George Burns and Gracie Allen: Hall of Fame Tribute
George Burns and Gracie Allen supposedly played themselves for eight years on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and during the 35 years the duo performed together in vaudeville, motion pictures, and radio. But the real Gracie Allen was a far cry from the zany woman who shortened the electric cords on her lamps to save electricity and who drove her car with the emergency brake on so if she ran into an emergency she would be ready for it.
“Gracie was not a comedienne,” Burns insists. "Gracie was an actress; Gracie played the part. You couldn't touch Gracie. Lucille Ball, if you wanted to hit her with a pie, it was okay. She hit you back with a pie. But when I walked on the stage, I had to find out which way the wind was blowing so my cigar smoke didn't go in Gracie's face. If it did, the audience would hate me."
Though Burns played the patient boyfriend and, later, the husband of the indefatigable Allen, in fact he was her professional Svengali. Fred de Cordova, who produced and directed their TV show for five years and who is now executive producer of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, says, "George wanted to use only those jokes that showed Gracie to be a talented and tasteful lady. For the time I worked on the show with him, his chief concern was whether a joke would make Gracie look good. He nurtured her career. And she had total faith in him. If he wanted it and thought it was right, she thought it was right too."
When Burns met Gracie Allen at the vaudeville theater in Union Hill, New Jersey, in 1923, she was a classically beautiful 17-year-old colleen from San Francisco who sang and danced with her two older sisters. Burns discovered her true talents a month later while performing with her on the vaudeville stage for the first time. “What surprised me the most about Gracie,” he remembers, "were the laughs she got. And we split the salary. I took half the money and did nothing. When I met Gracie I was doing an act with another guy, and we were going to split up that Wednesday. Gracie came back to visit a girlfriend of hers who was headlining the bill. She said to Gracie, 'These two guys are splitting up Wednesday. Why don't you sit down front and take a look at them? Maybe you would like to work with one of them.' So Gracie went out front, and she saw us both work and kind of liked me.
Gracie and I did my act, and I was the comedian — only the first show. I told the jokes and nobody laughed. Gracie asked the questions and they giggled. I found the audience loved Gracie right away, and the next show I gave Gracie some of the jokes and the audience found Gracie's character. They liked her when she was on the silly side. If she did a sarcastic joke, they wouldn't accept it. The audience found her character, and I found Gracie."
Burns described Allen's character in 1955 in his first book, I Love Her, That’s Why!: "Contrary to opinion, Gracie is not a comedienne. She is an extremely good straight dramatic actress. It is the situations that are funny. The character she plays has what we call “illogical logic.” She is completely earnest about what she is doing and saying, and I think it is the fact that she is so kind to the rest of the world for its lack of understanding of what is perfectly clear to her that makes people love her. She is right and everybody else is wrong, but she doesn’t blame them — she just gently tries to explain to them, patiently, and puts up with everybody."
Burns and Allen played the vaudeville circuits for two years, gaining their first fame with an act called “Dizzy.”
Burns: You’re dizzy.
Allen: I'm glad I'm dizzy. Boys like dizzy girls, and I like boys.
Burns: I'm glad you're glad you’re dizzy.
Allen: I’m glad you’re glad I'm glad, etc.
Because Gracie Allen was being courted by another man as the act hit the big time on the Orpheum circuit in San Francisco, Burns gave her an ultimatum on Christmas Eve, 1925: “Either we get married, or it’s goodbye." Marriage followed a few weeks later for the budding comedy team, which became vaudeville's number-one act with "Lamb Chops.”
Burns: Little girl, do you care about love?
Burns: Do you care about kisses?
Burns: Well, what do you care about?
Allen: Lamb chops!
Was timing the secret of the Burns and Allen magic? “Timing!” snorts Burns. "Everybody says “timing.” What the hell is timing? I worked with Gracie. Gracie would say something funny. The audience would laugh. I would look at the audience. I would smoke. The minute they stopped laughing, I stopped smoking and spoke to Gracie. What the hell was timing?"
After playing the Palace with Eddie Cantor in 1931, Allen was invited to appear on the singer’s highly popular radio program — without George Burns. Shortly after, Burns and Allen made their radio debut on Rudy Vallee’s program and then appeared weekly on Guy Lombardo's show. An unprecedented publicity stunt gave them what Burns later called “a million dollars’ worth of publicity”: Gracie Allen turned up on various radio programs (on both CBS and NBC) and at famous New York sites, like the top of the Empire State Building, looking for a lost brother. The public took to the campaign immediately, and in 1933 the two began their own radio program on NBC called The Adventures of Gracie. Under various titles, the program continued on the air for 17 consecutive years.
As they became more successful, the Burnses adopted two children: Sandra in 1934 and Ronald in 1935. George Burns lived and breathed show business and enjoyed golf and other outdoor activities, but Gracie Allen was a homebody. Offstage “you never knew Gracie was in show business,’’ Burns says of his first and only wife, who died in 1964. "Gracie never told jokes. Gracie never tried to get laughs. Gracie was a charming lady, wonderful wife — married to her for 38 years — very good mother and a very good actress. She was little, small, weighed 95 pounds, and nothing sexy about Gracie. She was dainty and beautiful."
Ralph Levy, for many years the director of The Burns and Allen Show, remembers Gracie as "a perfect lady. She could have been at home at Buckingham Palace. Gracie was a lovely lady. George had tremendous respect for her. He was always concerned that everything was all right with Gracie. You never felt there was any tension at home, and it wasn't phony, not a front. They never brought their problems to the set. They had a good working relationship."
De Cordova remembers their home life as “an absolute delight. When you entered the house you knew Gracie was in charge. She ran the house; he ran their careers.”
