About Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Birnbaum (Allen)
Internationally famous comedienne Gracie Allen is best known as the zany partner and comic foil of husband George Burns. For contributions to the television industry, Gracie Allen was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6672 Hollywood Boulevard. Although her comedy routines and publicity stunts, such as running for president on the Surprise Party ticket, made her a household word and the symbol of female silliness, in reality Allen was not much like the character she played. She was a private person who enjoyed a quiet family life when she was not meeting the demands of her highly successful show business career. For contributions to the television industry, Gracie Allen was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6672 Hollywood Boulevard.
She was born Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen on July 26, 1906, in San Francisco, California, to George and Margaret "Pidgie" Allen (the comedienne was mysterious about her age; she may have been born as early as 1895). George Allen was a song and dance man who abandoned his family when Gracie was about five years old. Her mother later married Edward Pidgeon, a police captain.
Allen first performed at the age of three, doing an Irish dance at a church social. Her mother sewed dresses for Allen and her sisters Bessie, Pearl and Hazel to wear while performing Irish and Scottish dances. The family taught dancing in the basement of their house. From the start, Allen was determined to get into show business.
She was educated at the Star of the Sea Convent, a Catholic girls' school, but left school at the age of fourteen to permanently join her father and three older sisters on the stage. Soon, the Allen sisters signed with the Larry Reilly Company, which began to feature Gracie's Irish songs and dancing. After several seasons of touring, she quit the troupe in a dispute over billing. Unhappy with her stage career, she enrolled in a secretarial school.
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 Gracie vowed to give the act a chance.
The new team of Burns and Allen opened at the Hill Street Theater in Newark, New Jersey. Recognizing that Allen was a natural comedienne, Burns rewrote their sketches to give her the witty lines and assumed for himself a secondary role. The performances relied heavily on Allen's singing and dancing talents and always concluded with Allen dancing an exuberant Irish jig. After three years of traveling together, Burns and Allen married on January 7, 1926, in Cleveland, Ohio.
In 1926 Burns developed a routine entitled Lamb Chops, which played at the Jefferson Theater in New York City. Then the Keith Theater chain signed them to a five-year contract: Burns and Allen had reached top billing in vaudeville. While performing on European stages for Keith, the couple made their radio debut over the British Broadcasting Corporation's network. The new medium seemed tailored to their intimate style of comedy. By the late 1920's, Burns and Allen were one of the most popular acts in the United States. Toward the end of 1930, they appeared for nine weeks at New York's Palace Theater, headlining a program billed as marking vaudeville's end. Several weeks later, Eddie Cantor asked Allen to be a guest on his radio program. Her popularity with listeners prompted invitations from other radio shows, and soon the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) offered Burns and Allen a contract. On the night of February 15, 1932, they joined Guy Lombardo's musical variety show. Within a year, Lombardo had been reduced to a supporting role on The Burns and Allen Comedy Show.
The switch to radio required major changes in the Burns and Allen style. Dialogue assumed primary importance, which lessened the emphasis on Allen's singing and dancing. Burns suggested they pretend to play themselves and give the audience a glimpse of their private lives--a milestone in the development of the domestic situation comedy. In the future, the Burns and Allen formula would spawn many imitators.
In the late 1930's their radio program was ranked as one of the top three shows in the United States; an estimated 45 million people listened to their show each week. Burns and Allen were always affiliated with CBS, except in 1937 when they moved to NBC. Over the years, the show was sponsored by a number of companies: Robert Burns Cigars, Lever Brothers, Maxwell House Coffee, Campbell Soup, Grape Nuts, General Foods, and Swan Soap. Domestic humor was the staple of Burns and Allen. A typical example was the search in 1933 for Gracie's "lost brother." During the hunt, she visited all major radio programs and urged the public to help seek out her elusive relative. Gracie's real brother, George Allen, a San Francisco accountant, was forced to go into seclusion until the gag was terminated.
Occasionally Burns and Allen departed from their usual format. In 1940, for instance, Allen decided to run for president as the candidate of the Surprise party. She declared her political philosophy to be the avoidance of overconfidence. "I realize," she said, "that the President of today is merely the postage stamp of tomorrow." Early in the 1930's, Burns and Allen took up residence in Beverly Hills, California. Their domestic life was happy and tranquil. In the middle of the decade, they adopted two children. During these years, they also starred in a number of feature films for Paramount Studios, including The Big Broadcast (1932), Six of a Kind (1934), and College Holiday (1936). But motion pictures were a distant second to their weekly radio program.
In October 1950, Burns and Allen moved to television. Their popularity continued but Allen began to tire of the character she had played for so many years. In 1958 she retired from show business, while Burns pursued an independent career.
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.
Burns noted in his book, Gracie: A Love Story "I go to Forest Lawn Cemetery once a month to see her and I tell her everything that's going on. I told her I was writing this book about her. Evidently she approves - she didn't say anything. I don't know if she hears me, but I do know that every time I talk to her, I feel better."
In 1975, the Annual Gracie Allen Awards were established for broadcasting that demonstrates superior quality and stellar portrayal of the changing roles and concerns of women. The Awards seek to promote positive and realistic portrayals of women in all broadcasting mediums.
Gracie Allen was featured on a U.S. postage stamp issued in 2009.
Gracie Allen's Timeline
July 26, 1895
San Francisco, CA, USA
Cleveland, Cuyahoga, Ohio, USA
July 9, 1935
Evanston, Illinois, USA
August 27, 1964
Los Angeles, CA, USA