Burns & Allen: The story of world-famous comedy duo George Burns & Gracie Allen

George Burns and Gracie Allen - Burns and Allen comedy duo

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George Burns & Gracie Allen were not only married in real life, their work from the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s made them one of the biggest comedy duos in Hollywood.

The two performed as a highly successful act on Broadway, in nightclubs, on radio, and then on television. Raspy-voiced George played the straight man, while Gracie’s “dizzy-dame stuff” stole the show — such as the “Say goodnight,” line that they’re remembered for to this day.

Find out more about this married powerhouse duo — from their days as struggling comedians to the creation of their super-successful television show — and the lasting legacy they left behind.

George & Gracie: The real Burns and Allen story (1936)

Published in the Centralia Chronicle Advertiser (Washington) October 9, 1936

George Burns and Gracie Allen started their screen career with the only contract of its kind with Paramount Studios.

In January 1931, they signed with Paramount to star in short subjects, and to play on the stages of Publix Theatres when not before the cameras. Today, they are playing parts in their feature motion pictures with radio and screen talent.

Burns was born in New York; Miss Allen was born in San Francisco. Both went on the stage while children. Miss Allen’s father was a song and dance man, and she made her first public appearance at the age of three and a half, when she danced at entertainments in San Francisco.

When she was thirteen and fourteen years of age, she spent the summer vacation months from school doing a single act in vaudeville around San Francisco.

With her three older sisters, she next formed the vaudeville team of the Allen Sisters. Eventually, this led them to Larry Reilly’s Company, where Miss Allen became a featured player of Irish colleen parts.

Burns and Allen in 1933

After several seasons with the Reilly Company, during which time she became the headline attraction, Miss Allen left the show because she was refused billing. But jobs proved hard to obtain, so she decided to give up the stage and entered a secretarial school to train for the post of a stenographer.

With a friend, she went to Union Hill, New Jersey, where her friend was trying out an act. Backstage, she met George Burns, then doing a song and dance act with Billy Lorraine as Burns and Lorraine.

After meeting Miss Allen, Burns dissolved his partnership with Lorraine and teamed with Miss Allen.

Since he had written the act, he made himself the comedian. Miss Allen asked the questions, and he gave the funny answers.

However, he admits today, she was the natural comedienne, and at the first show, everyone laughed at her questions and one of his answers. After the show, he switched parts and has been playing “straight” ever since.

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After four years as a team, Burns and Allen signed a unique contract with RKO theatres. It was for six years straight. With this contract signed, they were married.

On one of their European engagements, they made their radio debut, appearing for fifteen weeks for the British Broadcasting Company [BBC].

Burns and Allen in 1937

During the last part of 1930, Burns and Allen made their film debut in short subjects for Paramount. When their RKO contract was completed on January 8th, Burns and Allen signed their film-stage agreement with Paramount on January 9, 1931.

The last nine weeks of their RKO contract, they played at the Palace Theatre in New York. Without missing a day, they then started four weeks at the Paramount, then moved to Brooklyn for two weeks and took one week of rest before playing the next week at the Capitol.

This gave them a record of seventeen out of eighteen consecutive weeks in vaudeville on Broadway.

While at the Palace, Eddie Cantor, who was on the same bill, asked Miss Allen to do five minutes with him on his Chase and Sanborn radio hour. She did, and was so well-liked that Columbia Broadcasting Company signed Burns and Allen as radio stars.

Peace at any price, pleads Gracie Allen’s spouse

What a woman! What a world! What a headache! Moans husband of “dizzy” actress

By George Burns – As published in the Centralia Chronicle Advertiser (Washington) October 9, 1936

“There is one thing worse than being alone — that is being alone with Gracie Allen,” wails her husband George Burns. But perhaps that statement should not be taken too literally, for they are happily married and have two children.

George Burns and Gracie Allen (1938)

There is one thing worse than being alone — that is being alone with Gracie Allen. Fortunately, that has never happened to me for any long period — otherwise I would be completely demented, instead of merely frisking around the ragged edges of insanity.

It might sound funny to you, but I actually envy a man when I hear him complain that he’s had a bad day. He is implying that some of his days are good — but with Gracie, my days are all the same. All the same, yet hardly what you would call monotonous.

