VIDEO of A&E Biography Gracie Allen
Publicity still of Allen from the Burns and AllenCBS Radio program
|Born||Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen
July 26, 1895
San Francisco, California, U.S.
|Died||August 27, 1964 (aged 69)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Heart attack|
|Resting place||Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale|
|Occupation||Actress, comedian, vaudevillian|
|Spouse(s)||George Burns (m. 1926–64)|
|Children||Sandra Jean Burns
(b. 1934 – d. 2010)
Ronald Jon Burns
(b. 1935 – d. 2007)
Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie “Gracie” Allen (July 26, 1895 – August 27, 1964) was an American comedian who became internationally famous as the zany partner and comic foil of husband and “straight man” George Burns. For contributions to the television industry, Gracie Allen was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6672 Hollywood Boulevard. The team of Burns and Allen was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1988.
Allen was born in San Francisco, California, to George Allen and Margaret Theresa (“Molly”) Allen (née Darragh; later Mrs. Edward Pidgeon), who were both of Irish Catholic extraction. She made her first appearance on stage at age three and was given her first role on the radio by Eddie Cantor.:94–95 She was educated at the Star of the Sea Convent School and during that time became a talented dancer.
She soon began performing Irish folk dances with her three sisters, who were billed as “The Four Colleens”.:28 In 1909, Allen joined her sister, Bessie, as a vaudeville performer. At a performance in 1922, Allen met George Burns and the two formed a comedy act. They were married on January 7, 1926, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Birth date mystery
Depending on the source, Allen is alleged to have been born on July 26 in 1895, 1896, 1902 or 1906. All public records held by the City and County of San Francisco were destroyed in the earthquake and great fire of April 1906. Her husband, George Burns, also professed not to know exactly how old she was, though it was presumably he who provided the date July 26, 1902, which appears on her death record. Her crypt marker also shows her year of birth as 1902.
Among Allen’s signature jokes was a dialogue in which Allen would claim that she was born in 1906, her foil would press her for proof or corroborating information; she would say that her birth certificate had been destroyed in the earthquake, her foil would point out that she was born in July but the earthquake was three months earlier in April, and Allen would simply smile and reply “Well, it was an awfully big earthquake.” The most reliable information comes from the U.S. Census data collected on June 1, 1900. According to the information in the Census records for the State of California, City and County of San Francisco, enumeration district 38, family 217, page 11-A, one Grace Allen—daughter of George and Maggie Allen, and youngest sister of Bessie, Hazel and Pearl Allen—was born in California in July 1895. In the census taken on April 15, 1910, however, for San Francisco’s 39th Assembly District, Enumeration District 216, Page 5A, Grace Allen is listed as being 13 (instead of 14), indicating a birth year of 1896, but this is not dispositive and census records do occasionally vary from year to year based upon numerous factors.
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The Burns and Allen act began with Allen as the straight man, setting up Burns to deliver the punchlines—and get the laughs. In his book Gracie: A Love Story Burns later explained that he noticed Allen’s straight lines were getting more laughs than his punchlines, so he cannily flipped the act over—he made himself the straight man and let her get the laughs. Audiences immediately fell in love with Allen’s character, who combined the traits of naivete, zaniness, and total innocence. The reformulated team, focusing on Allen, toured the country, eventually headlining in major vaudeville houses. Many of their famous routines were preserved in one- and two-reel short films, including Lambchops(1929), made while the couple was still performing onstage.
Burns attributed all of the couple’s early success to Allen, modestly ignoring his own brilliance as a straight man. He summed up their act in a classic quip: “All I had to do was say, ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?’ and she talked for 38 years. And sometimes I didn’t even have to remember to say ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?'”
In the early 1930s, like many stars of their era, Burns and Allen graduated to radio. The show was originally a continuation of their original “flirtation act” (as their vaudeville and short film routines had been). Burns realized that they were simply too old for that material (“Our jokes were too young for us”, he later remarked) :165 and changed the show’s format in the fall of 1941 into the situation comedy vehicle for which they are best remembered: a working show business married couple negotiating ordinary problems caused by Gracie’s “illogical logic,” usually with the help of neighbors Harry and Blanche Morton, and their announcer, Bill Goodwin (later replaced by Harry von Zell during the run of their television series).
