Just a Love Nest

The Burns and Allen Love Story

By Patrick Lucanio

 

The comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen was the most celebrated of four married comedy teams heard during the Golden Age of Radio, the other three being Phil and Alice (Faye) Harris, Goodman and Jane Ace, Jim and Marian Jordan, and Ozzie and Harriet (Hilliard) Nelson. The four series eschewed pretty much the typical dumb husband outsmarted by the clever wife scheme featured in several sitcoms of the time and beyond, but the Burns and Allen show went further. What made Burns and Allen tower above the others was the outright warmth expressed between the couple and the gentle if outrageous spirit of the narratives.

 

Both George Burns and Gracie Allen were successful vaudeville veterans—singers and dancers—when they first appeared in film shorts and features during the 1930s before turning to radio. It was during a tour of England in the early 1930s that the BBC had them do spots at various locations on their tour. The radio listeners loved them and the experience inspired George. Always a shrewd businessman, he saw potential in radio, which was becoming a driving force in showbiz in America as more and more of his vaudeville friends were doing bits on radio programs. Radio had its advantages, too, George reasoned, saying that, “If you could read your lines without rattling the paper you were a star.”

 

Upon returning home George opted not to renew their contract with the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit, which all but killed their stage appearances since Keith-Orpheum controlled vaudeville. They could exist on their income from the film shorts while George negotiated a contract with Paramount Pictures for feature-length films. At the same time, George’s friend Eddie Cantor had made the transition to radio, and Eddie had requested that Gracie be a guest on his show, The Chase and Sanborn Hour. George agreed, and wrote material that placed Eddie in George’s role, and the wordplay between Eddie and Gracie proved so successful that additional radio offers followed. First came guest spots on The Fleischman Hour with Rudy Vallee and The Robert Burns Panatela Program with Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians. The latter appearance proved so successful with not just audiences but with the sponsor—makers of cigars—that George and Gracie became regular performers sharing the stage with Lombardo, offering a routine at the beginning and ending of what was otherwise a musical show.

 

The following year (1933) Guy Lombardo took his band on tour and the sponsor gave the half-hour to Burns and Allen and retitled the show, The Adventures of Gracie. By now, Gracie was always the favorite of audiences; George knew this and more than endured it—he used it to advance their act. Indeed, George often said that he had married success, and he filled their radio and television shows with self-deprecating humor, especially about his supposed abysmal singing and dancing despite his success in vaudeville as a singer and dancer. He even advanced the idea in the 10 books he’d written about life with Gracie.

 

Essentially, the first Burns and Allen radio shows were nothing more than vaudeville performances in front of a microphone. Their act was what was called a “flirtation” act, also called a “talking mixed double” in vaudeville jargon, in which Gracie was the scatterbrain girlfriend and George her exasperated beau. There was little continuity as one routine just appeared out of nowhere to be followed by a second routine unrelated to the first. For instance, in one show Gracie suddenly declared that, “If Ray Noble [their band leader at the time] got a nice coat of tan and crossed his legs behind his neck he’d look like a pretzel.” Much nattering followed about such an idea before Gracie would switch to something unrelated for more discussion.

 

Such routines, however, grew stale rather quickly, and their ratings reflected that decay. To boost ratings, the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, which owned the program on behalf of White Owl cigars, devised a gimmick that caused a stir across the nation. No one knows for sure whose idea it was; several of the writers maintained that it was all George’s idea. But some radio historians claimed that the idea came from the CBS publicity department. George himself said the idea originated with the Thompson agency so the agency could promote the time switch and new title of the program, The Burns and Allen Show.

 

Whoever or whatever devised the gimmick proved to be masters of manipulation. As before, out of the blue, Gracie mentioned that she couldn’t find her brother and she feared that he was missing-in-action, as it were. The secret to the gimmick’s success was that Gracie made unannounced appearances on other shows even across networks—J. Walter Thompson owned programs on all networks—asking the talent if they had seen her brother. For instance, the following week she appeared on Eddie Cantor’s show by interrupting the show and asking if anyone had seen her brother, George Allen. The following week she appeared on Jack Benny’s show, and in weeks after made surprise visits to soap operas and straight dramatic shows. Department stores across the country reputedly had signs suggesting that George Allen might be hiding in the shoe department or the lingerie department. An apocryphal tale told by George himself was that they interrupted the suspenseful scene of an adventure show that had a submarine stranded at the bottom of the ocean. The phone rang, and the voice asked the captain if Gracie Allen’s brother was down there with them.

