George Burns (1896–1996) & Gracie Allen (c.1896–1964)
Flirtation acts were big in 1920s vaudeville, and some remained big into decades of television sitcoms. Burns & Allen became the best known of them because of their years of popularity in network radio, in movies and on television. Among their better contemporaries—and good friends—were Jesse Block (1900–1983) & Eva Sully (1902–1990).
For a while, their careers ran parallel. After vaudeville both ‘mixed double acts’ entered radio, but Block & Sully, though excellent, proved less popular, and their careers petered out with their USO work during WWII. Jesse Block found a new and profitable livelihood as a stockbroker.
In most flirtation acts the ‘feed’ or straightman was a wise-guy-on-the-make and the female, cute but dumb (or playing dumb), was the comedian. The act relied on ‘cross-talk,’ yet the pair often finished the act with a song-and-dance. Block & Sully hewed to the same formula as Burns & Allen. Both Gracie and Eva were ditzy ladies. Gracie Allen was demure yet off-kilter in her perceptions; Eva Sully was a bit brash and teasing.
After twenty years in showbiz (Burns began at age seven) and a veteran of a dozen unsuccessful small-time acts, George Burns ached to make it into the big-time as a comedian, so he didn’t start off as the straightman in the Burns & Allen vaudeville act. Ever savvy, Burns sensed the audience’s connection with Gracie, so he switched roles.
Gracie shone as the comedian. George wrote and managed the act, experience that served him well when he negotiated the act’s way into sixteen seasons on CBS radio, eight years on CBS television, and thirteen features and eight shorts together.
Midway in that long partnership, the act began to sag; both George and Gracie were well into their forties and still flirting on radio. George recognized the problem and the pair changed to playing married adults (as they had been in private life since 1926). His role softened from frequent exasperation into the wry, tolerant and amused helpmate, and Gracie, ever more ladylike and less extreme. The change extended their stardom.
When Gracie retired in 1958, George went out as a single in posh nightclubs and attempted a few television series that failed to hit. When his best friend Jack Benny died in 1926, Irving Fein, Jack’s capable and shrewd agent took over Burns’ career and, at age seventy-nine, George found the greatest fame in his life as winner of supporting Oscar in the film of Neil Simon’s stage hit, The Sunshine Boys (a role that had been originally set for the late Jack Benny).
For the next twenty years, as a grand old man in the top tier of show business, George played the wise and naughty grandpa. He explained, “I can’t die; I’m booked.” And he was—with unfulfilled contracts for two years past his death at age one hundred.