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Who was Jim Burns?

Ben Steelman

The longtime chief announcer at Wilmington TV station WECT, and host of its “Jim Burns Show” for 26 years, Jim Burns was one of the Port City’s most familiar, and most flamboyant, characters for decades.

Born in Asheboro, N.C. on March 18, 1927, James Moss Burns Jr. moved to Wilmington with his family as a small boy. He was student body president and Juniior ROTC captain at New Hanover High School.

The acting bug bit early, and Burns appeared in a number of Thalian Association and school plays. His mind was set, however, at the age of 18, when he met the silent film actress Mary Pickford on a 14-hour airplane flight from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles. Miss Pickford, as Burns later told it, made him a protege and encouraged his acting. After World War II, he enrolled as a drama major at Northwestern University, where (he later claimed) he shared classes with Charlton Heston and Patricia Neal.

Burns pursued a stage career in New York for a number of years, then returned to North Carolina in the late 1950s, apparently at the encouragement of his family. After a false start in architecture at N.C. State College (now N.C. State University in Raleigh), he returned to Wilmington, where he made his debut as a weatherman on WECT in 1958. A year later, “The Jim Burns Show” went on the air.

Around midday from Monday through Friday, Burns interviewed the famous and not-so-famous who passed through town, as well as local folks. One of his high points, he later recalled to historian Susan Taylor Block, was interviewing Joan Crawford while she was on the board of directors of the Pepsi-Cola Co. — and sipping a Pepsi with the star in the back seat of her limousine. Periodically, he would break off chats to deliver commercials. His theme song for years was “Holiday for Strings.”

“The Jim Burns Show” was live and unrehearsed — unfortunately, no tapes apparently survive — and gaffs were common. Longtime Newsweek correspondent Nick Proffitt, who wrote his Vietnam-era novel “Gardens of Stone,” vividly recalled coming on the program (immediately after an evangelical Christian ventriloquist). Burns immediately asked him if his book was about Stonehenge. (No, it was largely set at Arlington National Cemetery.)

Burns told some of the best Jim Burns stories on himself. Once, he told Susan Taylor Block about interviewing the sometimes crusty Wilmington artist Henry Jay MacMillan. It was time for a commercial, so Burns, trying for a smooth segue, asked, “Henry, do you use Shawnee Flour?”

“Heavens, no!” MacMillan replied (or words to that effect).

“That would have been bad enough,” Burns said, “but the bag was leaking, and flour got all over my friend Henry.”

A lifelong bachelor, Burns was devoted to his mother, Miriam Whitener Burns Stokes. After her death in 1981, he donated funds for the carillion bells at Wilmington’s First Presbyterian Church in her memory.

Burns was known as a master gardener; his house at 1417 Hawthorne Road, Wilmington [Map this], was frequently included on garden tours. He also owned, and substantially decorated, a house at 530 Waynick Blvd., Wrightsville Beach [Map this], often using fixtures and woodwork salvaged from demolished homes in downtown Wilmington. The structure, which he christened “Whiteburn House,” was done up in an adapted Mediterranean villa style, with at least a dozen Doric columns framing interior doorways, a bas relief plaque from Col. Owen Kenan’s Paris home and antique rosewood furniture. The Raleigh News & Observer devoted a full-page Sunday feature to its decoration in 1968.

In 1985, WECT announced that Burns would be taking a summer break, replacing “The Jims Burns Show” with re-runs of “Little House on the Prairie.” The program, however, never returned. In 1986, after the station had changed hands, WECT announced that Burns had retired; Burns promptly called an angry press conference to announce that he had been terminated. In 1988, a modified version of “The Jim Burns Show” premiered on another Wilmington TV station, WJKA (which was then independent of WECT); it ran for several seasons.

For several years in the 1980s, Burns served as impresario for the “Albert Schweitzer Medal of Artistry Concerts,” a series he conceived, based on the Salzburg Music Festival. Intended as a fundraiser for the Albert Schweitzer International Prizes at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, the series was presented with elaborate pageantry at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church. It brought such celebrities to town as actress Helen Hayes, comedian Imogene Coca, actress Kathryn Grayson, artist Bob Timberlake, NBC announcer Frank Blair and former New York Times national editor Eugene L. Roberts.

