Burns, George (1896-1996), and Gracie Allen (1895-1964)

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Burns, George (1896-1996), and Gracie Allen (1895-1964)

George Burns and Gracie Allen formed one of the most renowned husband and wife comedy teams in broadcasting throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. The cigar-chomping Burns played straight man to Allen's linguistically subversive and enchantingly ditzy housewife in a variety of entertainment media for thirty-five years. After meeting in 1923 and performing their comedy routine on the vaudeville circuit and in a few movies, the team reached its professional peak in broadcasting, first on radio and then on television. Their Burns and Allen Show on CBS television from 1950 to 1958 proved particularly innovative as it contained sitcom plots that were bracketed by Burns's vaudeville-inspired omniscient narration and monologues. Their act seemed to be a caricature of their offstage marriage and working relationship, and the duo openly courted the conflation. After Allen died in 1964, Burns eventually continued his career on his own in films and on television specials, but he never quite got over losing Gracie. He lovingly incorporated his late wife in his performances and best-selling memoirs, as if encouraging Allen to remain his lifelong partner from beyond the grave.

Allen was, quite literally, born into show business. Her father, George Allen, was a song-and-dance man on the West Coast who, upon retirement, taught dance and gymnastics in a homemade gym in his backyard. The youngest daughter in the San Francisco-based Scottish/Irish family of six, Allen first appeared on stage at the age of three singing an Irish song for a benefit. Her older sisters became accomplished dancers and while on the vaudeville circuit would occasionally include Gracie in their act. Gracie's true gift however, lay not in song and dance, but in comedy. Recognizing this, she began to play the fool for her sisters and then as a "Colleen" in an Irish act.

Burns also started his career as a child performer. Following a fairly typical rags-to-riches story of a vaudevillian headliner, Burns (born Nathan Birnbaum) was the son of a poor Austrian Jewish family in New York's Lower East Side. As a small child he performed for pocket change on street corners and saloons in the neighborhood, eventually forming a child act, the Pee Wee Quartet, when he was seven years old. Working in small-time vaudeville by the time he was a teenager, the aspiring vaudevillian joined a number of comedy teams under various names including Harry Pierce, Willie Delight, Nat Burns, and finally, George Burns.

In 1923, Allen and Burns met in Union Hill, New Jersey, while both were looking for new partners. At the time, Allen was rooming with Mary Kelly (later to be known as Mary Livingstone), Jack Benny's girlfriend. Kelly introduced Allen to Burns, who had just split with his partner Billy Lorraine. Originally interested in becoming Lorraine's partner, Allen eventually agreed to try working with Burns. At first Allen played the straight part, but they quickly discovered that the audience laughed at Allen much more than Burns. "I knew right away there was a feeling of something between the audience and Gracie," said Burns in a 1968 interview. "They loved her, and so, not being a fool and wanting to smoke cigars for the rest of my life, I gave her the jokes." Working for many years as what was known in the business as a disappointment act—an on-call position for cancellations—they transformed a traditional "dumb Dora act" into something far more complicated.

After traveling around the country on the Keith-Orpheum circuit playing onstage lovers, Allen and Burns initiated their offstage relationship in 1925. Following a somewhat whirlwind courtship, the pair were married on January 7, 1926. Just as their romance had solidified into marriage, their act started to crystallize into two very distinct characters—one frustratingly obtuse and the other patently down-to-earth. Yet, there was an obvious intelligence behind the pair's verbal sparring. Burns, who wrote the majority of their material, called it "illogical logic"—an alternative linguistic universe in which the character of Gracie was the sole inhabitant. Their act went on to be highlighted in such films as Fit to Be Tied (1931) and The Big Broadcast of 1932. But, it was their variety-format radio program The Adventures of Gracie (later known as Burns and Allen, 1932-1950) that really won the hearts and minds of American audiences. Playing a young boyfriend and girlfriend for the program's first eight years, they eventually chose to place their characters within the domestic setting of a Beverly Hills home. This allowed them to introduce new material and base their characters on their own lives as a middle-aged married couple raising children in suburbia.

