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Transcript of interview with George Burns by Sandy Fink, April 03, 1976






Burns relocated to Nevada in 1941. The various jobs he has held include cook, dishwasher, clerk, pipe fitter and salesman are discussed

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George Burns oral history interview, 1976 April 03. OH-00302. [Transcript]. Oral History Research Center, Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.


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UNLV University Libraries George Burns i An Interview with George Burns An Oral History Conducted by Sandy Fink Ralph Roske Oral History Project on Early Las Vegas Special Collections Oral History Research Center University Libraries University of Nevada, Las Vegas UNLV University Libraries George Burns ii © Ralph Roske Oral History Project on Early Las Vegas University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2017 UNLV University Libraries George Burns iii The Oral History Research Center (OHRC) was formally established by the Board of Regents of the University of Nevada System in September 2003 as an entity of the UNLV University Libraries’ Special Collections Division. The OHRC conducts oral interviews with individuals who are selected for their ability to provide first-hand observations on a variety of historical topics in Las Vegas and Southern Nevada. The OHRC is also home to legacy oral history interviews conducted prior to its establishment including many conducted by UNLV History Professor Ralph Roske and his students. This legacy interview transcript received minimal editing, such as the elimination of fragments, false starts, and repetitions in order to enhance the reader's understanding of the material. All measures have been taken to preserve the style and language of the narrator. The interviewee/narrator was not involved in the editing process. UNLV University Libraries George Burns iv Abstract Sandy Fink interviews cook, George Burns (born in New York on May, 10, 1902) at his place of business about Las Vegas in the 1940s and 1950s. Burns relocated to Nevada in 1941. The various jobs he has held include cook, dishwasher, clerk, pipe fitter and salesman are discussed. UNLV University Libraries George Burns 1 Okay, this is Sandy Fink, for Dr. Roske’s class. The date is April, the third, and we’re talking to George Burns, at his place of business, 5580 West Charleston. And we’re going to talk to him about when he first came to Las Vegas. Were you born in Las Vegas? No. No. Where were you born? I was born in (Unintelligible), New York. Was yours a large family? Are you talking about my family or my mother’s family? Your family. Yes. We, I’d had seven kids and two wives. (Laughs) oh my goodness! Gracious. (Laughs) that’s a lot. Were you educated in Las Vegas? Or did you go to school here? No. No. Where did you go to school? I went to school in New York City. All the way up to high school, or—? Yes. Finished high school. You did. Did you ever get any higher than that high school? Or is—? You kidding? (Laughs) that’s it, huh? That’s it. Those days— Yes. UNLV University Libraries George Burns 2 You had to be a rich man to get the, go to college. Okay. When did you first come to Las Vegas? Nineteen hundred and forty in May. May. Do you remember much what it was like when you first came here? What was the Strip like? Was there a Strip? The Strip, the only place on the Strip was motel called the El Rancho. Uh-huh. There was no hotels there. Most of it was just barren. Uh-huh. And when we came into town I had some trouble with a Dodge, a ‘39 Dodge that I was driving at the time. And I stopped off at Fifth Street. Right now it’s the southeast corner of Fifth Street and Fremont. And the National Department Store is there now. But that used to be, I think they called it, Desert Motors, or something like that. Anyway, I stopped in there, and I had ‘em look at the car and they said the insides were burned out. And it cost me eighteen dollars to fix it. And I said, “Okay.” I says, “I’ll look the town over.” And they told me it would be about two or three hours before it would be ready. So, I went up the street and there was some places there. There was a, they were gonna have a Helldorado. And they had this here stockade like. And it consisted of the, you know, wooden horse, you know, and just bars across it. That was supposed to be like a jail or something. I didn’t pay much attention to it. But I did go further and went into the, some of the casinos. They were very small, nothing big, you know, nothing like you see, today, see. And there was a lot of stores and my wife stopped in, in one of the department store. Was a department store on the south side of Fremont—I think it was between Fourth and Fifth—and UNLV University Libraries George Burns 3 bought some shirts and things for the kids back east, you know, for friends and all that, souvenirs. Uh-huh. And then we went up to the casino. And here’s what struck me about Las Vegas. I was in the casino and I don’t even remember the name of it, at