Today is the birthday (1896) of legendary US comedian George Burns who made it to his 100th birthday and a few months more before handing in his lunch pail. He was one of the few performers in the US who made the transition from vaudeville, to radio, and on to film and television. His arched eyebrow and cigar-smoke punctuation became familiar trademarks for over three quarters of a century. He and his wife, Gracie Allen, appeared on radio, television, and film for decades as the comedy duo Burns and Allen. These days their gender roles of the cool, sophisticated man of the house and his ditzy housewife companion might not play so well, but it worked in the 1930s, 1940s and beyond.
Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum in New York City, the ninth of 12 children born to Hadassah “Dorah” (née Bluth; 1857–1927) and Eliezer Birnbaum (1855–1903), known as Louis or Lippe, Jewish immigrants who had come to the United States from Kolbuszowa in what is now Poland. His father was a substitute cantor at the local synagogue but usually worked as a coat presser. During the influenza epidemic of 1903, Lippe Birnbaum contracted the flu and died at the age of 47. Burns went to work to help support the family, shining shoes, running errands and selling newspapers. When he landed a job as a syrup maker in a local candy shop at age seven, “Nate” as he was known, was “discovered”, as he recalled long after:
We were all about the same age, six and seven, and when we were bored making syrup, we used to practice singing harmony in the basement. One day our letter carrier came down to the basement. His name was Lou Farley. Feingold was his real name, but he changed it to Farley. He wanted the whole world to sing harmony. He came down to the basement once to deliver a letter and heard the four of us kids singing harmony. He liked our style, so we sang a couple more songs for him. Then we looked up at the head of the stairs and saw three or four people listening to us and smiling. In fact, they threw down a couple of pennies. So I said to the kids I was working with: no more chocolate syrup. It’s show business from now on. We called ourselves the Pee-Wee Quartet. 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.
Burns was drafted into the United States Army when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, but he failed the physical because he was extremely nearsighted. In order to try to hide his Jewish heritage, he adopted the stage name by which he would be known for the rest of his life. He claimed in a few interviews that the idea of the name originated from the fact that two star major league players (George H. Burns and George J. Burns, unrelated) were playing major league baseball at the time. Both men achieved over 2000 major league hits and hold some major league records. Burns also was reported to have taken the name “George” from his brother Izzy (who hated his own name so he changed it to “George”), and the Burns from the Burns Brothers Coal Company (he used to steal coal from their truck).
He normally partnered with a girl, sometimes in an adagio dance routine, sometimes comic patter. Though he had an apparent flair for comedy, he never quite clicked with any of his partners, until he met a young Irish Catholic in 1923. “And all of a sudden,” he said famously in later years, “the audience realized I had a talent. They were right. I did have a talent—and I was married to her for 38 years.” His first wife was Hannah Siegel (stage name: Hermosa Jose), one of his dance partners. The marriage, never consummated, lasted 26 weeks and happened because her family would not let them go on tour unless they were married. They divorced at the end of the tour.
Burn’s second wife and famous partner in their entertainment routines was Gracie Allen. Burns and Allen got a start in motion pictures with a series of comic short films in the late 1930s. Their feature credits in the mid- to late-1930s included The Big Broadcast; International House (1933), Six of a Kind (1934), (the latter two films with W.C. Fields), The Big Broadcast of 1936, The Big Broadcast of 1937, A Damsel in Distress (1937) in which they danced step-for-step with Fred Astaire, and College Swing (1938) in which Bob Hope made one of his early film appearances. Honolulu would be Burns’s last movie for nearly 40 years.
Burns and Allen were indirectly responsible for the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby series of “Road” pictures. In 1938, William LeBaron, producer and managing director at Paramount, had a script prepared by Don Hartman and Frank Butler. It was to star Burns and Allen with Bing Crosby, who was then already an established star of radio, recordings and the movies. The story did not seem to fit the comedy team’s style, so LeBaron ordered Hartman and Butler to rewrite the script to fit two male co-stars: Hope and Crosby. The script was titled Road to Singapore, and it made motion picture history when it was released in 1940.
Burns and Allen first made it to radio as the comedy relief for bandleader Guy Lombardo, which did not always sit well with Lombardo’s home audience. In his later memoir, The Third Time Around, Burns revealed a college fraternity’s protest letter, complaining that they resented their weekly dance parties with their girlfriends listening to “Thirty Minutes of the Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven” had to be broken into by a vaudeville team.
In time, though, Burns and Allen found their own show and radio audience, first airing on February 15th, 1932 and concentrating on their classic stage routines plus sketch comedy in which the Burns and Allen style was woven into different little scenes, not unlike the short films they made in Hollywood. They were also good for a clever publicity stunt, none more so than the hunt for Gracie’s missing brother, a hunt that included Gracie turning up on other radio shows searching for him as well.
The couple was portrayed at first as younger singles, with Allen the object of both Burns’ and other cast members’ affections. Most notably, bandleaders Ray Noble (known for his phrase, “Gracie, this is the first time we’ve ever been alone”) and Artie Shaw played “love” interests to Gracie. In addition, singer Tony Martin played an unwilling love interest of Gracie’s, in which Gracie “sexually harassed” him, by threatening to fire him if the romantic interest was not reciprocated.
In time, however, due to slipping ratings and the difficulty of being portrayed as singles in light of the audience’s close familiarity with their real-life marriage, the show adapted in the fall of 1941 to present them as the married couple they actually were. For a time, Burns and Allen had a rather distinguished and popular musical director: Artie Shaw, who also appeared as a character in some of the show’s sketches. A somewhat different Gracie also marked this era, as the Gracie character could often be mean to George.
As this format grew stale over the years, Burns and his fellow writers redeveloped the show as a situation comedy in the fall of 1941. The reformat focused on the couple’s married life and life among various friends, including Elvia Allman as “Tootsie Sagwell,” a man-hungry spinster in love with Bill Goodwin, and neighbors, until the characters of Harry and Blanche Morton entered the picture to stay.
Like The Jack Benny Program, the new George Burns & Gracie Allen Show portrayed George and Gracie as entertainers with their own weekly radio show. Goodwin remained, his character as “girl-crazy” as ever, and the music was now handled by Meredith Willson (later to be better known for composing the Broadway musical The Music Man). Willson also played himself on the show as a naive, friendly, girl-shy fellow. The new format’s success made it one of the few classic radio comedies to completely re-invent itself and regain major fame.
In the fall of 1949, after twelve years at NBC, the couple took the show back to its original network CBS, where they had risen to fame from 1932 to 1937. Their good friend Jack Benny reached a negotiating impasse with NBC over the corporation he set up (“Amusement Enterprises”) to package his show, the better to put more of his earnings on a capital-gains basis and avoid the 80% taxes slapped on very high earners in the World War II period. When CBS executive William S. Paley convinced Benny to move to CBS (Paley, among other things, impressed Benny with his attitude that the performers make the network, not the other way around as NBC chief David Sarnoff reputedly believed), Benny in turn convinced several NBC stars to join him, including Burns and Allen. Thus CBS reaped the benefits when Burns and Allen moved to television in 1950. On television, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show put faces to the radio characters audiences had come to love.
To ring the changes, instead of a recipe I give you one of their shows in which Gracie tries to adopt a vegetarian diet. Typical stuff for the era: