Frances Burns: 'You couldn’t ask for a better soulmate'

by John Moore | Feb 01, 2017
Remembering Frances Burns

A look back at Frances Burns onstage. To see more photos, click the forward arrow on the image above. Most photos by Bill Cotton for Bas Bleu Theatre Company.


Dr. Morris Burns still remembers the fetching girl in the blue skirt and white blouse who breezed into the room to audition for a play he was directing for a Kansas school group in 1963. It was a light comedy written by the parents of Nora Ephron called Take Her, She’s Mine.

And not long after, he took her. She was his.  

Frances Burns QuoteMorris and Frances Burns made theatre, memories and a family together for the next 51 years as part of the foundation of the Fort Collins theatre community.

“You couldn’t ask for a better soulmate,” Morris Burns said after Frances died Tuesday at age 74, ending a spirited, 3½-year battle with colon cancer. Despite the toll cancer took on Frances, she liked to say, “I live on the corner of Happy and Healthy” - and she went about her daily business with commensurate positivity.

Burns was happy to be known as a librarian, wife, traveler, mother and late-in-life grandmother who moved to Fort Collins in 1970 when her husband was hired to teach theatre at Colorado State University. But she was also a gifted actor with raw instincts and a particular acumen for monologues. Something about the art of communicating a character’s compressed journey suited the particular talents of a woman who was so busy living life, she never seemed have much time to waste.

Her impressive credits spanned The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Gin Game, Death of a Salesman, Bernice/Butterfly and Well. She and her husband performed Love Letters at the Bas Bleu Theatre every year for seven years as a kind of love letter to each other.

But the role she most loved, and the role she was most celebrated for, was playing Virginia in Jeffrey Hatcher’s Three Viewings. That’s a series of eulogies Burns first performed for Bas Bleu in 2002 under the direction of Terry Dodd, who died in October. Virginia is a naive housewife who is shocked to find herself indebted Frances Burns Three Viewingsto the mob after her husband's passing. The play, ironically, is meant to show the profound impact that death has upon the living. 

Burns often reprised the role with Bas Bleu founder Wendy Ishii in competitions and special events through 2010. The original production garnered eight awards at the 2002 Colorado Community Theatre Coalition Festival, including best production. Burns was named Best Actress. 

"Bas Bleu's production is the nearly perfect marriage of director, cast and material,” I wrote in my 2002 review for The Denver Post. “Frances Burns pulls off a subtle miracle, somehow making sure the audience leaves with a smile. I've been looking for my jaw. I think I left it on the floor of the Fort Collins theatre.” 

Morris Burns said it was advice from Dodd that helped his wife solve the challenge of playing Virginia.

“She was really struggling at first,” Morris said. “And then Terry told her, ‘All you have to do is tell her story, beat by beat.’ She said that really spoke to her, and that allowed her to really sink her teeth into the role.” In later years, Burns would run Virginia’s lines at night whenever she needed to ward off insomnia.

(Pictured above and right: Frances Burns, seated, with Wendy Ishii and David Siever in Bas Bleu Theatre's 'Three Viewings' in 2002.)

Frances Barry was born May 10, 1942, in Merriam, Kan. - and anyone with an appreciation for The Music Man can appreciate the delicious joke: Frances was a librarian not named Marian but from Merriam. She graduated from Mount Saint Scholastica College, later known as Benedictine College, in Atchison.

When Morris Burns’ production of Take Her, She’s Mine ended, he realized he might never see Frances again. So he asked his future wife on a date, and he made it count: They drove 120 miles to see a production of The Glass Menagerie at the Jewish Community Center in Denver.

Frances Burns. The Gin Game.The Burnses had four children, all sons: David, Joel, Aaron and Nathan. That doomed Frances, Morris said, to a lifetime of baseball. “She couldn’t escape it,” he said. Being from Kansas, Frances loved the Royals. Being from Chicago, Morris loved the Cubs. Frances found it deeply satisfying, Morris said, that Kansas City and Chicago won the final two World Series of her lifetime.

(Pictured above: Frances Burns in Bas Bleu's 'The Gin Game.')

But her love for the game actually goes back to her hometown of Shawnee, Kan.  For her 16th birthday, Frances’ mom arranged for her daughter to get a call from her favorite player: Harry Leon "Suitcase" Simpson of the Kansas City Athletics.

Burns enjoyed snowshoeing, globetrotting, tap dancing and hiking Golden Gate Canyon State Park – after she was diagnosed with cancer in 2013. Burns took on the disease with a seemingly endless supply of stamina, endurance and energy. “Never once in 3½ years was there one complaint,” Morris said.

