Gracie Allen (1906-1964), wife of comedian and actor George Burns, was half of one of America's most popular comedy couples. They began their careers on the vaudeville stage, then transitioned to radio, movies, and television. Allen was known as a "dizzy dame," whose "illogical logic" and high nasal voice entertained the public for more than four decades.
Although her comedy routines and publicity stunts, such as running for president on the Surprise Party ticket, made her a household word and the symbol of female silliness, in reality Allen was not much like the character she played. She was a private person who enjoyed a quiet family life when she was not meeting the demands of her highly successful show business career.
A Performer From the Start
Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen was born on July 26, 1906, in San Francisco, California, to George and Margaret "Pidgie" Allen. George Allen was a song and dance man who abandoned his family when Gracie was about five years old. Her mother later married Edward Pidgeon, a police captain.
Allen first performed at the age of three, doing an Irish dance at a church social. Her mother sewed dresses for Allen and her sisters Bessie, Pearl and Hazel to wear while performing Irish and Scottish dances. The family taught dancing in the basement of their house. From the start, Allen was determined to get into show business. Almost every day after coming home from the Star of the Sea Catholic School, Allen would walk from theater to theater dreaming of a time when her picture would be posted in one. She loved the film star Charlie Chaplin and, for her sixth birthday, her step-father arranged for her to meet him.
Allen began working professionally as a singer while she was still a child. During school vacations she sang in local movie houses. After graduating, she and her sisters performed a song and dance act as The Four Colleens. When they broke up, Allen became part of a vaudeville act, for which she was paid $22 a week. (Vaudeville was a type of entertainment popular in the early 20th century, consisting of a variety of acts, such as song-and-dance, juggling and comedy routines.) At about age 18, Allen quit that act and found herself alone and unemployed in New York City. After six months of searching for a partner, she enrolled in stenography school to learn to be a secretary.
Partnership with Burns
In 1923, Allen's roommate took her to see an act performed by Billy Lorraine and George Burns, whose real name was Nathan Birnbaum, son of immigrant Orthodox Jewish parents. Burns and Allen decided to work together, first performing in Newark, New Jersey, for $5 a day. At first, Burns played the comedian and Allen the "straight man," feeding Burns the straight lines, to which he would respond with the punch lines. Allen, however, got all the laughs. Eventually the act was changed so that Burns was the straight man and Allen the comedian. Allen played a type of character known as a "Dumb Dora," or "dizzy dame." According to Burns, in his book, Gracie: A Love Story, "What made Gracie different was her sincerity. She didn't try to be funny. Gracie never told a joke in her life, she simply answered the questions I asked her as best she could, and seemed genuinely surprised when the audience found her answers funny. Onstage, Gracie was totally honest. … The character was simply the dizziest dame in the world, but what made her different from all the other 'Dumb Doras' was that Gracie played her as if she were totally sane, as if her answers actually made sense. We called it illogical-logic."
In 1924, the team began working as a "disappointment act," which substituted on short notice if a regularly scheduled act could not perform. For two years, Burns and Allen traveled, filling in for other acts.
Burns fell in love with Allen, although she was planning to marry an entertainer named Benny Ryan. In 1925, she almost married Ryan, but a last minute booking for a tour of the Orpheum circuit theaters took her out of town. On that trip, Burns proposed to Allen; but she said no. Finally she chose Burns over Ryan, and the two were married in Cleveland, Ohio. Six weeks after the wedding, the team signed a five-year contract, which paid between $450 and $600 a week. They had hit the big time. In 1930, they played on Broadway for 17 weeks, a vaudeville record.
From Vaudeville to Movies and Radio
In 1929, the couple performed on radio for the first time. Also that year, they appeared in their first film, a nine-minute short, for which they were paid $1,800. Paramount was so pleased with the result that the firm signed the pair to a contract for four more shorts at a rate of $3,500 each. Over the next two years, they made a total of 14 short films. Their first of 12 full-length feature films was The Big Broadcast of 1932 and their last film was Two Girls and a Sailor, made in 1944.
