A Tribute to the great comedienne Gracie Allen by guest blogger Lauren Milberger.
They say the great ones never truly know how great they are -that the great ones do it without effort, without the knowledge of doing it any other way – doing what comes naturally. Gracie Allen was that kind of woman, that kind of comedian. But of course she wasn’t as black and white as the medium in which she played. Gracie Allen never gave the same performance twice; she had no conception of it. If she had to eat on camera she ate on camera; if she had to darn a sock she’d darn a sock. Being truthful in her work was a given to Gracie long before the phrase “Method Acting” became part of our lexicon. She unknowingly went against convention in her Vaudeville days, wearing whatever she liked on stage (always a nice dress) at a time when performers wore the same outfit each night – costume was as much a part of the act as the lines or moves themselves. When asked by her husband and comedy partner, George Burns, one night why she brought her purse on stage when the previous night she had not, she replied simply, “A lady always carries a purse.” When asked by a director of a Burns & Allen feature film if she could “cheat” towards the camera while eating, she answered, “But this is how I eat breakfast.” Everything Gracie Allen the character said on stage, Gracie Allen the woman believed, and so in turn did the audience.
Gracie Allen’s onstage persona was that of a scatterbrained woman with her own sense of logic – her mind was an open book. In real life, Gracie Allen almost never gave an interview as herself; to find an interview, usually very early in her career, where she speaks as herself, is rare. Gracie Allen was a very private and humble woman. She believed her own personality was not at all interesting and that the public cared only for her on stage persona, so why do interviews as herself. This kept Gracie Allen’s real life shrouded in mystery and -whether she knew it or not – gave her a final vestige of privacy.
And who would have blamed Gracie’s audience for being fooled into thinking she was her fictional persona? After all , Gracie Allen, wife of George Burns, mother and Vaudeville/Radio/TV/movie star, was playing a woman named Gracie Allen, wife of George Burns, mother and Vaudeville/Radio/TV/movie star; even in almost all of Gracie’s movies her character had the first name Gracie and/or last name Allen. Not to mention Burns and Allen used many of the real-life names of Gracie’s family members in the Burns and Allen comedy act. Even her real age is a mystery, as she never revealed it even to her husband and family. It was only after the 1900 census as well as her high school yearbook were discovered that her true age came to light. What is mostly known about Gracie, beyond her ditzy character, is from second hand sources, such as George Burns himself as well as her friends and family. Therefore, reconstructing the real Gracie Allen is more complicated than her character’s sense of logic.
She was kind, giving, fiercely loyal and fought for what she felt was fair and just in the world. Her motto was simply, “To be professional; on time and don’t push me around because I’m small.”(Burns 1988) The 5’1″ slip of a woman had that Irish passion and never let anyone forget it. Once in a Vaudeville act, after George refused to take a joke out of the act she didn’t think was funny, Gracie refused to answer George’s straight line – each and every time until George took the joke out of the act. Another time, in New Orleans, a local dry cleaner ruined an expensive dress of Gracie’s and refused to reimburse her for the damage; Gracie stepped out of the act in different intervals each night in the middle of a joke, to let the audience know of her dissatisfaction, until the dry cleaner paid her back. Once, outside the Brown Derby, Gracie literally kicked George in the ass for not opening a door for her.
She helped her friends (and enemies) out with money when Vaudeville died, adopted two children including a son whom most would have considered sickly at the time, and made sure her sisters had everything they needed when they both were lost in a sea of dementia (Something she feared would happen to herself) She did all this while remaining, as Gracie would refer to herself, “a lady.” She was embarrassed by the large burn scars on her left arm from a childhood accident (She always wore long sleeves because of it), and the fact that she had two differently-colored eyes, but according to George she never complained about either flaw. In fact, if she did complain about something one knew it was a big deal – she was a Vaudeville trooper on-and off-stage. This made her appearance very important to her; something she was proud of. George remarked she never left the house with a hair out of place or her make-up less than perfect.
Gracie had unresolved issues with her father, also a Vaudeville hoofer, who had abandoned her family when Gracie was a child – so much so that when Gracie’s father came backstage to see his now-famous daughter, Gracie’s only comment on the matter was: he had nothing to say to her when she was growing up and therefore she had nothing to say to him now. She was however very close to the rest of her family, her mother and sisters, and she loved her children fiercely.
She didn’t think she was funny, even though American considered her its comedy sweetheart, stating that she knew funny, but wasn’t funny. When asked to say something funny her response was, “Charlie Chaplin.” George Burns says the only real joke he ever heard Gracie tell, after being egged on by friends was, “An Irishman walked out of a bar.” She hated her feet, loved gossip and her only wish was be able to wear a strapless, sleeveless, evening gown – the one thing her money and fame could not provide her.