this time. But it strikes me, it was on the south side between First and Main Street. We went in there and they had some slot machines. So we played slot machines. And they had a bar there and I saw a fellow getting a malted milk at the bar. Well, I happened to like malted milk. So, I went over to the bar and I says, “Can I have a chocolate malt?” and he says, “Yes.” And when he said, “Yes,” I said, “Well, make me one.” He made me one. I says, “How much?” He says, “Free. On the house.” And I says, “But I, I haven’t gambled here or anything.” He says, “That’s alright. It’s on the house.” Oh! (Tape cuts out and starts again) That’s something I wanted to give him. It isn’t a thing, you know, that he said, “You gotta give it to me.” Yes. Yes. You understand? Yes. Then I go down, we go down back, you know, it’s about time to pick up the car and we come down there. And kiddingly, I says to the man, I says—that had the place, you know the, I don’t know whether he was the owner or just the manager, I says to him, “Will you take my check?” He says, “Sure!” I said, “But you don’t know me.” I says, “Check on the floor of the bank.” He says, “I don’t care where it is. If you want to do me for eighteen dollars,” He says, “Take your car and go ahead.” And I gave him a check. Gave him my address, telephone number, and from UNLV University Libraries George Burns 4 there on, back into Florida, where I, you know, came from. I was only out here, you know, out west, touring around. It bothered me. I just came from what I thought was paradise. People didn’t, you know, grab you for the dollar, you know, look, you know, try to get or take it out of your pocket. And they were so nice. Everybody on the street, you know, when we walked up and down Fremont Street, “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” “How are you?” Everybody said, that’s a fact, you know, everybody said, “Hello.” I didn’t, never saw these people before, you know, I came from a big town, New York, where nobody pays any attention to you. All the ways back to Florida, the wife and I, would, could only talk about one thing. We just left paradise and looking to come back here. (Laughs) (Laughs) Well, I stayed in Florida four days and turned around and came back here. And that’s for good, huh? Well, it was, during the war, I left. Well, when you came back to live in Las Vegas, had it changed much from when you left it? Oh, yes. How was it different? The Flamingo had been built. The El Rancho became a bigger place, you know what I mean? Before, it was just a little motel; now it was a full-fledged gambling house. The Flamingo was, had been built, and things were popping all around. Thunderbird was up. Oh, I forget the name of the place, where the Sahara is now. Bingo! The Bingo Club was there. You know what I mean, things were popping. Uh-huh. UNLV University Libraries George Burns 5 They started talking about the Desert Inn and then they built the Desert Inn. Then they built the Frontier, you know what I mean. The Frontier had been built, had already been built when I come back, see. But they were talking about building the Silver Slipper. And, you know, all these things happened right after that. Uh-huh. This place started to grow like weeds popping up all over the place. Uh-huh. And the Fremont Street, which of course, what we called, Fifth Street, which is now Las Vegas Boulevard, when you went east of that, it was sand. You know what I mean. It was a road going to Boulder. But the rest on east side was sand. There was very few buildings. And it was paved and they had the curbs, you know and buildings were all over the place. And I’d just been a laborer in the war. ‘Cause I worked in an aircraft factory, or aircraft factories, to be exact. Yes. Was the dam here yet? Huh? Was the dam here yet? Or? Oh yes. I, when I first came here the dam was here. Uh-huh. We were here, in 1940. That’s when we came here. Uh-huh. When we went back east, we went across the dam. You know, we really came here by an error. (Laughs) Somebody gave me the wrong directions going out of Cali—Los Angeles. Uh-huh. UNLV University Libraries George Burns 6 And I found myself up in Burbank. The directions they gave me led me to Burbank. So then I got me a map and decided I ain’t gonna ask no directions. I’m going by map. Mm-hm. And all I could do was find Foothill Boulevard that went east, from Glendale. And that’s what brought me up here. When you lived here, or when you first came and you lived here, what occupation did you have? What job did you work at? I was a shill. You were? Yes. I was a shill. You wanna tell me about being a shill? Well, I went to a club and I shilled for a little while and I sold a few things. Like meats and things like that that I knew about. You know, I’d get it for these people, you know what I mean? And made a buck here and a buck there. (Unintelligible) in the family. We lived in a Quonset hut, for instance. Really? On North Las Vegas. Five Corners there. What was it like living in a Quonset hut? Alright, that you put the swamp cooler on it, was cooler than the devil. In