From today's "The Writer's Almanac" by Garrison Keillor:
"It's the birthday of actor and comedian George Burns (1896). He and his wife, Gracie Allen, were one of the most successful comedic pairings in history. They toured the vaudeville circuit together for years, fine-tuning an act in which Burns played the long-suffering husband of scatterbrained Gracie, who earned big laughs saying things like, "I put straw in the water when I boil eggs so they'll feel at home." During the 1940s, more than 40 million people a week tuned into their show on NBC Radio.
Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum. His family called him Nattie and he grew up on Pitt Street on New York City's Lower East Side. His father was a cantor and a coat presser, and Nattie started working at seven years old, making syrup, selling newspapers, and shining shoes. He got his famous last name because he and a friend collected so much spare coal off the street that neighborhood kids called them "The Burns Brothers," after the Burns Brothers Coal Company. Burns was resourceful and funny and even opened his own dance studio when he was 13. He called it "B-B's College of Dancing" and his clients were immigrants fresh from Ellis Island. He and a friend lured them to the studio by telling them that a $5.00 course of dance lessons was required for U.S. citizenship.
Burns was discovered by a talent scout while singing harmony in the basement with other boys during a break from his job. Customers would gather at the top of the stairs and throw money down to them. They started calling themselves "The Pee-Wee Quartet" and soon enough, Burns was on the vaudeville circuit, performing with a seal and doing trick roller-skating. He had lots of stage names, like Willy Delight, Captain Betts, and Buddy Links.
When he met Gracie Allen, she already had four years of vaudeville under her belt. They hit it off, got married, and started making people laugh with routines about married life. One of their routines went like this:
George: "Gracie, suppose you start explaining these Christmas bills. Who got this $25 hat?"
Gracie: "I gave that to Clara Bagley. I've decided to break up our friendship."
George: "Then why did you give her an expensive hat?"
Gracie: "I have one exactly like it. When she sees me with it on, she'll stop speaking to me."
Burns called Gracie "Googie" and she called him "Nattie." Their television show, The Burns and Allen Show, was one of the most popular shows of the 1950s. At the end of every show, Burns would turn to Allen and say, "Say goodnight, Gracie," and she would respond, "Good night, Gracie."
When Gracie Allen died, George Burns was bereft. He visited her grave all the time. He still performed in nightclubs and on television and became known for his heavy horn-rimmed glasses, salty humor, and ever-present cigar. He smoked four cigars a day, over 300,000 in his lifetime. He teamed up with Walter Matthau in 1975 for the movie The Sunshine Boys, about two aging comedians. He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and said, "I've reached the point where I get a standing ovation just for standing."
He made more movies like Oh, God! (1977) with singer John Denver, and when people said it was sacrilegious to portray God, Burns shrugged and said, "Why shouldn't I play God? Anything I do at my age is a miracle." He wrote a best-selling memoir about his life with his wife called Gracie: A Love Story (1988).
George Burns died in 1996 at the age of 100. He was still performing and liked to start his shows by telling the audience, "It's nice to be here. When you're 100 years old, it's nice to be anywhere."
Didn't you Doctor tell you to stop smoking cigars?
Good one Bill, thanks.
George and Gracie were big on radio before they moved to TV, and appeared in several movies in the thirties. Their TV show used a plot device that was absolute genius. George would sit in his den above the garage and watch TV. After a scene between other characters in the show, like Blanche and Gracie, we would see George watching the same scene on his TV. Of course he would tell one of those folks something to advance the plot. The ensuing action was often hilarious. Sometimes it ended with announcer Harry Von Zell, who often played the innocent victim, in an embarrassing and very funny situation. It was great fun.
You are welcome. Hey, I'm here to help. We all need a good laugh every now and then. It should be a proper belly laugh and not this lol crap.
Thanks Bill, but here's my problem, I am ending up just like the George Burns quote:
"First you forget names, then you forget faces. Next you forget to pull your zipper up and finally, you forget to pull it down."
(it's a lot safer making fun of yourself, than making someone else mad)
I have an LP of George Burns after he started his singing career. This is the title song.
Burns & Allen were hilarious. I never could understand how the rerun TV
that was on when I was a kid was glutted with bullsh!t like Gilligan's Island
and The Brady Bunch and stuff like Burns & Allen were nowhere to be seen.
Then again, my contemporaries thought Cameros and Datsun Z cars were
cool and stimmed on cheesy 70's pop music. I wanted a 20's era car and
listened to Chet Atkins.
What a weirdo.
I've got a copy of their Christmas show on DVD poor man kept getting his cigars crushed
My go to sleep movie is Oh God! Sweet movie if you having a bad day. Funny part of it is room 2700 that was my room number last year in the hospital.
Like so many in his era and occupation, George was Jewish. I mean nothing negative by that.
I loved George and Gracie when I was a little kid in the '50s, and was a fan as long as they continued. I was saddened and shocked when Gracie died. And was very pleased that George managed a career on his own for so long afterwards.
A lot of people do not understand that Gracie was the business manager, and said to be a genius. George knew what a good thing he had, and never let his ego get in the way.
They did quite a number of film short subjects together in the '30s, and guest-starred in many other major movies. Their film shorts were almost always hilarious, and the minor roles in some other movies were often the best part of them. Burns and Allen belong up there with all the greatest comedy teams.
George Burns often said in interviews that the reason he had so many different stage names (before he joined with Gracie) was that so many people came and went in the Vaudeville performing business, that they would buy a box of business cards. Then, unable to find gigs, they would quit. George (even before Gracie) was good enough that he was always able to keep working, but struggled enough financially that he needed to save every dollar he could. So he would get the leftover business cards from those dropping out, and getting their leftover cards, he would perform using their name and cards until they ran out. He would often then joke that for years, he wasn't sure what his real name was!
One of the best.
Thank you for sharing.
Drive carefully, and enjoy, W2
Yes, Gracie was the business person--she had to be a genius to pull of the lines she had!
The world is a poorer place for not having the folks that grew into the business via vaudeville.
And George could get away with "breaking the box" and talking to the audience during his show. Great stuff!
Thanks for the memories, it was a wonderful trip down memory lane.
Not all of us are fans.
Would you care to elaborate on that comment?
Maybe he prefers Jack Benny???