During the middle and late 1930s their radio program made them household names. Allen even ran for president in 1940 on the Surprise Party ticket, with the slogan, “Down With Common Sense — Vote For Gracie.” They did, however, have their slumps, which Burns overcame with an honesty he says inspired their television show. “We started on radio as a boy-and-girl act,” he explains. "And after a while our ratings started to drop. When your rating drops eight points in one night, you do not have to worry. That means something very strong is on against you that night. But when you start dropping a half point, a point, a half point, and a point, you’re in real trouble. I went to all my friends. I asked Jack Benny, 'What’s happening?' Jack says, 'You are not doing enough double routines.' Eddie Cantor says, 'You are doing too many double routines.' Harpo Marx says, 'Gracie is not laughing enough.' Somebody else says, 'Gracie is laughing too much.'
"Finally … about two o’clock in the morning, I found out what was wrong with us. We were too old for our jokes. Our jokes were younger than we were. I woke up Gracie. I said, 'Kid, I got it. We are too old for our jokes. We are married. We have two kids.' Next show I walked onto the stage, and I said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, Gracie and I have been married for years. We have a wonderful daughter and a wonderful son.' And from then on we were married. And our ratings went even higher."
As television burgeoned at the end of the 1940s, CBS president William Paley was eager for Burns and Allen, riding high in the radio ratings, to make the transition to television. Picking up on Paley’s suggestion that Burns do monologues on the show, Burns developed the idea of a domestic comedy. In it George and Gracie lived in Beverly Hills next door to Blanche and Harry Morton, with a dividing line between the actors and the audience so Burns could talk to the viewers directly by stepping out of character and commenting on the action. The show-within-a-show format even allowed him to watch on TV what Gracie was up to “at home.” Except for their closest friend, Jack Benny, guest stars rarely appeared on the show, which closed with the pair doing a vaudeville routine.
Allen never rehearsed with Burns at home, keeping their performances fresh for the show. According to Burns, Allen’s workload was staggering. Her lines were necessarily convoluted and therefore difficult to memorize. “If we had a 40-page script, 30 of the pages were Gracie’s.” In 1958, Allen retired from show business, and the team took its last bow together during the filming of the show on June 4, 1958.
Now celebrating his 85th year in show business at age 92, George Burns is an American institution. “I talked in vaudeville, I talked on radio, I talked on television, I am still talking,” he says of his current concert tour and upcoming film and television appearances.
Bob Hope, who has appeared with Burns on numerous specials, says, "With his record he should have been admitted to the Hall of Fame the first year. I guess with his longevity they figured he could wait. The most wonderful thing about him is his brain. His brain is still 21. He’s a solid vaudevillian, a beautiful guy. He was raised on laughs. After Gracie died, he bought a cigar and went on with the show. How many other straight men can turn around and become comedians? You can’t work with a better man."
“George is really remarkable," de Cordova says. “At 92 he has not become an old man. He is bright and aware, reads the papers every day, and makes fun of himself. That is the only time you know he is old."
Born on Manhattan’s lower East Side on January 20, 1896, Nathan Birnbaum (Gracie Allen called him Nattie; Googie was his affectionate name for her) was one of 12 children. At the age of seven he and three neighborhood boys entered show business when they formed the Peewee Quartet, singing for pennies on street corners and in saloons.
After conspicuously stuffing his pockets with coal from the Burns Brothers coal yard one cold winter, he became known around the neighborhood as one of the Burns Brothers. Then he chose the name George, the nickname of his much-admired older brother Isadore. When he met Gracie Allen, he had played vaudeville theaters for more than a decade in a succession of acts that ranged all the way up to “Flipper and Friend,” co-starring (who else?) a partner who spent most of his time in the bath.
During the run of The Burns and Allen Show, Burns’ McCadden Productions developed several other comedy programs (including The Bob Cummings Show, Mona McCluskey, Mr. Ed, The People’s Choice, Life With Father, and No Time For Sergeants) and the suspense program Panic! In addition, Burns supervised the writing and production of The Burns and Allen Show. De Cordova says, “He has always been his own head writer. And as he wrote a joke, that is the way he wanted it on the screen. I mean this in a complimentary sense: He was a very tough taskmaster."
Following Gracie Allen's retirement, Burns starred in his own program on NBC with many of the regulars from his and Allen's show, including his son, Ronnie.
In 1975, at the age of 79, Burns began a second career in motion pictures, starring in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys and winning an Oscar for his performance. In 1977, he went on to play the title role in the first of three Oh, God! pictures, winning both popular and critical acclaim. Warner Bros. is currently developing a fourth Oh, God! film for him. (Though his office coffee mug is marked God, Burns says, "I am God only when they pay me.”)
“I am an actor,” he says. "I am not a comedian. I might be humorous. In other words, Milton Berle is a comedian; I’m not. I don’t put on funny hats. I don’t do that. I am myself, just as Danny Thomas is a great storyteller. I don’t tell stories. I talk about what happened."
His 1980 record album and single, “I Wish I Was Eighteen Again," were heard on radio stations across the country. In the past decade he has written five books, including How to Live to Be 100 — Or More!, The Ultimate Diet, Sex and Exercise Book, and Dr. Burns' Prescription for Happiness. His sixth book, Gracie: A Love Story, was recently published by Putnam. In addition, Burns frequently appears on television as a guest star and as the host of his own birthday specials. He continues to draw thousands to his personal appearances in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and Lake Tahoe showrooms and in theaters and concert halls around the nation.
And he is booked to play London’s Palladium at age 100. “For two weeks,” he says.
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating George Burns and Gracie Allen's induction in 1988.