”) at Hollywood parties and ultimately as a guest on CBS programs, and by 1948 had his own Abe Burrows Show, a fifteen-minute weekly comedy written and directed by himself. It was popular with listeners and critics, but not with his sponsor, Listerine Toothpaste, whose sales did not improve. “While [people] were laughing at my jokes, they were sneering at my toothpaste.”

The program director of station KNX, where Burrows’s radio show originated, suggested to Burrows that he 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.” Nonetheless, he was persuaded to take over writing most of the script for Guys and Dolls from Jo Swerling. A smash hit, it won him a Tony® and a New York Drama Critics Award, and was selected as the winner for the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But because Burrows was being looked at by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the Trustees of Columbia University (the advisory board for the Pulitzer) vetoed the selection. No Pulitzer for Drama was awarded that year.

Burrows felt he owed much of his theatrical success to George S. Kaufman, the legendary comic writer (for the Marx Brothers, among others) who wrote or directed at least one play on Broadway in every season from 1921 through 1958. The two collaborated on the Oscar®– and Golden Globe-winning film version of Kaufman’s play The Solid Gold Cadillac in 1955. Burrows had a high reputation as a script doctor, too, taking a hand in the fixing of Make a Wish and as many as eighteen other shows, but he always downplayed that role: “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.’”

In 1962 the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, now unencumbered by the HUAC, came Burrows’s way at last. How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying earned Tony Awards® for Best Musical, Best Author of a Musical, and Best Direction as well. The New York Drama Critics also gave it the top prize. Burrows’s Broadway career did not end there; he directed What Makes Sammy Run? (540 performances) in 1964; Cactus Flower (1965), which he both authored and directed, ran for 1,234 performances; Forty Carats (1968) was roundly successful under his direction; and Four on a Garden (1971), an evening of four one-act plays adapted and directed by Burrows, although short-lived, starred Sid Caesar, Carol Channing, and George S. Irving. Guys and Dolls has enjoyed five Broadway revivals, notably that starring Faith Prince and Nathan Lane (who actually adopted his stage name from Nathan Detroit) in 1992, which won four Tonys® and seven Drama Desk Awards. How To Succeed has been revived twice, in 1995 winning a Tony Award® for Matthew Broderick, and in 2011, with Daniel Radcliffe, still running.

In the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Burrows was a frequent panelist on television programs like This Is Show Business, What’s My Line?, and To Tell the Truth. In 1980 Burrows published a memoir, Honest, Abe: Is There Really No Business Like Show Business?, in which he revealed that he had mentored many comedy writers, including Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H), Nat Hiken (Car 54, Where Are You?, The Phil Silvers Show), Dick Martin (Laugh-In), and even Woody Allen (a distant cousin of his).

Burrows was twice married and had one son and one daughter. James Burrows became a television director (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers); Laurie Burrows Grad is the author of four cookbooks and host of her own cooking show on The Learning Channel.

Abe Burrows died after a long bout with Alzheimer’s disease. His daughter and her husband, former television executive Peter Grad, are patrons of “A Night at Sardi’s”, a benefit event that has raised over sixteen million dollars for the Alzheimer’s Association.

– Lucy E. Cross

Photo courtesy of The Everett Collection