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.
Morris 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 to 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.
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 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.
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.
Video: In honor of Frances Burns:
Burns family photo courtesy of Morris Burns.
One of Frances Burns' favorite comedy routines was Madeline Kahn singing her Marlene Dietrich parody, "I’m Tired.”