There is an old saw that supposes when a man marries, he wants his wife to stay the same sweet, loving girl she was when they met while the woman immediately begins to change the man into her ideal of manhood. Like so many examples of folk wisdom, this old saw seems to be true to a greater or lesser extent in every relationship, and there will always be exceptions. For an illustration, we need look no further than one of the most successful and beloved couples in show business, George Burns and Gracie Allen.
George and Gracie came from different backgrounds, even different ends of the country. Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen was born in San Francisco on July 26, sometime between 1895 and 1906, no one is really sure, including George. Gracie famously claimed that she was born in 1906, and the records were lost in the Great Earthquake and Fire (“But the San Francisco Earthquake was in April of 1906 and your birthday is on July 27?” “It was a really big earthquake!”) Singing, dancing, and entertaining were part of the Allen household even before Gracie was born, and when she was old enough she joined her sisters as one of “The Four Colleens” dance troupe, and began making some small vaudeville engagements. She was still a teen when she hit the road with “Larry Reilly and Company”, the company being Gracie and her sisters. One by one, her other sisters dropped out of the act, and in New Jersey, Reilly changed the name of the act to just “Larry Reilly”. Gracie dropped out of the act, she hadn’t had much billing before, but no billing was insufferable.
Nathan Birnbaum was born in New York City, 1896, the ninth of twelve children born to Romanian Jews who had immigrated to America. When father Louis Birnbaum died suddenly during the influenza epidemic of 1903, little Nattie went to work at whatever he could find, shining shoes, peddling newspapers, or just running errands. When he was seven, he was hired with a team of boys to make syrup in the basement of a candy shop. Bored with stirring the syrup, the boys began harmonizing and were heard by the postman who fancied himself an agent. When he insisted that the boys sing again, a crowd gathered and Nattie realized that he had found the way he wanted to make a living.
There are different versions of how Nattie Birnbaum became George Burns, all of which were told by George himself. One is that he picked up the name because there was a George H. Burns and a George J. Burns both playing in the Major Leagues, and the name seemed lucky. Another is that his brother Izzy wanted to be called George and then he added the last name after reading it off of a Burns Bros. Coal Company wagon. He began performing wherever he could find an audience, singing on ferries, at bus stops, in front of taverns, eventually hitting the vaudeville circuit. He tried working as a song and dance man, a monologist, as part of a comedy team, as part of a dance team, even with a trained seal.
George happened to be in New Jersey when his act with Billy Lorraine was breaking up. A mutual friend was Gracie’s roommate and introduced them. George later said that as soon as he heard Gracie’s delicate voice, he knew she was a dancer. However, they found that they had enough in common to put together a new act. They started as dance partners and began adding patter, eventually evolving into what was known as a “park bench act”. The park bench act was a small drama which took place between a man and woman on a bench and was popular with theater owners because it could be performed in front of the curtain (while the scenery was being reset for the next act).
As originally conceived, the act consisted of Gracie asking a seemingly innocent question and George supplying a funny answer. After just a few performances, George realized that Gracie was getting more laughs with her questions than he got with the funny answers, so he rewrote the material reversing the roles and they became a hit. Audiences were falling in love with Gracie Allen. And so was George Burns.
The only problem was that Gracie was in love with an Irish tenor named Benny Ryan. Benny fully intended to marry Gracie, but luckily for George, Burns and Allen landed a booking on the Orpheum Circuit. Gracie was not sure she wanted to make the trip, even though her friend Mary Livingstone, Jack Benny‘s wife, pointed out that she would finally get to see her picture in the lobby of the San Francisco Orpheum Theater. Grace was finally convinced to make the tour, so long as their wages were increased by $50 a week. No wonder George was smitten.
When they returned to New York, Gracie found out that Benny was on tour again and they could not marry until he returned. George pressed his suit with little success. Finally, he was asked to play Santa at a party at the Benny’s Christmas party. Seeing his chances with Gracie slipping away, he was an incredibly surly Santa (Gracie was late because she was waiting for a phone call from Ryan). When he opened Gracie’s gift, signed “To Nattie, With all My Love”, he grumped, “All your love? Ha ha ha, you don’t even know what love means!” and left in a huff. Gracie ran into the bedroom, crying, then realized that if Nattie Birnbaum could make her cry, she must be in love. They were married on January 7, 1925, in Cleveland, Ohio, between performances.