Just let me take you through a day with Gracie and you’ll see what I mean.

Of course, breakfast is always thrilling, and it certainly starts the day with a bang. For instance, let’s say that I couldn’t find my shaving brush in the bathroom. Why worry? It turns up in my omelette.

I ask for sugar in my coffee, but Gracie says that I have had enough sugar for the day. She put three lumps in my bathwater.

Then we discuss the news something like this: “George, why do they print ‘Monday, July 6th, 1936‘ on this paper?”

I explain that it’s because this happens to be Monday, July 6th, 1936, and Gracie counters with, “Well, wouldn’t you think they could find something a little newsier than that for the front page?”

George Burns and Gracie Allen with their kids (1937)

I used to think that getting away from home and going down to the office would bring a brief respite from Gracie’s whims, but that’s just like trying to get rid of fleas by trading dogs. You end up with the same fleas but a different dog. And, while Gracie is very seldom present at the office, her presence is always deeply felt.

Every mail, in addition to fan letters, brings inquiries from the poor, puzzled people who have come in contact with Gracie the say before.

An ice company wants me to verify her order for two thousand pounds of ice cakes to be dumped into our swimming pool every day at noon — a pet store writes that they are very sorry but they cannot send the six dozen feathered goldfish she wanted as there are no feathered goldfish, and they told her so at the time.

A liquor store drops a reminder that they are still holding the five gallons of “bulk” gin she paid for and said that she would send her daddy down to act as a container for. The only hitch there, is that the police are still holding her daddy as a “filler” for a cell in the jail.

George Burns and Gracie Allen's home in the 1930s-1940s

After handling Gracie’s “Business Correspondence” with maybe a few hand-to-hand encounters with some of her tradesmen, lunchtime can’t come too soon for me. It might be a breathing spell for me, but it seldom is.

I usually run into Gracie. As I approach the entrance to the Brown Derby restaurant, I note that the crowd of juvenile autograph seekers lingering at the portals, suddenly comes to life.

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Cries of recognition greet me, but my thrill at this evidence of popularity vanishes when I learn that Gracie has paved the way for me with promises that I will do a song and dance number for them — or show them card tricks.

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One day, in a moment of generosity, she told the kids that I would pass out five-dollar bills to them.

With luncheon out of the way and Gracie maneuvered out of the Brown Derby, I have nothing left to worry about except an appointment to go shopping with her. Gracie has told me very emphatically that I am to meet her at a certain shop on Wilshire at 3 o’clock.

Burns and Allen in 1935

Making due allowances for her mental processes, I figure it out that she doesn’t mean a shop on Wilshire at 8 o’clock; she means a shop on Sunset at 4 o’clock. So I go to a shop on Hollywood Boulevard at 5 o’clock — and there she is waiting for me!

Once you get Gracie into a store, you have very little trouble with her. She loves to shop and is very cool-headed about her bargaining, except that she always gets a little rattled if the shop girls recognize her — and the shop girls always recognize her.

Now the only difference between the “rattled Gracie Allen” and the “normal Gracie Allen” is that the normal Gracie Allen is nuts — and the rattled Gracie Allen is nuts plus ten percent! So nothing can happen — and it does.

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Burns and Allen haircut gag (1933)

To hide her embarrassment, Gracie immediately marches over to a counter where they’re selling silk hosiery, let’s say. After looking the hosiery over and asking the dazzled salesgirl the price, she tells the girl she wants some red flannel slippers and a blue bathing cap.

Of course, the salesgirl knows Gracie is nuts, so to show she’s all right, she wraps up three different sized stockings, writes out a sales slip for a set of military hair brushes, charges her for a two-pants suit, and then directs her to the Exchange Desk where she can trade the socks for a waffle iron.

After reading “The Children’s Hour,” it’s easy to see that Henry W Longfellow didn’t have any Gracie Allen mixed up with his children.

Young George Burns and Gracie Allen

The “hour” that I spend each day with our little daughter Sandra and our little boy Ronnie, is so skillfully balled up by Gracie that even Mr Longfellow would have found it an inspiration for headaches and “DTs” and not poetry.

Now I don’t blame Sandra and Ronnie. They’re still too young to realize that their mother is a bit dizzy.

