George Burns (born New York January 20, 1896-died Beverly Hills, March 9, 1996) and Gracie Allen (July 26, 1906 – August 27, 1964) were the most popular comic duo of the 20th century in vaudeville and in the movies as well as on radio and television. Before they found each other neither had had tremendous success and for eight years after they got together they were only passably popular.
Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum always loved show business and created the Pee Wee Quartet when he was only seven years old. Because he and friend Abie Kaplan picked up extra coal that fell off the Burns Brothers coal trucks, the name Burns began to attach itself to him. Burns knocked around for years in vaudeville with many different partners, never achieving significant success. He should have given up but he loved performing so much that he could not imagine doing anything else. Often he would sing or do some hoofing although he never was a major threat in either area. He often spoke of singing Spanish-American War songs such as I”ll Be Waiting for You Bill When You Come Back From San Juan Hill and ragtime offerings like Percy Wenrich’s Red Rose Rag, introduced originally by Dolly Connolly.
However, Burns and Allen got together, they didn’t become overnight stars since Gracie was the straight one and George the comic. Gracie in 1922 was an accomplished dancer and tolerable singer, from a show business family which was famous for their Irish clogging. Gradually, Burns realized that Gracie was getting more laughs asking the
straight lines than he was with the punch lines and their roles were reversed. Eventually they also latched on to a gag writer named Al Boasberg, a vaudeville legend who was good at understanding the chemistry of teams or the special identity of individual performers and could write to their strengths.
The formula that evolved was that George would say something and Gracie would react in a confused manner that often took the words told to her too literally or else she misinterpreted them entirely. A typical routine might have Gracie coming in and telling George he’s wanted on the phone. George would ask who it was and Gracie would say that she didn’t know but that for sure the caller was Hawaiian. When asked how she knew that fact without the calling stating it, she would say that the caller said he was “Brown from the Morning Sun.’
Boasberg could write these malapropism routines with such profusion that Burns and Allen could collect regular routines from him. He could also define your persona– such as Jack Benny the miser, Bob Hope the wise guy coward, etc.– but he was so good at writing nut comedy that he also wrote for Block and Sully, an even nuttier husband and wife duo who were a similar but even goofier act than Burns and Allen. Boasberg died by telling a joke at a party, suffering a heart attack and falling down a flight of stairs which vaudevillians also described as “his big finish”.
The Burns and Allen routine graced a number of films where they also got to do a soft shoe dance or even an Irish jig for Gracie. They were considered sure-fire comedy either in short films from 1929 on or as additions to feature films with the likes of Fred Astaire. But there was a danger that too much of Gracie’s silliness and nasally voice could get tiresome as in the movie The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939) as Gracie helps sleuth Philo Vance (Warren William) solve a case by providing idiotic ideas to him. Gracie’s zaniness made her even more popular than George Burns and by 1940 when she decided on her radio show to run for president of the United States by forming a new Surprise Party, it proved to be more than a one-show gimmick and actually led to a national silly craze! Eventually, Burns and Allen found a wonderful formula whereby Gracie would misunderstand something and cause havoc in her home or for her neighbors or mailman or local store owners. This played out very successfully on their very popular radio show and later their CBS television show which proved innovative in a number of ways.
First of all, George Burns would stop and speak directly to the audience right in the middle of the program, breaking down the wall between audience and performer, all the time puffing on and holding a cigar. Burns had a particular cadence to his vocal patterning and was considered one of the best straight men in the business. Another unusual feature of the program was the integration of the commercials, usually done by cast member Harry Von Zell, right into the program. Carnation Evaporated Milk and other products was the sponsor for most of the years of the television series and Von Zell was both the show’s announcer and often a regular part of the show which was greatly enhanced by Gracie’s neighbor Blanche on the show, played by Bea Bernadaret. Gracie Allen had an extraordinary ability to remember huge amounts of dialogue which she could repeat without messing up so much as a syllable. Over time however and with her health failing due to a heart condition, she began to look ill on camera and retired in 1958, passing away shortly after her 58th birthday, although she looked much older. Burns floundered for a time and tried to continue his act with various partners, even playing Las Vegas with film actress, singer and dancer Connie Stevens but it lacked the same magic that Burns had with Gracie as Stevens was too much of a sex kitten, and by the later sixties the dumb beautiful blonde act was getting tiresome and even seriously offensive to many Americans. Burns actually began to find greater success on his own, hosting variety shows with long-time guests such as Bob Hope, his dear friends Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor and George Jessel. Gradually, Burns became a superstar all over again as the world’s oldest stand-up comedian playing in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys (1975) opposite Walter Matthau, for which he won an Academy Award at age 81 for Best Supporting Actor. He also appeared in the John Denver-starring film Oh God! (1977) and its sequel.
In 1980 came a hit single called I Wish I Was 18 Again, which spawned two long-playing records by Burns featuring the singing he so loved to do. Through the 1970s and 1980s Burns also published his memoirs and observations in a whole series of biographical and advice books which were widely read. With these boosts, he was able to continue his career guesting on variety shows and generally having a great time until a slip in his shower helped to bring down the final curtain which saw him in the limelight and still with potential bookings at age 100! Illness reluctantly forced him to cancel an engagement at Caesar’s Palace in his 100th year.
The University of Arizona collection is proud to have sheet music featuring Burns and Allen and a trunk belonging to them which also contained some shoes from Gracie Allen.