"Say Goodnight, Gracie" (Burns and Allen)

Reads: 220  | Likes: 0  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 1

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

The wonderfully wacky world of George Burns and Gracie Allen

"Say Goodnight, Gracie"

The wonderfully wacky world of Burns and Allen

 

As the newly formed comedy duo premiered their act in Newark, New Jersey's Hill Street Theater, they both felt comfortable with their roles.  After all, they each had considerable experience in vaudeville and had thoroughly practiced this new routine.  On that evening in 1922, they knew just what to do.  The perky little five-foot Gracie Allen, would deliver the straight lines.  In response, her gruff-voiced partner, George Burns, would puff his cigar, arch an eyebrow, and deliver the punch line. 

Despite their extensive practice, something was going wrong.  The audience's reaction was completely backwards.  They were laughing at the straight lines instead of the punch lines.  "The first night we had 40 people out front," Burns later recalled, "and they didn't laugh at one of my jokes.  But every time Gracie asked me a question, they fell out of their seats."  There was just something about Gracie that had the little audience in stitches the minute she opened her mouth.  Apparently they were still too busy laughing at her delivery to even catch George's funny lines.

As George shook his head and contemplated the situation, he realized he had to change something in the act.  He could either pout and tell his new partner to stop hogging the spotlight, or roll with the flow and turn Gracie into the one with the funny lines.  He realized that she wasn't trying to dominate the act, but simply had a natural comedic style.  Since Gracie beamed with a lovable simplicity, George felt she might be perfect for what at the time was often called a "Dumb Dora" routine. 

Although Gracie was definitely not a ditzy blond like the act called for, he thought she might be ideal for the role.  She was, in fact, as one admirer later put it, "ditzy like a fox."  Fortunately for their millions of future fans, George chose not to pout, but to simply flip the act around, becoming the straight man and letting Gracie get the laughs. 

George wrote the material and Gracie would bring it to life with her wide-eyed innocent delivery.  Her sincere style made even the most illogical questions and statements seem as if they made perfect sense to her.  "When I was born," she declared with a totally straight face, "I was so surprised, that I didn't talk for a year and a half."  As the audience took in her "Gracieisms," George's unflustered acceptance of her bizarre reasoning added punch to the joke.  When he asked her why she had suggested that he give her mother a bushel of nuts – since she hadn't given him anything, her twisted logic again surfaced.  "Why George," she patiently explained, "she gave you me, and I'm as good as nuts."

During the decades to come, George and Gracie would rise to the top tiers of comedy in vaudeville, radio, movies, and television.  Even their first meeting, at the Hill Street Theater, had been funny.  A friend of Gracie's pointed out the vaudeville team of Burns and Lorraine, and told her they were breaking up.  The reason for the split, she informed Gracie, was that "Burns is terrible." 

Gracie's show business dreams were not exactly coming true at the time.  She had been performing since the age of three in various acts, primarily with her three sisters in Irish dancing and singing performances.  She had recently left the group after a dispute with their bookers, the Larry Reilly Stock Company.  Gracie decided to turn her sights toward a more legitimate future and enrolled in secretarial school.  Somehow, though, she just couldn't extinguish the flames of her performing aspirations, so she decided to look into the potential vaudeville gig with Lorraine.

Mistakenly walking up to George later, she told him she heard he was looking for a new partner.  He said he was, and set up a breakfast meeting for the next day.  He was a bit confused, though, when Gracie smiled and said, "Thank you, Mr. Lorraine."  Sensing she wanted to work with his partner, rather than him; George didn't correct her for several days.  Despite what she had heard about Burns from her friend, Gracie decided to stick with the act when he told her his real name three days later.  Besides, they seemed to be a good fit.George would furnish the path for Gracie's return to the stage.  And although, at twenty-seven, he was ten years her senior, he realized she was a natural for the variety act.  "She could sing, she could dance, and she was willing to work cheap," he reflected, "Who cared how old she was?"

Once they hit the vaudeville circuit and switched their roles in the comedy part of the act, they were off and running.  The money wasn't much, but they were both used to that.  Like his new partner's Irish dance routines, George had tried out a number of variety bits.  Early on, he appeared on the vaudeville stage as a "trick roller skater."  He didn't exactly set the show-biz world on fire, and since his less-than-complimentary reviews followed him around the circuit, he kept changing his name.  But whether he skated as Willie Delight, Captain Betts, or Buddy Links, he never inscribed his name in the annals of roller skate superstardom.

During the next few years, they kept afloat in the vaudeville scene, never as headliners, but at least on the bill with them.  Then, when the flickering images of early movies suddenly started to talk, Warner Brothers studios started filming short features of vaudeville stars, called Vitaphone Varieties.  Burns and Allen quickly earned a reputation as a "disappointment act."  This was an act that could fill in at a minute's notice when the headlining act wasn't able to make it to a filming.During their first short feature, in 1929, they filled in for an unavailable Fred Allen, performing their patter-and-dance bit in a routine called Lambchops.

Their immediate availability paid off.  Starting the next year, they joined Paramount Studio's roster, turning out a string of one-reel comedies.  Just as with their vaudeville skits, George usually wrote the bits and Gracie simply played Gracie.  As always, she had her lines down pat and never needed direction.  "I would ask the director, 'Where do you want me?' " Burns recalled, "and he would guide me to a spot outside Gracie's light."  Paramount loved their film shorts and in 1932, included them in a full-length feature titled The Big Broadcast, which featured the nation's hottest radio personalities. 

That spot foreshadowed their future.  After several appearances on variety shows hosted by entrenched regulars like Rudy Vallee and Guy Lombardo, NBC offered them their own show.  As they faced the studio microphone on January 4, 1933, with slightly trembling scripts in hand, they ignited a fuse of show-biz dynamite, which would blast them into the rarified realm of national stardom.  Then, suddenly, that blast began to dim as the 1940s rolled around.  Their radio format had followed their vaudeville routine, featuring two single people joking around and sometimes flirting a bit.  Their audience, however, knew they were actually happily married with two adopted children.  The ratings began to erode.

George realized they needed to make major changes in the show.  In 1941, the reorganized "New Burns and Allen Show" featured them as a married couple in more of a situation comedy format.  The restructuring worked perfectly.  Their radio ratings, as did their later television ratings, soared near the top and remained there until Gracie's 1958 retirement.  As Gracie observed her world through her slightly blurry mental lens, and George walked out of the scene to talk directly to the viewers, those viewers were right where they wanted to be – in the wonderfully wacky world of Burns and Allen.


Submitted: August 12, 2020

© Copyright 2022 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

Add Your Comments:

Comments

D. Thurmond aka JEF

Thanks, loved them and the info you have provided.

Thu, August 13th, 2020 12:23am

Author
Reply

Thanks for the good words. I loved them too. I can still see George stepping outside of the scene to make his comments.

Have a good one,
Dennis

Wed, August 12th, 2020 7:11pm

Facebook Comments

More Non-Fiction Short Stories