Amazing GracieApril 24, 2009
She was a matchless comic artist who was smart
enough to become the dumbest woman in show-business history.
by Maynard Good Stoddard
“I lie a lot,” confesses the author of five bestsellers previous to Gracie: A Love Story. “But when I write about Gracie, I don’t have to lie,” he says. “The truth is unbelievable enough.”
George Burns is of course referring to Graice Allen, his wife and partner, a matchless comic artist smart enough to become the dumbest woman in show-business history.
Only Gracie would make ice cubes with hot water so they would be ready if the water heater broke. Who else would cut her vacuum cord in half to save electricity? Or suggest, “Horses must be deaf because you see so few of them at concerts”? Or plead with her audience, “If I say the right thing, please excuse me”?
To the millions of Burns and Allen vaudeville, radio, TV, and movie fans, saying the wrong thing was the right thing. And at saying the wrong thing, Gracie was an expert.
Burns records how Gracie, getting her permit to drive a car, went up against bureaucracy in the person of Mr. Harkness of the motor vehicle bureau.
“Mrs. Burns,” he said, “I’ve been going over your test. Never in the 16 years I’ve been here have I seen anything like it.”
“Thank you,” Gracie responded proudly.
“When you wrote these answers you obviously had something in mind,” he continued. “For instance, this question: Have you ever had a license before? You said you did. How long?”
“Oh, it was about four inches,” Gracie said. “It fit right in my wallet.”
“I see. Well, let’s try the eye test. That doesn’t require any thinking.”
“All right with me, but why don’t you like to think?”
“Now, Mrs. Burns, please concentrate on the chart on the back wall. Close one eye,” he continued, handing her a white card, “and what do you see?”
Gracie held the card in front of her eye. “I see the white card.”
“No, no, no, no, what do you see with the other eye?”
“Nothing, that’s the eye that’s closed.”
Finally Harkness persuaded her to try to read the eye chart. “I wish I could,” she admitted, “but I can’t pronounce any of those words.”
After passing the test, Gracie employed her zany tactics to get a car. On one show she told George she had a dream that he gave her a Cadillac and she gave him a necktie. Then she handed him a necktie and said, “I’ve kept my part of the bargain.”
After getting the car, she reported that a policeman had stopped her and tried to give her a ticket.
“What did you do,” George asked.
“I was so angry I refused to accept a gift from him,” she said, “so I insisted on paying for it.”
After Gracie’s death in 1964, newspapers reported that the daughter of George Allen, a well-known song-and-dance man, was born in San Francisco in 1906. Burns writes that he never knew for sure how old Gracie was because she claimed her birth certificate was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake. Reminded the the earthquake occurred before her birth, she reminded George, “That was some earthquake.”
Of her birth itself she would say, “I was so surprised I didn’t talk for a year and a half.”
Luckily for the world of entertainment, George Burns and Gracie Allen met in 1923. Gracie was originally the singer-dancer of the act. To be identified as the comedian, George would dress in the traditional comic garb of baggy pants, short coat, and a trick bow tie that he could twirl to signify a joke. As the straight “man,” Gracie wore a lovely dress. But when her questions, no more ribtickling than, “How stingy was your father?” began to get chuckles while his answers fell flat, George says that he didn’t have to be a genius to know something was wrong with the act.
To test the audience’s reaction, he then gave Gracie a few toppers. One went like this:
“Who was that guy I saw you kissing backstage?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“You mean, you kiss a guy and you don’t know who he is?”
“Well…I was standing in the wings, and he said, ‘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. And by the end of the third night Gracie was getting three-quarters of the punch lines. Burns says he didn’t mind because he was getting 60 percent of their salary.
Many of those punch lines centered on Gracie’s relatives. On her nephew, for one, who went to the doctor with a terrible cold. The doctor told him to take something warm–so the nephew took the doctor’s overcoat.
A cousin was a famous poll taker who conducted a survey to find out how many people had telephones. Hediscovered that 100 percent of the people he called had phones.
Another cousin, a bus driver, had an accident because he’d pasted all his saftey awards on the windshield. He deserved those awards, Gracie would explain, because he was a safe driver. He once was driving to Sacramento when he lost his rearview mirror. Realizing how dangerous it was to drive without being able to see the traffic behind him, he turned the bus around and drove back to San Francisco. That way all the cars that had been behind him before were now in front of him.
Gracie’s missing brother also provided a springboard for many of her dives into the pool of mental alienation. Asked what this brother called himself, she answered, “Oh, don’t be silly. He doesn’t have to call himself–he knows who he is.”
“What I mean is: if your brother was here, what would you call him?”
“If my brother was here,” Gracie would point out, “I wouldn’t have to call him.”
“No, listen to me. If I found your brother, and I wanted to call him by name, what would it be?”
“It would be wonderful.”
Although Gracie Allen made Americans laugh for 40 years, traveling with George Burns through the 319 pages of Gracie (and its 48 pages of pictures) is not all fun and games. With wit and candor and his own delightful style, he takes you from Gracie’s debut in show business at a church social at age 3 to her life as a devoted wife, the loving mother of two adopted children; through her bouts with heart problems, crippling migraine headaches, and success in concealing her horribly scarred left arm, burned in a childhood accident.
“Marrying Gracie was the best thing that ever happened to me,” the author confesses. “I have a feeling she felt the same way–that marrying her was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Theirs was a romance that has endured almost 25 years after her death. The nonagenarian entertainer, who is booked for an engagement in his 100th year, says, “For 40 years my act consisted of one joke. And then she died.” Now he goes to Forest Lawn Cemetary once a month to tell Gracie everything that’s going on. “I told her I was writing this book about her. Evidently she approves–she didn’t say anything.
“I don’t know if she hears me, but I do know that every time I talk to her, I feel better.”
Even if your budget can accommodate only one hardcover book this spring, you should become acquainted with this unusual reminiscence. Gracie: A Love Story offers tears, chuckles, and any number of good belly laughs. You’ll feel better for it.
An article from the March ’89 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, page 58-9
Posted in Article, Comedy Routine, Gracie: A Love Story, Random Facts | Tagged Forest Lawn Cemetary, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Gracie's Family, Gracie: A Love Story, Life and Career, People Magazine, Photo |