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Burns Will Be Remembered:
Read G. Burgan
George Burns was a legend. He was also an enigma. By his own admission he was a failure as a vaudeville comedian. The heartiest laugh he ever received was when he asked his vaudeville partner Gracie Burns to marry him. "Oh Nattie, don't be such a kidder," she replied to his offer of matrimony.
George Burns was born into an orthodox Jewish family in 1896. His real name was Nathan Birnbaum and he was one of 12 children. From his earliest years his one goal was to be in show business -- which in those days meant vaudeville. At the age of seven people tossed coins in his hat as he danced on street corners.
He quit school after the fourth grade and with starry eyes began a career in vaudeville. It was hard work. By his own admission, he was not good. He teamed up with dozens of different people under dozens of different names. One thing he did have -- persistence.
Around 1924 he was performing in an act called Billy Lorraine and Burns when his partner quit. A friend introduced him to another vaudeville performer, Gracie Allen.
Gracie and George were poles apart. He had been born in New York, she in San Francisco. He was Jewish, she was Irish Catholic. She was a successful vaudeville dancer, he was a not-so-successful struggling vaudeville comedian. But she was out of work and he needed a partner.
Gracie was born in San Francisco in 1906. Her father, George Allen, was a vaudeville singer and dancer who left his family when Gracie was five years old. Her mother subsequently married a San Francisco police officer named Edward Pidgeon.
Like George, Gracie had but one goal in her life, to be in vaudeville. As a child she would frequently wander past the San Francisco theaters, looking at the photos of the latest acts, imagining her own picture among them. Her mother encouraged her aspirations and Gracie began by singing in local movie theaters accompanying sing-along lantern slides.
She and George shared one thing in common. Both were proficient dancers and each taught dancing early in their careers. But there the similarities ended.
When George and Gracie teamed up in vaudeville, she was to be the straight "man" and he the comedian. They rehearsed for three weeks. During that time George was uneasy. Gracie was stiff and unnatural. As he was to learn later, Gracie was never good in rehearsal.
At last came their opening night at the Hill Street Theater in Newark. As it turned out, it was to be George's last night as a comedian. Each time Gracie delivered her supposedly straight lines, the audience increased its laughter. But as George gave the punch line, there was absolute dead silence.
A less astute person might have retreated to completely rewrite the dialogue. George Burns instinctively understood that the audience knew what was funny -- Gracie. For the second show George gave her some of the punch lines. The audience howled. The die was cast. As Burns later commented, "The act kept changing and getting better. The better it got, the less I did..."
And herein lies the genius of George Burns. He was sufficiently secure that he could allow his partner to have nearly all of the lines and virtually all of the laughs. For the next forty years George was content to be the straight man. And audiences all over the world are forever grateful that he was.
Gracie played the character of a dizzy dame. But she brought a special feeling to the part. She was both simple and sincere. While the illogic of her statements made people laugh, she delivered her lines as if they were perfectly logical. It was this disparity between what she said and how she said it that caused people to both laugh and love her at the same time.
While George was her straight man, he was much more. He knew how to feed her the right lines at the right time. "So how's your brother?" in George's hands was a special tool. George's cigar was his life long prop. He like to say that when he puffed on it, audiences knew he'd told a joke and they should laugh. But Burns used his cigar as effectively as Jack Benny used his violin.
If Gracie played the part of a dimwit, George played the part of a vain person with aspirations far beyond his abilities: a singer who was never asked to sing. Gracie often encouraged his vanity. For several weeks their radio program centered around Gracie's attempt to get George the part Clark Gable was slated to play in an upcoming movie. It was all good fun.
What started as a business arrangement blossomed into love. At first, it was a one-sided love, with George increasingly begging Gracie to marry him. But Gracie was in love with another vaudeville performer, Benny Ryan. Finally, at three o'clock on Christmas morning in 1925 Gracie agreed to marry George Burns. Gracie was 19, George was 29.
For the next few years George and Gracie took vaudeville by storm. They became headliners around the country. Like other performers before them, when they played the Palace Theater in New York in 1928, they knew they had officially arrived.
1929 was a special year for the Burns. First they were asked by Paramount Studios to make a nine minute short in the new medium of talking pictures. George could hardly believe that anyone would pay them $1800 for nine minutes of work -- $200 a minute. By 1931 they had made 14 film shorts and were making their first full length movie, "The Big Broadcast of 1932."
In 1929 they made their first radio appearance. Not in America, but in England where they were asked to make a series of five minute broadcasts to promote their stage shows. Radio was sounding the death knell for those vaudeville performers whose acts were too visual to make the transition, and eventually killed off vaudeville itself.
Initially, it looked as if Burns and Allen might be one of those casualties. Grape Nuts considered sponsoring them on radio, but an executive killed the idea saying, "Gracie will never make it on radio. Her voice is too high."
Eddie Cantor had his own radio show and while performing on the same bill as the Burns, he invited Gracie to appear on his show. Gracie. Not George. What would have happened if George had taken offense and squelched the deal? Fortunately he didn't. And Cantor at least let George write Gracie's material.
