About: History and Background
Burns and Allen
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 substantial success over three 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 January 27, 1926 and moved up a notch when they signed with the Keith circuit in 1927. Burns wrote most of the material and played the straight man. Allen played a silly, addleheaded 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 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 (1938). 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 in 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.
The title of their top-rated show changed to The Burns and Allen Show on September 26, 1936. When ratings began to slip in 1940-41, 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, 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 the 1940s. The couple’s adopted son, Ronnie Burns, portrayed himself as a young drama student who tended to look askance at his parents’ comedy style. Their adopted daughter Sandy was somewhat shy and not too fond of show business. She declined efforts to get her on the show as a regular, though she appeared in a few episodes as Ronnie’s classmate.
Recordings of 176 episodes of the radio shows circulate on the web, CDs and DVDs.
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 live before a studio audience. Ever the businessman, Burns realized it would be more efficient to do the series on film; the half-hour episodes could then be syndicated. With 291 episodes, the show had a long network run through 1958 and continued in syndicated reruns for years.
One TV running gag involved a closet full of hats belonging to various visitors to the Burns household; 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 at 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.
The couple’s 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. Their adopted 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, though she appeared in a few episodes as a classmate of Ronnie. In one episode, Ronnie’s drama class put on a vaudeville show to raise funds for the school. Gracie hosted the show while Ronnie and Sandy delivered 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.”
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. (This “false memory” may be caused by the Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In ending: “Say goodnight, Dick.” “Goodnight, Dick!”) 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.”
Gracie retired after the 1958 season. Burns attempted to continue the show with the same supporting cast but without Gracie The George Burns Show lasted only one season; 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 as a solo performer, while Gracie enjoyed a comfortable retirement; she died in 1964. Burns continued to work as a singing comedian and enjoyed an Oscar-winning movie resurgence at the age of 80 with The Sunshine Boys, eventually dying 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.
- 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.