Joel Rooks was raised in Swampscott, Mass., in a Jewish family that owned a women’s retail clothing store. George Nathan Birnbaum grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family at 259 Rivington St., on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Birnbaum grew up, took the stage name George Burns and became a star of vaudeville, films and television.
Though Rooks always wanted a career in show business, there were no outlets for that energy in Swampscott. So, he took the traditional route: a role in the family business, marriage and children. But a divorce (amicable, he says) left him with time to fill. He joined a community theater group, re-discovered his passion and eventually moved to New York to pursue it.
Following stints on “Law & Order” and a few soap operas, in 2002, Rooks landed the role of understudy in the one-man Broadway show “Say Goodnight, Gracie,” in which Burns is portrayed. Rooks was a natural, and he’s been performing as Burns ever since — most recently at Manhattan’s St. Luke’s Theatre, which started a run of “Say Goodnight” in October. The Arty Semite spoke to Rooks about his transformation into one of America’s most beloved comedians, the reason for Burns’s undying popularity and his uncanny knack for storytelling:
Curt Schleier: How did you end up playing Burns?