Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen (July 26, 1895[1][2][3] – August 27, 1964) was an American vaudevillian, singer, actress, and comedian who became internationally famous as the zany partner and comic foil of husband George Burns, her straight man, appearing with him on radio, television and film as the duo Burns and Allen.

Gracie Allen
Publicity still of Allen from the Burns and Allen CBS Radio program
Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen

(1895-07-26)July 26, 1895[1][2]
San Francisco, California, U.S.
DiedAugust 27, 1964(1964-08-27) (aged 69)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Resting placeForest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale
Years active1924–1958
(m. 1926)
Children2, including Ronnie Burns
Gracie Allen, George Burns and children aboard Matson flagship Lurline just before they sailed for Hawaii, 1938

For her contributions to the television industry, Allen was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6672 Hollywood Boulevard.[4] She and Burns were inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1988.[5]

Costar Bea Benaderet said of Allen in 1966: "She was probably one of the greatest actresses of our time."[6]

Early life edit

Allen was born in San Francisco, to George Allen and Margaret Theresa ("Molly") Allen (née Darragh; later Mrs. Edward Pidgeon), who were both of Irish Catholic descent. She made her first appearance on stage at age three, and was given her first role on the radio by Eddie Cantor.[7]: 94–95  She graduated from Star of the Sea Convent School in 1914, and during that time became a talented dancer.[2]

She soon began performing Irish folk dances with her three sisters, who were billed as "The Four Colleens".[7]: 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, onstage at the Palace Theatre in Cleveland by a justice of the peace.[8][9]

Allen was born with heterochromia, giving her two different color eyes, one blue and one green.[10] Her left arm and shoulder were badly scarred when a boiling pot of tea fell on her as a child; as a result, she wore long-sleeved dresses throughout her life. Allen also suffered from crippling migraine headaches.[11]

Birthdate myth edit

Some discrepancy exists as to her date of birth. Depending on the source, Allen is alleged to have been born on July 26 in 1895, 1896, 1902, or 1906. All public vital records held by the city and county of San Francisco were destroyed in the earthquake and great fire of April 1906.[12] Her husband George Burns professed not to know exactly how old she was, though it was presumably he who provided the date of July 26, 1902 that appears on her death record. Allen's crypt marker also shows her year of birth as 1902.[13]

Among Allen's signature jokes was a dialogue in which she would claim that she was born in 1906. Her foil would press her for proof or corroborating information, and she would reply that her birth certificate had been destroyed in the earthquake. Her foil would point out that she was born in July, but that the earthquake was three months earlier in April. Allen would simply smile and reply: "Well, it was an awfully big earthquake."

Presumably the most reliable information comes from U.S. Census data collected on June 1, 1900 that shows Grace Allen, age four (born in July 1895), along with her parents and five siblings.[14] This proves that Allen was born before 1900 and indicates that the birthdate of July 26, 1895 may be correct.[15] Additionally, the yearbook from her senior year of high school has been located; its 1914 date is consistent with her having been born in 1895.[2]

Double act edit

Burns and Allen on the vaudeville circuit in 1924

The Burns and Allen act began with Allen as the straight man, setting up Burns to deliver the punchlines and receive the laughs. In his book Gracie: A Love Story, Burns explained that he had noticed that Allen's straight lines were bringing more laughs than did his punchlines, so he cannily flipped the act, making himself the straight man so that Allen would elicit the laughter. Audiences immediately fell in love with Allen's character, which combined the traits of naivete, zaniness and 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 on the stage.

Burns attributed all of the couple's early success to Allen, ignoring his own brilliance as a straight man. He summarized their act by saying: "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?'"

Radio edit

In the early 1930s, like many stars of the era, Burns and Allen graduated to radio. The show was originally a continuation of the flirtation act from their vaudeville and short-film routines. In 1935, famed composer and arranger Ferde Grofe joined them as musical director. Burns realized that they were too old for that type of material[7]: 165  and changed the show's format in the fall of 1941 into the situation comedy for which they are best remembered: a working showbusiness 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).

Publicity stunts edit

Burns and Allen in 1952

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.[7]: 100–105  They would make unannounced cameo appearances on other shows, asking if anyone had seen Allen's brother. However, her brother did not find it comical and eventually asked them to stop; he was so irked by the gag's popularity that he disappeared from society at the height of its popularity.

