Paying tribute to one of New Westminster's favourite sons

Events being held in honour of Emmy-winning actor Raymond Burr

Celebrating Raymond Burr’s 100th birthday is an open and shut case in the Royal City.

The New Westminster native made a name for himself in iconic TV roles like Perry Mason (1957 to 1966) and Ironside (1967 to 1975), as well as roles in films like Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Rear Window. Burr was nominated for several Golden Globe and Emmy Awards, winning an Emmy in 1959 for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series for Perry Mason.

Burr, who died on Sept. 12, 1993 in California, would have celebrated his 100th birthday on May 21, 2017. A number of events are taking place in Burr’s hometown in his honour.

Last month, the New Westminster Bar Association designated Burr as an honourary member of the association, noting Burr’s portrayal of Perry Mason presented lawyers in a professional and dignified manner.

“We can all share in his family’s pride for what Raymond Burr accomplished during his lifetime,” said W. Laurence Scott, president of the New Westminster Bar Association.

The Raymond Burr Performing Arts Society, which previously ran productions out of the Raymond Burr Performing Arts Centre (now the Columbia Theatre), has been giving out a bursary in Burr’s name for seven years. The society has joined forces with the Douglas College Foundation and the Burr 100 committee to host two events next week commemorating his birthday and raising funds for the bursary, which goes to a second-year student in theatre arts at Douglas College.

* Tuesday, May 16: A reception and presentation of this year’s bursary is taking place from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Douglas College.

* Wednesday, May 17: Landmark Cinemas New Westminster is screening Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Rear Window, starring Burr, Grace Kelly and James Stewart, at 6:30 p.m.

Tickets are $100 and includes the reception and the screening of Rear Window. For tickets or information, go to raymondburr.blogspot.com or email donate
burr100@gmail.com.

“I soundly applaud your concerted efforts on behalf of Raymond’s 100th birthday,” Burr’s longtime partner Robert Benevides said in a press release. “Your connection with Douglas College is exactly what Raymond would have done, were he still with us.”

The Raymond Burr Performing Arts Society, in partnership with the Douglas College Foundation, is creating an endowment fund in honour of Burr and recognizing him for his significant contribution to theatre, film and TV. The society has committed $5,000 to the new endowment and is hoping to raise $25,000 to endow the award for future.

All in the family

Several of Burr’s relatives have been part of the Burr 100 committee, including second-cousin Maureen Albanese, whose mother’s mother was Raymond’s father William’s sister. Albanese met Burr on a number of occasions through the years, with the first being the time he returned to his hometown to tell family members some important news.

“There was a whole bunch of us there,” she recalled. “This is what he was announcing when he came – that he’d gotten the part of Perry Mason.”

In addition to visiting his parents Minerva Smith Burr and William (Bill) Burr at their New West home, Burr also spent time at the Burr’s family property at Boundary Bay.

“Raymond came to visit his mother on Royal Avenue often. Nobody knew,” Albanese said. “He would come in if he had the opportunity, visit and go again.”

Albanese notes many of the stories that have circulated about Burr’s upbringing and life in Hollywood aren’t accurate. Contrary to some reports, she said he never lived in China as a child, didn’t father a son and married only once, not three times.

“A lot of it was PR that Raymond went along with because he was gay,” she explained. “That never came out until years later.”

Born in New Westminster, Burr was a young boy when his family moved to California, where his mother’s father owned a hotel in Vallejo.

According to Albanese, Burr’s father went to California with the family but returned to Canada and the couple divorced. Nearly 30 years later, Minerva and Williams remarried.

While Burr lived in California and his second home in Fiji, New Westminster is his final resting place. He’s buried alongside his sister Geraldine and his parents.

Local historian Archie Miller said he receives more inquiries about Burr’s grave than any other in Fraser Cemetery.

While doing cemetery tours, he said it’s common to see flowers and items left on Burr’s grave.

“My father used to go walking in the cemetery all the time and he bumped into a lady from Quebec. She was absolutely enamoured of Raymond Burr. She would come out from Quebec, stay in a local hotel and go and visit Raymond for two or three days at the cemetery, sitting on her little chair, and then she’d go back home,” he said of the woman, who sent Miller’s father photos of a small shrine she’d created back home. “On a couple of occasions when she couldn’t make it, she contacted my dad and my dad got flowers for her and went and put flowers on the grave.”

In life, Burr often returned to his hometown to visit family and support local causes, including Royal Columbian Hospital.

“He used to come back and take part in things. He was here in 1966 – that was the anniversary of the union of the colonies. Raymond played the role of J.A.R. Homer, the high sheriff and he read the proclamation on the steps of city hall,” Miller said. “He was a great, great, great supporter of Royal Columbian Hospital.”

Fast Facts on Raymond Burr

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 Raymond Burr starred in Perry Mason from 1957 to 1966, a role that inspired many to pursue a law career. Episodes can still be viewed online and on cable TV.

* Burr starred in Ironside, in which he played chief of detectives, Robert Ironside, who was paralyzed. The series ran from 1967 to 1975.

* Burr had a lead role as a reporter in the 1956 Japanese-American film, Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

* In the 1980s, Burr was the spokesperson for the Royal Columbian Hospital Foundation’s annual giving campaign. One year, he gave a keynote address at the gala event.

* Through the years, Burr was recognized in a number of ways in his hometown, including being included in an exhibition of portraits of residents who have contributed to the arts, and having his name included in the memory band at Westminster Pier Park. Pride Week 2010 celebrated “New Westminster’s famous gay son” with a brunch at Coming Home Café, while the New Westminster Arts Council has held mini-Raymond Burr film festivals in past years as part of Arts and Culture Week.

* In July 2008, Canada Post unveiled a Raymond Burr commemorative stamp, part of a set of four stamps celebrating the achievements of Canadians in Hollywood. Canada Post noted that during his lengthy career Burr performed in more than 5,000 radio plays, 200 stage plays, 90 movies and various TV roles.

* Burr was involved with charitable and humanitarian causes including the Cerebral Palsy Association, the National Safety Council, the March of Dimes and B’nai Birth.

* Following Burr’s death, a tabloid photographer staked out the Fraser Cemetery hoping to capture a photo of the actor’s burial. Using a long lens, the photographer captured a photo of those gathered at the grave for the internment of Burr’s ashes.

* A group of fans who called themselves the Burr Babes used to meet annually at a local restaurant to celebrate Raymond Burr's birthday.

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