Grace “Gracie” Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen was born July 26, 1902 in San Francisco, California.
Depending on the source, Gracie was alleged to have been born on July 26 in 1895, 1896, 1902 or 1906. All public records held by the City and County of San Francisco were destroyed in the earthquake and great fire of April 1906. Even her husband George Burns professed not to know exactly how old she was. (July 26, 1902 is the date that appears on her death record and crypt marker).
Gracie was born with two different color eyes; one blue and one green.
She loved to dance and made her first onstage appearance at the age of three.
Soon, Gracie began performing Irish folk dances with her three sisters, billed as “The Four Colleens.”
Then at the age of 7, Gracie became a vaudeville performer with her older sister Bessie.
As fate would have it, at a performance in 1922, the single 20 year old Gracie met the divorced 26 year old comedian George Burns.
George has always worked with a female sidekick, usually a dancer. His marriage in fact was never consummated and lasted only 26 weeks. The ‘marriage’ happened only because her family would not let them go on tour unless they were married, so after the tour they divorced.
Burns had never quite clicked with any of his partners, that is until he met Gracie.
Gracie joined George on stage for a few of his comedy routines. At first, Gracie played the role of the “straight man” with George Burns delivering the punchlines as the comedian.
George knew something was wrong when the audience ignored his jokes but snickered at Gracie’s questions. George cannily flipped the act around.
After a Hoboken, New Jersey performance in which they tested their new style for the first time, George’s hunch proved right.
Gracie was the better “laugh-getter,” especially with the “illogical logic” that formed her responses to George’s prompting comments or questions.
The comedy team worked their new style tirelessly on the road, building a following, as well as a reputation for being a reliable “disappointment act” (one that could fill in for another act on short notice). Burns and Allen were so consistently dependable that vaudeville bookers elevated them to the more secure “standard act” status, and finally to the vaudevillian’s dream: the Palace Theatre in New York.
Gracie had been dating another performer Benny Ryan. With the sudden success of the Burns and Allen comedy act, he asked Gracie to marry him, and she said yes.
George Burns found himself falling in love with Gracie, and upon her wedding engagement he began attempting to win her over.
Then, at a Christmas party, George made Gracie cry.
She told a friend that “if George meant enough to her to make her cry she must be in love with him.”
Now, whether or not Gracie wanted to marry Benny Ryan, we will never know as she broke off the engagement. George Burns had won her heart.
Gracie and George were married January 7, 1926 in Cleveland, Ohio.
They adopted a daughter, Sandra, in 1934 and a son, Ronnie, in 1935.
(For her part, Gracie endeared herself to her in-laws by adopting her mother-in-law’s favorite phrase, used whenever the older woman needed to bring her son back down to earth: “Nattie, you’re such a schmuck,” using a diminutive of his given name Nathan. Years later when George’s mother died, Gracie comforted her grief-stricken husband with the same phrase.)
Burns and Allen
In the early 1930s, like many stars of their era, Burns and Allen graduated to radio.
Burns and Allen frequently used running gags as publicity stunts. During 1932-33 they pulled off one of the most successful in the business: a year-long search for Allen’s supposedly missing brother. They would make unannounced cameo appearances on other shows, asking if anyone had seen Allen’s brother. Gracie Allen’s real-life brother was apparently the only person who didn’t find the gag funny, and he eventually asked them to stop. (He dropped out of sight for a few weeks, at the height of the publicity.)
In 1940 the team launched a similar stunt when Gracie announced she was running for President of the United States on the Surprise Party ticket. Burns and Allen did a cross-country whistlestop campaign tour on a private train, performing their live radio show in different cities. In one of her campaign speeches Gracie said, “I don’t know much about the Lend-Lease Bill, but if we owe it we should pay it.” Another typical Gracie-ism on the campaign trail went like this: “Everybody knows a woman is better than a man when it comes to introducing bills into the house.” The Surprise Party mascot was the kangaroo; the motto was “It’s in the bag.” As part of the gag, Allen (in reality, the Burns and Allen writers) published a book, Gracie Allen for President, which included photographs from their nationwide campaign tour and the Surprise Party convention.
Gracie actually received an endorsement from Harvard University, and went on to receive 42,000 votes in the general election in November 1940.
George Burns attributed all of the couple’s early success to Gracie Allen, modestly ignoring his own brilliance as a straight man. He summed up their act in a classic quip: “All I had to do was say, ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?’ and she talked for 38 years. And sometimes I didn’t even have to remember to say ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?'”
Around 1948 Burns and Allen became part of the CBS talent raid. Their good friend (and frequent guest star) Jack Benny had decided to jump from NBC over to CBS. William S. Paley, the mastermind of CBS, had recently made it openly clear that he believed talent and not the network made the difference, which was not the case at NBC. Benny convinced Burns and Allen (among others) to join him in the move to CBS. The Burns and Allen radio show became part of the CBS lineup and a year later they also brought their show to television. They continued to use the formula which had kept them longtime radio stars, playing themselves only now as television stars, still living next door to Harry and Blanche Morton. They concluded each show with a brief dialogue performance in the style of their classic vaudeville and earlier radio routines.
“Say good night, Gracie”
As their show wrapped up Burns would look at Allen and say “Say good night, Gracie” to which she would usually simply reply “Good night.”
As a child, Gracie had been scalded badly on one arm, and she was extremely sensitive about the scarring. Throughout her life she wore either full or three-quarter length sleeves in order to hide the scars. The half-forearm style became as much a Gracie Allen trademark as her many aprons and her illogical logic.
When the couple moved to Beverly Hills and acquired a swimming pool, Gracie put on a bathing suit and swam the length of the pool to prove to her children that she could swim. (She fought a longtime fear of drowning by privately taking swimming lessons.) She never put on a bathing suit or entered the pool again.
Gracie Allen retired in 1958 for health reasons. George Burns later noted more than once that she stayed with the television show as long as she did to please him, in spite of her health problems.
In later years, following an argument over a pricey silver table centerpiece Gracie wanted, George had a very brief affair with a Las Vegas showgirl. Stricken by guilt, George phoned one of his best friends, Jack Benny, and told him about the indiscretion. However, Gracie overheard the conversation and George quietly bought the expensive centerpiece and nothing more was said.
Years later, George discovered that Gracie had told one of her friends about the episode finishing with “You know, I really wish George would cheat on me again. I could use a new centerpiece.”
Then, after fighting a long battle with heart disease, Gracie Allen suffered a fatal heart attack in her home on August 27, 1964 at the age of 69.
She was entombed in a mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery.
Burns just tried to soldier on without her.
In George Burns’ second book, They Still Love Me in Altoona, he wrote that he found it impossible to sleep after her death until he decided to sleep in the bed she used during her illness.
He also 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 Jack Benny had to abandon because of his own failing health.
George even visited her tomb with Ed Bradley during a 60 Minutes interview on November 6, 1988.
When George Burns died in 1996 at the age of 100, his remains were interred at her side.
“Gracie Allen and George Burns—Together Again,” reads the engraving on their marker.
Now WE know em