Frances Burns Morris BurnsFrances had a pronounced affection for numbers, which was ironic given that it was her struggles with calculus that made her decide to pursue English as her college major. But friends and family know well that Burns received 79 chemo treatments during her cancer battle. They know this because she sent out cheerful reports after every one of them, always drawing significance from the number. Chemo No. 33, for example, was an opportunity to talk up her second-favorite former Colorado Rockies player, Larry Walker. (“Larry Walker was her first love,” Morris said, “but Dexter Fowler was her true love.”)

“Superstitious?” she wrote. “You bet. “He wore 33, he took at least 3 swings of the bat before he hit it, and was married on Nov. 3 at 3:33 p.m.”

Her thoughts on the No. 42 told you just about everything you needed to know about who Burns was as a person. The number 42, she wrote, was:

  • The atomic number for molybdenum
  • The Gutenberg Bible was known as the 42-line Bible
  • The answer to the question about life in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
  • The number of generations in Matthew's version of the genealogy of Jesus
  • The name of a song on a Coldplay album
  • The number of eyes in a deck of cards
  • A prominent number in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
  • The number of U.S. gallons in a barrel of oil
  • Bill Clinton was the 42nd President of the United States
  • 42nd Street is a popular New York City thoroughfare
  • The number for famed baseball player Jackie Robinson

“But the real significance of 42 is the year 1942, when I and my classmates and many friends were born,” she wrote. “As we all approach our 73rd birthdays, this is cause for joy, partying and explosive celebration!”

Rarely did these reports more than mention the rigors of her actual chemo treatments, which would sometimes take up 50 hours of her weeks. Instead, her missives turned into family updates, book recommendations and spiritual bouquets that uplifted anyone on the receiving end. To Frances, no matter the time of year, spring training was always right around the corner.

Being on the mailing list gave you a window into Burns’ world. Her readers learned that she was a fan of Barry Manilow and Tony Bennett. That her best medicine was a PBS special on Victor Borge. “I know he was silly to the point of being utterly ridiculous sometimes, but I loved the man,” she wrote. “He was funny, happy and a genius. I laughed all afternoon.”  

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You learned all about her affection for her children, extended family and three grandchildren. You learned that a 10-year tradition was taking the entire family to Georgetown for a fall getaway. That her sister lived in a real town called Peculiar, Mo. That she and her husband entertained friends by riffing on Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon’s famous Carnac the Magnificent comedy routine, where Carson offers answers to questions in sealed envelopes. That everyone should read Bill Bryson's One Summer: America 1927, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. That her favorite films were Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.

Frances Burns in Bas Bleu's 'Well.' Photo by William Cotten.It didn’t take much for Burns to find joy and hope in the most mundane of everyday inspirations. “Our Christmas tree was picked up for recycling,” she wrote, “and soon it will become mulch for spring gardening.”

She opened one chemo report with the salutation: “What a stupendous infusion I am having!”

It was that affection for life, Morris said, that surely prompted her hospice nurses in Fort Collins to tell Morris, upon Frances’ death: “She taught us how to live … and she taught us how to die.”

Frances Burns is survived by her husband and four sons - David, Joel, Aaron and Nathan. Also daughters-in-law Regan Flanigan (wife of Joel, mother of Madden and Declan) and Liz Burns (wife of Nathan, mother of Miller) and a large extended family including sisters Connie (of Peculiar, Mo.) and Marianne (of Winnipeg).

There will be a funeral mass at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 11, at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church, 5450 S. Lemay Ave., in Fort Collins. A reception will follow.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Burns family photo courtesy of Morris Burns. Burns family photo courtesy of Morris Burns.

Video: In honor of Frances Burns:

One of Frances Burns' favorite comedy routines was Madeline Kahn singing her Marlene Dietrich parody, "I’m Tired.”

26 comments

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  1. Andrew Stephen | Feb 20, 2017

    Dear Dr Burns,

    I'm sorry that your wife has passed away.  She sounds like a lovely lady and wonderful partner - you two must have had years and years of fun together.

    I'm also sure that there have been hard times - especially being a caregiver which can be exceptionally tasking but is just what you do for the one you love. 

    Love and loss both take time and I hope you are taking your time to grieve and recover.  Hope you're doing well.

