When you drive west down the famous Sunset Strip from Hollywood, you pass on your left the location where Dino’s Lodge once stood, the famous location used in the 1950′s Television show 77 Sunset Strip.
On the right you will pass the Whisky A-Go-Go, the nightclub that has been famous for 3 generations.
Sunset Strip then snakes through a canyon heavy with traffic and lined with billboards advertising movies and movie stars before it enters the beautiful community of Beverly Hills.
Make a left turn onto Lomitas Avenue and another quick left onto Maple Drive. There, along that beautiful tree lined street you will discover a stately home easily recognized by several generations of radio listeners and TV watchers.
It was a long way from the streets of New York City to Beverly Hills.
George Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum on Jan 20, 1986. He began his singing career at the age of eight on street corners and ferry boats in a group called the Pee Wee Quartet.
A lover of show business, George eventually found his way into small town vaudeville houses. He once said: “After a playing a town I would change my name. The talent booker would never give me another job if he knew who I was.”
Gracie was born Gracel Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen in1903 in San Francisco.
Her show business career began even earlier than her husband’s. Gracie’s father was a vaudevillian performer and introduced her to performing on stage at the tender age of three.
The future Mr. And Mrs. Burns met in New Jersey in 1923, and it seems George had quite a reputation as a ladies man.
Gracie was engaged to another vandevillian by the name of Benny Ryan. Show business being show business, Gracie and Benny were separated for long periods of time as they made the show circuit. Before Ryan moved on to his next town he made Gracie promise she would stay away from that George Burns character.
Meantime, George had just split with his stage partner, Billie Lorraine. Gracie, looking for work, went back stage to meet Lorraine to see if he would consider her as a new partner.
Gracie mistook George for his partner and George went along with it. He told her that he was, indeed, Billy Lorraine and invited her to team up with him to become an act.
George carried on the subterfuge for an entire week before sheepishly telling her that he was George Burns — the fellow her boyfriend had warned her against!
Just to make sure the audience knew I was the funny one in the act, I dressed like a comedian…. I wore wide pants and a short coat, a hat with the brim turned up in front, and a trick bow tie on a swivel. That jazzbo tie was very important; this was long before I smoked a cigar onstage; I let the audience know I’d told a joke by whirling my bow tie
Being the straight man, Gracie wore a lovely dress.
There were maybe fifteen people in the audience when Grace Allen and I walked out onstage together for the first time. I was nervous, I admit it. The kid was cute, but who knew how she was going to do onstage? If she froze up, she could ruin my act.
The reality was, that act was so bad, the Ice Age couldn’t have ruined it
Then she gave me the opening line. She said it very differently that she’d done it in rehearsal, with a totally new inflection. The line that had been basically a throwaway suddenly had some life. I realized instantly that this was a different person than the little girl I’d been rehearsing with. Something had happened to her. Some kind of magical transformation had taken place. As the act progressed I realized that the audience felt it too. They loved her, I could feel it. It was the most amazing thing, and it happened just like that.
The act did not go the way it was supposed to. Gracie fed me a straight line and the audience chuckled. I answered with my topper. Nothing. She gave me another line, this time a few people laughed. I answered. Again, nothing. I spun my bow tie. Still nothing.
When the audience doesn’t laugh at a spinning bow tie, you’re in trouble. . . . .By the time we finished our first show Gracie was getting good laughs with funny lines like, “Oh, how stingy is her father?”
I didn’t have to be a genius to understand that there was something wrong with a comedy act when the straight lines got more laughs than the punch lines. So between the first and second show I decided to give Gracie a few of my toppers, just to see how the audience reacted. During the second show I asked Gracie: “Who was that guy I saw you kissing backstage?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said.
“You mean, you kiss a guy and you don’t know who he is?”
“Well”, she said quickly — she always spoke quickly — “I was standing in the wings and he asked ‘How about you and me having a bite tonight’ And I said, No, I’m busy tonight, but if you’d like I’ll bite you now.”
The audience roared. Either I was the greatest straight man who ever lived or Gracie was something special. By the time we finished those three days in Newark, Gracie had three-quarters of the punch lines.
Make no mistake: There were already other “dumb women routines” in vaudeville. What was unique about Gracie was her sincerity. George said Gracie never tried to be funny. She never told a joke in her life — she simply answered questions and seemed genuinely surprised when the audience found her answers funny. When she was onstage she was completely honest.
