"Ives's voice…had the sheen and finesse of opera without its latter-day Puccinian vulgarities and without the pretensions of operatic ritual. It was genteel in expressive impact without being genteel in social conformity. And it moved people."
John Rockwell[src]

Burl Ives (June 14, 1909April 14, 1995) was an Academy Award–winning actor, author, and renowned folk singer. After dropping out of school at an early age, he roamed the countryside looking for work as a singer. He eventually found work in New York City, both as a singer and an actor. After missing out on most of World War II, Ives began his career in film.

However, in the 1950s, Ives was branded as a Communist. To avoid blacklisting, and in an attempt to return to work, Ives named names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which earned him the ire of his colleagues. Nevertheless, Ives established a strong presence for himself on the screen, and was directed to an Academy Award by William Wyler for his work in The Big Country.

Ives was also known for his voice work. In 1964, he voiced Sam the Snowman in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and in 1984 he narrated John Korty's Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure. On passing in 1995 due to oral cancer, Ives was survived by his second wife, Dorothy, and his children.


Early lifeEdit

"There wasn't any beginning."
―Burl Ives on when he first started singing[src]

Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives[2] was born in Hunt City Township in Jasper County, Illinois, on June 14, 1909;[1][4] the youngest of six children.[5] His father was a tenant farmer and the family moved often during his childhood. Ives and his siblings were introduced to music early in life. During his youth, his mother loved singing,[6] and Ives was taught myriad songs by his grandmother. He began performing those songs in public for twenty-five cents to help support his family,[5] starting at age four with a performance for a veterans reunion.[6] He soon learned how to play guitar and banjo to accompany his vocals.[7] Ives was a member of the Lone Scouts of America, an organization that aimed to teach self-reliance and respect through the study of American Indian tradition. That organization was incorporated into the Boy Scouts of America in 1924 and Ives later spent a great deal of time supporting the Boy Scouts.[8]

Ives went to school in Hunt City, Illinois.[6] In high school, he played American football, and when he went on to Eastern Illinois State Teacher's College in 1927, he joined the school's team and planned to become a coach. However, while listening to a lecture on Beowulf one day in his junior year,[5] he came to the conclusion he was not learning anything of value and dropped out, leaving the class then and there.[9] He then roamed the country to pursue a musical career,[1] earning the nickname "The Wayfaring Stranger," which he went on to use for his shows, albums and autobiographies.[7]

Early careerEdit

Young Ives

The Vagabond Lover

Ives traveled the county and performed songs wherever possible, supporting himself by working on riverboats and other odd jobs.[6] In his travels, during which he called himself "Burl Ives, the Vagabond Lover,"[5] he endured many hardships. In Mona, Utah, he was jailed for singing a banned song: "Foggy Foggy Dew." In 1931, he took up residence in Indiana, where he not only got a job at WBOW radio, but returned to school, at Indiana State Teachers College.[9] Ives took voice lessons from Madame Clara Lyon in Terra Haute, Indiana.[6] In 1937, he took up residence in New York,[1] where he attended the Juilliard School and the New York University School of Music. He sang in Greenwich Village cafes and performed in stock acting companies while simultaneously continuing his voice training with Ella Toedt and taking acting lessons from Benno Schneider.[6][7]

In 1938, Ives appeared in the Broadway musical The Boys from Syracuse. Making a living by singing in clubs,[1] Ives performed on the CBS radio show Forecast,[6] which led to the network granting him his own radio program, The Wayfaring Stranger, starting in 1940.[1] He was able to popularize several songs during that period, notably "Lavender Blue," "Foggy Foggy Dew," "Blue Tail Fly," and "Big Rock Candy Mountain." During this time he also continued his Broadway career with Heavenly Express in 1940,[9] and performed at the well-regarded Village Vanguard club in Greenwich Village.[6] Ives was drafted into the army for World War II in 1942, and in the following year he appeared in Irving Berlin's This is the Army, a musical production aimed at raising troop morale.[5] He also made recordings for the United States Office of War Information and briefly hosted a radio show called G.I. Jive, which played at military outposts overseas.[6] Later in 1943, he was discharged due to medical concerns,[5] after which he continued his entertainer career by hosting another CBS radio program from from 1943 to 1944. He appeared in the Broadway folk music revue Sing Out, Sweet Land! in 1944,[6] which earned him a Donaldson Award.[7] During that time he also recorded a handful of songs for minor commercial label companies such as "Mule Train" and "Ghost Riders in the Sky."[6] In 1945, he married a scriptwriter, Helen Peck Ehrich, with whom he adopted a son named Alexander.[10]

