BURNS, GEORGE

U.S. Comedian/Actor/Singer

George Burns moved in the course of his lengthy career from serving as a vaudeville straight man to being one of the grand old men of American show business--and an expert on the history of entertainment in the United States. The television program he shared with his wife, comedienne Gracie Allen, for eight years (1950 to 1958 on CBS) was central to Burns' professional life, chronologically and symbolically.

According to accounts of his early life (all of which originate from Burns himself), he was drawn to show business as a small child, singing on street corners with friends for pennies, and never seriously considered any other calling. Burns floundered in vaudeville for years, changing his act with great frequency, until he met Allen in 1922 (or 1923; accounts vary), and the couple inaugurated the straight-man/"Dumb Dora" pairing they would enact for more than four decades. The team moved successfully into film and radio in the early 1930s and finally into television in October 1950.

In The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Burns and Allen played versions of themselves, a show-business couple living in Beverly Hills, California. As she had throughout their joint career, Allen acted as the comedian of the two, creating chaos through her misunderstandings of the world about her, while Burns served as her straight man. He helped establish her elaborate humorous situations, set the timing for their conversations, and lovingly extricated his partner and wife from the fictional consequences of her "zany" personality--all the while maintaining a deadpan stance.

The pair were supported by Bea Benaderet playing their neighbor Blanche Morton, by a series of actors portraying Blanche's husband Harry, by their announcer (first Bill Goodwin, later Harry von Zell) playing himself, and eventually by their son Ronnie. The program was playful and sophisticated, relying more on linguistic than on physical humor. Although the character of Gracie was dumb in many ways, she never lost the respect and affection of her fellow cast members, particularly not of her husband. Her mistakes were never unkind, and her dumbness was in its own way brilliant. Perhaps more than any other couple-oriented situation comedy of its day, Burns and Allen presented an egalitarian marriage--in large part because George Burns as straight man was always dependent on his partner's comic abilities.

Burns used the new medium of television to expand his straight-man role, however. In Gracie: A Love Story, a 1988 biography of Allen, he jokingly explained his function in planning the show: "My major contribution to the format was to suggest that I be able to step out of the plot and speak directly to the audience, and then be able to go right back into the action. That was an original idea of mine; I know it was because I originally stole it from Thornton Wilder's play Our Town."

Burns thus moved from merely setting up his partner's jokes to interpreting them, and indeed the entire action of the program, to the audience. Eventually the program's writers (of whom Burns himself served as the head) gave the character George-as-narrator additional omniscience by placing a magic television set in his den. This device enabled him to monitor and comment on the plot even when he was not directly involved in it.

Television gave additional responsibilities to the offscreen George Burns as well as to his onscreen counterpart. Like many video stars of the 1950s, Burns owned the program in which he starred. His production company, McCadden, also produced or co-produced a number of advertisements and two other situation comedies--The Bob Cummings Show (1955-1959) and The People's Choice (1955-1958).

The ever-busy Burns also used the Burns and Allen years to become an author. He produced his first volume of memoirs, I Love Her, That's Why!, with co-author/ghost writer Cynthia Hobart Lindsay in 1955. The book enhanced Burns' reputation as a raconteur and staked his claim to authorship of the Burns and Allen team.

Unfortunately for Burns, he was soon to discover that he was still not the star of that team. When Allen retired from their act and from show business in 1958, he immediately reassembled his writers and his cast to churn out The George Burns Show, a situation comedy featuring all of Burns and Allen's characters except Allen. The show foundered after one season.

Burns persevered, trying nightclub work alone and with other actresses. In the fall of 1964, attempting to recover from Allen's death earlier that year, he returned to television, co-starring in Wendy and Me with Connie Stevens and producing No Time for Sergeants. Neither program lasted beyond the first season. The following year, he was back producing another short-lived program, Mona McCluskey.

George Burns continued to move along on the edges of American show business until 1975, when after the death of his close friend Jack Benny he was given Benny's part in the film version of Neil Simon's comedy The Sunshine Boys. His success in this role led to other film work (including portrayal of the almighty in three "Oh, God!" pictures), television specials, and contracts for several more books--mostly memoirs.

His final book, 100 Years, 100 Stories, was published in 1996. In many ways, this small and entertaining volume summed up the life and career of George Burns. It consisted of a number of often retold, highly repolished jokes. Its origins, like Burns' own ethnic roots, were obscured but oddly irrelevant-seeming. (Burns himself was in such poor health during the book's production that he clearly played little part in it; nevertheless, the stories were ones he had told for years and years.) Years after her death, it still depended heavily for its meaning on Burns' relationship with Allen, who figured prominently in many of the stories. And coming out as it did in the weeks between its author's 100th birthday in January of 1996 and his death in March, this final volume exhibited the sort of timing for which George Burns was justly renowned.