fact, sometimes you almost froze. (Laughs) (Laughs) I mean, it got that cool. I don’t know, maybe it was better equipped. But the wife and I lived in Quonset hut, with the kids. UNLV University Libraries George Burns 7 Yes. Did you have any—after being a shill, what else did you do, besides, did you set up a business? Or? No. I worked for, yes, that’s right I did go into a, I started selling cheesecakes. Uh-huh. I brought the, introduced cheesecake in this town. Mm. Then I brought it kosher pickles. And went to work for the Dixie Delicatessen, the Dixie Sandwich Shop, as they called it. The Baby Sirota. Because he had a man that worked for him, went to the hospital. And it seems he never came out. But that’s a different story. Anyway, he asked me to help him out and the only time I could help him out was graveyard. And it turned into a job that I had for years. Every time I wanted to quit, he gave me more money. Go ahead. It’s okay. Go ahead. So, I done that. I sold the same man merchandise. I sold other people, you know, corn beef, pastrami, salami, pickles, things like, you know—and cheesecakes. And I worked for him on a graveyard shift. Uh-huh. You were telling me a story about a horse in a saloon. Oh, sure. When I worked for Baby Sirota, I used to work in the Window. While these cowboys would come in on ponies. And they’d tie ‘em up on the curb; and the ponies would sometimes get restless. They’d wet all over the sidewalk. (Laughs) Well, you asked me. (Laughs) I did. UNLV University Libraries George Burns 8 They dirtied all over. And sometimes they almost kicked the windows in. They just about didn’t get there. (Laughs) oh my, gosh! Didn’t kick the windows in. And then every once in a while, you’d see some of them get a little drunk and, you know, ride the horses right into the gambling joints. Oh my, goodness! Gracious. (Unintelligible) But you see this was a different type of place. This was the most friendly place you ever saw in your life. We had a man here by the name of (Unintelligible). I’ll have to tell you about him. He owned or had own owned it, you know, he had part ownership of places of, the Frontier, what were some of the others? The Blue Club, some of the others, there. He’s the man responsible for the big signs. Uh-huh. He started that. (Unintelligible) was the man that started the big signs. (Unintelligible) The man by the name of (Unintelligible) own places here. And I forget the other guy, he used to be— (Unintelligible)? Huh? (Unintelligible)? (Unintelligible). Yes. (Unintelligible) started the Desert Inn. Only (unintelligible) people that (unintelligible) like. Well, there was (Unintelligible) who owned I think, part of the El Rancho. And later on, part of the Silver Slipper. And, he was always having trouble with the, you know, law trouble, courts trouble, I don’t know what, I didn’t pay too much attention. ‘Cause, only because I figured that was his problem, not mine. Jay (Unintelligible), was another one. He’s an old-timer around here. UNLV University Libraries George Burns 9 He, quite a story, I don’t know too much about him. (Unintelligible) used to manage the Frontier Hotel. The gambling in the Frontier Hotel. And I think he later went on to the El Cortez Hotel. Manager of the El Cortez Hotel. Today, I don’t know where he’s at. (Unintelligible) But I— What about Dolby Dock? Dolby Dock used to hang around the Fremont Hotel, there. He was quite a character. He knew how to create a lot of relics, like old locomotives, old wagons, and things like that. And, I don’t think he was a very poor man. I think he had plenty little money. And he was worth quite a lot in those antiques. You know, those trains and wagons and wheels and things like, you know, things like that. He had a lot of, I think, he had a lot of them down there with the Silver Slipper. It used to be between the Silver Slipper and the Frontier. Uh-huh. They used to be a sort of a playground like. You know, the bean bags. Little things, you now, you could get a hot dog, you could (unintelligible) you know, that’s the thing, you know. Just like a little carnival. And we used to hang around there. He had part of his stuff that way. On the sleigh down there, the trains and things like that. Howard Hughes? Howard Hughes. The first time I met Howard Hughes, he walked in the Big Sea Sandwich Club. Number Twenty-Four Fremont Street. When he waked in the first impression I got was here’s a big tall bum. (Laughs) UNLV University Libraries George Burns 10 He was filthy, dirty, dirty shirt. He had tennis shoes on that were dirty. He sat down and he ordered a roast beef sandwich. And I don’t remember where, what he drank. Whether it was coffee or soda or what he drank. Got up and walked out. The next time I saw him was in the Flamingo Hotel in the men’s restroom, where he was changing his (unintelligible). That’s the last time I ever saw him. (Tape cuts out and starts again clearly) –MacNamee. That used to be, I think it was MacNamee that used to be a captain in the Los Angeles Police Force and was one of the owners of the Golden Nugget. If I remember