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Bob Burns was a well-known national radio and film personality during the 1930s and 1940s. He was known by a variety of titles that referenced his hillbilly origins, such as “The Arkansas Traveler” and “The Arkansas Philosopher.” Burns was a musician and an actor who wove tales of life in the Arkansas hills with his musical performances. He earned his nickname, “Bazooka,” from an instrument he invented and named as a young man in a plumbing shop in Van Buren (Crawford County). The instrument, which was a simple device made of spare gas fittings and a whiskey funnel, eventually lent its name to the World War II anti-tank weapon due to its similar looks and Burns’s popularity among the troops who employed it in combat.
Bob Burns was born Robin William Burn on August 2, 1890, to William Robert Burn, a civil engineer, and Emma Needham; he had one brother. Sources vary as to where he was born, with a few having his birthplace as Van Buren, while most have him born in Greenwood (Sebastian County) and moving with his family to Van Buren when he was three. As a young man, he learned to play brass instruments and, before the age of twelve, was playing with the Queen City Silver Cornet Band in Van Buren. By the age of thirteen, young Burns had formed his own string band and, during a practice session, put together the handcrafted instrument that gave him his nickname. His “bazooka” was a novelty instrument that made the sound of a “wounded moose,” and he practiced until eventually becoming skilled enough to play it in the Queen City Silver Cornet Band. The instrument had a very narrow range and peculiar tone by design. Burns used his simple invention to entertain audiences between yarns.
Eventually, Burns’s ambition led him to audition for the most popular radio station in Los Angeles, California, and he won a non-paying spot on the afternoon radio show The Gilmore Circus as the character “Soda Pop.” His popularity immediately grew along the West Coast.
In 1935, in New York City, Burns was able to persuade Paul Whiteman, a coast-to-coast radio host, to give him an audition on his show, and the young entertainer subsequently became a national celebrity. Before long, he was a regular guest with Rudy Vallee’s very popular radio program. He was compared by many to Will Rogers.
He returned to Los Angeles before the year was out and played with Bing Crosby on NBC’s Kraft Music Hall radio program, with which he remained until 1941. Though Burns had previously appeared in such movies as Quick Millions (1931)and Young As You Feel (1931), it was in 1936 that Burns really launched a motion-picture career with the release of the full-length film Rhythm on the Range, in which he starred along with Bing Crosby, who also enjoyed his first major role in the film. Among his other films were Waikiki Wedding and Mountain Music (1937) and I’m From Missouri (1939).
Though Burns appeared in many films, he is most well known for his radio programs. He continued his rise to fame between 1941 and 1947 with his own popular radio drama, The Arkansas Traveler. The show was based upon the character he had developed over his career and had played in a feature film in 1938 titled The Arkansas Traveler. During the long run of the program, which eventually became The Bob Burns Show, the music of Spike Jones was often included.
Burns's first marriage was to Elizabeth Fisher on September 22, 1921; she died in 1936. He wed Harriet M. Foster on May 31, 1939, whom he remained married to until his death in 1956. Burns had one child from his first marriage and three from his second.
Burns died in Encino, California, on February 2, 1956, of kidney cancer. He is entombed with his wife at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. His former house in Van Buren served as a museum but is now a private residence.
For additional Information:“Bob Burns.” Internet Movie Database. http://imdb.com/name/nm0122589/ (accessed March 1, 2007).
Bob Burns and Friends Radio Humor. http://www.angelfire.com/de/classicalstories/ (accessed March 1, 2007).
“Bob ‘Bazooka’ Burns, the Arkansas Traveler, 1890–1956.” Van Buren, Arkansas. http://www.vanburen.org/bob_burns.php (accessed February 14, 2013).
Burns, Bob. “Bob Burns at Fort Smith Parade, 1946.” Video online at Butler Center AV/AR Audio Video Collection: Bob Burns—Fort Smith Parade (accessed May 7, 2012).
Smith, Ronald L. Who’s Who in Comedy. New York: Facts on File, 1992.
Williams, Nancy, ed. Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Denny ElrodMelbourne, Arkansas
Staff of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
Last Updated 10/22/2015
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