-Tinky "Dakota" Weisblat

 


George Burns

GEORGE BURNS. Born Nathan Birnbaum, in New York City, New York, U.S., 20 January 1896. Married actress and comedienne Gracie Allen, 1926 (died 1964); children: Sandra Jean and Ronald Jon. Early career in vaudeville as singer in children's quartet, then as dancer, roller skater, and comedian; formed comedy partnership with Gracie Allen in 1923; co-starred with Allen in radio program, 1932-50; partnership moved to television in the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, 1950-58; continued as star of the George Burns Show, 1958-59; after death of Allen in 1964, continued to work in film, notably in The Sunshine Boys, 1976. Honorary degree: University of Hartford, 1988. Recipient: Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor, 1976; recipient, Kennedy Center Honor, 1988. Died in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., 9 March 1996.

TELEVISION SERIES
1950-58 The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show
1958-59 The George Burns Show
1964-65 Wendy and Me
1985 George Burns Comedy Week

TELEVISION SPECIALS (selection)
1959 George Burns in the Big Time
1976 The George Burns Special
1977 The George Burns One-Man Show
1981 George Burns in Nashville
1981 George Burns Early, Early, Early Christmas Show
1982 George Burns 100th Birthday Party
1982 George Burns and Other Sex Symbols
1983 George Burns Celebrates 80 Years in Show Business
1983 Grandpa, Will You Run with Me?
1984 George Burns: An Hour of Jokes and Songs
1984 George Burns' How to Live to Be 100
1986 George Burns' 90th Birthday Party--A Very Special Special
1988 Disney's Magic in the Kingdom (host)
1991 George Burns' 95th Birthday Party

FILMS
Lamb Chops, 1929; Fit to be Tied, 1930; Pulling a Bone, 1930; The Antique Shop, 1931; Once Over, Light, 1931; One Hundred Per Cent Service, 1931; The Big Broadcast of 1932, 1932; Oh My Operation, 1932; The Babbling Book, 1932; Hollywood on Parade A-2, 1932; International House, 1933; Love in Bloom, 1933; College Humor, 1933; Patents Pending, 1933; Let's Dance, 1933; Walking the Baby, 1933; Six of a Kind, 1934; We're Not Dressing, 1934; Many Happy Returns, 1934; Here Comes Cookie, 1935; Love in Bloom, 1935; The Big Broadcast of 1936, 1936; College Holiday, 1936; The Big Broadcast of 1937, 1937; A Damsel in Distress, 1937; College Swing, 1938; Many Happy Returns, 1939; Honolulu, 1939; Two Girls and a Sailor, 1944; Screen Snapshots No. 224, 1954; The Solid Gold Cadillac (narrator only), 1956; The Sunshine Boys, 1975; Oh God!, 1977; Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1978; Going in Style, 1979; Just You and Me, Kid, 1979; Two of a Kind, 1979; Oh God! Book Two, 1980; Oh God, You Devil!, 1984; Eighteen Again, 1988; Radioland Murders, 1994.

RECORD ALBUMS
I Wish I Was Young Again, 1981;
George Burns in Nashville, 1981;
George Burns-Young at Heart, 1982;
As Time Goes By (with Bobby Vinton), 1993.

PUBLICATIONS
I Love Her, That's Why! New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955.
Living It Up, or, They Still Love Me in Altoona. New York: Putnam, 1976.
How to Live to Be 100: Or More!, The Ultimate Diet, Sex and Exercise Book. New York: Putnam, 1983.
Dear George: Advice and Answers from America's Leading Expert on Everything from A to Z. New York: Putnam, 1985.
Gracie: A Love Story. New York: Putnam, 1988.
All My Best Friends (with David Fisher). New York: Putnam, 1989.
Wisdom of the 90s (with Hal Goldman). New York: Putnam, 1991.
100 Years, 100 Stories. New York: Putnam, 1996.

FURTHER READING

"Burns." The New Yorker, 15 March 1976.

"Burns without Allen." Time (New York), 3 March 1958.

Blythe, Cheryl, and Susan Sackett. Say Goodnight Gracie! The Story of Burns & Allen. New York: Dutton, 1986.

Leerhsen, Charles. "Grace after Gracie; George Burns Carries on with a Best Seller and a Love Affair with Showbiz." Newsweek (New York), 26 December 1988.

Maynard, John. "George Burns--New TV Tycoon." Pictorial Review (New York), 8 December 1957.

McCollister, John. "George Burns: An American Treasure." Saturday Evening Post (Indianapolis, Indiana), May/June 1987.

 

See also Allen, Gracie; The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show