An interesting side note: After their first show in Newark they went to dinner with some of Gracie’s friends. The group included Mary Kelly and her boyfriend, Jack Benny. George and jack hit it off right from the beginning and remained friends for the rest of their lives.
After the first month together touring New Jersey, Gracie had become the whole act. George’s part consisted of walking onstage and asking Gracie: “So, how’s your brother?” The audience laughed at all the right places.
Soon George found that the audience was very protective of Gracie. In the act he found he couldn’t argue with her and if he touched her it had to be delicately. George started smoking a cigar in the act to give him something to do while Gracie talked.
Again in his book Gracie – A love Affair George said:
I’d go onstage before the show began to find out which way the air was blowing, just to make sure my cigar smoke didn’t blow in her face. Sometimes I worked on her right, sometimes I worked on her left; Gracie didn’t care. I don’t know if she even realized I was doing it differently.
Believe me, the audience was so protective of Gracie that if my cigar smoke had blown in her face they might have….come right up on the stage after me.
It didn’t take long for George to realize he was falling in love with Gracie. He often said it was the first time he had ever fallen for a nice girl. It took him a year to tell Gracie how he felt about her. She was still planning to marry Benny Ryan.
All of this was difficult for George because they spent so much time on the road. They slept in separate hotel rooms and had separate bunks on the trains – George always took the upper. They became such close friends that Gracie would frequently talk to George about how much she loved Benny Ryan.
George worried if Gracie found out how he felt she would leave the act. Eventually he could hold it in no longer.
In the book Gracie — a Love Story George said:
Finally I told her I loved her. And she laughed. Maybe audiences didn’t think I was funny; Gracie thought I was hysterical. She didn’t believe me at all. ‘Oh, Nattie,’ she used to say. ‘Don’t be such a kidder.’ The more I insisted, the more she thought I was doing a routine. I used to tell her, ‘Please Gracie, marry me. Benny Ryan won’t mind.’ And she’d laugh some more.
Gracie came close to marrying Ryan in 1925. At the last minute Burns and Allen were booked for a 16 week tour of the Orpheum circuit. Their pay was $400 a week — they were about to break into the big time. Gracie considered skipping the trip and staying in New York to get married. Mary Kelly and Jack Benny tried to talk her into going with George. What finally convinced her was the chance to visit her home in San Francisco, which was on the itinerary.
After that tour, around Christmas of 1925, George finally gave Gracie an ultimatum: Agree to marry him in 10 days or they were splitting up. George later reflected that until that moment he didn’t think Gracie took him seriously.
Gracie broke up with Benny Ryan very early on Christmas Day.
Gracie came from an Irish immigrant family. George’s parents, who had an arranged marriage, were Orthodox Jews: his mother was Polish and his father Austrian. Even though traditional immigrant families normally insisted on their children marrying inside their faith, neither George’s mother, nor Gracie’s, objected to their pairing (both of their fathers were gone – Gracie’s had left the family and George’s had died).
George and Gracie were married in January, 1926 in Cleveland, while on a show tour. Jack Benny had been asked to give the bride away, but was scheduled to be in California. “Besides, I never give anything away” Jack told them.
At two-thirty in the morning on our wedding night the phone in our hotel room rang. When I answered, I heard a gruff voice say, “Hello, George?”
Jack Benny was trying to disguise his voice….”Listen,” I said, “send up two orders of ham and eggs.” Then I hung up.
About a half hour later he called again. “George, I just ____”
“The eggs were cold,” I interrupted, “now send up some hot coffee.” And I hung up again. Actually, I hung up on Jack only to make him happy. Even then he loved it when I played practical jokes on him. After hanging up for the second time I imagined him sitting in his hotel room in California laughing hysterically. He loved it when I played practical jokes on him.
Years later, Gracie and I were remembering our wedding on the radio. “‘It seems like only yesterday,” Gracie told our listeners, “that my mother tripped George as we walked down the aisle.”
“I guess your family didn’t approve,” I suggested.
“‘Oh, sure they did,” she explained. “‘In fact they applauded her when she did it.”
But at the end of the show Gracie got a little emotional, which was very unusual for her to do on the air. “I just want everyone to know one thing,” she said. “‘I’m a very lucky woman. I was courted by the youngest, handsomest, most charming, most sought-after star in show business___”
“‘Thank you very much,” I said.
“____but I still married George because I loved him.”
