Burns and Allen

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Burns and Allen in 1952

Burns and Allen was an American comedy duo consisting of George Burns (1896–1996) and his wife, Gracie Allen (1895–1964). They worked together as a comedy team in vaudeville, films, radio and television and achieved great success over four decades.

Vaudeville[edit]

Burns and Allen met in 1922 and first performed together at the Hill Street Theatre in Newark, New Jersey, continued in small town vaudeville theaters, married in Cleveland on January 7, 1926, and moved up a notch when they signed with the Keith-Albee-Orpheum circuit in 1927.

Burns wrote most of the material and played the straight man. Allen played a silly, addle-headed woman, a role often attributed to the "Dumb Dora" stereotype common in early 20th-century vaudeville comedy. Early on, the team had played the opposite roles until they noticed that the audience was laughing at Gracie's straight lines, so they made the change. In later years, each attributed their success to the other.

The Burns and Allen team was not an overnight sensation. "We were a good man-and-woman act," Burns said, "but we were not headliners or stars or featured attractions. We were on the bill with them. There would be a star or two stars and a featured attraction, and then we would come — fourth billing in an eight-act show." Their career changed direction when they made their first film.[1]:26

Motion pictures[edit]

In the early days of talking pictures, the studios eagerly hired actors who knew how to deliver dialogue or songs. The most prolific of these studios was Warner Bros., whose Vitaphone Varieties shorts captured vaudeville headliners of the 1920s on film.

Burns and Allen earned a reputation as a reliable "disappointment act" (someone who could fill in for a sick or otherwise absent performer on a moment's notice). So it went with their film debut. They were last-minute replacements for another act (Fred Allen) and ran through their patter-and-song routine in Lambchops (1929). After a recent restoration, this film was re-released theatrically.

Paramount Pictures used its East Coast studio to film New York-based stage and vaudeville stars. Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen, Ethel Merman and Smith and Dale were among the top acts seen in Paramount shorts. Burns and Allen joined the Paramount roster in 1930 and made a string of one-reel comedies through 1933, usually written by Burns and featuring future Hollywood character actors such as Barton MacLane and Chester Clute.

In 1932, Paramount produced an all-star musical comedy, The Big Broadcast, featuring the nation's hottest radio personalities. Burns and Allen were recruited, and made such an impression that they continued to make guest appearances in Paramount features through 1937. Most of these used the Big Broadcast formula of an all-star comedy cast. In 1935 the team also starred in a pair of low-budget features, Here Comes Cookie and Love in Bloom.

At RKO, Fred Astaire succeeded in his efforts to make a musical feature without Ginger Rogers, and the studio borrowed Burns and Allen from Paramount for the 1937 film, A Damsel in Distress. Their names appeared with Astaire's before the title. Under contract to RKO, the young Joan Fontaine was assigned as Astaire's romantic interest, but when she proved to be an inadequate dance partner Astaire did most of his dancing with Burns and Allen. The trio's inspired comic dance in the film's "Fun House" sequence earned an Academy Award for choreographer Hermes Pan.[2]:112[3] Burns suggested a dance number that employs whiskbrooms as props, used in vaudeville by a duo called Evans and Evans. He bought the idea and auditioned the routine for Astaire, with Allen and the surviving member of the vaudeville team.[4]

This movie led Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to cast Burns and Allen in its Eleanor Powell musical, Honolulu (1939). This was their last film as a team; Gracie made two subsequent film appearances on her own, but Burns and Allen did not return to the cameras until their television series in 1950.

Filmography[edit]

Year Title Notes
1929 Lambchops Vitaphone Varieties short[5] added to the National Film Registry in 1999[6]
DVD release 2007[7][8]
1930 Fit to Be Tied Short[9]
DVD release 2006[10][11]
1931 Pulling a Bone Short[12]
1931 The Antique Shop Short directed by Ray Cozine[13][14]
1931 Once Over, Light Short[15]
1931 100% Service Short directed by Ray Cozine[16][14]
DVD release 2006[10][11]
1931 Oh, My Operation Short directed by Ray Cozine[17][14]
1932 The Babbling Brook Short[18]
1932 The Big Broadcast [19]
1932 Your Hat Short[20]
1933 Let's Dance Short directed by Aubrey Scotto[21][14]
1933 Walking the Baby Short[22]
1933 International House [23]
1933 College Humor [24]
1934 Six of a Kind [25]
1934 We're Not Dressing [26]
1934 Many Happy Returns [27]
1935 Love in Bloom [28]
1935 Here Comes Cookie [29]
1935 The Big Broadcast of 1936 [30]
1936 The Big Broadcast of 1937 [31]
1936 College Holiday [32]
1937 A Damsel in Distress [4]
1938 College Swing [33]
1939 Honolulu [34]

Radio[edit]

Burns and Allen, Maxwell House Coffee Time (1945–49)

In 1929 Burns and Allen made their first radio appearance in London on the BBC. Back in America, they failed at a 1930 NBC audition. After a solo appearance by Gracie on Eddie Cantor's radio show, they were heard together on Rudy Vallee's The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour and on February 15, 1932, they became regulars on The Guy Lombardo Show on CBS. When Lombardo switched to NBC, Burns and Allen took over his CBS spot with The Adventures of Gracie beginning September 19, 1934.

Along the way, the duo launched the temporary running gag that made them near-irrevocable radio stars: the famous hunt for Gracie's "lost brother," which began on January 4, 1933 and eventually became a cross-network phenomenon. Gracie was also liable to turn up on other shows (especially those produced by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, which produced the Burns & Allen series) looking for her brother. Bad publicity after a bid by NBC to squelch the stunt — and an accidental mention by Rudy Vallee on his Fleischmann's Hour — helped the stunt continue, according to radio historian John Dunning's On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, which also mentioned that Gracie's real brother, a "publicity-shy accountant" living in San Francisco, went into hiding until the gag ran its course.

Burns and Allen followed this up with another stunt: "Gracie Allen for President." During the election year of 1940, Gracie represented the fictitious Surprise Party and advocated nonsense as part of her platform. The "campaign" was successful enough for Gracie to actually receive write-in votes on election day.

The title of their top-rated show changed to The Burns and Allen Show on September 26, 1936. One successful episode, "Grandpa's 92nd Birthday", aired July 8, 1940. In 1941 they moved from comedy patter into a successful sitcom format, continuing with shows on NBC and CBS until May 17, 1950. As in the early days of radio, the sponsor's name became the show title, such as Maxwell House Coffee Time (1945–49).

Burns and Allen had several regulars on radio, including Toby Reed, Gale Gordon, Bea Benaderet, Gracie's real-life friend Mary "Bubbles" Kelly, Ray Noble, singers Jimmy Cash and Tony Martin and actor/writer/director Elliott Lewis. The Sportsmen Quartet (appearing as "The Swantet" during the years the show was sponsored by Swan Soap) supplied songs and occasionally backed up Cash. Meredith Willson, Artie Shaw and announcers Bill Goodwin and Harry Von Zell, who were usually made a part of the evening's doings, often as additional comic foils for the duo.

For a long time they continued their "flirtation act" with Burns as Allen's most persistent suitor. Their real-life marriage was not written into the show until 1941, when Burns noticed that their ratings were slowly but steadily slipping. He realized that he and Gracie "were too old for our jokes", and revised the format to include husband-and-wife characters in a situation-comedy setting. Burns's assessment was correct, and the Burns and Allen program went on to new heights.

Recordings of 176 episodes of the radio shows circulate on the web, CDs and DVDs — including all installments of the "Gracie for President" routine and some of the "lost brother" episodes.

Broadcast history[edit]

Year Title Notes
1929 BBC, London First radio appearance of Burns and Allen[35]:124
February 15, 1932 – September 13, 1933 The Robert Burns Panatela Program CBS, 30 minutes
Burns and Allen join Guy Lombardo as featured performers
Becomes The White Owl Program May 31, 1933[36]:58[37]
December 20, 1933 – June 13, 1934 The White Owl Program CBS, 30 minutes
Burns and Allen headline their own show[36]:58[37]
September 19, 1934 – September 25, 1935 The Adventures of Gracie CBS, 30 minutes[36]:58[37]
October 2, 1935 – March 24, 1937 The Adventures of Gracie CBS, 30 minutes
Called The Burns and Allen Show after the broadcast September 23, 1936[35]:124[36]:58[38]
April 12, 1937 – August 1, 1938 The Burns and Allen Show NBC, 30 minutes[35]:124[36]:58[39]
September 30, 1938 – June 23, 1939 The Burns and Allen Show CBS, 30 minutes[35]:124[40][41]
October 4, 1939 – June 26, 1940 The Burns and Allen Show CBS, 30 minutes[35]:124[36]:58[42]
July 1, 1940 – March 24, 1941 The Burns and Allen Show NBC, 30 minutes[35]:124[36]:58[39]
October 7, 1941 – June 30, 1942 The Burns and Allen Show NBC, 30 minutes[35]:124[40][43]
October 6, 1942 – June 29, 1943 The Burns and Allen Show CBS, 30 minutes[35]:124[36]:58[40][39]
August 31, 1943 – June 13, 1944 The Burns and Allen Show CBS, 30 minutes[36]:58[40][38][39]
August 15, 1944 – June 25, 1945 The Burns and Allen Show CBS, 30 minutes[35]:124[36]:58[40][39]
September 20, 1945 – May 30, 1946 The Burns and Allen Show NBC, 30 minutes[35]:124[36]:58[40][44]
September 5, 1946 – May 29, 1947 The Burns and Allen Show NBC, 30 minutes[36]:58[40][44]
September 4, 1947 – June 10, 1948 The Burns and Allen Show NBC, 30 minutes[36]:58[40][44]
September 30, 1948 – June 23, 1949 The Burns and Allen Show NBC, 30 minutes[35]:124[36]:58[40][44]
September 21, 1949 – May 17, 1950 The Burns and Allen Show CBS, 30 minutes[35]:124[36]:58[40]

Accolades[edit]

The Burns and Allen Show was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1994.[45]

Television[edit]

Burns and Allen in 1953
Burns and Allen in 1955

In 1950, Burns and Allen transitioned to television with The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. An immediate success,[46] the half-hour situation comedy was broadcast October 12, 1950 – September 22, 1958, on CBS. The show was initially staged live in New York and presented every other week. In the fall of 1952 it became a weekly series filmed on the West Coast.[47]:280–281 With 291 episodes, the show had a long network run through 1958 and continued in syndicated reruns for years.

The sets were designed to look like the couple's real-life residence. An establishing shot of the actual house on Maple Drive in Beverly Hills, California, was often used. Although extensively remodelled, that house still exists today—including the study over the garage where George would "escape" from Gracie's illogical logic. Burns lived in the house until his death in 1996, at the age of 100.

The format had George watching all the action (standing outside the proscenium arch in early live episodes; watching the show on TV in his study towards the end of the series) and breaking the fourth wall by commenting upon it to the viewers.

During the course of the eight-year run, the TV show had remarkable consistency in its cast and crew. The episodes were produced and directed by Ralph Levy (1950–53); Frederick de Cordova, later director of NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1953–56); and Rod Amateau (1956–58). The original writing staff consisted of Sid Dorfman, Harvey Helm, Paul Henning and William Burns (George's brother). The TV show was produced under the banner of McCadden Productions, a company run by George Burns which he named after the street on which his brother, William, lived. The McCadden catalog is owned by Sony Pictures Television.

Bea Benaderet carried over from the radio show, portraying neighbor Blanche Morton. Her husband Harry Morton was first portrayed by Hal March (October–December 1950), then John Brown (January–June 1951), and after that, Fred Clark, until 1953 when the role was assumed by Larry Keating.

Also appearing in the TV series were Burns and Allen's two children, Ronnie and Sandra, both of them adopted.[48] Ronnie became a near-regular on the show, playing himself but cast as a young drama student who tended to look askance at his parents' comedy style.[49] Sandra declined becoming a regular member of the cast, although she appeared in a few episodes.[50]

In March 1953, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show joined I Love Lucy as part of the CBS Monday night prime-time lineup. As a result, the show entered the top 30 television programs in the Nielsen ratings ranking at #20. For the 1954–1955 season, it ranked #26, and for both the 1955–56 and 1956–57 seasons it was #28. With I Love Lucy ending its six-year run on CBS in the spring of 1957, the television network wanted to renew the Burns and Allen series, but by this time Allen had grown tired of the grind. Nevertheless, Burns committed both of them for another year, which would be their eighth—and last—on television.[51]:274

Allen announced her retirement on February 17, 1958, effective at the end of the current season.[51]:275

Burns and Allen filmed their last show June 4, 1958.[52]:3 The filming was an emotional experience, although nothing was said about it being Allen's last performance. At the wrap party, Allen took a token sip of champagne from a paper cup, hugged her friend and co-star Bea Benaderet, and said "Okay, that's it." After one last look around the set, she said, "And thank you very much, everyone."[51]:279–280

"She deserved a rest," Burns said when Allen devoted herself to gardening and being a housewife:

She had been working all her life, and her lines were the toughest in the world to do. They didn't make sense, so she had to memorize every word. It took a real actress. Every spare moment — in bed, under the hair dryer — had to be spent in learning lines. Do you wonder that she's happy to be rid of it?[46]

Burns attempted to continue the show with the same supporting cast but without Allen. The George Burns Show lasted one season (October 21, 1958 – April 14, 1959) on NBC.[47]:281

Following a mild heart attack in the 1950s,[51]:21 Allen suffered a series of angina episodes over a number of years.[51]:284, 307 She had a major heart attack in 1961.[51]:289, 310 She lived a slower but comfortable retirement for another three years, often appearing in public with her husband but never performing. Gracie Allen died August 27, 1964.[46]

Accolades[edit]

The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show received a total of 11 Primetime Emmy Award nominations.[53][54][55]

In 1997, the 1954 episode, "Columbia Pictures Doing Burns and Allen Story", was ranked #56 on TV Guide's 100 Greatest Episodes of All-Time.[56]

McCadden Productions[edit]

The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show was produced under the banner of McCadden Productions, a company run by George Burns which he named after the street on which his brother William lived. While the series was in production Burns began producing other television shows and commercials. McCadden Productions employed more than 300 people and produced series including Mister Ed, The Bob Cummings Show, The People's Choice, The Marie Wilson Show and Panic.[51]:293

"Television was still so new that nobody really knew what kinds of shows the audience would watch," Burns wrote, "but I figured that people would like the same things on television that they liked in vaudeville, so we did shows with pretty girls and animals."[51]:293–294

Legacy[edit]

Known for his philanthropy, George Burns made numerous contributions to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. The hospital is located at the intersection of George Burns Road, dedicated in 1986, and Gracie Allen Drive, dedicated in 1995. The George Burns – Gracie Allen Chair in Cardiology was established in 1989. The Burns and Allen Research Institute was dedicated in 1996, on Burns' 100th birthday,[57] and in 2014 more than 900 research projects were under way.[58]

Sources and further reading[edit]

  • Blythe, Cheryl and Sackett, Susan (1986). Say Good Night, Gracie!: The Story of Burns and Allen. New York: E.P. Dutton. ISBN 0-525-24386-0. 
  • Burns, George (1988). Gracie: A Love Story. New York: Putnam. ISBN 0-399-13384-4. 
  • Burns, George, and Lindsay, Cynthia (1955). I Love Her, That's Why!. New York: Simon and Schuster. 
  • Clements, Cynthia, and Weber, Sandra (1996). George Burns and Gracie Allen: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-26883-5. 
  • Eagan, Eileen (1996). "‘Our Town’ in Cold War America: The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950–1958)". Film & History 26 (1-4): 62–70. 
  • Morris, J.K. (March 1953). "Gracie Allen's Own Story: Inside Me". Woman's Home Companion: 127. 
  • Staples, Shirley (1984). Male-Female Comedy Teams in American Vaudeville, 1865–1932. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press. ISBN 0-8357-1520-5. 

