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Gracie Allen 1895-1964
 


Country : San Francisco, CA
Profession : Actor, comic
Date of birth : 1895-07-26
Date of death : 1964-08-27
Cause of Death : Heart Failure

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Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen (26 July 1895 – 27 August 1964), better known as Gracie Allen, 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 Fameat 6672 Hollywood Boulevard.

Biography

Early life

Gracie Allen was born in San Francisco, California, to George Allen and Margaret Darragh. 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.

Birth date mystery

Depending on the source, Gracie Allen might have been born on July 26 in 1895, 1897, 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. Allen used to claim that she was born in 1906 but, when pressed for evidence, she would say that her birth certificate had been destroyed in the earthquake. When the person she was telling pointed out that she was born in July but the earthquake was three months earlier in April, she would simply smile and say, "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). 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 are not uncommon in this time period.

Double act

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, including "Lambchops" were preserved on early one- and two-reeler short films 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?'"

Radio

In the early 1930s, like many vaudeville stars of their era, Burns and Allen graduated to radio. Their show was modestly successful, though the ratings began to decline. 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 and changed the show's format 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). One of the show's running gags (both in radio and television) had Burns firing the announcer at least once every other episode.

Publicity stunts

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. She actually drew some votes in the November 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.

Television

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.

From the beginning, the television show blurred the traditional boundaries between the actors and the characters they played:

  • Burns regularly broke the "fourth wall" and spoke directly to the television audience. The camera would pull back showing him watching and commenting on the show's action, punctuated by occasional puffs on his cigar. Later on, he acquired a television set, on which he could watch Allen's misunderstandings unfold in other parts of the house.
  • When actor Fred Clark (who played Harry Morton) decided to leave the show, he was to be replaced by veteran Larry Keating. The switch took place on the air when Burns suddenly yelled "Stop!" causing everyone on stage to freeze. Frozen in position, Blanche Morton was holding a telephone directory over her head, ready to hit husband Harry. Burns then explained the cast change to the audience and invited Keating onto the stage to meet actress Bea Benaderet (who played Blanche Morton). The two performers exchanged friendly greetings, saying how much they admired the other's work. Burns then called for the scene to resume and Harry Morton (now played by Larry Keating) enters and Blanche promptly smacks him on the head with the phone book. (A similar exchange took place when Harry Von Zell replaced Bill Goodwin as the show's announcer.)

Allen retired in 1958, and Burns tried to soldier on without her. The show was re-named 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.

Movies

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 awhile -- 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 movies. 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 wrap-up Burns would look at Allen and state "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 other references, that never happened. 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."

Such a response by Gracie would also have been characteristic of the zany replies she tended to make, and thus, it is almost surprising that she never did utter the phrase. In an interview years later, George Burns acknowledged this but said it was simply that surprisingly, 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.") This gimmick would later be picked up by Ed Randall in his WFAN radio show Ed Randall's Talkin' Baseball.

Private life

In the 1930s Burns and Allen adopted two children, Sandra Jean and Ronald John, after discovering they could not conceive their own. Following Gracie's Roman Catholic faith, they agreed to raise the children as Catholics, then let them make their own religious choice as adults. (Sandra was later expelled from Catholic school, for her liberal views.) 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.[citation needed]

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 pricey silver table centerpiece 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 centerpiece and 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 centerpiece."

Death

Gracie Allen fought a long battle with heart disease, finally dying from a heart attack in Hollywood in 1964. She was interred in a crypt at the Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California; Burns was interred at her side when he died thirty-two years later. ("Gracie Allen and George Burns — Together Again," reads the engraving on the marker.)

Filmography

  • Lambchops (1929) (short film)
  • The Big Broadcast (1932) (first feature film)
  • College Humor (1933)
  • International House (1933)
  • Many Happy Returns (1934) (first leading rôle)
  • Six of a Kind (1934)
  • We're Not Dressing (1934)
  • Love in Bloom (1935)
  • Here Comes Cookie (1936)
  • A Damsel in Distress (1937) (first Fred Astaire movie without Ginger Rogers and first in which Burns and Allen danced)
  • College Swing (1938)
  • Honolulu (1939)
  • The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939) (without Burns — a "Philo Vance" mystery by S. S. Van Dine)
  • Mr. and Mrs. North (1941) (second murder mystery without Burns)
  • Two Girls and a Sailor (1944) (guest appearance and last movie)

Radio series

  • 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

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