Burns and Allen worked together in vaudeville, eventually making it all the way to the Palace Theater on Broadway. In 1928 they played on Broadway 17 weeks with Eddie Cantor and George Jessel.
Their first appearance on radio was on the BBC while touring England in the late 1929.
In 1931, back on Broadway, they were sharing billing with Eddie Cantor at the Palace when Cantor invited Gracie to be on his radio show.
George agreed to let her appear without him as long as he could write her material.
Gracie was a smash!
Burns and Allen were then were offered a spot on Rudy Vallee’s show for a whopping single performance fee of $1000.
As a result of that appearance, Burns and Allen were made regulars on Guy Lombardo’s radio show in February, 1932.
In 1934 Lombardo moved from CBS to NBC and CBS gave the spot to George and Gracie.
The problem with a new radio show, as many vaudevillians discovered, was the constant need for new and fresh material. An act could exist for years in vaudeville with 60 minutes of material. Not on the radio where the same audience would be back week after week.
George later summed it up nicely: “On one show we had done half our act; we still had half an act left and twenty years to fill.” The show was a hit. George explained why: “Women undestood Gracie. Men thought they were married to her. And everyone knew someone just like her.”
When it came to the radio, and later television, Gracie suffered stage fright. The first year they were on the air, Gracie refused to have a studio audience, even insisting the windows to the studio be blocked.
When they finally did allow an audience in, they installed footlights on the stage which brightened the stage and darkened the audience. They requested the audience not laugh or applaud and they even gave Gracie an oversized microphone she could hide behind.
Gracie was content simply doing the show, and made very few creative contributions other than her glorious acting and fresh delivery. In fact, Gracie normally didn’t even rehearse. She had a stand in for rehearsals (Jack Benny’s girl friend Mary Kelly).
George, on the other hand, was the force behind the scenes. For years, even after they were able to hire a complete writing staff, George always had the last word. His sense of rhythm was spot on and he simply knew what was funny and what was best for Gracie.
Gracie was perfect and her delivery became second nature. All she had to do was simply read lines into a microphone. George said his wife never thought she was funny. In fact, she considered herself an actress, not a comedian. She rarely told jokes off stage.
While Gracie may have had stage fright, she also was a trooper and did everything she could to promote the show, including her search for her lost brother and also her run for president on the Surprise Party ticket.
The show remained in New York City for the next five years. In 1939, however, the movies were calling George and Gracie and they made the move to Hollywood.
Interestingly, for the first eight years of the show George and Gracie did not play a married couple. Instead, the show revolved around the romantic escapades of each of them individually. These flirtation routines had been the backbone of their vaudeville act.
You will notice on this page we have included two episodes of the Burns and Allen Show. The first is from the eight years they played singles on their show and originally aired on August 19, 1940.
The title is: Why George was late for the show.
The show remained successful after the move to Hollywood, but in 1942 it started slipping in the ratings.
George, the consummate business man, felt if your ratings dropped 5 points in one night it was probably because your competition put something huge up against you, and it would be a one week spike.
However, if your ratings were dropping a half point here and a point there, in a downward trend, you were doing something wrong.
After giving it a great deal of thought, George decided that he and Gracie were too old to be playing young single people. After all, they had been married in real life since 1926 – some 16 years!
One night in 1942, George simply introduced the show by stating that he and Gracie had been married in real life for 16 years, they had two wonderful children, and from then on the show was going to be about them as a married couple.
By the way, I cannot find a copy of that episode, nor do I know the exact date – only that it happened before October, 1942.
If you happen to have a copy of this episode, or have any additional information, please let me know. We will keep you updated.
I even called Walden Hughes and Frank Bresee on their live Friday night show on Yesterday USA and asked them about it. Neither one of them has a copy, and Walden is not sure if one exists.
You may hear this conversation in four ten minute clips right here. Click on the blue arrow to listen and continue reading; click on the link if you need to pause, fast forward or back up.
We are also featuring, on this page, one of the earliest episodes of the Burns and Allen Show after the format change. It originally aired on October 6, 1942 and is entitled “Married – but Single.”
George would later reflect that radio was the favorite part of his career. He said that “Radio was a place where performers who could do nothing but talk, could talk.”
In the weeks ahead we will add more information on George Burns and Gracie Allen, including more information on Gracie’s search for her brother, and her candidacy for President against FDR.
Your comments and contributions are appreciated.