 

The gimmick worked and The Adventures of Gracie—now called The Burns and Allen Show—jumped into the Top Ten … and what about Gracie’s actual brother? George Allen was a shy, San Francisco accountant who abhorred all the attention, especially when reporters began hounding him to finally come forward and free his sister of her worry. Reportedly, he sent a telegram to Gracie that read, “Can’t you make a living any other way?”

 

The ratings gain, however, was short-lived and again the program was close to cancellation due mainly to younger listeners knowing nothing of vaudeville and its dated comedy. Something was needed to rescue the show, and, reportedly, Gracie herself gave the impetus for the next gimmick. She was knitting a sweater for their daughter, Sandy, the story goes, when she told George that, “I’m tired of knitting. I think I’ll run for president.”

 

George ran with the idea, and with the assistance of a new writer, Sam Perrin—who would later join Jack Benny—created the “Gracie Allen for President” campaign. Running as the “surprise party’s” candidate, she ran on the slogan, “Down with common sense; vote for Gracie.” Like the previous gimmick, Gracie was all over the airwaves, appearing on programs as diverse as Doctor I. Q. and Fibber McGee and Molly. Gracie campaigned as if she were truly running, and one of her comments caught the endorsement of a few politicos and columnists, and when one thinks about it perhaps she was on to something. Gracie called for Congress to be paid on a commission basis. “If the country prospers,” she argued, “then they’ll prosper and get their 10 percent.”

 

The campaign was a success and George and Gracie were again back in the Top Ten. But George realized that not only were the vaudeville routines faltering with audiences, they were also faltering personally: They had been married for over 20 years with two children, he reasoned, and the flirtation gags weren’t suitable for an old married couple with children. So George declared they would act their age and proposed what is now called a situation comedy in which, taking a lead from his best friend, Jack Benny, they would play themselves. Specifically, they would be two former vaudeville performers who were now radio performers and the situations would reflect that basic fact. It is at this stage that the true genius of George Burns became apparent.

 

George had a keen understanding of his medium. This was especially evident during their television years, but it began in vaudeville through George’s rapport with his audience—which resulted from their first appearance on stage. The reason for what happened that day remains unclear but whatever the reason it changed the course of entertainment history. Reportedly, George got a three-day booking at the Hill Street Theatre in Newark for four shows daily. To show the audience that the team was a comedy act, George donned the typical baggy-pants attire of the vaudeville comedian, complete with floppy hat with a turned-up brim. Gracie, on the other hand, wore a black dress with black high heels, making an attractive and graceful lady in contrast to George’s frumpy garb. The scene was set for the typical “dumb Dora” routine, but during the first show something happened to Gracie. In later years Gracie said that it was due to a sudden case of stage fright, admitting that she had struggled all her life with a fear of live audiences. Dancing and singing required concentration so audiences were not a threat to her, she added, but speaking in front of hundreds if not thousands of people terrified her. But Gracie may have instead suffered a migraine headache, an affliction she battled her entire life.

 

Whatever the reason, what happened was that Gracie had fixed her attention on George without ever acknowledging the presence of an audience, and delivered her straight lines with such innocence and believability that the audience was laughing before George could tell a joke; in fact, George admitted years later, that once he got the joke out the joke fell flat. Clearly, the audience was enamored of Gracie Allen, and to a seasoned performer with a big ego such effrontery would have led to an immediate termination of the partnership. But George didn’t have that kind of ego. George immediately recognized what had happened. In his book, Gracie: A Love Story, he wrote: “Some magical transformation had taken place. I realized that the audience felt it too. They loved her. It was the most amazing thing, and it happened just like that.”