Two weeks later Rudy Valle invited both George and Gracie to appear on his Fleishmann's Yeast Hour for $750. When George gagged on what he thought was an unbelievable amount for a radio appearance, they offered him an even thousand. After that the Burns were signed for a year's contract on the Guy Lombardo program originating on WABC.
When Guy Lombardo changed networks, George and Gracie were given a contract paying $2,000 a week to do their own show for the sponsor, the General Cigar Company. They chose the song "Love Nest" for their theme, a song they had used successfully on Broadway.
When they began in radio, there were no studio audiences. Advertisers forbid it, fearing that any laughter from the studio audience would harm the show. This was just fine with Gracie, who was always nervous before an audience. But when radio embraced studio audiences, Gracie insisted that the house lights be turned off so that she would not have to see the studio audience.
For years they had used Gracie's mythical brother in their routines. But on radio they carried it to a new high. They reported him missing, and then had Gracie appear "unexpectedly" on a host of other network programs, interrupting the continuity and asking if anyone had seen her brother. The joke almost backfired when NBC ordered the deletion of the material from the script of the Rudy Valle program. NBC did not intend to give any publicity to a rival network's stars. Alas, Valle accidentally picked up the wrong script and asked Gracie about her missing brother. That caused an NBC engineer to cut off the program. Only four seconds was lost, but what a momentous four seconds!
From that time on Burns and Allen were established as radio stars. Over the years their half hour program switched back and forth between NBC and CBS and a variety of sponsors including Chesterfield Cigarettes, Hormel Packing, Lever Brothers, and Tenderleaf Tea.
Over the years the program featured an outstanding cast of supporting actors, including Mel Blanc in the role of the Happy Postman. Gale Gordon and Hans Conried appeared regularly. Orchestra leaders included Ray Noble, Paul Whiteman and Meredith Willson. Willson was particularly adept at providing entire musical compositions around which the commercials were interwoven as he compared the parts of a musical composition to ingredients in Maxwell House Coffee.
In the early years the program was centered around the kinds of routines they had done on vaudeville. But in the 40's, the program began to lose its popularity. To their credit, George and Gracie recognized that they had aged, and their material needed to age with them. At that point they adapted to a situation comedy format built around their husband and wife relationship. Their popularity returned and they continued on radio until 1950, when they moved into television.
Radio had been easy. It took only a day and a half each week to do their show. Gracie first saw her script one night before the program was to air. She read through it only once and then did it live. George used to say that the sound effects man is the only one who actually works in radio.
Television was a horse of a different color. In radio you read from a script. On TV Gracie often had 26 pages of mind numbing silliness to memorize. Mondays saw her in wardrobe and learning lines. Tuesdays they rehearsed the entire day. Wednesdays they filmed the actual show, starting at 6am and often continuing until midnight. On every other Thursday, they reviewed scripts for the next two shows. Fridays she selected her wardrobe for the next show. Weekends were spent memorizing.
Once again the Burns were faced with Gracie's nervousness before a live audience. For the first few seasons, they solved the problem by not having a studio audience. But they missed the laughter. Finally they effected a compromise by installing footlights that prevented Gracie from seeing the audience. When she discovered the camera's red light indicating that it was live, they had to tape over the light to preclude Gracie's nervousness over that.
The television program continued until 1958, when Gracie retired. George was 63, Gracie was 52. At the time it was the longest running situation comedy in television. Gracie had a history of heart problems dating back to the early 1950's. Her heart deteriorated gradually until she died in 1964 at the age of 58.
George was devastated. Although known as a comedian, he was really a straight man -- a straight man without a partner. He languished in retirement for ten years. Then the death of his best friend Jack Benny created an opportunity that revitalized his career -- and his life. Benny had been signed to play the role of Al Lewis in the film version of Neil Simon's Sunshine Boys. When Benny died, the part was offered to Burns who ultimately received an academy award for best supporting actor.
At 80 years of age, Burns was off and running -- this time as a solo act. This was followed by eight more films, including three in which he played the ultimate straight man, God. One of his classic quips was, "I'm sure some of you are wondering why God would come down a second time. There's a very good reason. The first time he came down He made the studio $65 million."
During the next 18 years he kept comfortably busy making records, movies and public appearances. He even had a contract for a Las Vegas appearance on his one hundredth birthday.
But in 1994, old age got the best of Burns when he slipped and fell. Since that time his health gradually deteriorated. Perseverance allowed him to succeed in vaudeville. And perseverance allowed him to reach his one hundredth birthday on January 20, 1996. But there was no Las Vegas show. Only a few close friends.
One of the reasons so many of us continued to embrace George Burns as an entertainer and a man, is that he is one of the last to tie us to the rich tradition of vaudeville that spawned so many of radio and television's gifted performers. Vaudeville may have died, but it was richly represented in the life of George Burns. We've not only lost a great entertainer, we've lost our roots as well.
At the end of the Burns and Allen Show, George would say, "Say good-night, Gracie." And she would dutifully say, "Goodnight Gracie." Now all of us whose lives were enriched by him say, "Goodnight, George."
-- The End --
For further reading: Gracie: A Love Story by George Burns, Penguin Books, 1988
Read Burgan is a free lance writer and a former public radio station manager who can be reached at (906) 296-0652 or through e-mail at email@example.com.