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Abe Burrows, Broadway’s Wit of Many Talents, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Abe Burrows, a bespectacled accountant whose witty love for words led him to a career as a pioneering radio writer and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Broadway musicals, has died at his home in New York, it was announced Saturday. He was 74.

Burrows, who according to his grandson, Nick Grad, suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, died Friday night.

During his show business career, which spanned four decades, Burrows gained renown for a myriad of talents. He was a comic, a songwriter, an author, a singer, a director, a game show panelist, a playwright.

His first playwrighting attempt, “Guys and Dolls"--written with Jo Swerling--won a Tony award for the best musical show of 1950-51 and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Two years later, he wrote and directed “Can-Can,” and in 1961 he directed “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

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“How to Succeed,” written by Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Tying all of Burrows’ roles together was a gifted wit, displayed in whatever form was appropriate--one-liners, satire, cheery self-deprecation, oddball absurdity.

Reality intruded abruptly in the early 1950s, when witnesses told the House Un-American Activities Committee--then investigating show business figures--that Burrows was a member of the Communist Party. Burrows told the committee that he had associated with Communist Party members at meetings and parties but had never joined.

“I have a stubborn pride in that I never took the final step,” he said.

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There was little in his youth to foreshadow Burrows’ comedic flair. Born Abram Solman Borowitz on Dec. 18, 1910, he graduated from New York University with a degree in accounting in 1932.

Afterward, he went to work for a Wall Street brokerage firm and stayed long enough, he said, to learn one rule: “Always assume everything’s wrong.”

That career ended in his firing and forced him into consecutive jobs with his father’s wallpaper-paint business, as a maple-syrup salesman and as a seller of woven labels for garments.

Having gained some recognition as comic along the way, he began in the late 1930s to write for radio shows, including “This Is New York.” Later, he created characters for and served as head writer of the radio program “Duffy’s Tavern.”

Working in both New York and Hollywood, he ventured into satirical songwriting, improvising songs that played on the mawkishness of serious writers: “The Girl With the Three Blue Eyes,” “I’m Walking Down Memory Lane Without a Thing to Remember” and “Darling, Why Shouldn’t You Look Well-Fed, ‘Cause You Ate Up a Hunk of My Heart?”

In 1947, CBS radio executives gambled and made Burrows a performer. During an 11-month run, the Abe Burrows Show won audience acclaim and the Radio Critics Award as best show of the year.

Then it was on to Broadway. After the immediate success of “Guys and Dolls,” Burrows wrote or directed nearly a score of plays during the next 20 years, including “Two on the Aisle,” “Three Wishes for Jamie,” “Silk Stockings,” “What Makes Sammy Run,” “Cactus Flower,” “Forty Carats” and “No Hard Feelings.”

In addition to his official works, Burrows received praise, if not due credit, for his frequent “doctoring” of ailing plays by other writers.

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In 1980, Burrows compiled decades of entertainment industry stories into a memoir entitled “Honest Abe.”

Burrows is survived by his wife of 34 years, Carin, and two children from his first marriage, James Burrows, director and producer of the hit television comedy “Cheers,” and cookbook author Laurie Burrows Grad. Funeral arrangements were pending.


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