McCarthy eraEdit

"You know who my friends are; you will have to ask them if they are Communists."
―Burl Ives[src]

Following the war's conclusion in 1945, Ives was signed to a minor label, Stinson, before moving to Decca,[2] which was familiar with Ives from producing the Sing Out, Sweet Land! soundtrack.[7] He made his screen debut as "Willie" in Louis King's Smoky, the second film adaptation of Will James' horse story, which was released in 1946.[11] From 1946 to 1948 he again hosted another radio show, called The Burl Ives Show, for the Mutual Broadcasting System.[6][7] Ives continued to perform regularly in nightclubs during that time.[7] In 1948 he appeared in two Western films, Green Grass of Wyoming and Station West, and the Walt Disney Pictures family film So Dear to My Heart, in which he sang the songs "Billy Boy" and "Lavender Blue."[6] So Dear to My Heart proved to be Ives' breakthrough film performance,[7] and "Lavender Blue" became his first chart hit.[2] Ives wrote his first book in 1948, an autobiography called The Wayfaring Stranger.[9] In 1949, he appeared in the Broadway comedy She Stoops to Conquer.[6] Following that success, he moved to Columbia Records, where he continued to flourish in the industry. Despite his success at Columbia, Ives eventually returned to Decca, where he continued to have successive hits.[2]

Red Channels

The Red Channels pamphlet endangered Ives's career.

Ives initially displayed liberal political convictions and was a member of Hollywood Fights Back, a movement by entertainers in the late 1940s to counter the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee in identifying Communists in the entertainment industry.[6] Ives was listed as being a member of a left-wing group in the Red Channels pamphlet, and was blacklisted by the government until he stood before the House Un-American Activities Committee and convinced them otherwise. In the process, he named names and labeled several of his colleagues as Communists. That act allowed Ives to continue his work in the industry, and he went on to work in both the music industry and the film industry,[1] although he was accused of betraying his colleagues and political beliefs to save his career.[6]

Ives' popularity as a singer grew with that of the rising popularity of folk music following World War II, which led him to record several songs such as "The Cowboy's Lament," "Hush Little Baby," "John Henry," "Noah Found Grace in the Eyes of the Lord," "On Top of Old Smoky," and "Sweet Betsy From Pike." He also recorded more than 120 songs for Historical America in Song, a six-album collection released by Encyclopædia Britannica Films. In 1950, Ives starred with Audie Murphy in the Western film Sierra.[6] He also continued to appear in several notable New York theater roles throughout the decade, including Show Boat and Paint Your Wagon, the latter of which led to him starring in the national tour from 1952 to 1953.[7] In 1953, Ives composed two new song books: the Burl Ives Song Book,[12] which included 115 folk songs, and Burl Ives' Sea Songs of Sailing, Whaling and Fishing, which included 68 songs.[6] He followed those up with the book Tales of America the next year.[13] In 1955, he portrayed Big Daddy in the Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which earned him critical praise and became arguably his most famous role.[6][7]

Film careerEdit

"It was Frosty who would become the most famous snowman in history, undoing five years of groundwork laid by snowman look-alike Burl Ives and his masterful performance in Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Ives really took the role by the snowballs and made it his own, classing up the snowman's persona through star power, fancy clothes, and bling-bling. He's the standard by which other snowman narrators are now measured."
The History of the Snowman by Bob Eckstein[src]

Ives in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

In the mid–late 1950s, Ives' film career began in earnest. He played a supporting role in Elia Kazan's East of Eden in 1955,[7] as well as a minor role in the 1956 film The Power and the Prize, and an uncredited performance as himself in A Face in the Crowd (1957). Ives also branched into television roles, portraying dramatic roles on the CBS programs Playhouse 90 and The United States Steel Hour.[6] But it was in 1958 that Ives reached the pinnacle of his acting career. He reprised the role of Big Daddy in Richard Brooks' film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and played Rufus Hannessey in William Wyler's The Big Country. Ives' performance in the The Big Country as a man who is forced to kill his son so impressed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that they gave him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor that year.[14]

