One thing I didn't realize before I set up this week's Monkey poll was the extent to which both of my brothers are fans of the comedy teaming of George Burns and Gracie Allen. My older brother is a fan of their television series which ran on CBS from 1950 to 1958; my younger brother listens to their old radio show (on XM), which ran from 1932 to 1950.
I got to wondering how many people are still aware of Burns and Allen. George Burns, sure; he won an Oscar for The Sunshine Boys and lived to be 100. But how many people remember he was primarily a straight man and that it was his wife, Gracie Allen, who was the real star of the show?
Both Burns and Allen began performing at an early age, Burns at the age of seven while he was playing hooky from his job in a syrup factory (we're talking the year 1903, long before child labor laws were in effect), Gracie not much older, performing with her three sisters in an Irish folk dance act called The Four Colleens.
"We called ourselves the Peewee Quartet," Burns said of his days as a child performer. "We started out singing on ferryboats, in saloons, in brothels, and on street corners. We'd put our hats down for donations. Sometimes the customers threw something in the hats. Sometimes they took something out of the hats. Sometimes they took the hats."
The two performers met in 1922 during a vaudeville show and soon formed an act, with Burns feeding straight lines to Allen who had a gift for what was known in vaudeville as a "Dumb Dora" routine.
"Gracie's the kind of girl," Allen explained, "who shortens the cord on the electric iron to save electricity."
Burns and Allen made the jump from the stage to the big screen in 1929 when Warner Brothers began filming vaudeville acts for their new Vitaphone sound system, and signed a contract with Paramount the next year. The team appeared in twenty-seven shorts and feature-length films during the 1930s. The team also were a fixture on radio, first appearing as regular guests on The Guy Lombardo Show in 1932 and headlining their own show beginning in 1934.
"Say good night, Gracie" became the team's signature line.
The team moved from radio to television in 1950 and starred in The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show on CBS for eight seasons. The show was nominated for eleven Emmy Awards, with Allen herself receiving five nominations for best actress. Ill-health though forced Allen to retire in 1958 and though the show continued on for another season, the show's popularity plummeted without her presence. She died of a heart attack in 1964.
Burns continued to produce television shows and work in nightclubs until 1974 when he replaced an ailing Jack Benny in the movie version of the Neil Simon play, The Sunshine Boys. For his supporting performance, Burns won an Oscar; at age eighty, he was at that time the oldest Oscar winner ever. Burns continued to work almost up to his death, forty-nine days after his 100th birthday. He was interred next to Allen where at last she received top billing: "Gracie Allen & George Burns—Together Again."
And now, without further ado, Burns and Allen in the 1931 comedy short 100% Service.