The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show was an American comedy TV series that ran from October 1950 to September 1958. Although it won no primetime Emmy awards, it was nominated ten times, and rated in the top 30 shows for four years. Its legacy lives well into the 21st Century and beyond as it continues to influence film and television today1.
George Burns and Gracie Allen had met in the 1920s while performing on the vaudeville circuit. George's birth name was Nathan Birnbaum. At first, George was the comic and Gracie had the straight lines. They switched their roles, however, when they discovered that Gracie's lines got a bigger laugh than George's did. Gracie cultivated what Radio Hall of Fame describe as an 'innocent, slightly daffy stage persona' which relied heavily on misunderstandings and what they called 'illogical logic'. Burns and Allen became husband and wife in 1926 and made their first radio appearance on the BBC in 1929. They cultivated a following on American radio from 1932, and by 1934 had their own radio show.
They also filmed some of their early vaudeville routines, and were featured in such films as Damsel in Distress (1937) and Honolulu (1939).
In 1940, when Franklin D Roosevelt was running for President for a third term and the Republicans were pinning their hopes on Wendell Willkie, a novice, George and Gracie decided to have Gracie run on the Surprise Party Ticket. Gracie drew hundreds of thousands of supporters on a 34-city whistle-stop campaign tour. As a campaign it drew few votes, but Gracie used humour to make points about the country's governmental affairs.
But it is their TV series that shows the team at the peak of their career. In all, they made 292 episodes, most of which can be accessed on YouTube and other websites. Early episodes were staged and broadcast live, with kinescope recordings made, but from 1952 on, the episodes were filmed on the West Coast.
The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show
For most of the run, George and Gracie inhabited a stage set that resembled the house they lived in at 112 Maple Drive, Beverly Hills. Blanche and Harry Morton lived next door. Blanche, played by Bea Benaderet, was Gracie's best friend. Harry was played by four different actors in eight years. Ronnie and Sandra Burns, who were George and Gracie's children, sometimes appeared in the series.
George was a pioneer in the art of breaking the 'fourth wall' to address the audience directly to comment on the action.
A number of recurring gags were used. These included:
- Gracie's use of a closet to store hats left by men who got so distracted from talking to her that they left them behind.
- George regularly firing Harry Von Zell, his announcer, and then rehiring him.
- George frequently commenting that if Gracie's logic ever became normal, he'd have to go back to selling ties or painting socks because there would be no show.
- Dislike on the part of other characters for George's singing.
Gracie Allen retired after filming the last episode in June of 1958, due to health concerns. She had suffered a heart attack and some angina episodes over the years and died in 1964. George lived until March 1996, a few months after celebrating his 100th birthday.
George never remarried. He wrote many books (some of them about Gracie) and made movies, but he never forgot Gracie. He made regular visits to her grave and talked to her as if she was listening.