 

At the close of the act, George hastily rewrote it, and by the second performance a different team had taken the stage. George had become the straight man, and now he fed Gracie the straight lines. Gracie responded with what George would eventually describe as her “illogic logic.” For instance, Gracie would tell George that her sister had had a baby and George would inquire if it were a boy or girl. Gracie, in a manner that only she could achieve believably, would respond matter-of-factly that, “I don’t know yet but I’ll tell you when I find out if I’m an aunt or an uncle.”

 

The audience response was beyond what George or Gracie had imagined. George knew that he had something upon which to build, and with continued audience approbation the team of Burns and Allen further developed the routine. Their exchanges were built on innocence and vexation. George would ask a simple and innocent question, like, “How is your brother doing?” Gracie would respond with an innocent and always nonsensical reply that would lead to George’s exasperation. There was something special, perhaps magical, about Gracie’s ability to pull off her illogic logic. After her retirement, for example, George worked with other performers, notably Connie Stevens in a short-lived television show called Wendy and Me, and Carol Channing for a Las Vegas show. Neither came close to equaling the believable innocence of Gracie Allen, proving that Gracie was a lovable, unique talent.

 

This type of exchange also led to the inclusion of George’s prominent trademark into the act. George realized that he had a problem with his hands; while singing and dancing his hands were always busy, he said, but what to do with those hands when standing on the stage as an interlocutor? Many comics played with hats or canes, but through refinement of the act George had ditched the baggy-pants and hat. All that George had at his disposal was a cigar, and so when Gracie responded to his question with her typical illogic logic he turned to the audience, shrugged, took a puff, and to his surprise that puff cued the audience members to laugh as raucously as they wished. As George knew, timing was everything in good comedy.

 

George turned such a performance upside down. Unlike other comedy teams in which the primary individuals mainly talked to each other and allowed the audience to eavesdrop on the conversation, George directly involved the audience in his exchanges with Gracie. Gracie remained aloof, distancing herself from the audience, and, as noted, she kept her attention fixed on George and never addressed the audience. George, on the other hand, constantly acknowledged the audience to the point of taking the audience into his confidence. That puff of cigar smoke often did the trick, and as his frustration grew with Gracie’s responses, he directed that frustration to a sympathetic audience.

 

George avoided this trait for the films the couple made in the 1930s, but when turning to radio—itself an intimate medium—he brought the strategy with him. George understood that he was sitting in a radio studio speaking to millions through a microphone. For George there was no pretense of what is called the fourth wall; for him there was nothing separating his scheme from the audience. This was evident from the start during a period when their program was again in jeopardy. To save the show, the writers created a new character for Gracie. She suddenly developed a confused vocabulary—like Jane Ace’s malapropisms—that interfered with what had been her innocence. In other words, her innocence had become foolishness and it didn’t fit Gracie at all. For instance, George would say, “You know what a wizard is,” and Gracie would rely, “Yes, it’s a snowstorm.” Frustrated, George would then ask, “Well, if that’s a snowstorm what’s a blizzard?” Gracie’s answer: “A blizzard is the inside of a chicken—everyone knows that.”

 

The new Gracie did not work, and George knew it and he broke the fourth wall and told the radio audience that:

 

Last night I was going over some of the routines we’ve been doing in the last few months and I have an idea what’s wrong. We’re making Gracie try to be funny instead of unconsciously funny. We’ve had her seeming to be purposely telling jokes instead of being unaware that she is. It’s not that we have to do any different jokes, it’s just that we’ve loused up our formula for Gracie.”

 

A sobering note to the audience, yes, but it marked the first time that George confided in his audience, something that he would do for comic (or genteel) effect in all his subsequent shows, reaching its most obvious and surreal level in television. And even though George and Gracie had a long and successful career in radio it was television that showcased their talent and George’s true creativity more than any other medium. In television, George didn’t just remove the fourth wall, he obliterated it.

 

Indeed, this stratagem is found in their first several television shows—all live—that originated from New York inside the Mansfield theater. The stage replicated the living room of the Burns’ home in Hollywood, but evident within the television frame was the proscenium arch itself. In fact, the curtain rose when the story proper began. But at appropriate moments in the narrative, George would literally step outside the arch, take a position against the wing, and deliver what he called his monologues directly to the audience. When finished he’d return to center stage and interact with Gracie and the other performers, who always remained in character and were unaware of George’s diversions. This piece of business would only grow in surrealism as the series changed to film.

