I used to keep track of dead celebrities by their proximity to the pending death of George Burns. Knowing that George had a standing gig to play Vegas on his 100th birthday pained me. As talented and culturally significant figures from my own generation passed on, George continued to hold court regularly with anybody who would sit and listen to him. I bore no specific animosity toward Mr. Burns, who was always clever enough to explain that he owed his fame and livelihood to his wife Gracie, who was the funny one. My gripe was all about the relative time span of life on Earth by those who may, in my humble opinion, have deserved another trip or two around the sun before they shuffled off their mortal coil.
Then George passed away in March of 1996. I lost my perspective. If George could be taken from us, what justice was there? I ruminated for several minutes before settling on a new reference point for my feelings of justice and eternal rest: Bob Hope. Compared to George Burns, I felt no compunction for loudly announcing Bob's limited talents compared to his celebrity. His was a lifetime of insinuation. "Thanks for the memories," he crooned. I remember nothing. My mother will defend his ability to rally the country during the dark days of World War Two - but it seems to me that just about everybody was doing that, even Rin-Tin-Tin. He was Mister USO. Okay, thanks for the doughnuts, Bob - but where were his comedic gifts most evident? Maybe I just never got a chance to appreciate the deft comic touch that made him a legend. Or maybe he was just so damn obsequious that nobody wanted to admit that he was a hack. There was a steady list of clever, insightful, funny, musical, artistic and worthwhile people who wandered off to the pearly gates before Bob.
Well, in July 2003, all that angst went away. When Bob Hope died, I felt a certain relief. Now if Arthur Miller were to die (he did), at least he outlived Bob Hope. The problem is that I once again find myself without that yardstick for transience. I've considered Jerry Lewis, but that seems almost spiteful at this point, and Bob Denver is no longer available. I seek the comfort of that perspective - "How can there be a God in Heaven if (Person X) can be taken from us while (Person Y) is left to suck oxygen from our depleting atmosphere?" Does anybody know if Abe Vigoda is still alive?