Say Goodnight, Gracie

Nattie Birnbaum was in a jam. He needed a new act. Nattie loved the vaudeville circuit, but it was not a secure living. 

Vaudeville was a form of theater—before cinema, radio, and television—that featured brief live performances: Songs, dances, song-and-dance teams, comedy acts, animal acts, jugglers, magicians.

Nattie was game for almost anything that got him a gig. He had been Glide of Goldie, Francis, and Glide; Jed Jackson of Jackson and Malone; Maurice Valente of Maurice Valente and His Wonder Dog; Harris of Harris and Dunlop; Jose of Jose and Dolores; at various times both Brown and Williams of Brown and Williams; Jack Garfield; and “Eddie Delight when the real Eddie Delight got out of show business and gave me all his left-over business cards.” 

However, after years of experience, Nattie still did not have a successful long-term act. For the past year he had performed with Billy Lorraine under the name George Burns, but the act was going nowhere fast. Then—

SHAZAM!

Show Business Magic happened. 

A woman named Rena Arnold brought a friend to see Burns and Lorraine perform. “Nattie,” Rena said, “this is Grace Allen.” 

Grace told Rena she would not consider performing with Billy Lorraine, who had a tendency to stutter when he was nervous. But she would not mind trying a partnership with the other one. “That was my big talent.” George Burns reflected in his 1988 book, Gracie: A Love Story. “I didn’t stammer.” That’s the kind of line that would cue a cigar puff. Whenever George delivered a funny line, he puffed on his cigar—a signal for the audience to laugh. You know, in case they couldn’t tell.

George and Gracie started with “a boy-girl act, a flirtation act.” George had most of the funny lines. “Just to make sure the audience knew I was the funny one in the act,” he wrote, “I dressed like a comedian. . . . I wore wide pants and a short coat, a hat with the brim turned up in front, and a trick bow tie on a swivel. That jazzbo tie was very important; this was long before I smoked a cigar onstage; I let the audience know I’d told a joke by whirling my bow tie. Being the straight man, Gracie wore a lovely dress.” 

Gracie Steals the Show

Burns and Allen, 1952. CBS Television. Public Domain.

They soon discovered that Gracie got more laughs than George. So George rewrote the material with himself as straight man and Gracie the funny girl. They became a  sensation. When vaudeville died, they made the transition to motion pictures and radio. In 1950 they dropped radio for television. For eight years they had a hit half-hour sitcom—in fact, they helped invent the form. Then Gracie retired, never to perform again.

George and Gracie were what vaudeville called a “Dumb Dora act.” The woman got the laughs by being silly, stupid—a featherbrain. But Gracie, from the beginning, was Something Different.

“The audience had created Gracie’s character,” George wrote. “I listened to the jokes they laughed at and gave Gracie more of that type. Gracie certainly wasn’t the first comedienne in vaudeville. There had been a long line of ‘Dumb Doras’ . . . . 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, and honesty is the most important thing a performer can have. And if a performer can fake that, he can do anything.” 

Gentle Reader, if you have never seen Burns and Allen perform, you may not understand what George meant in the paragraph above. So we invite you, through the wonders of the Internet, to spend the next four minutes watching this. When you have done that, our symposium will reconvene here.

Many other samples of Burns and Allen’s work can be found online; you don’t need me to direct you to them. They include brief monologues when George tells jokes and puffs his cigar so you’ll know when to laugh. But, invariably and everlastingly, Gracie is the mainstay. George’s true genius lay in knowing how to cue Gracie appropriately, stay out of her way, and react naturally. His other true genius was in running all the business and managerial aspects of their show-business partnership. 

“The audience roared,” he wrote. “Either I was the greatest straight man who ever lived or Gracie was something special. By the time we finished those three days in Newark, Gracie had three-quarters of the punch lines. I didn’t mind, I still had 60 percent of our salary.”