 

George’s monologues were always incorporated into the situational narrative, which formally and contextually reminded the audience that this was nothing more than a television show. The situation for the television show itself was an extension of their latter years in radio when the programs were titled, first, Maxwell House Coffee Time with George Burns and Gracie Allen and, then, The Ammident Show with George Burns and Gracie Allen (titles reflecting their sponsors)—only this time George and Gracie were former vaudeville and radio performers who were now television performers. Each week audiences eavesdropped on the Burns’ private life, especially their interaction with their neighbors, the Mortons, as they prepared for their television show. In effect, what audiences watched was a television show that was about the Burns’ private lives as they prepared for their television show, which was a show that was a television show about the Burns’ private life as they prepared for their television show and so on. This self-awareness is what critics calls self-reflexive, meaning the show itself is mindful of the fact that it is a show and nothing more, and the show couldn’t be anything more because George made certain that audience members were watching his show.

 

The Burns’ were supported by performers playing fictional characters, the Burns’ neighbors, Blanche and Harry Morton, both imported from the radio sitcom series. Blanche was played by veteran radio performer Bea Benadaret, who functioned as Gracie’s best friend and confidant, and one who expressed sympathy and deep affection for her friend no matter the illogic logic. Harry was played by a succession of actors, beginning with Hal March from the radio series and progressing through John Brown, Fred Clark and Larry Keating. Of all the regular characters in the series it was Harry who was the most insensitive to Gracie’s illogic logic, and the degree to which this insensitivity was expressed was measured by the performer. Hal March and John Brown were merely dumbfounded by Gracie’s illogic logic, but Fred Clark added bitter impatience to his annoyance. Larry Keating, on the other hand (the actor most associated with role), mellowed as the series progressed from the same bitter impatience of his predecessor to an amiable consideration toward her and especially toward the longsuffering George. Indeed, it was Keating who more often elicited one of the show’s repeated refrains; after wondering how George could tolerate Gracie’s illogic logic all those many years, George would reply affectionately, “I love her, that’s why.”

 

Completing the cast was the show’s announcer, first, from radio, Bill Goodwin, and then the announcer most associated with the program, Harry Von Zell. They, like the Burns’, played themselves and did double duty by not only delivering the commercial messages but also by participating in the action. Goodwin was depicted as playboy with an eye for beautiful young women. In this role, Gracie was always searching for a wife for the confirmed bachelor. Von Zell was uncharacteristically given a similar characterization when he replaced Goodwin after the series shifted from New York to Hollywood. Despite being well into middle-age with all the extra baggage middle-age brings, he was yet a confirmed bachelor with an eye toward the ladies. But Von Zell eventually evolved into being Gracie’s unwilling stooge, and as such his participation in Gracie’s schemes led to a running gag that was as expected in each episode as much as George’s refrain was. Once caught in the act of being Gracie’s accomplice, George would inform Harry that, “You’re fired.” Essentially, Harry was out of work each week only to return the next week to be fired again. Incidentally, it was Harry Von Zell who introduced George and Gracie on behalf of their sponsor, Carnation Milk, as “Carnation’s contented couple.”

 

George’s obliteration of the fourth wall is evident when the role of Harry Morton changed during the first few seasons. For example, when John Brown left the series “because of other commitments,” meaning that he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, George stopped the action and came forward and introduced Fred Clark:

 

GEORGE: By the way, there’s going to be a change in our cast. John Brown, who has been playing the part of Harry Morton, can’t be with us anymore because of other commitments, so we’ve brought in another fine actor to do Mr. Morton. I know you’ll enjoy him. You’ve seen him on the stage and on the screen. He’s a wonderful performer. I’d like you to meet him right now—Fred Clark (they shake hands). Fred, I want to welcome you to the neighborhood. We’re very happy to have you with us.

FRED: Thank you, George. I’m happy to be here. By the way, I haven’t met my wife yet.

BEA: Fred Clark!

FRED: Bea . . . Bea Benaderet! (Bea and Fred embrace).

GEORGE: Oh, you know one another.

BEA: Sure.

GEORGE: Well, from now on you two will be husband and wife.