    Sincerely,

    Your former student

  2. Mary Kaye Shobe | Feb 18, 2017
    What a warm and encouraging tribute! I felt such a sweet intimacy reading about this charming woman from my home state, Kansas. Even though she was not a Jayhawk, she is a role model for me, another woman on "a road trip with cancer."
  3. Margarita Lenk | Feb 11, 2017

    What an amazing tribute, and I am honored to have been part of your daily lives for the years we lived across the street from each other on Essex Court! You and Frances mentored me in so many ways, and for that I will be forever grateful!  Plus the fun we had with the boys as they were growing up was fantastic!

    Big, big hugs to you, Morris and the boys and their families. 

    so much love, Margarita Lenk

  4. Loretta Gueguen Broker | Feb 10, 2017

    Dear, dear Morrie,

    What a wonderful tribute to your amazing wife.  I was lucky enough to be one of her roomies at the Mount for Jr-Sr. years, AND also had a part in "Take Her, She's Mine", with you as Director. We shared so many happy, crazy memories in the Theatre Dept. and with our class of 1964 Mounties ending with our spectacular 50th College Reunion celebration.  SO GLAD you two made it. I've loved reading all of her updates, and have been so inspired by her courage.

    I, along with many of her Mountie sisters, will be with you in spirit at her funeral.

    I know she's resting in peace and pray for your peace and comfort in these long days ahead for you and your precious family. She will be greatly missed.

  5. Barbara Flanigan | Feb 09, 2017

    Oh Joel and my dear Regan,

    how I wish I had known Frances! What a beautiful tribute! Such a well-lived life.

    my sincerest and deepest sympathy,

    Much love,

    Aunt Barbara

  6. Bonnie Jean Duprey | Feb 08, 2017
    I first met Frances Burns at a Halloween Party, 1977, The Green Room at Colorado State University where I was a matriculating student.  Frances blushed easily, her eyes laughed with secrets, then she'd drop the bomb of her message and her timing was unmatched.  On this particular day Frances was dressed as a little old lady, with a polished and forceful German accent and she went around to the students "I'm Dr. Ruth, the Sex Therapist, ask me ANYTHING."  Her wild sense of humor and zest for life seemed to permeate everything she did.  Frances was always a giver, she shared her deep abiding faith for God, her love of family, along with travel stories, books to read, exciting new things in the theatre and sports world.  She opened her heart and her home to me at that time and that door never closed.  I feel fortunate to have known Frances Burns, whose life touched and healed so many others.  She will be deeply missed.
  7. Brian Holzworth | Feb 07, 2017

    I had the privilege of working with this amazing woman at the Fort Collins Public Library while studying theater under Morris at CSU. Two people I will never, ever forget. Both of them have impacted my life profoundly.

    My deepest sympathies to the Burns family for a loss that came all to soon.

    Rest in peace Frances. You earned it. The world is a less colorful place without you.

  8. Connie Kidd | Feb 07, 2017
    I had the privilege of calling Frances my younger sister for 74 years.  Now this tribute captures her just as she was.  Of course we will all miss her but we can carry her legacy with us, as she touched each of us in a different way, until we are with her again.  This tribute I will cherish forever.
  9. Vonalda Utterback | Feb 07, 2017
    I did not have the pleasure of meeting Frances, but I feel I know her now.  A life so well lived. Thank you for writing such a beautiful tribute, John.
  10. kEN,cHESHER | Feb 07, 2017
    The Burns family were our neighbors for over 30 years.  They were most considerate, thoughtful and friendly.  Frances was a great  Mom and wife. She was committed to her Family.  Her kids and Morris respected her highly.  The  kids were always kind and considerate to me and my wife Gwen.   May God's love,strength and grace strengthen you during this time loss.  In Christ Love,   Ken & Gloria Chesher 
  11. Bob Braddy | Feb 06, 2017
    Thank you, John, for writing such a wonderful eulogy to Frances.  You have absolutely captured the spirit, the depth and humor of the lady and laid it out for us to remember her as she was.  You have made her memory concrete; a thing we can take with us as we move on from this time.  Thank you.
  12. Lindsay and Fred Morgan | Feb 06, 2017

    Oh, Frances (with an "e") what an inspiration and example you were and, in our minds, will always be. We were cul de sac neighbors for many, many years and we never saw a sad face. She lived life with a gusto that made me want to take a nap. She was definitely a person to admire for her creative talents and her decision to say, "YES", to Morris made for the perfect couple. She was a model of strength and she showed us the way to make even a terminal disease a mountain to climb with a positive attitude. Admirable is the word. She left an indelible impression on all of our lives and we are so thankful for being a part of the Burn's Family's journey. Thank you, John Moore, for this beautiful tribute. 