Partners in Life, Too

When Nathan Birnbaum, from the Lower East Side of New York, and Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen, from Irish Catholic roots in San Francisco, started their vaudeville act, it was strictly a business partnership. Gracie was in love with a big star named Benny Ryan. But theirs was a long-distance relationship, since she and Ryan were always playing different cities. Soon, George fell in love with Gracie and began a determined campaign to woo and win her away from Benny Ryan.

With the disarmingly honest self-assessment that is one of his charms, Burns wrote: “I fell in love with Gracie because she was pretty, smart, nice, and talented. But I’ll tell you the truth. I also fell in love with Gracie because I fell in love with making a good living. If she had married Benny Ryan, what was I going to do for an act? I had no real affection for the seal [with whom he had once performed]. The Siamese twins already had partners. Where was I going to find another Gracie? Remember, she was born Gracie, she wasn’t manufactured. Gracie didn’t come by the dozen. I fell in love with her just like our audiences did.” 

Extra Tidbits

George Burns, who lived many years after Gracie’s death in 1964, turned out to be the bestselling author of ten books. I have not read any of the others. But I suppose Gracie, A Love Story is the one you need. Besides the tiny glimpses given above, it reveals many facts I had not previously known about George and Gracie, even though I grew up in the era when they were household names.

  • Gracie Allen ran as the Surprise Party’s candidate for President in 1940 against FDR and Wendell Willkie, on the slogan, “Down with common sense. Vote for Gracie.” She even did a whistle-stop tour.
  • Gracie was never seen in public except in full or three-quarter-length sleeves, because her upper arm had been badly scarred in a scalding accident when she was a child. 
  • She had one blue eye and one green eye. 
  • George and Gracie, unable to conceive, adopted two children, Sandy and Ronnie, as infants from a Catholic orphans’ home in Evanston, Illinois. Ronnie later appeared on television as their handsome young-adult son, Ronnie.
  • Jack Benny, fellow star of stage, screen, radio, and TV, was their dearest friend—a man beloved by all who knew him. His wife, Mary Livingstone (née Sadie Marks), not so much.
  • When Gracie retired in 1958, she was physically worn out and had a debilitating heart condition. In those days there were no heart transplants or coronary bypasses. She was given nitoglycerin pills to control the pain, but eventually her heart gave out.

Nattie summed it all up very fittingly in the opening line of the book: “For forty years my act consisted of one joke. And then she died.”

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Radio Days

The Adventures of Izzy Mahler

A boy named Izzy Mahler, seven years old, springs out of bed and dashes down the stairs. It is a Saturday morning in October, 1952. 

The Old Philco

Barefoot and pajama’d, Izzy makes straight for the wooden Philco radio, switches it on. Izzy remembers going downtown with Dad to bring home the Philco and its fine supporting table. Ever since—through three apartments, the birth of little Christine, and now the move to this two-story house just across the alley from Grant School—the Philco has been the Mahlers’ proudest possession, and the most useful.

Moving on to the kitchen, Izzy opens the refrigerator, takes out a quart of milk, removes the round cardboard cap from the glass bottle’s neck, and pours himself a glass. Then he sits down at the kitchen table and listens as the radio set in the living room spills forth Let’s Pretend, Buster Brown, and Space Patrol. He sees every detail of each story.

Commander Buzz Corey is just cutting his way into Jelna’s spaceship with an atomic cutting torch when Mom and Dad come out in wrinkled pajamas, rubbing their heads with their knuckles. Izzy wishes he had an atomic cutting torch like Buzz Corey’s, or even just a plain old cosmic ray gun. He would give it to President Eisenhower for copying. That way, should American soldiers run into bug-eyed monsters from Planet Orkulon, they’d be ready.

Christine bangs her tin cup on the wooden tray of her high chair, but Izzy hardly hears. Why can’t you get a ray gun by sending in box-tops? he wonders. A ray gun would take more boxtops, and probably more quarters, than the usual things like the Lone Ranger decoder ring he lost while helping Buster Wiggins plant potatoes—but it would be worth it. He hopes none of the Wigginses will bite into a spud and break a tooth on his decoder ring. 

