Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie "Gracie" Allen (July 26, 1895 – August 27, 1964), was an American comedienne who became internationally famous as the zany partner and comic foil of husband 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.
Gracie Allen was born in San Francisco, California, to George and Molly (nee Darragh) Allen, who were of Irish Catholic extraction. She made her first appearance on stage at age three and was given her first chance On Air by Eddie Cantor. 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." 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. The two were married on January 7, 1926, in Cleveland, Ohio. Gracie Allen was born with heterochromia, giving her two different color eyes; one blue and one green.
Birth date mystery
Depending on the source, Gracie 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). Since Gracie was alive in June 1900, it is not possible for her to have been born after that date. That leaves 1895 (1900 census) or 1896 (1910 census) as possibilities. It should be further noted, however, that census enumerators received their information by word of mouth, often from third parties, and discrepancies between ages from one decade's census to another were not uncommon in this time period.
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 stupidity, zaniness, and total innocence. As is often the case with performers who play dumb, Gracie was, in reality, highly intelligent. 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-reelershort films, including "Lambchops" (1929), which were made while the couple was still performing on the stage. George 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) 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. 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. 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, and went on to receive 42,000 votes in the general election in November 1940; only six other female United States presidential and vice-presidential candidates have received more votes in a presidential election.
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). 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 single (incorrect) note with one finger. On her final "solo," she 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.
Around 1948 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)—and 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 film without dancing partner Ginger Rogers. (Astaire and Rogers had decided to work apart for a while—a career move only, since the two remained good friends.) Astaire was to star in the picture, but 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.
George Burns and Gracie Allen had each worked in vaudeville as dancers (aka "hoofers") before forming their act. When word of the project reached them, they called Astaire and were asked to audition. Burns then 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. 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. Throughout the picture Burns and Allen amazed audiences and critics (many did not know either of them could dance) as they "effortlessly" kept pace with the most famous dancer in the films. Their talents were further highlighted as they matched Astaire step by step during the demanding "Funhouse Dance".
"Say good night, Gracie"
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 waitress or a 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 recent 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 following an argument over a center piece table Allen wanted, he had a very brief affair with a Las Vegas showgirl. Stricken by guilt, he phoned Jack Benny and told him about the indiscretion. However, Allen overheard the conversation and Burns quietly bought the expensive center piece. Nothing more was said. Years later he discovered that Allen had 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 center piece."
Gracie Allen fought a long battle with heart disease, ultimately dying of a heart attack in Hollywood in 1964. Her remains were interred in a crypt at the Freedom Mausoleum atForest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. Burns' remains were interred at her side when he died 32 years later. ("Gracie Allen and George Burns—Together Again," reads the engraving on the marker.)