Burl Ives was an Academy Award-winning actor, a musician, a composer, folk signer, and author. More than eleven years after his death, millions of younger Americans who do not know his name or movie roles nevertheless cannot avoid hearing his voice on radio every Christmas season singing Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, Holly Jolly Christmas, and other holiday classics.
He was born June 14, 1909 one of six children of Scots-Irish heritage. They all lived on a farm in Hunt City Township of Jasper County in southeast Illinois. Then as now, Hunt City Township was one of the most rural townships in Illinois. Today there are fewer than 400 residents in 128 housing units in thirty-six square miles.
A local official once said "Hunt City Township is not near anything." But if it were near a larger place, that place would likely be Effingham to the northwest if you first went through Newton. In high school Burl played football and played the guitar. He graduated from Newton High School in 1927 and enrolled at Eastern Illinois Teacher's College at Charleston where he also played football and guitar. The school is now called Eastern Illinois University and Ives is one of the school's most famous alumni.
According to legend, Burl Ives was encourated by the president of the college, Livingston C. Lord, to leave the study of teaching to pursue his music after his junior year. Since his grades were mediocre at best and since he had been caught red-handed and intoxicated in a panty raid on the women's dorm at Pemberton Hall, Ives saw that the president was offering him sound advice. He left Charleston in 1930 for New York to hang out at the Julliard School and try his hand at auditions for Broadway shows. He also became a friend of Woodie Guthrie and became interested in folk music. By the late thirties he was one of the early members of a later more famous folk group called The Weavers.
In 1940, Ives was hired by CBS Radio to star in his own show called The Wayfaring Stranger. The show enabled him to showcase many ballads and folk songs he had collected during the Depression. Over the years he recorded 30 albums for Decca. His all-time best hit was Blue Tail Fly. Another one of his most popular recordings in the fifties was The Big Rock Candy Mountain.
The second profession of Burl Ives was acting. He made his debut on Broadway in 1938 in The Boys from Syracuse. He also had his own musical review in 1944 called Sing Out, Sweet Land and appeared in Paint Your Wagon and as Big Daddy in the stage version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. That same role would be his most memorable role in the movie version of the Tennessee Williams play with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. Click here to see a summary of his work on Broadway.
Burl Ives hit his stride in movies in the middle and late 1950s. His major starring roles included films such as East of Eden (1955), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and Our Man in Havana (1959). His performance won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Big Country (1958). Ives made about thirty films in all and many television shows. Click here to see his page on the Internet Movie Database.
In about 1990 at the age of 80, Burl Ives retired with his second wife to a home in Anacortes, Washington. He had three children with his second wife and one with his first wife. Burl Ives died at the age of 85 on April 14, 1995 in Anacortes. His body was flown back to Illinois to be buried in the Mounds Church cemetery in Holt City Towship with members of his family from Jasper County.