Famed actress, singer and comedian Gracie Allen was born Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen on July 26, 1895, in San Francisco, California, the daughter of Edward Allen, an entertainer, and Margaret Darragh. When she was only 3 years old, Allen made her stage debut with her father, a local entertainer. She was educated at the Star of the Sea Convent, a Catholic girls’ school, but left school at the age of 14 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 Allen 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 comedian, 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 CBS soon 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 1930s, The Burns and Allen Comedy Show was ranked as one of the top three shows in the United States; an estimated 45 million people listened to the 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 1930s, 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.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, Allen stood at center stage as one of America’s favorite female entertainers. She and Burns pioneered in the development of the domestic situation comedy. She always played the role of a zany woman who had found happiness through pleasant insanity. Her appeal rested upon an ability to convince an audience that in reality she was indeed the scatterbrained character she portrayed.