In 1940, Allen announced that she was running for president of the United States on the Surprise Party ticket.[7]: 184–193 [16] Burns and Allen embarked on a cross-country whistle-stop campaign tour on a private train, performing their live radio show in various 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 quip on the campaign trail was: "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, and its motto was "It's in the bag." As part of the gag, Dwell, Sloan and Pearce published a book, How to Become President by Gracie Allen (in reality, written by Burns and Allen writer Charles Lofgren) that included photographs from their nationwide campaign tour and the Surprise Party convention. Allen received an endorsement from Harvard University.[17]

Allen was also the subject of one of S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance mystery novels, The Gracie Allen Murder Case. Allen said: "S.S. Van Dine is silly to spend six months writing a novel when you can buy one for $2.95."[citation needed]

In another publicity stunt, Allen played a piano concert at the Hollywood Bowl (and later at Carnegie Hall).[7]: 182  The Burns and Allen staff hired a composer to write the "Concerto for Index Finger", a joke piece in which the orchestra would play 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. The actual index-finger playing was performed offstage by a professional pianist. The concerto was featured in the film Two Girls and a Sailor (1944) with an orchestra conducted by Albert Coates.[18]

Films edit

Lobby card with W.C. Fields, Mary Boland and Allen in 1934

In the early 1930s, Burns and Allen appeared in several short films in which they performed some of their classic vaudeville routines. They also appeared in two full-length movies with W. C. Fields: International House (1933) and Six of a Kind (1934).[19] Burns and Allen also appeared in three out of the four Big Broadcast ensemble comedies including The Big Broadcast (1932) with Bing Crosby, The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935) with Crosby, and The Big Broadcast of 1937 (1936) with Jack Benny. They were also in We're Not Dressing (1934), billed directly under Crosby and Carole Lombard.

In 1937, Burns and Allen starred with Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress, a musical with an original score by George Gershwin that introduced the song "A Foggy Day". It was Astaire's first RKO film without dancing partner Ginger Rogers.[20] Astaire's costar 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 before forming their act, and when word of the project reached them, they called Astaire and he asked them to audition.[20] Burns contacted an act whom he had once seen performing a dance using small whisk brooms. For the next several weeks, he and Allen practiced the complicated routine for their audition. When they presented the dance to Astaire, he liked it so much that he asked them teach it to him, and it was added to the film with the three of them dancing together. Burns and Allen also matched Astaire step-by-step in the film's demandingly epic dance sequence in a funhouse including amazing visuals with distorted mirrors.[7]: 205 

Their next film the following year was College Swing (1938) starring Burns and Allen top-billed above Martha Raye and Bob Hope with a stellar supporting cast featuring Edward Everett Horton, Betty Grable, Jackie Coogan, John Payne, Robert Cummings, and Jerry Colonna. The picture was directed by Raoul Walsh.

A lively musical comedy came next titled Honolulu (1939) starring Eleanor Powell, Robert Young and Burns and Allen billed above the title. Unusually, Burns and Allen performed separately through most of the film until the end, with Allen singing and dancing the energetic titular song with Powell at one point while Burns is off-screen.

That same year, Allen's popularity was such that S.S. Van Dine wrote one of his Philo Vance detective novels featuring her as the principal character titled The Gracie Allen Murder Case. The zanily comedic book was adapted into a film, also titled The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939). Allen was billed above Warren William (the actor then portraying Philo Vance in the series of Vance films), and without Burns. The result was so successful that Allen was cast two years later in a similar mystery/comedy film titled Mr. and Mrs. North (1942) in which she is top-billed as a comedic detective, again without Burns in the cast.

Allen made her last film appearance in a musical cameo as an amusing concert pianist in Two Girls and a Sailor, without Burns, but remained in radio and would segue into series television with her husband six years later.

Television edit

George Burns and Gracie Allen in 1955

In the fall of 1949, having apparently put their movie career behind them but working continuously in radio, Burns and Allen became part of the CBS talent raid. Their good friend and frequent guest star Jack Benny had already departed NBC for CBS, and CBS head William S. Paley made it clear that he believed that talent, 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 as The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. They continued to use the formula that 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 continue without her. The show was renamed The George Burns Show with the cast intact except for Allen. The show's setting was changed from the Burns home to his office, with Blanche working as Burns' secretary so that she could help Allen keep an eye on him. The renamed show barely lasted a year.

"Say good night, Gracie" edit

During their vaudeville routine, and later on radio and television, as their show ended, Burns would look at Allen and say "Say good night, Gracie," to which she would usually simply reply "Good night." A popular legend holds that she would reply "Good night, Gracie," but according to Burns, recordings of their radio and television shows and several histories of old-time radio (such as John Dunning's On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio), she never used the phrase.

Private life edit

Eleanor Roosevelt (center) and Gracie Allen (right) in 1940
Burns and Allen ca. 1946

In the 1930s, Burns and Allen adopted two children, Sandra Jean and Ronald Jon.