FRED: Then we’d better cut this out.

 

George did the same thing when Larry Keating replaced Fred Clark. But these were just two albeit wildly conspicuous examples of George shattering the fourth wall. Indeed, at points in the narrative George would step away from the action toward the camera—or he’d motion for the camera to come in close—and comment on what was happening or what was about to happen. There were no secrets as George would comment about such things as trusting that his writers had worked out things properly because there were just four minutes remaining in the show, or, when the Burns’ and the Mortons moved to New York so their son, Ronnie, could take dramatic lessons during the sixth season (1955-56), George made his way to the hotel’s balcony during a snowstorm to deliver his monologue. The snow was ample so George cried out to special effects man “Sidney” to pause the snow so he could deliver his monologue. The snow ceased, George delivered his monologue, and then asked Sidney to resume the snow for proper winter atmosphere, and the story continued.

 

By this time the absurdist qualities of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show were expected and appreciated by the audience. But ever the innovator, George wasn’t finished with his obvious self-reflexive schtick. Knowing that what we were watching was a television show within a television show, why not involve the television set itself? And so in the last season George not only spoke to us but also allowed us to join him in his study above his garage at 312 Maple Drive as he watched the show just as we were watching the show. This enabled him to watch Gracie and Blanche and Harry Von Zell conspire, and, depending on what the trio was up to, allow George to simplify or complicate matters. In one episode, George decided not to interfere because if he did, he’d have to somehow fill the remaining fifteen minutes of the show. The whole thing was absurdist to the level of surrealism, and no one else on any of the competing networks ever tried to duplicate it.  

 

This self-awareness had the effect of pulling the audience into the action so that we, too, participated in the fun. Rod Amateau, producer-director of the final season, once said that, “No one in Burns and Allen is funny per se, they are actors in funny situations. Our program is a curious mixture of tremendous involvement in situations and, at the same time, a detachment in that George always makes it clear to the audience that he is working on sets in front of cameras with writers standing by.”

 

And that’s what it was: Plain, feel-good fun. The narratives were always amiable and, above all, respectful and decent. The characters were all mannerly people, the kind you’d like as neighbors and friends. Even the rough characters like the Runyonesque gangster Johnny Velvet, played by Sheldon Leonard (who gave the best line ever to describe Gracie’s illogic logic: “It’s like trying to open a door and having the knob come off into your hand”), are amiable. Further, the conflict within the narratives was always situational, usually by misunderstandings, and never by evil people. For instance, in the August 17, 1954, episode, Gracie slips and falls in a department store, and when they try to settle with Gracie she thinks the store is suing her for the small hole found in the carpet. Adding to the chaos is that when the insurance adjuster meets Gracie he believes she suffered a head injury.

 

But most of all what kept us coming back for more and more of George and Gracie was the way in which George and Gracie treated each other. As George remembered, as far back as vaudeville, the audience rejected Gracie’s responses if they were sarcastic or if they were the replies of a “wisenheimer,” like many of their contemporary acts. The secret, George realized, was Gracie’s image as a sweet, lovable, innocent person who said things that were nonsensical to others but made sense to her. Likewise, audiences rejected his responses if they were cruel or angrily impatient. He could express puzzlement and even frustration but any demonstration of hostility toward Gracie was scorned by the audience.

 

As part of the humor, they each had their failings. Gracie’s illogic logic led to much turmoil including, in the first several seasons, a closet filled with hats that were abandoned by various guests who dropped by and were met by Gracie’s illogic logic. Out of frustration and disorientation, they fled the house without retrieving their hats. Likewise, George’s awful singing caused many visitors to take flight. In episode after episode, once George began singing cast members found excuses for quick departures. Often, only George and Gracie were then left on stage—including the episode in which George and Gracie, alone in their home after all their guests had departed, perform a soft-shoe while holding hands, pleasing each other.

 

Gracie was always content to hear George sing—evidence of her own failing, some would say—and George was always at her side despite her illogic logic. Why? Because, as he refrained throughout the run of the Burns and Allen team from vaudeville through radio and television to the title of one of his books, “I love her, that’s why.”

 

That feeling was persuasive. We did too.