BOB "BAZOOKA" BURNS

Bazooka the Weapon on the WallHere we are at Granny's Kitchen on Center Street in Hot Springs. While waiting for the waitress to bring you your home-cooked meal, you can enjoy the military and aviation memorabilia collection dangling from the ceiling and hanging on the walls. Pay no attention to the surprised looking man in the foreground. Regard instead the shoulder-fired rocket launcher in the background.

That's a bazooka.

Bazooka the Weapon was invented in 1941 by an army officer named Skinner. In the late 1930's he took a Swiss-made shaped charge from an army warehouse and stuck it on the end of a rocket from a rocket-propelled grenade. He then stuffed that bomb-on-a-stick into a garden variety 60mm mortar tube, balanced the mortar tube on his shoulder and let 'er rip. The army was more impressed with this shoulder-fired rocket than it was with any of the anti-tank rifles being developed at the time, so Skinner's device was dubbed the M-1, and an improved version went into production as the M9A1.

At the time it wasn't known as a bazooka, but within a few months of its introduction, GI's in North Africa had named it after this musical instrument.Bazooka made by Bob Burns

Pictured here is the most original of bazookas, on display at the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in Pine Bluff. It is one of hundreds built by entertainer Bob Burns, and possibly the only one still intact, for Bob was finishing his act by destroying his instrument before any of the members of The Who were born.

The bazooka spans the musical gap between trombone and slide whistle. It's made from two nested lengths of gas pipe and a whiskey funnel. In the hands of a master it can poot across a range of about six notes.

Toy Bazooka from the 1930's is about a foot long.Don't mistake this for one of the many examples of toy bazookas, miniature tin replicas with kazoos set into the mouthpiece, which were marketed to America's young people at the height of Bob's popularity. Here's one of those toy bazookas on the right, photographed at the Bob Burns exhibit which is on display at the Van Buren Visitors Center, which is the old train station downtown.

Boyhood home of Robin BurnBob Burns (born Robin Burn) was a kid from Van Buren, one of those very bright underachievers, a multitalented average student. Here's the house on the northwest corner of 9th and Jefferson, the yard filled with sumac which almost hides the sign proclaiming this to be Bob Burns' boyhood home. Musically adept, at the age of sixteen he assembled the first bazooka as a novelty instrument for his own band. When the first World War broke out, Bob enlisted in the marines and took his (musical) bazooka with him to wile away the hours on the long overland trip to basic training. By the time he got to South Carolina, the attending sergeant was well-aware of Bob's talent and apprised his commanding officer. Bob was ordered to put together a Marine Corps jazz band and he managed to do a little soldiering on the side. He was a rifle instructor and champion marksman.

Bob's band was eventually shipped out to Europe. They got a note from Pershing himself that said in effect, "Go where you want, do what you want." They stretched their indulgence as far as they could, staying in France and playing gigs long after the war was over. Early BazookaEventually, their abuse of privelege came to the attention of officers of sufficient rank to order them stateside and home Bob went.

So Bob went into showbiz, and to make a long story short, became a huge star of stage, radio and screen. He was an entertainer that shared top billing with the likes of Bing Crosby and Tommy Dorsey, so he was a really big deal in his day. He was known as The Arkansas Traveler, and his stock in trade was country humor. Often in the movies he played a country rube that ended up outsmarting the city slickers.

The word "bazooka" was coined by Burns himself as an onomatopoeic description of the sound made by the instrument. In a letter from lexicographer Thomas K. Brown of publisher John C. Winston & Co. (on display in the train station in Van Buren), Brown thanks Burns for confirming that the word "bazooka" was derived from "bazoo," a slang term for "a windy fellow." Yeah, right, politely speaking. If you believe that literally, you've got naivete out the bazoo.

I encountered some difficulty locally in researching Bob Burns. As famous as he was, there is no Bob Burns file at the Arkansas History Commission. A biography of Burns in the Van Buren Press Argus was obtuse and confusing. There is a Bob Burns exhibit at the Van Buren Visitors Center, but when I tried to get copies of photos and articles I was told by Marjory Armstrong that she would have to check with the Burns family first. She said they were concerned about Bob's image. At first I took the word "image" to mean graphic image, but upon reflection it seems they meant to guard his reputation. Ms. Armstrong never got back to me and whatever it was that the family didn't want me to discover, I didn't discover it.

While under contract to Paramount, Burns refused to take a role in a film that he thought ridiculed Arkansans. Bob shortly thereafter went into real estate and established "Bazooka-Berk," a model farm on which he raised prize Berkshire swine. If you want to change your job description from "movie star" to "pig farmer," showing the studio boss that you've got a backbone is a good way to make that happen. And it's just barely likely that some sort of whispering campaign or rumor mongering was a way to insure that a gentleman such as Bob never worked in THAT town again. Perhaps the family's concern over Bob's image is related to the gesture that ended his career.

Visit the Bob Burns exhibit in the train station in the historic district of downtown Van Buren.

RTJ--5/18/2000

revised: RTJ--3/3/2001


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