Gracie Allen, a look back

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She made her stage debut at the age of three and is one of the pioneers of the domestic situation comedy.  A dancer, a singer, a comedienne, Gracie Allen was a veteran performer before most went to their high school proms, she’d quit school at fourteen to join her family on stage full time.  After several years of touring with a professional troupe, she left the stage over a billing dispute.  While attending school in 1922, Allen visited backstage at the Union Theater in Union Hill, New Jersey. She had learned from friends that the comedy team of George Burns and William Lorraine would soon break up, and Lorraine would need another partner. Mistaking Burns for Lorraine, she inquired about forming a team. After three days Burns confessed his true identity, but Gracie vowed to give the act a chance. (Bio.)

Here’s George Burns’ version of how he met Gracie:

The new team of Burns and Allen opened at the Hill Street Theater in Newark, New Jersey. Recognizing that Allen was a natural comedienne, Burns rewrote their sketches to give her the witty lines and assumed for himself a secondary role. The performances relied heavily on Allen’s singing and dancing talents and always concluded with Allen dancing an exuberant Irish jig. After three years of traveling together, Burns and Allen married on January 7, 1926, in Cleveland, Ohio.

In 1926 Burns developed a routine entitled Lamb Chops, which played at the Jefferson Theater in New York City. Then the Keith Theater chain signed them to a five-year contract: Burns and Allen had reached top billing in vaudeville.

A clip of the “Lamb Chops” bit:

Burns and Allen quickly reached top billing in vaudeville. They were fabulous together, in sync from the get-go.  Soon they made their debut on the new medium of radio.  The country’s premier singer, Eddie Cantor asked Allen to be a guest on his radio program. Her popularity with listeners prompted invitations from other radio shows, and soon the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) offered Burns and Allen a contract. On the night of February 15, 1932, they joined Guy Lombardo’s musical variety show. Within a year, Lombardo had been reduced to a supporting role on The Burns and Allen Comedy Show.

The switch to radio required major changes in the Burns and Allen style and routines. Dialogue assumed primary importance, which lessened the emphasis on Allen’s singing and dancing. Burns suggested they pretend to play themselves and give the audience a glimpse of their private lives–a milestone in the development of the domestic situation comedy. In the future, the Burns and Allen formula would spawn many imitators. (bio.)

Here’s one of the “Burns and Allen” radio shows in its entirety, “Gracie Allen, Inc.” (Note that in addition to Burns and Allen, you can hear the genius of Mel Blanc in the episode, the man of a thousand voices.  Blanc would gain recognition for voicing the most popular of Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies characters but he too had a long career that spanned all major mediums of communications.)

In the late 1930’s their radio program was ranked as one of the top three shows in the United States; an estimated 45 million people listened to their show each week.  Given their success, it was only natural the duo and the show would make the transition into television.  They made the move in October 1950.  This is the medium in which I first saw them, on reruns several decades later on some obscure channel or perhaps on PBS, I really don’t remember the details.  But, what a find, proving to me – yet again – that it’s all been done before and much had been done better.

Gracie Allen would have been 107 years old today and I am extremely happy to be able to remember her by sharing some of her work with other people – the high-pitched voice, the scatter-brained wife who never ceases to make me laugh.  I’m hoping someone may stop by, who’s never heard of her and becomes a fan.  Yes!  I am that much of a geek!  One-liners, as old as Adam and Eve, I bet, still work.

Following is a clip of “The Burns and Allen Show” first commercial.  If you’re not familiar with early television, sponsor ads were written right into the script and the stars sold the product as the characters they portrayed.

Following are three episodes of “The Burns and Allen Show” in their entirety. (I couldn’t choose just one.)

“Rumba Lessons”

“The Income Tax Man”

“The Beverly Hills Uplift Society”

Her delivery and timing were impeccable.

Burns and Allen’s popularity continued in television.  Their show ran from 1950 to 1958 but Allen began to tire of the character she had played for so many years. In 1958 she retired from show business, while Burns pursued an independent career.  Gracie Allen died of a heart attack on August 27, 1964.

For over three decades – from the 1920s to the 1950s, Gracie Allen was front and center as one of America’s favorite female entertainers.  A pioneer.  She always played the role of a zany woman who had found happiness through pleasant insanity. Her appeal rested upon an ability to convince an audience that in reality she was indeed the scatterbrained character she portrayed.  And was she ever convincing!  I’m happy to listen to her zaniness today as often as I can – luckily many of the old radio shows are available for download.  Long car trips for me mean I am moving forward while looking back – most often at Burns and Allen.

A very fond remembrance for a great talent.  Say goodnight, Gracie.

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