Also in 1958, he starred in Desire Under the Elms and Wind Across the Everglades. The next year he played a gang leader in Day of the Outlaw.[6] Ives' television appearances included General Electric Theatre between 1956 and 1959 and Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater in 1960.[7] Ives also displayed a degree of versatility: while East of Eden, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Big Country were all "adult dramas," he appeared in the comedy Our Man in Havana in 1959,[6] and was also proficient in children's fare, such as Summer Magic in 1963 and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in 1964. Rudolph, in which he played "Sam the Snowman" and functioned as the narrator, was a special success for Ives due to the appeal of songs he contributed, "Holly Jolly Christmas and "Silver and Gold", which became instant Christmas classics and remain so to this day.[2][7]

Also in 1964, Ives earned a Grammy Award for his children's album, Chim Chim Cheree and Other Children's Choices.[7] Additionally, he portrayed a genie in the fantasy comedy The Brass Bottle and appeared in the Mister Roberts sequel Ensign Pulver. In 1966, he provided a voice for the animated film The Daydreamer. He also hosted his own television special called The Burl Ives Thanksgiving Special in 1968. Ives returned to the Broadway stage in the melodrama play Dr. Cook's Garden, where he played a small-town doctor who approved of euthanasia.[6] Throughout the mid to late 1960s and into the early 1970s, Ives had a popular run on television as the lead roles on both O.K. Crackerby! from 1966 to 1969 and The Bold Ones: The Lawyers from 1969 to 1972. In 1972, he starred in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "The Other Way Out."[14] After those shows, he worked the majority of the time with Walt Disney Studios on movies meant for children.[2]

Later lifeEdit

In 1962, Ives won the Grammy Award for Best Country Western Recording for "Funny Way of Laughin." Later that decade, Ives returned to Columbia, where he recorded such ballads as "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Softly and Tenderly."[2] He also received another Grammy nomination for his 1974 family album, America Sings.[7] Although they became less frequent, Ives continued to make film appearances in the 1970s, including the 1970 drama The McMasters, the 1976 family film Baker's Hawk, and the 1979 comedy Just You and Me, Kid.[6] In 1971, Ives was divorced from Peck, and two months later married Dorothy Koster Paul. Peck was awarded custody of Alexander, and Ives adopted his new wife's three children: Rob, Kevin and Barbara.[10] After a long hiatus from recording, Ives recorded one last major album, "Payin' My Dues Again," before relegating himself to children's and religious music. Upon reaching the age of 70 in 1979, Ives retired to Washington State with his wife and children.[2][14] Even after retirement, however, he appeared in the science-fiction film Earthbound in 1981 and the racial drama White Dog in 1982.[6]

Caravan of Courage: An Ewok AdventureEdit

"Our story begins in a time long, long ago, deep in an enchanted forest, on the distant moon of Endor."
―Burl Ives as the Narrator — Gnome-speakernotesListen (file info)[src]

In 1984, Ives came out of retirement again to provide narration for John Korty's Star Wars telemovie, Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure. Ives' narration in the film's opening scenes explained the actions of a group of Ewoks who spoke only Ewokese; as the narration continued throughout the course of the film, it provided context to a plot in which a brother and sister had to save their parents from a giant monster.[3]


Erudite Ives

An elderly Ives

"Burl Ives, whose sweet, strong, mournful way with folk ballads made him an international singing star in the 1940's and whose earthy acting won him an Academy Award in the 1950's, died yesterday at his home in Anacortes, Wash. He was 85."
The New York Times obituary, by Richard Severo[src]

Ives worked much less often after Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure. His final film performance was in the 1988 erotic thriller Two Moon Junction, and he released his final album, The Magic Balladeer, in 1993.[7] In the early 1990s, the creators of the cult animated Ren & Stimpy Show used stock audio of Ives in order to have him "guest star" on the show. When he heard of what they had done, Ives claimed that he would have recorded it for real, had they asked.[14] Ives died on April 14, 1995 in Anacortes, Washington due to oral cancer.[2][7] Survived by his wife and children,[10] Ives was interred in Jasper County at Mound Cemetery. Decca continued to release Ives' records for many years after his death.[2]


Star WarsEdit

YearTitleRoleOther notes
1984Caravan of Courage: An Ewok AdventureNarratorTelevision