In August 1932 The World Telegraph interviewed George and Gracie in their NY hotel room; it’s one of the rare interviews where Gracie speaks as herself. She remarks, in the interview, how she is not looking to play Shakespeare and someday hopes to have enough money to retire and never work again. The reporter even mentions how during the interview Miss Allen kept staring out the window, waiting for her daughter and nanny to come back from a stroll in the park. This would be in direct parallel to her husband George Burns, who felt performing was his life and performed well into his 90’s – one might say that after Gracie’s passing, show business was what gave him the reason to live so long.
It is a lovely interview and a rare glimpse into Gracie’s personality and her dynamic with George. Her excitement about their travels around Europe lifts off the page with the same enthusiasm George had talking about show-business. At one point, George, ever the raconteur, exuberantly tells the interviewer that he can’t sit still when he talks: “I have to walk around and act out everything,” to which Gracie mutters, “But perhaps you noticed that,” looking on him lovingly before sharing an admiring smile (The New York World Telegraph 1932).
The love between George and Gracie is well-documented; he adored her and lauded her as the genesis of all his success, which was half-true. They were both responsible for each other’s successes and they each referred to the other as the talented one. The difference was George lived longer to tell the tale. But after all, being the literal brains behind their act as the writer, storytelling was George’s talent. Their love story sounds like something out of a storybook. He loved her, and pursued her, in Vaudeville while Gracie claimed she loved another. And like a great act one finish, after giving Gracie an ultimatum to marry him and drop her fiancé, or break up the act, Gracie called him early Christmas morning and agreed to marry him.
Together his sense of humor and her rare talent for the stage brought them great success as a team in real life as well as show business. And although their Dumb Dora act – the girl/boy double act with a nitwit woman and smart straight man – wasn’t anything new for the time, Burns and Allen brought their originality – themselves -to their work, making it something new and innovative. But that wasn’t how it started. When Gracie first met George he was doing an act that was just imitations of other, more established Big Time acts. But his act was breaking up and George needed a new partner. Enter Gracie Allen, stage right, an out-of-work hoofer whose short respite from show business in stenography classes was a bust. They both needed new partners and George’s act was cheaper so they agreed to do his “new” act. Only just like George’s old act his “new” act was neither new nor innovative. The act consisted of jokes straight out of joke books – safe material – material that was sure to keep the fearful Burns employed, as new untested material was far too risky. George would later admit he had spent so much time in Small Time Vaudeville he was fearful of being more; he was happy coasting–he just couldn’t admit it. But the more George and Gracie worked together the more confidence he seemed to get and the more new material he wrote – until it was the whole act. George went from a twenty-eight-year-old playing it safe to a confident star that played The Big Time, The Palace. They were each other’s loves and muses – each encouraging the other.
And although Gracie Allen spoke of retirement as early as 1932, and not too long after she had the money to do so, Gracie didn’t retire until her heart become too weak to continue in 1958. Gracie Allen’s heart perhaps had loved too much to go on. She loved her husband George so much that she stayed in show business longer than she would have wanted to for his sake. She knew that show business was the breath of life to her husband – “He needs it for his metabolism,” She told Carol Channing on teaching Carol her old Burns and Allen act, when Carol appeared with George in Gracie’s place. (Burns 1988) And once George ventured out on his own she reminded him of the lessons she had taught him when they first met- truthfulness. If he didn’t believe what he was saying, how could the audience? “All you need in acting is honesty, and if you can fake that you’ve got it made, “George would always joke later in his life. But George believed as early as the 1940’s that, according to his biography on Gracie, “a joke just isn’t funny unless it has some truth in it;” he just needed to learn how to incorporated that into his deliver. (Burns 1988) George said he learned a lot from Gracie, but the most important was, “She taught me that you’ve got to make it sound like you’ve never said it before …A lot of Gracie rubbed off on me.” (People October 31, 1988 Vol. 30 No. 18)
*George Burns won the academy award for Best Supporting Actor in 1976.
Lauren Milberger is an actor/writer who resides in NYC. Her essay “George Burns and Gracie Allen: Double Act” is a part of the essay book “Playbills to Photoplays: Stage Performers Who Pioneered Talkies” and her play The Onion: First Dates was produced, co-starring herself, at The Warehouse Theatre in SC, as part of the Southern Slam Festival. She is currently working on her play The Raconteurs: The Story of Burns and Allen. Information and workshop enquires can be made to www.laurenmilberger.com. For updates and news please like Burnsallenproject on Facebook – follow @BurnsAllenplay on Twitter.