In 1932, the pair joined bandleader Guy Lombardo's radio show. CBS gave them their own radio program called "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" in 1933, which featured comedy routines and songs. A publicity stunt turned the pair into major radio stars: Allen suddenly appeared on other radio shows asking if people had seen her missing brother. This gimmick lasted quite a while and brought the couple much attention. Other stunts included Allen's mock run for president in 1940 and her exhibit of surrealist paintings. Their radio show lasted 17 years.
In 1934, the couple adopted a baby girl, Sandra Jean, and bought a home in Beverly Hills, California. In 1935, they adopted Ronald John.
From Radio to Television
The first episode of the television program "The Burns and Allen Show" aired on October 12, 1950. For a while, the couple did both their radio and television programs, until they were sure that television, a new medium, would succeed. Many of the shows that changed over from a radio format to television failed, but "The Burns and Allen Show" was a big hit. The TV show ran for eight years—299 episodes. Allen and Burns played themselves as television actors, and the show took place in their "home." The plots often involved their neighbors, with whom they socialized by going out to movies or playing cards. Burns moved in and out of character, sometimes addressing the audience directly and sometimes participating in the action of the show. The early shows combined sitcom and vaudeville, with guest singers and dancers. Commercials were worked in as part of the show. The program ended with Burns saying, "Say good night, Gracie." She would bow and say, "Good night."
Allen's acting ability came from the fact that she did not "act"—she simply "did." Noted Allen, as quoted in Say Good Night, Gracie, "I really don't act. I just live what George and I are doing. It has to make some sort of sense to me or it won't ring true. No matter what the script says there's no audience and no footlights and no camera for me. There's no make-believe. It's for real."
For the first two years, the show was performed live, every other week. After that it became a weekly, but was filmed. Theirs was one of the first shows to use cue cards. It was also one of the first television programs to be filmed in color, the first color episode airing on October 4, 1954. In 1955, the couple's son joined the show playing their son, another innovation. Daughter Sandy appeared on the show 30 times.
Allen at Home
Allen suffered from intense migraine headaches but rarely missed work because of them. For relaxation, she loved to shop and had a special fondness for furs. She was always perfectly groomed and wore beautiful clothes, always with three-quarter length sleeves to hide scars from a childhood accident caused when she pulled a boiling pot off the stove, burning her arm and shoulder. Allen's name was often on the list of the ten best dressed women. She was petite, weighing 103 pounds and wearing a 4 1/2 shoe size.
Allen had her first heart attack in the early 1950s and suffered heart problems over the next several years. She did not enjoy the intense pace of a weekly TV program, and on June 4, 1958, the couple filmed their last show. In eight years, the show received 12 Emmy Award nominations but never won. Allen received six nominations as best actress/ comedienne, and the show received four nominations for best comedy series.
Allen spent her retirement years shopping, playing cards, reading, visiting friends and redecorating her home. She loved going out at night, especially to the theater, but after suffering a serious heart attack in 1961, she no longer had the energy to do so. Allen lived six years after her retirement, dying on August 27, 1964, in Los Angeles. She was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood.
Burns noted in his book, Gracie: A Love Story "I go to Forest Lawn Cemetery once a month to see her and I tell her everything that's going on. I told her I was writing this book about her. Evidently she approves—she didn't say anything. I don't know if she hears me, but I do know that every time I talk to her, I feel better."
In 1975, the Annual Gracie Allen Awards were established for broadcasting that demonstrates superior quality and stellar portrayal of the changing roles and concerns of women. The Awards seek to promote positive and realistic portrayals of women in all broadcasting mediums.
Burns died in 1996, a few weeks after his 100th birthday. He worked until he was 99 years old, performing in nightclubs and making television commercials. A good friend, actress Ann Miller, noted in an interview with CNN that Burns looked forward to being reunited with Allen. After his death, Miller said, "He has finally joined Gracie. That was his love. I know he missed her so terribly and now he will be with her."
Blythe, Cheryl and Susan Sackett, Say Goodnight, Gracie: The Story of Burns and Allen, E.P. Dutton, 1986.
Burns, George, Gracie: A Love Story, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1988.
"Clinton, Others Pay Tribute to Burns," CNN, http://www10.cnn.com (October 23, 2001).