Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Burns and Allen Show: Gracie Buys a Live Turkey

Burns and Allen, an American comedy duo consisting of George Burns and his wife, Gracie Allen, worked together as a comedy team in vaudeville, films, radio and television and achieved great success over four decades.

Burns and Allen met in 1922 and first performed together at the Hill Street Theatre in Newark, New Jersey, continued in small town vaudeville theaters, married in Cleveland on January 7, 1926, and moved up a notch when they signed with the Keith-Albee-Orpheum circuit in 1927.

 Burns wrote most of the material and played the straight man. Allen played a silly, addle-headed woman, a role often attributed to the "Dumb Dora" stereotype common in early 20th-century vaudeville comedy. Early on, the team had played the opposite roles until they noticed that the audience was laughing at Gracie's straight lines, so they made the change. In later years, each attributed their success to the other.

In 1929 they made their first radio appearance in London on the BBC. Back in America, they failed at a 1930 NBC audition. After a solo appearance by Gracie on Eddie Cantor's radio show, they were heard together on Rudy Vallee's The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour and on February 15, 1932 they became regulars on The Guy Lombardo Show on CBS. When Lombardo switched to NBC, Burns and Allen took over his CBS spot with The Adventures of Gracie beginning September 19, 1934.

Along the way, the duo launched the temporary running gag that made them near-irrevocable radio stars: the famous hunt for Gracie's "lost brother," which began on January 4, 1933 and eventually became a cross-network phenomenon. Gracie was also liable to turn up on other shows (especially those produced by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, which produced the Burns & Allen series) looking for her brother. Bad publicity after a bid by NBC to squelch the stunt---and an accidental mention by Rudy Vallee on his Fleischmann's Hour---helped the stunt continue, according to radio historian John Dunning's On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, which also mentioned that Gracie's real brother, a "publicity-shy accountant" living in San Francisco, went into hiding until the gag ran its course.

Burns and Allen followed this up with another stunt: "Gracie Allen for President." During the election year of 1940, Gracie represented the fictitious Surprise Party and advocated nonsense as part of her platform. The "campaign" was successful enough for Gracie to actually receive write-in votes on election day.

The title of their top-rated show changed to The Burns and Allen Show on September 26, 1936. One successful episode, Grandpa's 92nd Birthday, aired on 8 July 1940. In 1941 they moved from comedy patter into a successful sitcom format, continuing with shows on NBC and CBS until May 17, 1950. As in the early days of radio, the sponsor's name became the show title, such as Maxwell House Coffee Time (1945–49).

Burns and Allen had several regulars on radio, including Toby Reed, Gale Gordon, Bea Benaderet, Gracie's real-life friend Mary "Bubbles" Kelly, Ray Noble, singers Jimmy Cash and Tony Martin and actor/writer/director Elliott Lewis. The Sportsmen Quartet (appearing as "The Swantet" during the years the show was sponsored by Swan Soap) supplied songs and occasionally backed up Cash. Meredith Willson, Artie Shaw and announcers Bill Goodwin and Harry Von Zell, who were usually made a part of the evening's doings, often as additional comic foils for the duo.

 When The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, aka The Burns and Allen Show, began on CBS Television October 12, 1950, it was an immediate success. The show was originally staged live before a studio audience (during its first three months, it originated from the Mansfield Theatre in New York, then relocated to CBS' Columbia Square facilities in Los Angeles). Ever the businessman, Burns realized it would be more efficient to do the series on film (beginning in the fall of 1952); the half-hour episodes could then be syndicated. From that point on, the show was shot without a live audience present, however, each installment would be screened before an audience to provide live responses prior to the episodes being broadcast. With 291 episodes, the show had a long network run through 1958 and continued in syndicated reruns for years.

After the live series ended, the shows were filmed at General Service Studios. The sets were designed to look like their real-life residence, often using an establishing shot of the actual house at 312 Maple Drive in Beverly Hills, California. Although extensively remodelled, that house still exists today—including the study over the garage where George would "escape" from Gracie's illogical logic. Burns lived in that house for the rest of his life.

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