“I was fortunate to be born into a family of Masons. Indeed, my older sister Audrey was Grand Matron of the Order of Eastern Star in Illinois. My DeMolay experience came very naturally because of my father and brothers. Thus was my youth enhanced.” –Burl Ives
In reflecting upon the many stars who entertained audiences throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood, it is easy to notice that the vast majority of these individuals were multi-talented. Their combination of many skills made them highly employable and delightful to audiences all over the world. Though Burl Ives did not initially intend to pursue a career in entertainment, he would soon explore this creative path and prove himself to be a man of many endearing talents.
Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives was born in Hunt City, Illinois, an unincorporated town in Jasper County. His father, Levi, was a farmer and contractor for the county. His mother, Cordelia, worked on the farm, in addition to tending to each of the seven children in the Ives family. As a boy, Ives was a Lone Scout until the group merged with the Boy Scouts of America. Ives and his mother enjoyed singing while Ives played the banjo. The duo was once overheard singing in the garden by Ives’s uncle; charmed, Ives’s uncle invited Ives to sing at a soldiers’ reunion, with the young Ives performing a moving rendition of “Barbara Allen.”
As the years went on, Ives enrolled at the Eastern Illinois State Teachers College in Charleston, Illinois. He was an active player on the school football team and a member of the Charleston Chapter of The Order of DeMolay but soon left the school during his junior year. While attending his English class lecture on Beowulf, he felt that he was wasting his time and walked out the door. The story goes that his professor made a curt remark as Ives was leaving and Ives slammed the door behind him, shattering the glass on the way out.
Throughout the 1930s, Ives traveled all over the country as a musician. He worked many odd jobs and played his banjo during his travels, essentially living as a 20th century troubadour. While in Richmond, Indiana, Ives recorded “Behind the Clouds”, though it was rejected and destroyed by the Starr Piano Company’s Gennett Label. Later, he was jailed in Mona, Utah, for vagrancy and for singing the bawdy “Foggy Dew”.
By 1931, he was performing regularly on WBOW radio in Terre Haute, Indiana. Around the same time, he returned to school, attending the Indiana State Teachers College. Soon after, his education continued at the Julliard School in New York.
While in New York, Ives made his Broadway debut in The Boys from Syracuse. He and his fellow actor friend, Eddie Albert, both left the show for Los Angeles and shared an apartment in Hollywood’s Beachwood Canyon community.
In 1940, Ives had his own radio show called The Wayfaring Stranger. He popularized many traditional folk songs, including “The Blue Tail Fly”, “Big Rock Candy Mountain”, and numerous others. He also sang regularly with the Almanacs, a folk-singing group.
By 1942, Ives found himself drafter into the U.S. Army, spending time at Camp Dix and Camp Upton. While at Camp Upton, he became part of the cast of Irving Berlin’s musical, This Is the Army. During his service, Ives achieved the rank of corporal and transferred to the Army Air Force once the show went to Hollywood. After an honorable discharge, Ives traveled to New York to work for CBS radio.
In 1950, Ives was blacklisted as an entertainer due to supposed ties to the Communist Party. Having cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee, his blacklisting was ended and he appeared in movies. Some of his film credits include his role as Sam the Sheriff in East of Eden (1955), Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and The Big Country (1958). Ives would win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in The Big Country.
Over the next few decades, Ives would continue to record music in addition to appearing in film and television roles. For more contemporary audiences, he is likely best remembered for providing the speaking and singing voice to Sam the Snowman in the Rankin/Bass NBC-TV stop-motion animated special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer from 1964. Ives would also provide the voice for Sam Eagle, an audio-animatronic host to the former American Sings attraction at Disneyland in 1974.
In 1989, Ives announced his retirement, though he continued to perform as part of benefit concerts. He passed away from oral cancer on April 14, 1995, in his Washington home at age 85 and was buried at Mound Cemetery in Hunt City Township, Illinois.
Today, there are many tributes and places of relevance to Ives in his home state and beyond.
At the corner of Jourdan and Van Buren in Newton, IL, visitors will find the town’s key tribute to Ives: a statue featuring Ives on a bench with his guitar. While the key feature of the memorial plaza is Ives, other Jasper County notables are also memorialized as part of this tribute.
Eastern Illinois University, from which Ives famously dropped out, now has a building named after Ives. The building in question is the Burl Ives Studio Hall. The school is located at 600 Lincoln Ave, Charleston, IL.
Thanks to his many achievements, Ives was also inducted into the DeMolay Hall of Fame.
In 1948, Ives was listed as living at 14716 Nordhoff St. in Los Angeles, California. Here is a shot of the property today:
Ives continued his ties with the Boy Scouts of America and the organization inducted him in 1966. They granted him their highest honor—the Silver Buffalo Award, which is on display at the Scouting Museum in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The museum stands at 1601 Valley Forge Rd, Valley Forge, PA.
Though Ives continues to remain relevant to fans of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, his filmography, and strong contributions to the folk genre, he is also remembered through many other tributes in his honor.