“My husband will never chase another woman. He’s too fine, too decent, too old.” –Gracie Allen
“I would go out with women my age, but there are no women my age.” – George Burns at age 100
Born with one blue eye and one green eye and a twinkle in both, Gracie Allen arrived in this world on July 26, 1895, in San Francisco. Her dream was to be on stage, but on her way tp that dream she attended secretarial school.
George’s arched eyebrow and cigar smoke punctuation became familiar trademarks for over three-quarters of a century.
While attending school in 1922, Allen visited backstage at the Union Theater in Union Hill, New Jersey. She had learned from friends that the comedy team of George Burns and William Lorraine would soon break up, and Lorraine would need another partner. Mistaking Burns for Lorraine, she inquired about forming a team. After three days, Burns confessed his true identity, but Allen vowed to give the act a chance. And hence, one of the greatest Hollywood love stories begun.
Though Allen began as the straight one in their partnership, her natural comedic ability prompted Burns to rewrite their material to give her most of the punch lines. From then on, Burns played the straight man to Allen’s ditz, with hilarious results. When Gracie went to work with George, she was engaged to another man. That didn’t stop George! He carried a ring in his pocket until she finally agreed to marry him, while his brief first marriage, to the dancer Hannah Siegel, ended in divorce. It took four years for George to change Gracie’s mind, but they went on to become one of the funniest and best-loved couples in Hollywood.
By the time Burns and Allen married in 1926, they had already become known on the vaudeville circuit. The 1920s were a golden era for vaudeville performers, and Burns and Allen were only two of a number of greats. After making their radio debut in 1929, the pair landed a regular show, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, which aired from 1932 to 1950 on the NBC network. In the late 1930s, the program’s audience numbered more than 40 million people and NBC paid Burns and Allen $10,000 per week, an enormous sum for the time. The couple also played themselves on the big screen in a number of films, including International House (1933), Many Happy Returns (1934), A Damsel in Distress (1937) and College Swing (1938).
For a time, Burns and Allen had a rather distinguished and popular musical director: Artie Shaw, who also appeared as a character in some of the show’s sketches. A somewhat different Gracie also marked this era, as the Gracie character could often be found to be mean to George.
George: Your mother cut my face out of the picture.
Gracie: Oh, George, you’re being sensitive.
George: I am not! Look at my face! What happened to it?
Gracie: I don’t know. It looks like you fell on it.
Census Taker: What do you make?
Gracie: I make cookies and aprons and knit sweaters.
Census Taker: No, I mean what do you earn?
Gracie: George’s salary.
In the 1930s Burns and Allen adopted two children, Sandra Jean and Ronald Jon, after discovering they could not conceive on their own. They agreed to raise the children as Catholics, then let them make their own religious choice as adults. Ronnie eventually joined the cast of his parents’ television show playing George and Gracie’s son, a serious drama student who disdained comedy. Sandy, by contrast, made only occasional appearances on the show (usually as a telephone operator, waitress, secretary, or clerk,) and left show business to become a teacher.
Allen suffered from intense migraine headaches but rarely missed work because of them. For relaxation, she loved to shop and had a special fondness for furs. She was always perfectly groomed and wore beautiful clothes, always with three-quarter length sleeves to hide scars from a childhood accident caused when she pulled a boiling pot off the stove, burning her arm and shoulder. Allen’s name was often on the list of the ten best-dressed women. She was petite, weighing 103 pounds and wearing a 4 1/2 shoe size.
Allen had her first heart attack in the early 1950s and suffered heart problems over the next several years. She did not enjoy the intense pace of a weekly TV program, and on June 4, 1958, the couple filmed their last show. In eight years, the show received 12 Emmy Award nominations but never won. Allen received six nominations as best actress/ comedienne, and the show received four nominations for best comedy series.
Allen spent her retirement years shopping, playing cards, reading, visiting friends and redecorating her home. She loved going out at night, especially to the theater, but after suffering a serious heart attack in 1961 she no longer had the energy to do so. Allen lived six years after her retirement, dying on August 27, 1964, in Los Angeles. She was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood.
In his second book, They Still Love Me in Altoona, Burns wrote that he found it impossible to sleep after Grace’s death until he decided to sleep in the bed she used during her illness. He visited her grave once a month, professing to talk to her about whatever he was doing at the time — including, he said, trying to decide whether he really should accept the Sunshine Boys role which Jack Benny had to abandon because of his own failing health. He visited the tomb with Ed Bradley during a 60 minutes interview on November 6, 1988.
When Burns turned 90 in 1986, the city of Los Angeles renamed the northern end of Hamel Road “George Burns Road.” City regulations prohibited naming a city street after a living person, but an exception was made for Burns. In celebration of Burns’ 99th birthday in January 1995, Los Angeles renamed the eastern end of Alden Drive “Gracie Allen Drive.” Burns was present at the unveiling ceremony (one of his last public appearances) where he quipped, “It’s good to be here at the corner of Burns & Allen. At my age, it’s good to be anywhere!”
On March 9, 1996, 49 days after his centenary, Burns died in his Beverly Hills home of cardiac arrest at age 100. As much as he looked forward to reaching the age of 100, Burns also stated, about a year before he died, that he also looked forward to death, saying that on the day he would die, he would be with Gracie again in heaven.