During their years on radio the press focused intently on their private lives, often trying to answer the question of whether or not Allen was as daffy as her onstage character. Articles in fan and women's magazines covered every detail of the entertainers' domestic life, including their friendship with fellow luminaries and neighbors the Bennys, as well as their adoption of two children, Sandra and Ronnie. Burns and Allen were exceptionally adept at using the media attention they received to extend the narrative of their program into the realm of "reality." Not only did they purposely muddy the distinction between their lives and that of their characters, but they also played on-air stunts to their maximum effect. For example, in 1933, Gracie began a protracted hunt for her "missing brother," a stunt concocted by a CBS executive to raise their ratings. This enabled her to acquire extra air by guest starring on Jack Benny's and Eddie Cantor's programs under the guise of continuing her search, and to attract attention from other media outlets. The press played right along, photographing her looking for her brother at New York landmarks and printing letters from fans claiming to have had sightings of him. George Allen, Gracie's real brother, was forced into hiding because of the incredible attention and pressure he felt from radio listeners and the press. In 1940 Allen topped her missing brother gag by announcing that she would run for president. Campaigning under the slogan "Down with common sense, vote for Gracie," the stunt, which was originally planned as a two-week, on-air gag, snowballed. The mayor of Omaha offered to host a national "surprise ticket party" convention for Allen, and the president of the Union Pacific Railroad gave her a presidential train to travel from Los Angeles to Omaha in a traditional "whistle stop" campaign.

By the time television became an option for the comedy duo in the late 1940s, Burns and Allen were among the most well-known and beloved comedians of their generation. Like most radio stars, they were initially reluctant to test the new medium. So, in an effort to avoid television's taxing weekly production schedule and propensity to devour material, they scheduled their live program The Burns and Allen Show to appear only every other Thursday. Although it contained many of the basic elements of their radio show, their television program's narrative structure and characterizations became more nuanced. Besides the few minutes of vaudeville routine that would end the show (including the now famous lines "Say goodnight, Gracie!"), Gracie and their neighbors would exist solely within the narrative world of their sitcom. Burns, however, crossed back and forth between the sitcom set and the edges of the stage from which it was broadcast. Talking directly to the camera and the studio audience, Burns would comment on the plot or Gracie's wacky antics, introduce a song or dance act, or tell some jokes. He would then jump across the stage and enter into the plot in progress. Burns came up with this strategy as a way to link the show together—blending elements of the variety format with the domestic sitcom. Burns's technique was incredibly effective and helped the program last through television's tumultuous transition in the mid-1950s from the variety show to the sitcom, which killed off other once-popular variety programs such as Texaco Star Theatre.

In 1958, Allen said "Goodnight, Gracie" for the last time. By retiring from show business because of chronic heart problems, Allen forced the couple's run on television to a close. Burns tried to continue on television playing a television producer in The George Burns Show, but the program was canceled after only one season. He attempted to revive his television career after Allen's death in 1964 of a heart attack, but almost every program he starred in was short-lived. It wasn't until 1975, when Burns was given the co-starring role in The Sunshine Boys with Walter Matthau, that his career recuperated. He went on to make a few more films (including the Oh God! films), star in some television specials, and write several books. He never remarried and, despite the occasional jokes of his sexual prowess, remained in love with Gracie. Burns opened his 1988 memoir Gracie: A Love Story by saying, "For forty years my act consisted of one joke. And then she died." Burns passed away in 1996 at the age of one hundred, famous for his longevity and endless dedication to his wife, his friends, and his fans.

—Sue Murray

Further Reading:

Allen, Gracie, as told to Jane Kesner Morris. "Gracie Allen's Own Story: Inside Me." Woman's Home Companion. March 1953, 122.

Blythe, Cheryl, and Susan Sackett. Say Goodnight Gracie! The Story of Burns and Allen. New York, Dutton, 1986.

Burns, George. Gracie: A Love Story. New York, Putnam, 1988.

Burns, George, with Cynthia Hobart Lindsay. I Love Her, That's Why! New York, Simon and Schuster, 1955.

Burns, George, with David Fisher. All My Best Friends. New York, Putnam, 1989.

Wilde, Larry. The Great Comedians Talk about Comedy. New York, Citadel Press, 1968.