right every time we had Helldorado—from the Golden Nugget and get taken up, you know like arrested, you know, go before the Kangaroo Court. And he’d donate $500 or $1000, somewheres around there. Now I’m not sure whether it was $500 or $1000. Every time I seen him it was about the same amount. And the police force, for instance, in this town— Uh-huh. At one time it consisted of very few men. And the police station was right behind the alley that is the Fremont Hotel right now. They didn’t have much a police force. But they seemed to keep the order. Yes. (Laughs) We didn’t have no problems. I remember men like Joe Lavoy, when the police department built the bigger place. I also remember George Adams, who at one time became, I think that’s his name, George Adams. He’s a, has something to do with our police force, today. I think he’s assistant something or other, you know. A big— Big shot. Big shot up there. But at one time he was the chief of police here. But when I knew him very well, he was a sergeant on the police force and he used to come in the Dixie. And I, he and I used UNLV University Libraries George Burns 11 to kid, a lot. We had a lot of fun together. It was a different type of place here. You know, different police force, a different management, you know. Everybody was friendly. Today, everything is cold cut and dry. Yes. I know what you mean. Is there anything else that— (Tape cuts out starts mid-sentence) Now when it came just before Christmas. About thirty days before Christmas, (Unintelligible) on the Club that’s on the First, the corner of First, the southwest corner of First Street. Uh-huh. That’s the Frontier, isn’t it? Downtown? Yes. Downtown. That ain’t the Frontier? No. That’s— Pioneer. Pioneer Club. Pioneer Club. I’m sorry. I— That’s okay. I get mixed up sometimes. That’s alright. Go on. But the Pioneer Club, with the, you know, the man that says— “Howdy.” “Howdy, partner.” Yes. Yes. Well, that’s through (unintelligible) idea. UNLV University Libraries George Burns 12 Uh-huh. Well, about thirty days before Christmas he would have Christmas carols broadcast out, you know what I mean, on the street playing twenty-four hours a day. (Laughs) And you very rarely saw anybody drunk around here. You very occasionally there was a fight or something. You know, the police always controlled it—or seemed to. But, you could see people walk down the street with a glass of beer or, you know, a drink in their hands. Friendly. This was a friendliest town I have ever seen in my life. And it was a different breed. Today you got a breed of businessmen that would cut your throat likely for a buck. Right. Right. What about the problem of prostitution in Nevada? You were here when it was a big issue? No. No, no, no, no. We had prostitutes, yes. There was prostitutes in town here. There was some prostitutes on the Strip. But it was no problem. Uh-huh. Because they had this Four Mile. There was a whorehouse down there at Four Mile. And, you’d hear the men say, “Well, I’m going down to Four Mile.” Uh-huh. Have you ever been to Four Mile? Never been in there in my life. Never. I talked to the girls that used to come into the Dixie. I knew ‘em. I used to send customers down there. Uh-huh. But I never been in one in my life. Not only there but any other place. UNLV University Libraries George Burns 13 Uh-huh. I just don’t—look, I don’t condemn them. Get me right. I don’t condemn them. I think it’s a good thing. A lot better than these pimps around the streets and all that. But I personally don’t associate with that. You know, I mean I don’t patronize those things. (Unintelligible) How much did it cost in those days, when you were here in the forties and then they started to roll them out? Do you remember? Well, I’ll tell you one thing, you could go down to Rancho, I think it was after three or four o’clock in the morning, sit down and eat breakfast. Have anything you want as much as you want of it. Seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths. As much as you wanted. No charge. That would be wonderful. That’s the El Rancho. Yes. In fact the (unintelligible) would bend over backwards and ask you, “Don’t you wanna sweet roll?” “Don’t you want this?” You’d have ham and eggs, bacon and eggs, food of all kinds, anything you wanted. No charge. Yes. What they wanted you to do was stay in the casino, you know, to have people in there. Uh-huh. Because people do not go where there is nobody. Uh-huh. With an empty place, you take a look at an empty store and nobody walks in. Walk in that store, one or two people walk in, first thing you know those other people are walking in. That’s why they had shills. Because nobody would go to a table, a very few people would walk over to an UNLV University Libraries George Burns 14 empty table. But when they see people playing, they don’t know, even if they knew they were shills, lots of them knew they were shills. As long as there was somebody at the table, they walked over and played. Uh-huh. Otherwise they don’t play. They don’t even go into a store, in a restaurant it’s the same thing. I’ve been