Stars of Vaudeville #38: Burns and Allen
Originally posted in 2009
Today is Gracie Allen’s birthday
Burns and Allen are the most successful “Dumb Dora” act (or male-female comedy team) of all time. Countless such acts came before them, and plenty after them, but none is as memorable as this pair, who were at the top of their game for forty years. The success of the act is most frequently chalked up to Gracie Allen’s unique artistry, but the fact is, George Burns was among the best straight men who ever walked the earth. He frequently protested that Gracie was the whole act and that he had no talent but this was just a public pose. Deep down he had to have known better. He wrote much of their material for one thing, and his material was consistently good, better than Bob Hope’s, for example. Furthermore, he proved himself a marvelous comedian on his own after Grace retired. Burns and Allen was a true partnership.
What set the act apart from all the other Dumb Dora acts was Gracie’s skill as a comic actress. Contrary to the tradition, which is to dress the Dumb Dora in loud, sexy, “funny” clothes, Gracie would dress tastefully in some fashionable, but normal, outfit from the sort of place where all the women in the audience shopped. She was not vulgar or burlesquy. There was no suggestion that she was “easy”. At 5 feet tall, 100 pounds, she was hardly the show-girl “babe” type. She was simply dumb, and a little bit crazy. Furthermore, she did not even play dumb, although her naturally high pitched voice helped reinforce the image that she was. As far as you knew it by watching her body language she was a perfectly intelligent woman, completely in the right and sincere about whatever she was talking about. The twist was, she was talking preposterous nonsense.
From their sketch “Dizzy”
A man comes out, puts his arms around Gracie, and kisses her, and she kisses him. They wave to each other as he backs offstage. Gracie returns to George center stage.
Gracie: Who was that?
George: You don’t know?
Gracie: No, my mother told me never to talk to strangers.
George: That makes sense.
Gracie: This always happens to me. On my way in, a man stopped me at the stage door and said, “Hi, you cutie, how about a bite tonight after the show?”
George: And you said?
Gracie: I said “I’ll be busy after the show, but I’m not doing anything right now, so I bit him.
George Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum in 1896, one of 12 kids from a poor family on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His parents were orthodox Jews, the mother from Poland, the father from Austria. He started dancing on street corners at age seven for coins. His first real act,was the Pee Wee Quartet, a juvenile singing act. He performed with perhaps dozens of failed acts (under as many names) previous to teaming up with Allen: Comedy acts, song and dance acts, even a trained seal act. One of the most serious of his earlier partners was the dancer Hermosa Jose, who was also his first wife. He was teamed with Billy Lorraine in 1923 (the two did impressions), when Burns decided he want to do a Dumb Dora act instead, because he has just copped a bunch of good jokes from a college humor magazine of that sort.
As it happened, Gracie Allen was looking for an act herself at that very time. Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen was born to a show business family in San Francisco in 1906. Her father, a well-known Irish clog dancer, ran out on the family when Gracie was five. When she was a teenager she joined a song and dance act with her sisters Bessie, Pearl and Hazel – the Four Colleens. She then joined a dramatic act owned by a man named Larry Reilly but he canned her for getting better reviews than he did.
This was the state of her career when she went to go see George Burns. Long before any romance had sparked between them, they decided to try working together, all done in a tidy, businesslike fashion. Burns frequently testified that she was the straightman at first, and that he had all the funny lines – but she got all the laughs anyway. So they had to adjust the act to make her the “funny” partner. The act was instantly popular, because Gracie’s approach was so fresh. She didn’t “act”, or play to the house. She always just simply and sincerely spoke to George in character (whom she was nothing like in real life, incidentally).
The act’s finish was also unique. They’d dance a bit, the music would stop, they’d do a joke, the music would resume, and the process would repeat.
By 1925, they had really made the big time with a tour of the Orpheum Circuit. Comedy writer Al Boasberg (who also wrote for Block and Sully, another Dumb Dora act, and later wrote for the Marx Brothers), wrote a sketch for them called “Lamb Chops” that was probably the best thing they ever did. A 1929 Vitaphone short of this act survives, and it is an eye-opener, to see the pair of them so young, so fresh, and at the peak of their powers. One can see why this is the act that put them over—that made them stars for decades to come.
In 1926, the two were married but not before Gracie put George through his paces. She had been dating Benny Ryan, but George forced her to choose, and she finally acquiesced. The next few decades of their career record triumph after triumph. In 1926, they signed a five year contract with Keith-Orpheum. In 1928, they made a successful tour of England. Also, in 1928 they played the Palace for the first time, which Burns described as the greatest night of his life. The team was a smash at the Palace, and Gracie was invited to m.c., the first female ever so distinguished at the Palace. In 1929, they make their first short for films for Paramount, and several features through the 1930s. Gracie frequently worked without George in films; her last role was in Mrs. North in 1941.
Eddie Cantor booked Gracie as a solo for radio in 1930. The team did lots of spots on other people’s shows over the months. In 1932, Burns and Allen became regulars on Guy Lombardo’s program. When Lombardo left the next season, Burns and Allen took over, renaming the show “The Adventures of Gracie.” Their theme song, which they used through the remainder of their career was “Love Nest.” Their popular radio show ran until 1950, at which point they made the transition to television.
Their television show, which ran for eight years, was a strange hybrid. Though there was a situation comedy element, with a typical “house” set, each show was framed by Burns doing a Brechtian style “direct address” – stand up material and confidential little conversations with the television audience. When Gracie, who had a bad heart (among numerous other conditions) retired in 1958, Burns concentrated on a number of other projects. His production company, McCadden productions, was responsible for bring Mr. Ed to the screen. A George Burns Show bit the dust after a single season, suffering the same fate, for many of the same reasons, as Sonny Bono’s The Sonny Comedy Revue would ten years later. With Gracie in retirement, Burns seemed to be floundering for quite some time. A solo act was tried in Vegas, and then he teamed up with Carol Channing as a sort of substitute for Gracie, a strange instinct to say the least. In 1964, he did a short lived sit com with Connie Stevens called Wendy and Me. That was the year, Gracie finally succumbed to her heart condition, ironically one of the youngest of her generation of vaudevillians to pass into the hereafter.
After a decade of grieving (and who wouldn’t take so long after the loss of such a partner?) Burns began to emerge from his cocoon. With a gentleman named Irving Fein as his manager, he made one of the most astounding comebacks in show business. In fact, it was more than a comeback, for Burns as a solo act had never been a success. The turnaround began with a role in the 1975 Neil Simon film The Sunshine Boys, a part originally intended for Jack Benny, who had just passed away. Burns had been slated to deliver the eulogy at Benny’s funeral, but was too emotionally distraught, and so passed the grim duty on to Bob Hope.
For the next twenty years, Burns was a first class star, sort of Hollywood’s token old guy.
For a whole generation of fans (the author included) George Burns was just George Burns – we had never known him with Gracie, and could discover her only through detective work. But George Burns – there he was in films, such as “Oh, God” (1978) and “Going in Style” (1979), countless TV appearances, and humor books (practically one a year, it seemed). He was at his best on talk shows, in conversation with people like Larry King or Johnny Carson, where he could tell his seemingly endless supply of show business anecdotes and ad libs, and reveal that he was, indeed, a very funny man, in his own right. Burns died in 1996, stubbornly holding out for 100. At the point, he had been a performer for 93 years.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc