Burns and Allen
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Gracie Allen and George Burns in 1953
|Other names||The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show|
|Running time||30 minutes|
|Starring||George Burns and Gracie Allen|
|Air dates||October 12, 1950 to September 22, 1958|
Burns and Allen, an American comedy duo consisting of George Burns and his wife, Gracie Allen, worked together as a comedy team in vaudeville, films, radio and television and achieved great success over four decades.
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.
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 Brothers. whose "Vitaphone Acts" 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: International House, Six of a Kind, etc. The team starred in a pair of low-budget features, Here Comes Cookie and Love in Bloom.
At RKO Radio Pictures, Fred Astaire was preparing his first musical feature without Ginger Rogers, and comedian Charley Chase was set to appear in a comic sidekick role. When illness prevented Chase from doing the movie, Burns and Allen substituted. The resulting film, A Damsel in Distress (1937), shows George and Gracie dancing just as expertly as Astaire. This movie led Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to cast George and Gracie in its Eleanor Powell musical, Honolulu (1939). Gracie made a few isolated film appearances on her own, but the team did not return to the cameras until TV beckoned in 1950.
In 1929 they 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 on 8 July 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.
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When The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, aka The Burns and Allen Show, began on CBS Television October 12, 1950, it was an immediate success. The show was originally staged live before a studio audience (during its first three months, it originated from the Mansfield Theatre in New York, then relocated to the CBS Columbia Square facilities in Los Angeles). Ever the businessman, Burns realized it would be more efficient to do the series on film (beginning in the fall of 1952); the half-hour episodes could then be syndicated. From that point on, the show was shot without a live audience present, however, each installment would be screened before an audience to provide live responses prior to the episodes being broadcast. With 291 episodes, the show had a long network run through 1958 and continued in syndicated reruns for years.
After the live series ended, the shows were filmed at General Service Studios. The sets were designed to look like their real-life residence, often using an establishing shot of the actual house at 312 Maple Drive in Beverly Hills, California. 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.
One running gag of the TV show involved a closet full of hats belonging to various visitors to the Burns household as guests would slip out the door unnoticed, leaving their hats behind, rather than face another round with Gracie. 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. Another running gag was George's weekly "firing" of announcer Harry Von Zell after he turned up aiding, abetting or otherwise not stopping the mayhem prompted by Gracie's illogical logic.
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). In addition to cast members Harry Von Zell (replacing original announcer Bill Goodwin in September 1951), Bea Benaderet (who made the transition from the radio show), and Larry Keating, the original writing staff consisted of Sid Dorfman, Harvey Helm, Paul Henning, and William Burns (George's brother). Later writers, supporting Dorfman, Helm and Burns, included Nate Monaster, Jesse Goldstein, Norman Paul, and Keith Fowler. The Associate Producer was Al Simon, the Director of Photography was Philip Tannura, A.S.C., and the Editor was Larry Heath. The show's primary sponsor was Carnation Evaporated Milk, later alternating with B.F. Goodrich (1952-55; 1956-57), and General Mills, for Betty Crocker (1955-56; 1957-58).
Larry Keating, actually, was not in the original cast, with his character of Harry Morton first being portrayed by Hal March (October-December 1950), then John Brown (January-June 1951), and after that, Fred Clark, until 1953. In one famous episode, "Morton Buys Iron Deer/Gracie Thinks George Needs Glasses," George walks on-stage and stops the scene just before Harry's entrance and explains that Clark has left the show to perform on Broadway. He introduces Larry Keating, who enters, and then calls over Bea Benaderet to introduce the two saying, "This is Larry Keating and he is going to be your husband now". The pair greet and chat briefly, complimenting each other on their previous work. George remarks that if they are going to be so nice to each other, no one will believe they are married. He then gives original cue, Blanche resumes her position, and the scene continues where it stopped as if nothing had happened. The new Harry enters and Blanche hits him in the head with a catalogue for spending $200 to buy an iron deer.
Both of the couple's children were adopted. Their son, Ronnie, became a near-regular on their television show, playing himself but cast as a young drama student who tended to look askance at his parents' comedy style. Sandra and Ronnie first appeared playing themselves in the third season episode "Uncle Clyde Comes to Visit," aired on January 1, 1953. The teenagers are in the Burns living room, threading a 16mm projector with that night's episode. In voiceover, George introduces them, and tells the audience that they've been away at school and that's why we haven't met them before. Ronnie later made a guest appearance on the October 18, 1954 episode ("Gracie Gives Wedding in Payment of a Favor") playing a character named "Jim Goodwin" prior to his debut as a regular, and was formally introduced to the audience at the episode's conclusion. Their daughter, Sandy, was somewhat shy and not too fond of show business. Sandy declined efforts to get her on the show as a regular cast member, and she later appeared in a few episodes as a classmate of Ronnie. In one episode, Ronnie's drama class puts on a vaudeville show to raise funds for the school. Gracie hosts the show while Ronnie and Sandy deliver an impersonation of their famous parents along with one of their classic routines. Since Ronnie played himself, Gracie closed the segment with a wisecrack: "The boy was produced by Burns and Allen."
Starting in the fall of 1955 (after a few early attempts the previous June and July), George and Gracie would often reappear after the end of the episode, before a curtain decorated with the names and locations of the various theaters they headlined in their vaudeville days, performing one of their patented "double routines", often discussing one of Gracie's fictional relatives ("Death Valley Allen", the prospector; "Florence Allen", the nurse; "Casey Allen", the railroad man, and so on).
Burns would always end the show with "Say goodnight, Gracie," to which Allen simply replied "Goodnight." She never said "Goodnight, Gracie," as legend has it. Burns was once asked this question and said it would've been a funny line. Asked why he didn't do it, Burns replied, "Incredibly enough, no one ever thought of it."
From October 1950 until March 1953, the series aired Thursday nights on CBS.(During its first two years on television, it aired every other Thursday night.) In March 1953, "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" joined I Love Lucy as part of the CBS Monday night prime-time line-up. 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 1955-1956 and 1956-1957 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, Gracie had grown tired of the grind. Nevertheless, George committed both of them for another year, which would be their eighth—and last—on television. Gracie announced her retirement on February 17, 1958—effective at the end of the current season. They shot their last show on June 4. At the wrap party, Gracie had a token sip of champagne from a paper cup, hugged her friend and co-star Bea Benaderet, said "Okay, that's it . . . thank you very much, everyone," and walked off the set—never looking back.
Following a mild heart attack in the 1950s, Gracie suffered a series of angina episodes over a number of years. She had a major heart attack in 1961. Upon returning from the hospital, she hired a full-time nurse/companion named Claribel Crewell, who remained with her for the rest of her life. She lived a slower but comfortable retirement for another three years, often appearing with her husband but never performing.
Burns attempted to continue the show with the same supporting cast but without Gracie. The George Burns Show lasted only one season on NBC (1958–59); Burns realized that viewers kept expecting Gracie to enter the scene at any time.
After trying another sitcom, Wendy and Me, Burns turned to nightclub work, teaming up with long-time friend Carol Channing. He enjoyed an Oscar-winning movie resurgence at the age of 80 with The Sunshine Boys. Then director Carl Reiner asked him to play the title role in Larry Gelbart's comedy, Oh, God!, which was so successful it spawned two sequels. He also co-starred with Art Carney and Lee Strasberg as a businesslike bank robber in the Martin Brest senior-citizen caper comedy Going in Style.
Gracie Allen died in 1964, while watching a Spencer Tracy movie on television. George Burns died in 1996, at the age of 100.
The kinescope recordings of the live telecasts from the 1950–1952 seasons of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show have fallen into the public domain; they are available on "dollar DVD" collections and have rerun as part of America One's public domain sitcom rotation and on public television stations.
All the TV shows were produced under the banner of McCadden Productions, a company run by George Burns which he named after the street on which brother, William, lived. McCadden also produced the iconic TV show "Mr. Ed." The McCadden catalog is owned by Sony Pictures Television.
Sources and further reading
- 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.
- Dunning, John (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. New York: Oxford University Press.
- 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.
- "Gracie Ends Act with George". Life: 87–93. 22 September 1958.
- Staples, Shirley (1984). Male-Female Comedy Teams in American Vaudeville, 1865–1932. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press. ISBN 0-8357-1520-5.
- Much of the series was released on DVD in 2010. Narbeth, PA: Alpha Video Classics. OCLC 802867899
- "Special Collectors' Issue: 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time". TV Guide (answers.com) (June 28-July 4). 1997. Retrieved 2014-06-10.