Born on June 14, 1909, Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives was an American original. Few entertainers can stretch their talents from recording beloved children’s songs like “Big Rock Candy Mountain”, “Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” to portraying an evil Southern plantation owner like “Big Daddy” in the 1958 blockbuster film, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”.
However, Burl Ives did all that and more during his incredible career which began with his learning to play the banjo and guitar as a child and singing in church and at camp meetings.
An aspiring singer, Ives moved to New York City in 1933 and took acting and voice lessons. His teacher, Ella Taöedt of the Julliard School, encouraged Ives to experiment with falsetto voice exercises and to study music theory as well as encouraging his interest in folk music.
The young singer began entertaining in small venues before gaining fame as a ballad singer and in 1940 was starring in his own CBS radio Show , “The Wayfaring Stranger”.
During World War ll, Burl Ives was posted to Fort Dix, New Jersey, then at Camp Upton, Long Island, where he joined the cast of Irving Berlin’s “This Is the Army” as well as performing on the Armed Forces Radio. Following his discharge, he appeared on Broadway and became synonymous with American ballads and folk music which was experiencing a revival in the post war years.
In 1946, Ives headed to Hollywood where he had roles in many western movies, often as a singing cowboy. He returned to Broadway in the 1950s for parts in “Paint Your Wagon” and in Tennessee William’s “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof”. Later, Burl would revive his role as the corpulent and oppressive plantation owner, Big Daddy, in the 1958 film version of this drama starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.
During the decades that followed, Ives appeared in countless film roles in hit movies including “Show Boat”, “Desire Under the Elms”, and “East of Eden”. Burl Ives’ acting prowess was recognized with his winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1958 for “The Big Country”.
Over the decades, Burl Ives appeared on numerous television shows but he is perhaps, best known to the younger generation as the voice actor for the comical Sam the Snowman in the iconic 1964 animated Christmas classic, “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer”.
Burl Ives had a strong connection to Freemasonry. His father was a member of the fraternity and in 1927 Burl joined the Masonic youth group, the Order of DeMolay in his hometown of Hunt City, Illinois.
About five decades later after finding fame and fortune as an entertainer, Ives made the decision to request a petition to become a Mason after reading a script for the musical “1776”. That show focused on the Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Ives, who was being considered for the role of Ben Franklin, was impressed to learn that Franklin had served as Grand Master of Masons in Pennsylvania.
Burl Ives joined Magnolia Lodge in Santa Barbara, California (now called Magnolia-La Cumbre Lodge 242) in 1975. He later received his Scottish and York Rite Degrees. He served as Venerable Master of the Santa Barbara Scottish Rite, and was a member of Al Malaikah Shrine in Los Angeles.
Following his death in 1995, Burl Ives’ life was honored in a memorial service under the auspices of the Grand Lodge of Free & Accepted Masons of California at the Scottish Rite Cathedral in Los Angeles.
A monument at Ives’ gravesite is engraved with an image of the performer holding a guitar and upon his grave is the Masonic symbol of a square and compass. The tribute on the monument at his grave reads:
“One of America’s legendary performers whose career spanned more than a half century crossing all international borders. Equally at home before the royalty of Europe and the farm folk of the Midwestern USA. A performer whose unique style adapted to all media – Literary, Radio, Movies, Recordings, Broadway, Night Clubs and the Concert Stage. Carl Sandburg called him, ‘The magnificent ballad singer of this or any other century.’ He lives through his art!”