George Burns and Gracie Allen – A Class Act
Tribune Broadcasting has introduced a relatively new cable station in LA called Antenna TV. I think it’s new; anyway, I’ve only been aware of it for a few months. The channel specializes in broadcasting old television shows such as Leave it to Beaver, McHale’s Navy, Adam-12, Three’s Company, and Dennis the Menace – in other words, the usual stuff that has been rerun for decades on local stations across the country.
However (and this is a big however), there is one particular show that they run late at night that makes everything else they broadcast look like just so much pap in comparison – The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. This is classic television in the truest sense, and more than that, it is comedy that was both classic and way ahead of it’s time. Sophisticated stuff that has not become dated one bit in over 60 years.
George and Gracie started out as a double act in vaudeville; George the straight man and Gracie the dizzy dame, the act became more sophisticated on radio and in the movies, but once they hit television they were at their best, in my opinion. The show originally ran on CBS from October 1950 to September 1958 and went into reruns there after. It was in rerun that I first watched the show as a kid, and even then, I loved it.
In the show George and Gracie played themselves. Even the sets were designed to look like their real-life residence, often using an establishing shot of their actual house in Beverly Hills. The show’s announcer, Harry Van Zell played himself as did their son Ronnie. They spoke of real friends of theirs, real places they would frequent, such as Chasen’s and Romanov’s, and the Friar’s Club. All this contributed to the believability of the show.
George broke through what is called “the fourth wall” in the show, turning to talk to us, the audience at home, about whatever was going on in the show’s story. It worked beautifully as a device and it also gave Burns the opportunity to do a monologue each week. As far as I know Burns and Allen were the first to do this on TV, and I don’t even think it has been done since. Frankly, I don’t know if anyone could pull it off today the way Burns and Allen were able to.
Gracie was wonderful. Her character was the basis of the entire show of course and all the plots came out of her crazy convoluted logic. She was much more than what we would call today, ditsy. In her own way she actually made sense once you followed her cockeyed reasoning. She was also adorable. George always said that he learned early on that he couldn’t berate her, push her around, or come on too strong with her in the act because the audience wouldn’t stand for it – they absolutely loved her.
One other thing about Gracie – she never stepped out of character. She was always the “performance Gracie” and to my knowledge she never even did an interview when she wasn’t doing her dizzy dame routine. Few performers have been as protective of their public persona as was she. Harpo Marx comes to mind as one other example. To this day, no one outside of the immediate family and friends can tell you what his voice sounded like.
During the course of the eight-year run, the TV show had remarkable consistency in its cast and crew. The episodes were produced and directed by Frederick de Cordova (who would go on to direct most episodes of NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson). In addition to cast members Harry Von Zell, Bea Benadaret (a terrific comedienne in her own right, who made the transition from the radio show), and Larry Keating — the writing staff consisted of Sid Dorfman, Harvey Helm, Keith Fowler, and William Burns (George’s brother). The Associate Producer was Al Simon, the Director of Photography was Philip Tannura, A.S.C., and the Editor was Larry Heath.
For all of us past the age of 60 who remember The Burns and Allen Show it is a rare treat to have them back into our lives once more. For anyone who has never seen the show, I can only say you must watch it to appreciate what true comedy is all about. No vulgarity, no double entendre, no low class humor. As a matter of fact, “class act” is a perfect way to describe George Burns and Gracie Allen. TiVo or DVR it and sit back and prepare yourself for situation comedy as you’ve never seen before.