Burns died Sept. 9, 2000, and was buried at Oakdale Cemetery.

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11 Responses to “ Who was Jim Burns?”

  1. On September 2, 2009 at 7:46 pm Fern Brown wrote:

    Westminster Presbyterian Church Junior Choir appeared on the Jim Burns show for many years. One particular year Mr. Burns asked to interview one of the choir members and I was the chosen one, I was 6 at the time. It was around Easter and I had one my new black patent leather Mary Janes, Mr. Burns committed on how pretty they were and asked if they were new, I promptly replied they were and that they were killing my feet.
    I have very fond memories of Mr. Burns and his afternoon talk show.

  2. On September 3, 2009 at 5:30 am anne wrote:

    For me, one of JB’s most memorable interviews was with local architect Ligon Flynn, not known for verbosity, at an impressive Figure Eight Island house designed by Flynn. JB did his desperate best to prompt Ligon to expound on his design but only elicited the repeated reply, “Yep.” Two more opposite personalities could not have been brought together for this one-sided conversation.

  3. On September 3, 2009 at 9:05 pm BJ wrote:

    Being a “baby-boomer” my most vivid memories of local programming is probably The Jim Burns Show. Such a shame there’s not even one tape…I remember his stage set being rather bland. Of course, everything was black and white. Maybe that’s why it looked bland. But, I was always eager to watch Jim Burns and see his always interesting guests!

  4. On September 10, 2009 at 12:50 pm wilma hipps wrote:

    I’m pretty sure Joan Crawford was on the board of
    directors of Pepsi Cola — not Coke!

  5. On June 10, 2010 at 5:32 pm Daniel wrote:

    Jim Burns captured the highlights of everyday life in the south. Several of the Garage Bands in the 60’s and 70’s were on his show. It was always a polite interview, and brought local happenings and talent to a broader stage. For the Garage Bands, it was a big thing to be on the Jim Burns Show.

  6. On June 29, 2010 at 10:49 pm Maria Geiger wrote:

    My mother, Deanna Hardwick McKnight, did a local commercial filmed in Myrtle Beach, SC for Oak Street Fabric Shop. We think the year was about 1967. The commercial aired on WECT TV in Wilmington, NC. We are interested to see if this footage still exists. Is there any way we can find out?

    Thank you,

    Maria McKnight Geiger

  7. On April 8, 2011 at 11:24 am Doug Sivco wrote:

    Jim was a riot with his show. Burns did it his way, old school, but everybody in the Cape Fear region watched.
    A kind soul, indeed.

  8. On April 26, 2011 at 10:00 pm Mary Kathryn wrote:

    I recall my father, Edwin Todd, talking about being on the Jim Burns show in the early- to mid-1960s. He worked for Todd Furniture Company in Wilmington at the time. I believe he appeared weekly for a while. Is there anyway to find recordings?

  9. On January 17, 2017 at 11:16 pm Patrick Horton wrote:

    I remember watching The Jim Burns Show as a very young person living in Riegelwood. There weren’t a lot of choices but was still pretty interesting. The thing I remember most was Jim doing TV/Radio (maybe both) pitches for the drive-in theater. His catch phrase was. Come on out. It’s a good deal of fun.

  10. On March 12, 2017 at 11:37 pm keith wrote:

    Funny thing that with all the old footage of most anyone that worked for WECT that only Jim burns footage didn’t “SURVIVE”…yes it sounds as though WECT did not want to remember one of the best…could it be because of other underlying reasons?? I think so..bet they won’t print this!!!

  11. On July 5, 2017 at 7:56 am Ray Gillen Sr. wrote:

    My mother when to high school with Jim and he was a great man and I enjoyed watching his shows he was a very nice man and did a great job on that show it was a shame he got done that way and lost his job after all them years of service. I am glad so many of you wrote good things about him.

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