Once, lunch and bridge at the Hillcrest meant sharing a table with the likes of Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers, Danny Kaye, Georgie Jessell, Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle and Danny Thomas, all trying to top each other's humor.
All but Berle have passed on now, and the mood at the club has changed.
"Sometimes if the situation comes up and can get a laugh, I go for it," Burns said, "But I get my laughs mostly in the theater now."
Has it been a strain being expected to be the quip-ready George Burns all the time?
"No, because I wasn't always George Burns. I had all kinds of names. I was Brown of Brown and Williams, then I was Williams of Williams and Brown, I was Davis of Davis and Harris, and Dunlap of Dunlap and Newman. In fact, I had to change my name every week. I couldn't get a job with the same name twice. Then when I met Gracie, I stuck to George Burns."
Indeed, before meeting up with Gracie Allen while in his 20s, Nathan Birnbaum (as Burns was born in New York City on Jan. 20) was far from a show biz success. He did dance acts, singing acts, comedy duos, seal acts, none of which clicked.
Then he met and married Allen, and his dry, cigar-slow calm amid the storm of her dizzy incomprehension was a comedic pairing that audiences found irresistible for 38 years, once they hit on it.
"It was really the audience that found Gracie's character," Burns said. "When I worked with Gracie, I was the comedian and I wrote the act. Well, I was the comedian for the first show, that's all. From then on Gracie became it.
"You see, Gracie was a dramatic Irish actress, and the audience fell in love with her. And if Gracie said something sarcastic the audience wouldn't accept it, but if she said something off-center, they loved it. So they found Gracie's character, and I found my character by saying to Gracie, 'How's your brother?' That's what I did and Gracie talked for 40 years."
Though a success on the stage, in films and in nearly two decades on radio, the duo's humor found its ideal niche in 1952 with TV's "The Burns and Allen Show." With its inspired, absurd (and never cruel) humor and Burn's reality-bending practice of stepping out of the action to talk to the audience (something he says he picked up from Thornton Wilder's "Our Town"), the show was a runaway hit, halted only by Allen's retirement due to cancer in 1958. It still is in popular syndication.
In his books Burns has wonderfully chronicled his love for Allen and their career together (specifically in "Gracie, A Love Story," though she figures in all his books) and anecdotes on his show biz cohorts (best collected in "All My Best Friends").
With "Wisdom of the 90s" being his ninth book, one might think Burns would be running out of anecdotes, but he's not worried: "Well, if this book sells, I'll make up some more memories."
"I don't write a book," he explained, "I \o7 talk\f7 a book. Hal and I sit and talk and my secretary takes it down. If it's funny, we put it in the book. If it isn't funny, we say my secretary wrote it."
He does have a remarkable recollection of his vaudeville days and other distant events.
"My memory is good if it happened 50 years ago, but I'm not interested in what I did yesterday. I'm only interested in what I'm doing today and what I'm going to do tomorrow."
According to Goldman, who has been with Burns for 12 years, "To the younger comics, show business isn't everything. For some, it seems only to be a means to an end, but to George it's his whole life."
Asked for the best wisdom in "Wisdom of the 90s," Burns said, "The most important idea is to fall in love with what you do for a living. That's terribly important. Here I am 95 years old, and I got up this morning with something to do that I love.
"If you love what you do for a living, it works. A lot of people work and hate what they do, but I love it. Even when I was a failure in show business, from age 7 to 24, I didn't think I was a failure. I loved what I was doing. I thought the audience was a flop, not me."
"Now they love me. I've been around for 1,000 years, so I walk out on the stage and everybody stands up, saying, 'How do you like that--he walks!' "
Who: George Burns in a benefit performance for the Children's Hospital of Orange County.
When: Tuesday, Nov. 19, at 8 p.m. With singer Julie Budd.
Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
Whereabouts: San Diego (405) Freeway to Bristol Street exit. North to Town Center Drive. (Center is one block east of South Coast Plaza.)
Wherewithal: $50 to $500.
Where to call: (714) 532-8690.