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Robert Burns

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'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' art director dead at 60

Robert Burns known for his on-screen mayhem, off-screen hijinks.

By John Kelso


Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Robert Burns surely knew that the first paragraph of his obituary would mention that he was the art director of the '70s horror movie classic "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

But it would have irked him because there was so much more to him, though all of it was quirky.

Burns, 60, was found dead at his home in Seguin on Tuesday morning by police, who are investigating it as a suicide, Lt. Mike Watts said.

About a month ago, Burns, who lived most of his life in Austin, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, his friend Jan Lewis said.

"He knew he didn't have long, and he did not want to go through or even attempt horrible cancer treatment," Lewis said. She said Burns kept his illness a secret from most people because "he wanted people around him to be happy."

Burns went out in the wry and irreverent style his friends had grown to expect. On his Web site, www.Robert-A-Burns.com, he left a "Farewell Address to the Troops," which includes a photo of himself stretched out in front of a mock tombstone with the name "Burns" on it. Along with the photo, Burns left a goodbye message to his friends.

"I've never understood why people would stay in the theater after it became obvious that the rest of the movie would not be enjoyable," Burns wrote. "Due to physical and psychological reasons too tedious to bore anyone with, it became obvious that the rest of my movie would not be enjoyable, so I left the theater (me and Elvis, you know.)"

Burns graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in drama. He did special effects for several movies, including "The Howling," and worked as an actor on occasion. He starred in "Confessions of a Serial Killer" and had lesser parts in a Robert Duvall film, "The Stars Fell on Henrietta," and in a Farrah Fawcett TV movie, "The Substitute Wife."

But Burns was best known for being a creative and likeable eccentric, a man who helped make Austin weird before the expression became a cliché.

From the wacky Christmas cards to the outrageous Halloween costumes he created, such as the one that made him look like a baby being carried around by a French maid, you never knew what you would get from Burns, although you knew it would be unique, like the send-up song he wrote to the tune of the '80s hit "Bette Davis Eyes."

Burns' version was called "She's Got Colonel Sanders Thighs."

"Her eyes are Big Mac brown; her hair is like French fries.

She's blown up like the clown. She's got Colonel Sanders thighs."

Burns would perform as the Burns Family Trio, a costume he made that consisted of himself flanked by a couple of female mannequins.

"It was a couple of made-up sisters (Powder Burns and Heart Burns)," said Austin freelance writer Ernest Sharpe Jr., a friend. "One of his jokes was that his sisters, without him, they didn't have a leg to stand on."

"Somebody had to help him get into this thing; it was quite elaborate," said Morris Burns of Midland, one of Burns' brothers. "He'd tell corny jokes and pantomime to some old country and western songs. He took that to some nursing homes and put on a show for 'em."

Burns requested that he be cremated and that his ashes be scattered over the creek behind his house in Seguin. In his later years, Burns spent a great deal of his time restoring an old river walk that had been built on Walnut Branch in the '30s.

Burns once lived in South Austin in a house he decorated with some of the props he built for "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Perhaps the most famous was "The Arm Chair," a chair with prosthetic arms attached to the chair's regular arms.

Burns was also talented with tools and could remodel just about anything.

"He could build anything just out of wood and wire and stuff that he scrounged," said Pete Szilagyi of Fort Davis, who put out a publication called Free & Easy with Burns in Austin in the '70s. "He was a brilliant writer. He used to crank out movie scripts like crazy. None of 'em ever really got produced.

"When he joked, it was usually in the form of a pun, and it was usually a masterful pun," Sharpe recalled. "He had this enormous facility of the language.

"I was carrying a rug out of the house to the cleaners, and Bob passed me, and he said, 'Stop that man. He's trying to hook a rug.' I've only known two original people in my life, and Bob was one of them."

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Burns' home at 206 S. Travis St. in Seguin.

Burns is survived by three brothers, Morris, Ross Burns of Alpine and Fred Burns of Calgary, Alberta; and his father, Ed Burns of Austin.

Published in Austin American-Statesman on June 2, 2004
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