Burns and Allen frequently used running gags as publicity stunts. During 1932–33, they pulled off one of the most successful in the business: a year-long search for Allen’s supposedly missing brother.:100–105 They would make unannounced cameo appearances on other shows, asking if anyone had seen Allen’s brother. Gracie Allen’s real-life brother was apparently the only person who didn’t find the gag funny, and he eventually asked them to stop. (He dropped out of sight for a few weeks, at the height of the publicity.)
In 1940, the team launched a similar stunt when Allen announced she was running for President of the United States on the Surprise Party ticket.:184–193 Burns and Allen did a cross-country whistlestop campaign tour on a private train, performing their live radio show in different cities. In one of her campaign speeches Gracie said, “I don’t know much about the Lend-Lease Bill, but if we owe it we should pay it.” Another typical Gracie-ism on the campaign trail went like this: “Everybody knows a woman is better than a man when it comes to introducing bills into the house.” The Surprise Party mascot was the kangaroo; the motto was “It’s in the bag.” As part of the gag, Allen (in reality, the Burns and Allen writers) published a book, Gracie Allen for President, which included photographs from their nationwide campaign tour and the Surprise Party convention. Allen received an endorsement from Harvard University,.
Allen was also the subject of one of S. S. Van Dine‘s famous Philo Vance mystery novels, The Gracie Allen Murder Case. Typically, she couldn’t resist a classic Gracie Allen review: “S.S. Van Dine is silly to spend six months writing a novel when you can buy one for two dollars and ninety five cents.”
Another publicity stunt had her playing a piano concerto at the Hollywood Bowl (and later at Carnegie Hall).:182 The Burns and Allen staff hired a composer to write the Concerto for Index Finger, a joke piece that had the orchestra playing madly, only to pause while Allen played a one-finger scale, with a final incorrect note. The orchestra would then play a musical piece that developed around the “wrong” note. On her final “solo,” Allen would finally hit the right note, causing the entire orchestra to applaud. In fact, the actual index-finger playing was done off-stage by a professional pianist. The concerto was featured in the 1944 film Two Girls and a Sailor, with orchestra conducted by Albert Coates.
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In the fall of 1949 Burns and Allen became part of the CBS talent raid. Their good friend (and frequent guest star) Jack Benny had decided to jump from NBC over to CBS. William S. Paley, the mastermind of CBS, had recently made it openly clear that he believed talent and not the network made the difference, which was not the case at NBC. Benny convinced Burns and Allen (among others) to join him in the move to CBS. The Burns and Allen radio show became part of the CBS lineup and a year later they also brought their show to television. They continued to use the formula which had kept them longtime radio stars, playing themselves only now as television stars, still living next door to Harry and Blanche Morton. They concluded each show with a brief dialogue performance in the style of their classic vaudeville and earlier radio routines.
Allen retired in 1958, and Burns tried to soldier on without her. The show was renamed The George Burns Show with the cast intact except for Allen. The locale of the show was changed from the Burns home to George Burns’ office, with Blanche Morton working as Burns’ secretary so she could help Allen keep an eye on him. Allen’s absence was only too obvious and impossible to overcome. The renamed show barely lasted a year.
In the early 1930s, Burns and Allen made several short films, preserving several of their classic vaudeville routines on celluloid. They also made two films with W. C. Fields—International House (1933) and Six of a Kind (1934). In 1937 Burns and Allen starred with Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress, a musical with an original score by George Gershwin, which introduced the song “A Foggy Day“. It was Astaire’s first RKO film without dancing partner Ginger Rogers.
Astaire’s co-star Joan Fontaine was not a dancer and he was reluctant to dance on screen alone. He also felt the script needed more comic relief to enhance the overall appeal of the film. Burns and Allen had each worked in vaudeville as dancers (aka “hoofers”) before forming their act and when word of the project reached them, they called Astaire and he asked them to audition.