Now Christine squalls to beat the band, so loud that Izzy can’t hear the radio.

“Harold,” Mom says. Dad stares into space, as usual. Mom plunks down the checkbook with a loud WHACK! Dad sighs and sits down at the kitchen table.

Izzy goes upstairs and gets dressed. When he comes down, Dad frowns over his slide rule, while Mom knits her brows over numbers scrawled on paper with a pencil. 

Izzy opens the back door. Dad looks up. “Where are you going, son?”

“Out to play,” Izzy says.

“Be home for supper,” says Mom.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Out of the Ether

I was born in 1945 into a family that couldn’t, or at least didn’t, afford a television set until 1957, when everybody else had already had a set for two or three years. As a result, I was privileged to be present at the last stand of radio broadcasting as a mass entertainment medium—before TV gobbled up radio’s best shows, and most of its advertising revenue, added a few original programs of its own, and became—well, Television. As we know it.

If you did not experience those “radio days,” let me assure you: radio was great. All the action, all the drama, all the excitement, all the laughs of TV—only you could see it better, because everything played on the full color, panoramic, high-definition screen inside your mind—with all the pans, tilts, and zooms each story required. 

Stan Freberg, the advertising world’s comic genius, produced a radio spot, “Stretching the Imagination,” that perfectly illustrates the vast cinematic potential of the sound-only medium. You can hear it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppZ57EeX6vE.

An Embarrassment of Riches

What kind of shows did radio offer? Besides the Saturday morning fare Izzy consumed in our fictional vignette, there were:

Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger. “roy_trigger_new_color72.jpg” by amycgx is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

Westerns galore, all of the juvenile variety: Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders. But most of all, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:30 p.m.: “In the pages of history there is no greater champion of justice than this daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains, who, with his faithful Indian companion Tonto, led the fight for law and order in the early West. . . . Return with us now to those gripping days of yesteryear—the Lone Ranger rides again!

Northerns, starring Royal Canadian Mounted Police like Sergeant Preston of the Yukon with his famous lead dog Yukon King; and mountie Jim West, The Silver Eagle, voiced by radio legend Jim Ameche—one of the Amici boys from Kenosha, Wisconsin—on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Lone Ranger’s 6:30 time slot. 

Game shows like The Quiz Kids and The 64-Dollar Question. That’s not a misprint. Sixty-four dollars was the top prize. That was big money. When television came along, the same show was recycled, “isolation booths” added for showmanship, and three zeroes tacked on to the prizes—so it became The $64,000 Question.

Audience-participation shows like Art Linkletter’s People Are Funny or Ralph Edwards’ Truth or Consequences, in which typical Americans made fools of themselves, on the screen in your mind, for fame, glory, and small sums of money. They may have been forerunners of what is today called “reality TV.” 

Comedies, glorious comedies of all descriptions. There was the pompous ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd; you could not even see his lips move—at least, on the radio. There were situation comedies of small-town life, like Fibber McGee and Molly and The Great Gildersleeve. Others relied on ethnic identities: The Goldbergs (not to be confused with the 2013 TV series of that name), Life with Luigi (in which Irish-American actor J. Carrol Naish played the title Italian character), and Amos ’n’ Andy (a show whose African American title characters were created and portrayed by white actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll). There were comedies about teenagers—Henry Aldrich, Corliss Archer, My Little Margie, and the high school denizens taught by Our Miss Brooks. And there were wholesome family shows like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best. (Leave It to Beaver, the classic exemplar of this kind of show, never appeared on radio; it was a creature of television only.) 

And then there was The Jack Benny Show, in some ways the forerunner of modern shows like Seinfeld. To say the Benny show was comedy is true enough; but it hardly does justice to the subject. Jack Benny was an institution. Perhaps a good subject for a later blog post.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author