Eight years before his death, Burns publicly admitted that once in their marriage, in the 1950s, he cheated on Allen. In guilt over the one-night affair, Burns gave Allen a $10,000 diamond ring and a $750 silver centerpiece. Allen learned about the affair but never let on to Burns that she knew, and the couple never discussed it.[7]

Death edit

Crypt (with wrong year of birth) at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California

Allen, who had a history of heart disease, died from a heart attack in Hollywood on August 27, 1964.[21] An 1895 birth year would place her age at death as 69. Her remains were interred in a crypt at the Freedom Mausoleum in the Sanctuary of Heritage at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.[22]

Burns' remains were interred at her side in 1996 when he died 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 (1895–1964) and George Burns (1896–1996)—Together Again".[23]

Filmography edit

Radio series edit

  • 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

Gracie Award edit

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.[24] The awards program encourages the realistic and multifaceted portrayal of women in entertainment, news, features and other programs. Allen has twice been nominated to the National Women's Hall of Fame, though she has not been inducted. She has been honored by James L. Brooks, who named Gracie Films after her.

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ a b Date of birth/biodata, Accessed July 10, 2022.
  2. ^ a b c d Gracie Allen: July 26, 1902- August 27, 1964, John Freeman, Accessed July 10, 2022.
  3. ^ Grace Allen, age 4 years, born July 1895. U.S. Census, June 1, 1900, State of California, County of San Francisco, enumeration district 38, p. 11A, family 217. However the legibility of this entry is low.
  4. ^ "Hollywood Walk of Fame database".
  5. ^ Hall of Fame Honorees: Complete List.
  6. ^ Heisner, John (April 24, 1966). "She Was Jack Benny's Turkey". Democrat & Chronicle. p. 207. Retrieved September 2, 2017.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Burns, George (1988). Gracie: A Love Story. Internet Archive. New York: J.P. Putnam's Sons. p. 306. ISBN 9780451168863.
  8. ^ Cheryl., Blythe (1989). Say good night, Gracie! : the story of George Burns & Gracie Allen. Sackett, Susan. Rocklin, CA: Prima Pub. pp. 10. ISBN 1559580194. OCLC 20264365.
  9. ^ "Palace Theater". Cleveland Historical. Retrieved September 12, 2020.
  10. ^ Kaufman, James C. (May 1, 2017). "From the Sylvia Plath Effect to Social Justice: Moving Forward With Creativity". Europe's Journal of Psychology. 13 (2): 173–177. doi:10.5964/ejop.v13i2.1413. ISSN 1841-0413. PMC 5450978. PMID 28580020.
  11. ^ Rothstein, Mervyn (November 2, 1988). "Gracie Allen Still Steals the Show". The New York Times. pp. 19, Section C.
  12. ^ Shales, Tom (July 25, 2002). "'Biography': For Love of Gracie Allen". The Washington Post.
  13. ^ Helterbran, Valeri R. (2012). Why Rattlesnakes Rattle... and 250 Other Things You Should Know. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishers. pp. 176–177. ISBN 978-1-58979-648-5.
  14. ^ "Ancestry of Gracie Allen". July 18, 2002. Archived from the original on May 3, 2012. Retrieved August 2, 2010.
  15. ^ "Genealogy, Family Trees and Family History Records online". Retrieved August 2, 2010.
  16. ^ Saavedra, Scott (August 2020). "Celebrities for President". RetroFan (10). United States: TwoMorrows Publishing: 14.
  17. ^ Mazel, Henry F. "The Gracie Allen Presidential Run". Retrieved November 6, 2012.
  18. ^ "Albert Coates – Albums, Pictures – Naxos Classical Music". Retrieved February 2, 2021.
  19. ^ "Gracie Allen". Retrieved September 20, 2019.
  20. ^ a b "A Damsel in Distress". Retrieved September 20, 2019.
  21. ^ "Gracie Allen Dead". The New York Times. August 29, 1964. Retrieved February 19, 2015. 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. ...
  22. ^ Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14000 Famous Persons (entry 185) by Scott Wilson
  23. ^ "Michael's Foreverland". The Daily Beast. September 1, 2009. Retrieved July 26, 2010.
  24. ^ "The Gracies". March 2, 2016. Retrieved September 2, 2020.

Further reading edit

  • Burns, George (1988). Gracie: A Love Story. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0140126562. OCLC 19740761.
  • Gracie a Love Story by George Burns (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1988) ISBN 0399133844
  • The Great American Broadcast by Leonard Maltin (New York: Dutton, 1997) [ISBN missing]
  • I Love Her, That's Why!: An Autobiography by George Burns (1955, 2003, 2011) ISBN 978-1258012144
  • Mcclintock, Walter. Current Biography Yearbook: 1951. Place of publication not identified: H W Wilson, 1951. [ISBN missing]
  • On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio by John Dunning (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) [ISBN missing]
  • Say Goodnight, Gracie: The Story of Burns and Allen by Cheryl Blythe and Susan Sackett (1986, 1989) ISBN 1559580194
  • The Third Time Around by George Burns (New York: Putnam, 1980), including transcripts of several classic Burns & Allen routines.[ISBN missing]

External links edit