Burns contacted an act he had once seen that performed a dance using brooms. For the next several weeks, he and Allen worked at home to learn the complicated routine for their audition. When they presented the “Whisk Broom Dance” to Astaire, he was so taken by it, that he had them teach it to him and it was added to the film. Their talents were further highlighted as they matched Astaire step by step in the demanding “Funhouse Dance”. Throughout the picture Burns and Allen amazed audiences and critics as they “effortlessly” kept pace with the most famous dancer in films, as many did not know either of them could dance.:205
“Say good night, Gracie”
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The legend was born of their vaudeville routine and carried over to both radio and television. As the show wrapped up Burns would look at Allen and say “Say good night, Gracie” to which she would usually simply reply “Good night.” Popular legend has it that Allen would say, “Good night, Gracie.” According to George Burns, recordings of their radio and television shows, and several histories of old-time radio (John Dunning’s On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, for example), Gracie never used the phrase. The confusion may have been caused by Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Stars Dan Rowan and Dick Martin used a similar sign-off routine wherein Rowan would tell Martin to “Say good night, Dick.” Martin’s reply was always “Good night, Dick.” It seemed like something Gracie Allen would have said.
George Burns himself said as much in an interview years later, adding that, surprisingly enough, no one ever thought of having Allen say “Good night, Gracie”. However, the former Burns and Allen head writer, Paul Henning, did use the “say good night” bit in at least one episode of the Beverly Hillbillies (The Richest Woman, aired January 5, 1966, two years before Laugh-In premiered. JED: “Say good night, Jethro.” JETHRO: “Good night, Jethro.”)
In the 1930s Burns and Allen adopted two children, Sandra Jean and Ronald Jon, after discovering they could not conceive on their own. They agreed to raise the children as Catholics, then let them make their own religious choice as adults. Ronnie eventually joined the cast of his parents’ television show playing George and Gracie’s son, a serious drama student who disdained comedy. Sandy, by contrast, made only occasional appearances on the show (usually as a telephone operator, waitress, secretary, or clerk,) and left show business to become a teacher.
As a child, Allen had been scalded badly on one arm, and she was extremely sensitive about the scarring. Throughout her life she wore either full or three-quarter length sleeves in order to hide the scars. The half-forearm style became as much a Gracie Allen trademark as her many aprons and her illogical logic. When the couple moved to Beverly Hills and acquired a swimming pool, Gracie put on a bathing suit and swam the length of the pool to prove to her children that she could swim. (She fought a longtime fear of drowning by privately taking swimming lessons.) She never put on a bathing suit or entered the pool again.
Allen was said to be sensitive about having one green eye and one blue eye (heterochromia), and there was some speculation that plans to film the eighth season of The Burns & Allen Show in color prompted her retirement. However, this seems unlikely, since a one-time-only color episode was filmed and broadcast in 1954 (a clip of which was seen on a CBS anniversary show). The reason she retired in 1958 was her health; George Burns noted more than once that she stayed with the television show as long as she did to please him, in spite of her health problems. In later years, Burns admitted that he had a very brief affair. Stricken by guilt, he phoned Jack Benny and told him about the indiscretion. However, Allen overheard the conversation and Burns quietly bought an expensive center piece. Nothing more was said. Years later, he discovered that Allen had subsequently told one of her friends about the episode finishing with, “You know, I really wish George would cheat on me again. I could use a new centerpiece.”:306
Gracie Allen fought a long battle with heart disease, ultimately dying of a heart attack in Hollywood on August 27, 1964, at age 69. Her remains were interred in a crypt at the Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California.
Burns’ remains were interred at her side in 1996 when he died 32 years later at the age of 100; the marker on the crypt was changed from “Grace Allen Burns—Beloved Wife And Mother (1902–1964)” to “Gracie Allen (1902–1964) and George Burns (1896–1996)—Together Again”.
- Lambchops (1929; short film)
- The Big Broadcast (1932; first feature film)
- College Humor (1933)
- International House (1933)
- Many Happy Returns (1934) (first leading role)
- Six of a Kind (1934)
- We’re Not Dressing (1934)
- Love in Bloom (1935)
- Here Comes Cookie (1935)
- The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935)
- College Holiday (1936)
- The Big Broadcast of 1937 (1936)
- A Damsel in Distress (1937)
- College Swing (1938)
- Honolulu (1939)
- The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939; without George Burns — a “Philo Vance” mystery by S. S. Van Dine)
- Mr. and Mrs. North (1941; second murder mystery film without Burns)
- Two Girls and a Sailor (1944) (guest appearance; last movie role)
- The Robert Burns Panatella Show: 1932–1933, CBS
- The White Owl Program: 1933–1934, CBS
- The Adventures of Gracie: 1934–1935, CBS
- The Campbell’s Tomato Juice Program: 1935–1937, CBS
- The Grape Nuts Program: 1937–1938, NBC
- The Chesterfield Program: 1938–1939, CBS
- The Hinds Honey and Almond Cream Program: 1939–1940, CBS
- The Hormel Program: 1940–1941, NBC
- The Swan Soap Show: 1941–1945, NBC, CBS
- Maxwell House Coffee Time: 1945–1949, NBC
- The Amm-i-Dent Toothpaste Show: 1949–1950, CBS
The Gracie Award is presented by the Alliance for Women in Media to recognize exemplary programming created by women, for women and about women in radio, television, cable and web-based media, including news, drama, comedy, commercials, public service, documentary and sports. The awards program encourages the realistic and multi-faceted portrayal of women in entertainment, news, features and other programs. Allen has twice been nominated to the National Women’s Hall of Fame which has so far chosen not to induct her. She has been honored by James L. Brooks, who named “Gracie Films” after her.
- The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, 1950–58, CBS
- “Ancestry of Gracie Allen”. Genealogy.com. 2002-07-18. Archived from the original on May 3, 2012. Retrieved 2010-08-02.
- Grace Allen, age 4 years, born July 1895. U.S. Census, June 1, 1908, State of California, County of San Francisco, enumeration district 38, p. 11A, family 217.
- “Hollywood Walk of Fame database”. HWOF.com.
- Burns, George (November 1988). Gracie: A Love Story. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. ISBN 0-399-13384-4.
- “Photo of her crypt marker”. Findagrave.com. 2004-06-23. Retrieved 2010-08-02.
- “Genealogy, Family Trees and Family History Records online”. Ancestry.com. Retrieved 2010-08-02.
- Mazel, Henry F. “The Gracie Allen Presidential Run”. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
- “Gracie Allen Dead”. New York Times. August 29, 1964. Retrieved 2015-02-19.
Gracie Allen, whose zany comedy helped make Burns and Allen a top show business act for years, died of a heart attack last night at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. She was 58 [sic] years old. … Miss Allen was born in San Francisco on July 26, 1906 [sic]. Her father, Edward Allen, was a song‐and‐dance man. …
- “Michael’s Foreverland”. The Daily Beast. 2009-09-01. Retrieved 2010-07-26.
- I Love Her, That’s Why!: An Autobiography by George Burns (1955, 2003, 2011) ISBN 978-1258012144
- The Third Time Around by George Burns (New York: Putnam, 1980), including transcripts of several classic Burns & Allen routines.
- Burns, George (1988). Gracie: A Love Story. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-012656-2. OCLC 19740761.
- Say Goodnight, Gracie: The Story of Burns and Allen by Cheryl Blythe and Susan Sackett (1986, 1989) ISBN 1-55958-019-4
- Say Goodnight, Gracie: The Story of Burns and Allen, Revised and Updated by Cheryl Blythe and Susan Sackett (2016) Amazon eBook ASIN B01D3X6R34
- The Great American Broadcast by Leonard Maltin (New York: Dutton, 1997)
- On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio by John Dunning (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)
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