Nearly every evening Gracie has some hilarious new game for the kiddies, and even though the game is never chess, I am just a pawn. For instance, let’s say it’s going to be Blind Man’s Bluff… at least, Gracie’s interpretation of it.

First, she blindfolds my eyes and then, before turning me loose to grope for the kiddies, she turns me around eight hundred times just to make it more exciting. Of course, it’s very hard for me to find the kids because while I stumble and fall over furniture, Gracie hustles the kids off to bed.

I’ll never forget one night when I kissed little Ronnie good-night after he’d been tucked in his crib. I couldn’t help noticing a very worried look on Ronnie’s face and as I started to leave the nursery, he whimpered a little and then burst out with a terrifying “QUACK QUACK QUACK!”

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Burns and Allen with kids in 1937

I rushed back to his bedside and he seemed calm and quiet again… but as I again started to leave, he resumed the loud, frantic quacking. As he now seemed to be in some sort of violent convulsions, I threw off the bedclothes and discovered that Gracie had stuffed a live duck under the covers with him.

Now you may think that was silly of her, but Gracie had a reason. Those contraptions with which small children are fastened into bed are called “Snuggle-duckies,” so Gracie very logically reasoned that Ronnie’s Snuggle-duckie wouldn’t work unless he had a ducky to snuggle.

Usually after Sandra and Ronnie are in bed, their troubles with Gracie are over, but mine aren’t. That’s when Gracie begins to plan out their futures.

If they really turn out the way Gracie often plans, we might as well start embroidering straight jackets for them right now. For instance, she spends hours babbling to me about whether Ronnie will make a better burglar or a businessman when he grows up.

Gracie would really prefer having Ronnie a businessman but she says she doesn’t want her family to think he’s a failure. I don’t know what she has in mind for Sandra, but so far it looks as though Sandy will grow up to be a ventriloquist’s dummy. Anyone would, under the circumstances.

Gracie holds Sandra on her lap and asks her questions by the hour and answers them all before Sandra has a chance to say anything. One day Sandra beat her to the punch and gave the right answer to a question and poor Gracie has been worried about it ever since.

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George Burns and Gracie Allen with their children (1937)

Gracie never tires of teaching the kids how to do things. One night she got them out of bed at 11:30 to instruct them in moonlight fishing. I found them out by the swimming pool and Gracie was patiently showing them how to fasten a slab of toast covered with melted cheese on the fish hook.

When I asked her where she got that idea that Welsh rarebit was good bait, she said, “George, what else would fish eat at this time of night? They’ve probably just returned from theaters and concerts, so they don’t want a heavy meal.”

And so it goes! Day after day and headache after headache!

After a much less harrowing day than mine, the average man goes home expecting a little peace and quiet. I just go home.

Usually, if there is time before dinner and if Gracie hasn’t given my swimming trunks to some sweet old lady who looked lonely, I go for a swim — if Gracie hasn’t had the pool drained and filled with sawdust so her brother will feel more at home lying around in it.

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Gracie Allen in 1935

Dinner is a matter of course. Whether we have dinner at home or are invited out, by dinner time, nothing tastes good to me but aspirin.

If all the aspirin tablets I’ve taken since I’ve known Gracie were laid end to end, I’d still have to take them — and I’d still have a headache.

I wish you could spend an evening at home with us. A quiet evening at home for me, is just like a quiet afternoon in a boiler factory — only longer.

Now I’m not saying it’s Gracie’s fault. I wouldn’t even go so far as to say the days would be nicer without Gracie around — but I’d like awfully well to try a few days with Gracie, without me around!

One day of peace and quiet is all I ask — I’d give a lot for it! In fact, I’d give my right arm for it — and I’d be glad to go along with the arm just for the ride.

Gracie Allen - Movie and Radio Guide magazine cover (May 1940)

Burns and Allen: Happy 28 years (1954)

By Sheilah Graham — The Miami News (Miami, Florida) May 16, 1954

I’ve lived on the same block with George Burns and Gracie Allen for six years. And we say hello and chat a bit whenever we meet. But it took Charlie and Mollie Berns (of New York’s famous 21 Restaurant) to bring us together.

