Burb's Eye View: They're planting the seeds of imagination

Arts and CultureRick BakerDennis MurenAcademy AwardsJohn Landis

At the end of “Return of the Jedi,” the light saber duel ends badly for Darth Vader when his own son slices his hand off. The appendage, still gripping Vader's weapon, tumbles freely through the Death Star's bowels, onward through the space station's core to eventually land safely in the Burbank basement of Bob and Kathy Burns.

There it joined the original set pieces from “Alien and Aliens” and the title monster from “An American Werewolf in London.” Perhaps the weightiest piece in the couple's collection is one of its smallest: the original metal ape skeleton of “King Kong.”

To understand the Burns' effect on movie history and their influence on the many Oscar-winning movie artists who recently gathered in L.A. to pay this couple a grand tribute, you must first understand Bob and Kathy Burns. At the center of the rubber-and-foam SciFi and Fantasy memorabilia bursting to the walls of their unassuming Burbank home is a grander story.

Theirs is a love story.

Bob sat behind Kathy in class one summer at Burbank High School. He was taking classes to graduate early; she was there because she was bored. It was 1953.

Their first date was at Bob's Big Boy. Afterward they took in a movie, “The Charge at Feather River,” a 3-D western that Bob had already seen. When the big fight scene erupted between the cowboys and Indians, shooting arrows straight at the audience, one appeared to have hit Bob right in the chest. His prank caused such a ruckus in the theater that he had to hide the arrow back up his sleeve, and they left the movie early.

“The arrow was a make-or-break-the-date sort of thing,” Bob said.

That's why, once they escaped the screaming moviegoers and scuttled past the police officers who were called to the theater for a report of a man shot with an arrow, Kathy agreed to an eventual second date.

“I said, ‘That guy's got imagination,'” she recalled.

Bob and Kathy have a healthy respect for imagination. They try to plant it like a seed in the people they meet with that special spark. They've done it for guys like Dennis Muren, John Landis, and many more special effects artists responsible for much of Hollywood's movie magic over the past 50 years.

When a 13-year-old Rick Baker first met Bob, the Burns name was already known in monster-movie circles. Bob really learned effects makeup in the Army, creating fake wounds on soldiers for training exercises. He showed Baker how to make a gash on an arm, and when the two met a week later, the teen had re-created it — but better.

Baker would go on to win seven Oscars, and even more nominations.

The rarest of Baker's creations still live in the Burns' basement, along with the head from “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” the original space jockey from “Alien,” and several Gremlins.

The Burnses have only ever paid for one thing in their collection: the original 1960 Time Machine, which they bought from a dealer for $1,000. The rest is given to them by directors and producers who know their precious art will have a home in Burbank.

That's what the Burns' collection is about: the art and the artists.

“To me at least, this is as important as anything in the Louvre,” Bob said.

They are quick to offer credit where credit is due. Bob even wrote a book, “Monster Kid Memories,” to make sure a record was kept of the crews who in cinema's early days pioneered monster mayhem.

Bob and Kathy both held jobs in the TV and film industries, but it was Bob's work in the gorilla suit that really got him noticed by the monster-movie world.

It began just for fun. There weren't any gorilla suit patterns out there, so Kathy made one using a clown costume. But when Bob puts it on he becomes the gorilla — it even landed him a role on the 1975 TV show, “The Ghost Busters.”

To honor the couple, friends Frank Dietz and Trish Geiger made a documentary about them last year. At the movie's premiere earlier this month, friends and artists and movie fans filled the theater. Kathy was gracious as she received guests in a bright green frock; Bob joked in a sensible brown suit and matching tie that he would have felt more comfortable in a different kind of monkey suit.

What followed was “Beast Wishes: The Fantastic World of Bob and Kathy Burns,” a part-homage part-history that told the couple's story by those who were most touched by it. “Beast Wishes” will be available on DVD next month at www.benmonsterfilms.com.

“If Bob and Kathy didn't exist, the world would have to invent them but it wouldn't do nearly as good a job,” said makeup artist John Goodwin.

Bob and Kathy became a foster mom and dad who are proud to put their kids' work on the fridge and show all their friends. The work just happens to be UFOs and werewolf heads.

“If you can respect someone's imagination, you can get along with anyone,” Kathy said.

BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he's not firing up his time machine, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter @818NewGuy.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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