YearTitleRoleOther notes
1946SmokyWillieFilm debut, as "The Singing Troubadour Burl Ives"
1948Green Grass of WyomingGus
1948Station WestHotel clerk, baladeerUncredited
1948So Dear to My HeartUncle Hiram Douglas
1955East of EdenSam the Sheriff
1956The Power and the PrizeGeorge Salt
1957The United States Steel HourMatthew RandolphTelevision
1957Playhouse 90Captain KellerTelevision
1957Gun GloryNarrator
1958Desire Under the ElmsEphraim Cabot
1958Wind Across the EvergladesCottonmouth
1958Cat on a Hot Tin RoofHarvey 'Big Daddy' Pollitt
1958The Big CountryRufus HannasseyAcademy Award for Best Supporting Actor
1959Our Man in HavanaDr. Hasselbacher
1959Day of the OutlawJack Bruhn
1959General Electric TheatreKing DavidTelevision
1960Let No Man Write My EpitaphJudge Bruce M. Sullivan
1960Zane Grey TheaterOx
1962The Spiral RoadDr. Brits Jansen
1963Summer MagicOsh Popham
1964I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a FlySingerShort
1964The Brass BottleFakrash
1964Ensign PulverCapt. Morton
1964Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReindeerSam the SnowmanTelevision
1965O.K. Crackerby!O.K. CrackerbyTelevision
1966Late Night LineupTelevision
1966The Bell Telephone HourHostTelevision
1966The DaydreamerFather Neptune
1967Rocket to the MoonPhineas T. Barnum
1968The Other Side of Bonnie and ClydeNarrator
1968The Name of the GameArthur Jellicoe
1968The Sound of AngerWalter NicholsTelevision
1968The Burl Ives Television SpecialHimselfTelevision
1969The Whole World Is WatchingWalter NicholsTelevision
1969Daniel BoonePrater BeasleyTelevision
1970The McMastersMcMasters
1970The Man Who Wanted to Live ForeverT.M. TraskTelevision
1971The Bold Ones: The LawyersWalter NicholsTelevision
1972Alias Smith and JonesBig Mac McCreedyTelevision
1972Night GalleryOld Man DoubledayTelevision
1975Hugo the HippoNarrator
1976The First Easter RabbitNarratorTelevision
1976Captains and the KingsOld SyrupTelevision
1976Little House on the PrairieSam ShelbyTelevision
1976Baker's HawkMr. McGraw
1977RootsSen. Arthur JohnsonTelevision
1978The Bermuda DepthsDr. PaulisTelevision
1978The New Adventures of HeidiGrandfatherTelevision
1979The Val Doonican Music ShowTelevision
1979Saturday Night at the MillTelevision
1979Just You and Me, KidMax
1981EarthboundNed Anderson
1982White DogCarruthers
1986Uphill All the WaySheriff John Catledge
1987Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton StoryF.W. WoolworthTelevision
1988Two Moon JunctionSheriff Earl Hawkins


Notes and referencesEdit

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 Burl Ives. Spartacus Educational. Retrieved on September 13, 2011.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 Burl Ives. AllMusic. Retrieved on September 13, 2011.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure
  4. Cole, Betsy. "Eastern Mourns Burl Ives." Daily Eastern News. April 17, 1995.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Severo, Richard (April 15, 1995). Burl Ives, the Folk Singer Whose Imposing Acting Won an Oscar, Dies at 85. The New York Times. Retrieved on September 13, 2011.
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 6.15 6.16 6.17 6.18 6.19 6.20 6.21 6.22 6.23 6.24 Parish, James Robert, and Michael R. Pitts, eds. "Burl Ives". Hollywood Songsters: Singers Who Act and Actors Who Sing: A Biographical Dictionary. Vol. 2. New York: Routledge, 2003. 403—406.
  7. 7.00 7.01 7.02 7.03 7.04 7.05 7.06 7.07 7.08 7.09 7.10 7.11 7.12 7.13 7.14 7.15 7.16 Guide to the Burl Ives Papers, 1913–1975 (PDF). New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (2006). Archived from the original on June 12, 2007. Retrieved on September 13, 2011.
  8. Birkby, Robert (February 2011). Lone Scouts (PDF). Be Prepared Vol.3 #2 pp. 3-7. Retrieved on September 13, 2011.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Ives, Burl. Wayfaring Stranger. New York: Whittlesey House, 1948.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Biography for Burl Ives. IMDB: The Internet Movie Database. Retrieved on July 13, 2011.
  11. Ruhlmann, William. Burl Ives Music Biography. Retrieved on September 13, 2011.
  12. Burl Ives Song Book. Retrieved on September 13, 2011.
  13. Tales of America. Retrieved on September 13, 2011.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 IMDb favicon Burl Ives at the Internet Movie Database

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