Charlie Morrison, who owns the Mocambo here, gave the Bernses a dinner party, and Bow Wow (that’s my straight man) and I sat next to George and Gracie. And they’re not quite the same off as on. George is the funny one. Gracie, is the straight man.

“We gave up making movies,” Gracie told me, “because we hated to get up at six in the morning, we hated makeup and we hated learning lines.”

“So now,” said George, “we get up at five in the morning and work seven days a week. We shoot the television show, then come home and have to start learning the new script” — for their “George Burns and Gracie Allen Show,” on CBS-TV once a week.

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George Burns & Gracie Allen - Radio Television Mirror magazine cover (1951)

Forget Their Work

We didn’t talk too much about their work. They like to forget it when they go out for fun. Somehow we got on the subject of dreams.

“I don’t often dream,” said Gracie, “but when I do it’s always about royalty. For instance,” she went on solemnly, “I dreamt last night that I was in the Hungarian Room at Buckingham Palace, at a private dinner party with the King and Queen.

“There were about 30 guests. And when it came to the finger-bowl part, I started drinking the water with my spoon, The butler behind my chair saw me and I had to explain. Then the Queen saw me, and I had to explain to her.” 

I asked George if the rumor was true that he and Gracie were expecting to be grandparents. Their daughter eloped recently.

“We hope she is,” replied George. “But we talked to her last night, and she wasn’t,” said Gracie.

George Burns being silly (1954)

Son Ronnie, 19, now building a 22-foot boat in the back yard, fixes everything in the Burns’ home, which they bought 18 years ago.

“When the fuse blows out, Ronnie fixes it. When the freezer goes off, Ronnie puts it on again,” Mama Gracie informed us proudly.

“When he was a little boy he experimented with everything,” George said. “He’d take the light switches apart, the washing machine. We didn’t stop him. We reckoned it would come in useful one day.

“Until the time he was experimenting in the swimming pool and took the plug out — Jack Benny happened to be swimming in it at the time.”

I asked for the secret of their 28 years of working and wedded happiness.

“It’s because we have absolutely nothing in common,” Gracie assured me.

“I hate everything outdoors, even the swimming pool. George loves to go to the desert and the beach. And he loves to exercise. I don’t. The place I love the best is Las Vegas. I never leave the hotel.”

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George Burns and Gracie Allen - TV Guide 1954

George Burns & Gracie Allen started in Vaudeville

Gracie was born in San Francisco in 1906, but says the earthquake that year had nothing to do with it.

George is a New Yorker. They got together as a team when “I was at liberty,” says Gracie.

And from George, who was working with another man: “I was doing imitations of people I had never seen, like George M. Cohan — I learned by imitations from the people who were doing imitations.”

George Burns with a cigar (1954)

A girl friend of Gracie’s took her to see George, and she preferred his partner.

“When I was asked to join the act, I said I’ll take the handsome one. I was disappointed to find I got George.”

MORE: See what Lucille Ball had to say about her marriage to Desi Arnaz back in 1950

They were paid $15. “We were a standard act,” confided George. “Not the worst, but not the best. In twelve acts, we were usually number five.

“There was one time in Winnipeg, we were demoted to number two. And when you’re two in Winnipeg, it lasted 18 weeks.

“I told the manager, ‘My wife is sick.’ He asked, ‘Would she get better if the act is number five?’ She was better, I told him.”

George Burns for Zenith Space Command remote controls (1957)
George Burns for Zenith Space Command remote controls (1957)

Helped By Cantor

The Burnses were doing all right when they started in radio — in London for 26 weeks — they were getting about $400 a week, on the stage. Jack Benny (their great friend) was doing much better. He was making $1,500 a week in vaudeville — before taxes.

Eddie Cantor asked Gracie to guest on his CBS radio show after their London success landed them at the Palace in New York. Her dizzy-dame stuff stole the show.

In February 1932, George and Gracie were signed for their own radio production. They came to Hollywood in 1934, made several pictures, and were among the first stars to jump into television.

In memory of

Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen: circa July 26, 1895 – August 27, 1964
George Burns (born Nathan Birnbaum): January 20, 1896 – March 9, 1996

After Gracie’s death, George never remarried. He died about seven weeks after his 100th birthday.

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