References[edit]

  1. ^ Nussbaum, Albert (March 1977). "Funny Man: An Interview with George Burns". Take One (Unicorn Publishing Corp., Montréal, Québec, Canada) 5 (8): 26–28. 
  2. ^ Jewell, Richard B. The RKO Story. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1982. ISBN 0-517-54656-6
  3. ^ "Academy Awards Database". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  4. ^ a b "A Damsel in Distress". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  5. ^ "Lambchops". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  6. ^ "National Film Registry Titles". National Film Preservation Board. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  7. ^ "New DVDs: The Jazz Singer". Kehr, Dave, The New York Times, October 16, 2007. Retrieved 2014-11-17. 
  8. ^ "'The Jazz Singer 80th Anniversary Collector’s Edition' DVD From Warner Home Video". Warner Home Video, July 9, 2007. Retrieved 2014-11-17. 
  9. ^ "Fit to Be Tied". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  10. ^ a b "Cavalcade of Comedy: The Paramount Comedy Shorts 1929–1933". Kino Video, 2006. Retrieved 2014-11-17. 
  11. ^ a b "Cavalcade of Comedy". WorldCat. Retrieved 2014-11-17. 
  12. ^ "Pulling a Bone". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  13. ^ "The Antique Shop". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  14. ^ a b c d Parker, Kit (ed.), Kit Parker Films Catalog 1980–1981, page 301.
  15. ^ "Once Over, Light". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  16. ^ "100% Service". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  17. ^ "Oh, My Operation". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  18. ^ "The Babbling Brook". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  19. ^ "The Big Broadcast". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  20. ^ "Your Hat". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  21. ^ "Let's Dance". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  22. ^ "Walking the Baby". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  23. ^ "International House". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  24. ^ "College Humor". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  25. ^ "Six of a Kind". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  26. ^ "We're Not Dressing". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  27. ^ "Many Happy Returns". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  28. ^ "Love in Bloom". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  29. ^ "Here Comes Cookie". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  30. ^ "The Big Broadcast of 1936". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  31. ^ "The Big Broadcast of 1937". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  32. ^ "College Holiday". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  33. ^ "College Swing". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  34. ^ "Honolulu". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  35. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Dunning, John, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1998. ISBN 978-0-19-507678-3
  36. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Hickerson, Jay, The Ultimate History of Network Radio Programming and Guide to All Circulating Shows. Hamden, Connecticut: Jay Hickerson, Box 4321, Hamden, CT 06514, second edition December 1992
  37. ^ a b c "Burns and Allen". The Digital Deli. Retrieved 2014-11-16. 
  38. ^ a b "The Burns and Allens Show". RadioGOLDINdex. Retrieved 2014-11-16. 
  39. ^ a b c d e "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show". RadioGOLDINdex. Retrieved 2014-11-16. 
  40. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Burns and Allen Show". Jerry Haendiges Vintage Radio Logs. Retrieved 2014-11-16. 
  41. ^ "Chesterfield Time". RadioGOLDINdex. Retrieved 2014-11-16. 
  42. ^ "The Hinds Honey and Almond Cream Program". RadioGOLDINdex. Retrieved 2014-11-16. 
  43. ^ "The New Burns and Allen Show". RadioGOLDINdex. Retrieved 2014-11-16. 
  44. ^ a b c d "Maxwell House Coffee Time". RadioGOLDINdex. Retrieved 2014-11-16. 
  45. ^ "Burns and Allen". National Radio Hall of Fame. Retrieved 2014-11-09. 
  46. ^ a b c "Gracie Allen Dead; Comedianne Was 58". The New York Times, August 29, 1964.
  47. ^ a b Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh, The Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows 1946–Present. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988 (fourth edition), ISBN 0-345-35610-1
  48. ^ "Gracie Ends Act with George". Life, September 22, 1958, pages 88–93. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  49. ^ "Ronnie Burns". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  50. ^ "Sandra Burns". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  51. ^ a b c d e f g h Burns, George, Gracie: A Love Story. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1988. ISBN 0399133844
  52. ^ "George Burns, Comedy's Elder Statesman, Dies". Oliver, Myrna, Los Angeles Times, March 10, 1996. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  53. ^ "George Burns and Gracie Allen Show". The New York Times (Baseline StudioSystems). Retrieved 2014-11-08. 
  54. ^ "Emmy Awards Database". The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Retrieved 2014-11-08. 
  55. ^ "Awards, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  56. ^ "Television's Best Episodes". St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 23, 1997, page 06A.
  57. ^ Webster, Emma, "Cedars dedicates Burns and Allen Institute". Daily Variety, January 16, 1996.
  58. ^ "Cedars-Sinai Medical Center – 100 Great Hospitals in America, 2014". Becker's Hospital Review. Retrieved 2014-11-11. 

External links[edit]

Radio

Television