|Subject: Archive: Burl Ives, Apr. 14, 1995
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Date Posted: Friday, April 14, 04:29:06pm
Burl Ives, whose sweet, strong, mournful way with folk ballads made him an international singing star in the 1940's and whose earthy acting won him an Academy Award in the 1950's, died yesterday at his home in Anacortes, Wash. He was 85.
The cause was complications of mouth cancer, said Marjorie Schicktanz Ashley, his agent and friend.
In his long and diverse career in show business, Mr. Ives made 32 movies and more than 100 record albums, appeared in 13 Broadway productions, and gave countless performances on radio and television and in summer stock. He put an enduring stamp on "The Blue Tail Fly," "Jimmy Crack Corn" and other folk standards as well as on such children's songs as "Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." His last recording, "The Magic Balladeer," was issued in 1993, shortly before his 84th birthday.
The bearded Mr. Ives, who loved to cook, eat and drink, was an imposing figure in his prime, carrying more than 300 pounds on his six-foot frame. He was intimidating when he played semi-professional football in Terre Haute, Ind., and he was intimidating onstage. His presence, both physically and musically, was such that Carl Sandburg, one of his great admirers, called him "America's mightiest ballad singer."
He won praise for his originality and his ability to keep his singing fresh over the years, even when he performed such well-worn folk standards as "Big Rock Candy Mountain."
He was also admired for his acting, particularly for his memorable portrayal of Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams's 1955 play "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" on Broadway and in the film version in 1958. Lumbering about the stage as he angrily puffed on a cigar and snarled about the "mendacity" of those around him, Mr. Ives gave a vivid, larger-than-life performance that had critics and audiences cheering. And his skillful work as Gregory Peck's business rival in the 1958 film "The Big Country" brought him an Academy Award for best performance in a supporting role.
"I was typecast a bit," Mr. Ives said much later, "and not everyone thought I could act. But that didn't matter to me because I always saw myself as an entertainer. The movies, plays, music, it's all entertainment of one kind or another."
His role as an entertainer started early. Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives was born in Jasper County, Ill., the youngest of six children. Most of his ancestors had been farmers in Illinois or Kentucky, and one or two were preachers. Whatever they were, they liked to sing, and Mr. Ives said he could not remember a time when he didn't sing. "There wasn't any beginning," he said.
When he was 4, he began performing in public and was paid 25 cents. His parents, Frank and Cordella White Ives, were hardly in a position to refuse money that anyone wanted to give to their son; their circumstances were at best modest.
As a boy, he was taught hundreds of American ballads of Scottish, English and Irish origin by his grandmother Kate White, a vigorous woman who smoked a clay pipe and chewed tobacco. He waited on tables to pay for his meals, and he played his banjo and sang at the Rotary Club in nearby Robinson, Ill. For a time, he said, he wanted to be a minister. But he found he liked singing and dancing too much, and besides, he said, he "never did take to studies."
He did take to football, and was fullback on the Newton High School squad. He thought he might become a football coach and had that in mind in 1927 when he entered Eastern Illinois State Teachers College. He left college three years later without a degree because he had decided he would rather hitchhike around the country and try to support himself by singing, playing banjo and doing odd jobs. He called himself Burl Ives, the Vagabond Lover, and visited 46 of what were then the 48 states.
In 1931, when he was living in Terre Haute, he took singing lessons from Clara Bloomfield Lyon, who encouraged him to study music and literature seriously. He decided to leave Terre Haute and move to New York City to get more training in music. He rented a room at the International House on Riverside Drive for $5 a week and tried to get work, but agents told him they did not need a "hillbilly act." That was especially offensive to Mr. Ives, who detested hillbilly music. He always thought it was "synthetic" because "it's written in New York by guys who never saw a hill."
He nevertheless remained in New York, and in 1938, when he was 29, he won his first professional roles with a theatrical group in Carmel, N.Y. He did well there, and won a small, non-singing part in "The Boys From Syracuse," the Rodgers and Hart musical, playing a tailor's apprentice.
Rodgers and Hart encouraged him to remain in show business; they approved his appearance in the road company of "I Married an Angel," which toured the nation that same year. He also won good notices during a four-month engagement at the Village Vanguard. By 1940, he had his own radio show, "The Wayfarin' Stranger."
In 1942 he was drafted, and appeared in Irving Berlin's production of "This Is the Army." A year later, he was discharged for medical reasons but continued to entertain troops. Toward the end of 1944, he landed a part in another Broadway show, "Sing Out, Sweet Land," with a book by Walter Kerr. The show was not a success, but Mr. Ives was favorably reviewed.
Mr. Ives's first movie was "Smoky" (1945), in which he played a singing cowboy. That same year, he made his concert debut at Town Hall in New York City. He began writing his own tunes and published an autobiography of his early years, titled "Wayfarin' Stranger," in 1948.
He appeared on Broadway in "She Stoops to Conquer" in 1949 and in a revival of "Show Boat" in 1954. He also published two collections of folk ballads, "The Burl Ives Songbook" (1953) and "Tales of America" (1954).
Mr. Ives's following grew appreciably with "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Among his other film credits are "Desire Under the Elms" (1958), "Our Man in Havana" (1960), "Robin and the Seven Hoods" (1964) and "Earthbound" (1981). Over the years he also appeared in repertory productions of "The Man Who Came To Dinner" and "Knickerbocker Holiday," among others.
On television, he narrated the 1964 production of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." He appeared in the mini-series "Roots" in 1977 and in "The Lawyers" segments of "The Bold Ones" series, which ran from 1969 to 1972.
Among his albums are "Songs of Ireland," "Australian Folk Songs," "Christmas Eve With Burl Ives," "Songs of the West," "The Best of Burl's for Boys and Girls," "Burl Ives Sings Pearly Shells and Other Favorites," "Songs I Sang in Sunday School" and "Burl Ives's Folk Lullabies."
He was also closely identified with the song "Rodger Young," which Frank Loesser wrote in 1945 as a tribute to the United States Infantry.
Mr. Ives's 1945 marriage to Helen Peck Ehrlich ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Dorothy; a son, Alexander, from his first marriage; two stepsons, Kevin Murphy and Robbie Grossman, both of Anacortes; a stepdaughter, Barbara Vaughn of Camarillo, Calif., and five grandchildren. A Santa Figure Of Many Talents
Burl Ives was a memorable presence, whether singing companionably as he strummed folk tunes on his guitar or giving dramatic life to a stage or movie role. Here are some of the songs, shows and films associated with his long career. Songs Blue Tail Fly Wayfarin' Stranger Big Rock Candy Mountain Goober Peas My Gal Sal Holly Jolly Christmas Little White Duck I Know an Old Lady (Who Swallowed a Fly) A Little Bitty Tear Foggy Foggy Dew Frosty the Snowman Musicals and Plays The Boys from Syracuse, 1938 This Is the Army, 1942 Sing Out, Sweet Land, 1944 Show Boat, 1954 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1955 Dr. Cook's Garden, 1967 Films East of Eden, 1955 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1958 Desire Under the Elms, 1958 The Big Country, 1958 Our Man in Havana, 1960 Summer Magic, 1963 Ensign Pulver, 1964 The Bermuda Depths, 1978 Earthbound, 1980 Television Series High-Low, 1957 The Lawyers, 1969-72 O.K. Crackerby, 1965-66
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