  13. Elizabeth Elliott | Feb 06, 2017
    I left comments after each note from Fran and in so doing feel I went along  on her journey and learned how it should be done, though "should" was not a part of how she approached life. "Just do it" is more like it. And Boy Did She. Missing you and caring for your loving family and friends, Elizabeth.
  14. Linda Ropes | Feb 06, 2017
    Dear Fran was indeed a great actress, and she was a wonderful, supportive friends.  There is now a big hole in my universe.  How sad to lose her, but also how wonderful that she lived to the hilt until the end.
  15. Renee Emmitt | Feb 05, 2017

    Frances and Morris and I were "chemo buddies"..I had chemo every Monday and refused to change my day ..ever... because I didn't want to miss my dear ,new, incredibly special, friends. From the first day when we spent our infusion time together and talked in the waiting room, I felt that they were somehow "family". 

    Morris , such a tender caregiver..writing  down in his "Frances notebook" every detail of her medical statistics" ..sharing every moment with a sweet smile..taught me what it is to really love. 

    Frances gave me strength that I will carry forward..You taught me how to "do cancer" with a positive outlook grabbing every second with as much gusto as I can muster..

    I will miss you, Frances .

  16. Tiffani Davis | Feb 03, 2017
    I haven't know Frances long. I just started dating Aaron, her son, in July and have fallen deeply in love with him and his wonderful family. I was so happy to be able to spend some quality moments with them both. I felt so complemented when Frances approved of my cooking, Veg lasagna and at Thanksgiving a special award-winning apple pie with amaretto she won an award for making from May D&F. I felt so proud i could make that for her last Thanksgiving. Frances was one very amazing lady!
  17. Bill Cotton | Feb 03, 2017
    Thank you for the tribute John! Frances was always a joy to photograph playing her roles.
  18. Mary Seaman | Feb 03, 2017
    There has never been a kinder, more generous, or more noble soul than Frances Burns.  Our hearts ache for all of you.  Love, Ken and Mary Seaman
  19. Chjip Winn Wells | Feb 03, 2017

    Frances and I shared the role of Bernice in Bernice/Butterfly and during rehearsals, I stayed with the Burns family in Fort Collins. What a trip !! We'd laugh and get sentimental over "the old dishes" and admire the Cubs shrine in the den.

    Both Frances and I married Die Hard Cubs Fans who would call each other and discuss trades, missed fly balls, and "next year." Though we live 200 miles from Morris and Frances, we proudly call both of them close friends.

    Frances made me laugh. Those summer mornings in Fort Collins were the best. Forever grateful to have worked the same diner.

  20. Tricia Navarre | Feb 02, 2017
    What a beautiful tribute, John.  Thank you for sharing Frances with so many who never had the privilege of meeting and knowing her.  She lit up a room whenever she walked in, was a kind, compassionate and gentle soul.  She was a beautiful spirit and we will miss her so very much.  
  21. Melba Reuth | Feb 02, 2017

    A wonderful tribute.  She will be missed.

  22. David Siever | Feb 02, 2017
    I had the privilege of acting with Fran in Three Viewings at Bas Bleu.  I can add nothing more to this lovely tribute, except to say that I had known Fran and Morris before Three Viewings, but it was this show that brought us together as friends ... dinners, lunches, theater discussions, and laughter.  I will miss her so much!
  23. Flo Wagner | Feb 02, 2017
    I haven't known Frances and Morris that long, but there is something so special about both of them - they immediately made you feel like family.  I feel blessed to have had many conversation with Frances about the theatre, her sons and of course, Morris.  She will be terribly missed, but I am sure she is a star in heaven and has already organized a theatre group.  
  24. Barbara Sullivan | Feb 02, 2017

    A most fitting tribute to am amazing woman.  I always looked forward to spending time with Frances and Morris.  It was like having our own entertainment package.  The dinners after attending a play at the Cherry Creek theatre were the most enjoyable part of the evening.

    She will be missed by so many! A true legacy to her children and grandchildren..

    A privilege to have spent time with Frances and Morris.  Our love and condolences to you, Morris.  You are both a honest example of how life is to be lived and loved.

  25. Kate Forgach | Feb 02, 2017
    Frances was the heart of any show in which she was involved, making sure everyone was part of the theatrical family. She welcomed this reviewer into that family with nary a qualm. Frances also was a dang-fine librarian! 
  26. Joe Geist | Feb 02, 2017

    What a glorious tribute.  She is worthy of every word.

    Thank you for putting Fran in this great spotlight.

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    Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

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