in the restaurant business for years. That is. I was, before I started wholesale. Mm-hm. And you take the Dixie, if it was empty. It could be empty for an hour but let one person walk in and the first thing you think somebody opened the gates and let everybody out. They’re all coming in. (Laughs) yes. The place gets jammed. Yes. Yes. Yes. People are funny that way. What other businesses have you been in in Las Vegas? You said you worked with the cheesecakes. I worked at the Silver Slipper. Yes. As a cook. Yes. Yes. For about two weeks. (Laughs) what happened? It’s simple. I worked the graveyard shift. I was all alone. UNLV University Libraries George Burns 15 Oh. That place would fill up. It was impossible for one man to run it. Oh dear. To do it. And the guy that had leased out was trying to get along with as little a payroll as he could. And he didn’t give a damn and I couldn’t take care of the customers. Impossible. And I was a nervous wreck. Yes. And I just got up and told him, don’t expect me here no more. What happened—the first gun permit in Las Vegas? That Sheriff Jones issued in Clark County. Yes. I carry right now. You, I showed it to you. Uh-huh. Yes. You did. Gun permit number one. Yes. That’s a registration. A gun registration. It was a Smith & Wesson .38/44 frame that I used on a police reserve in Los Angeles. Uh-huh. At that point you had got the permit because they at that time they asked you to get it or did you just get it? No. I just went up in to the sheriff’s office because in California you have to have, you have to register your gun. And I come up and I had no reason to worry about, you know, them knowing that I had a gun. So I went into the sheriff’s department and I said, “I have a gun I’d like to register.” And the deputy sheriff looked the gun over, checked it, took the number down and issued to me this permit. Which, as you saw, carries the number one. First permit that Sheriff Jones issued. UNLV University Libraries George Burns 16 Yes. Uh-huh. What was your biggest, this will be the last question, what was your biggest, biggest, impression of Las Vegas? Can you remember that, your big impression? I thought that was (unintelligible) Yes. the fact that you could walk down the street, from First Street at the Main Street, the Second Street, cross the street and go up the other side and walk back to Main Street. Then you’d meet everybody in town and everybody would say hello. And if the governor was in town, you’d meet him, too. And he would stop and talk to you if you said hello to him. And he said, hello to you. Nobody seemed to think that anybody was that important that, you know, they had to stick their nose up and not talk to you. Yes. I don’t know with this being interesting but I was in the Southern Nevada Memorial Hospital. I think I’d been operated on for a hernia operation. I was about to leave early in the morning and during the night they had brought in a man, around twelve o-clock at night. And when I got up in the morning, I said, “Hello,” to him. I was gonna leave anyway. And I said, “Hello,” to him. I said, “What’s your problem?” He says, “I slipped on a banana peel at McCarran Airport, in the men’s room.” Well, I figured he was just telling me to mind my own damn business. So, I shut up and got out. Well, about a year later or so, I don’t remember, exactly, I had got a visit from the sheriff’s office, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. I don’t remember the man’s name. At home I do have a letter from him. But anyway, he visited me, and he asked me if I could remember anything about what happened. And I explained to him, you know, that day, that I woke up, got washed, went over and asked the man, you know, trying to be friendly, and I told him just what the man told me. He said, “Did you know that that man died that night?” I says, “Impossible! The man wasn’t that sick. He didn’t have nothing that wrong with him.” He says, UNLV University Libraries George Burns 17 “Well, he died.” He says, “Do you remember who sat alongside, if they had any visitor?” And I said, “Yes. He had a man, at the time I talked to him, a man was sitting there talking to him, sitting alongside the bed.” He says, “Could you identify the man?” I says, “If I saw a picture of him, I could.” So, they showed me this picture and I says—they showed me several pictures and I picked out this man. I says, “This is the man that sat alongside of him.” “That’s right,” he says. “He’s being charged with killing him. He injected insulin into him and put him in insulin shock.” The man died that night. Well, months later I went to court and testified to the grand jury first and then the court, about the incident, what I saw, even gave ‘em, told ‘em where the drug, certain drugstore that they wanted to know, that was the City Drug, I think it was. Where it was located at that time, you know, a few years back. A couple years back. Which now was, you know, was different businesses in there. I got lots of other stories. Thank you for talking to me about Las Vegas and I certainly do appreciate it. Well, you’re welcome.