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Old-time radio, 28 August: The day we said goodnight, Gracie, for keeps

Gracie Allen was mourned by millions when she died 28 August 1964.
Gracie Allen was mourned by millions when she died 28 August 1964.CBS

Although they had equal billing, this married couple headlined a show that was wholly dependent on the skewed behavior of one of its stars, Gracie Allen. It took a big man, George Burns, to recognize that his wife was the laugh-getter, and to yield to her as the quintessential straight-man.

—Jim Cox, in American Radio Networks: A History (2009).

When we first started, I had all the funny jokes and Gracie had the straight stuff, but even her straight lines got laughs. She had a funny delivery. Very sharp and quick and cute, and they laughed at her straight lines—and they didn’t laugh at my jokes. If she asked me a question, they would laugh and I didn’t expect a laugh there. While I was answering her, I talked in on her laugh so nobody heard what I had to say. I knew right away that there was a feeling of something between the audience and Gracie. They loved her. And so, not being a fool, and wanting to smoke cigars for the rest of my life, I gave her the jokes.

—George Burns, in Larry Wilde’s The Great Comedians Talk About Comedy (1968).

Gracie’s illogical logic always got the better of her seemingly more rational husband.

—Arthur Frank Wertheim, in Radio Comedy (1979).

Gracie was different from the usual female flake. For one thing, she came across not as a flighty dope or blonde nitwit but as a loveable eccentric. Burns preferred to call her off center. Gracie always arrived at the truth, but in a wacky roundabout way, and in the end she was usually proved correct—and, like Rochester on [The Jack Benny Program], enjoyed the last laugh . . . [T]he fact that audiences knew they were happily married in life created a built-in rapport echoed by their lullaby theme song, “Love Nest.” They had always been reality-based, even in vaudeville, where they were said to be the first comedy team not to appear in costume.

—Gerald Nachman, in Raised on Radio (1998).

Why, George, Mother gave you me. And I’m as good as nuts.

—Gracie Allen.

I wanted to stand next to her onstage and hear the audience laugh. I wanted to hear that birdlike voice. I wanted her to look up at me with her trusting eyes. I wanted to ask her just once more, ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?’

—George Burns, recalling what he told her doctor when informed Gracie Allen had died.

Fifty years ago 28 August, the birdlike voice and the deft comedienne who owned and deployed it so well, for so long, went to her reward. It makes you look forward to hearing the stories of just what transpired when she checked in.

God: Who’s checking in next?

Watcher: She says her name is Gracie Allen.

God: Gracie Allen?

Watcher: Yes. Gracie Allen.

God: I’ve been waiting for her. I’ve been looking forward to meeting her.

Watcher: Sir?

God: What’s the problem?

Watcher: Sir, with all due respect, we can’t prove she’s Gracie Allen.

God: What do you mean, we can’t prove she’s Gracie Allen? This is Me you’re talking to. Remember? I’m the one who’s supposed to have known them before they were born.

Watcher: But sir, and again with all due respect, she has no identification. Nothing with her to prove she really is Gracie Allen?

God: You want proof that she’s Gracie Allen?

Watcher: It would help, Sir.

God: OK, then, here’s how you get your proof. You ask her, “Gracie, how’s your brother?”

Watcher: What good will that do?

God: Get your notebook out and take notes when she answers. It’ll keep you occupied for the next thirty-eight years.

TUNE IN TONIGHT: THE ABSOLUTE BEST OF GRACIE ALLEN

The Hinds Honey & Almond Cream Show with George Burns & Gracie Allen: Hats Off to Gracie (CBS, 6 March 1940)—George Burns, Gracie Allen, Frank Parker, Truman Bradley. Apparently, Gracie wasn’t even close to kidding: she really is running for the White House, and people are already telling her that they have half a mind to vote for her, but now she needs a spot for the Surprise Party convention. Surprise!

The Hinds Honey & Almond Cream Program Starring Burns & Allen: Sweeping Into Office (CBS, 29 May 1940)—George Burns, Gracie Allen, Frank Parker, Truman Bradley. Wrapping up the “Gracie for President” gag in fine style, and broadcasting from Treasure island at the San Francisco World’s Fair in the bargain, George thinks Gracie will be a shoe-in for the White House, if they can get a powerful Bay Area wheel behind her campaign—assuming he can shut her up about the man’s sensitivity regarding his red beard, that is. Good luck with that . . .

The Burns & Allen Show: Expecting a Baby (CBS, 10 November 1942)—George Burns, Gracie Allen, Elvia Allman, Margaret Brayton, Sara Berner, Clarence Nash. A friend leaves her son (Walter Tetley) with babysitter Gracie—which could be construed in some places as child abuse and misconstrued in other places, such as husband George’s mind. (Live from Camp Elliott, USMC.)

The Burns & Allen Show: The Blessed Event (CBS, 1 February 1944)—George Burns, Gracie Allen, Elvia Allman, Jimmy Cash, Hans Conreid, Bill Goodwin, Lawrence Nash; special guest William Powell. News of a baby turns out to be a new cleaning lady who’s worked for stars with a yap to match, though she can’t talk while she’s working, she says. Naturally.

The Burns & Allen Show: George the Genius; or, Keeping Rita Company (CBS, 21 March 1944)—George Burns, Gracie Allen, Rita Hayworth, Elvia Allman, Mel Blanc, Jimmy Cash, Bill Goodwin, Lawrence Nash. Gracie bumps into Rita, who’s afraid to spend the night alone with new hubby Orson Welles away on business, but Gracie tending Rita puts her in a quandary because her genius is also afraid to sleep at home alone. Yep.

Maxwell House Coffee Time with Burns & Allen: The Housewives’ Guild Upgrade (NBC, 2 January 1947)—George Burns, Gracie Allen, Bea Benaderet, Hal March, Mel Blanc. Gracie and Blance feel let down having to go home to their mere husbands after seeing a Gregory Peck film, prompting them to teach the men how to treat their wives after they’re married. Grade A. Writers: Paul Henning, possibly Hal Block, George Burns.