As their vaudeville fame grew, Burns and Allen built a reputation as a reliable “disappointment act”. Whenever the scheduled act failed to make it to the theater, the disappointment act could be called upon at the last minute to go on. A similar thing happened at Paramount’s New York studios in 1929 when Fred Allen was scheduled to make a short talking film. Someone on the set had the idea of calling George and Gracie, who went through their “Lambchops” routine.
1929, but NBC failed to show any interest when they auditioned after returning to the US in 1930. Guy Lombardo began using them as part of his show on CBS, and when Lombardo moved to NBC, his spot was filled by The Adventures of Gracie beginning in the 1934 fall season. Their radio act was very similar to their patter routines in vaudeville, but the writing became a challenge. In vaudeville, George could create a bit which they would perfect according to audience reactions, and before the act became stale they would be moving on to another city. For a regular radio program, they needed fresh material every week so a team of writers was hired. George would select the best gags, then arrange them to fit into the show. This also gave him the opportunity to introduce the running gags which eventually ensure Burns and Allen as stars.
The first running gag was “Where is Gracie’s Brother?” routine. The gag actually began while they were still working with Guy Lombardo and soon became a cross-network phenomenon. Not only did they use the gag on their own show, Gracie would appear on other programs to ask if the characters had seen her brother. The laughs finally came to an end when Rudy Vallee let it slip that Gracie’s real brother, a mild-mannered accountant in San Francisco, was not amused by the attention and had in fact gone into hiding for a time.
The next big running gag came during the Presidential election of 1940 when Gracie jokingly announced that she was running on the “Surprise Party” ticket. The bit was expected to be a short-lived gag on the air, but eventually, a Surprise Party Convention was scheduled in Omaha, Nebraska, and George and Gracie made a whistle-stop tour along the way. Although she did not distract Roosevelt or Wilkie that much, with War Clouds gathering, she did give a troubled nation more than a little to smile about.
Although it was no secret that Burns and Allen were a married couple, their radio program was still based on a park bench routine, and George was savvy enough to realize that they were getting a little mature to keep pulling it off. He made the decision to remake the show as a situation comedy where he and Gracie would be a married couple in the entertainment industry. Perhaps not much of a stretch, but domestic bliss combined with Gracie’s illogical-logic was enough laughs for many more years.
The post-War era on radio was marked mostly by the exodus of the top performers to television, but few made the transition as gracefully as Burns and Allen. George took a few stylistic risks with The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, most notably breaking the “fourth wall” and commenting on the action directly to the audience. He said that he knew it was an original idea because he originally stole it from Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. The one thing that he wisely refused to do was mess with Gracie’s character, knowing full well that Gracie was the reason for his success. Gracie was less happy with the arrangement.
George had worked full time on the radio program, putting together the script, arranging guests, and the other chores required to produce a weekly program. Gracie had to show up for a couple of hours’ rehearsal each week, and the live broadcast but the rest of her time could be dedicated to being a housewife, which she relished. For TV, she had to work at learning her lines, do more complicated rehearsals, make-up sessions, as well as taping the show. She quickly tired, but continued to do it, mostly to keep George happy. Finally, she got to the point of announcing that she would retire at the end of the 1958 season. George tried to keep the show going with the same supporting cast without his wife, but, just as he knew it would, it simply did not work without Gracie.
When Gracie retired from showbiz, she really retired. There were countless offers for her to make films or appear as a guest on several TV shows, but they would have gotten in the way of her gardening, shopping, and the other things that she enjoyed. However, her work schedule, while she was in TV, had taken a toll on her health. She had a history of cardiac problems, and she died of a heart attack at her Hollywood home in 1964.
George opened his 1988 memoir by admitting, “For forty years my act consisted of one joke. And then she died.” George Burns without Gracie Allen seemed like an impossibility. He immersed himself in his work as a producer and made a few tours of the nightclub circuit with various actresses playing the Gracie role, including Carol Channing, Jane Russell, and Connie Haines. His good friend, Jack Benny, had been scheduled to play a lead in the film version of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys (1975) but passed away before production began. George took the role and went on to establish himself as one of the grand old men of show business. He continued to work until his death on March 9, 1996, 49 days after his 100th birthday.
George Burns has been honored with three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6510 Hollywood Blvd for his contributions to Television, at 1639 Vine St for Motion Pictures, and at 6672 Hollywood Blvd for Live Performance. Gracie Allen’s Star for Television is also at 6672 Hollywood Blvd