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Radio: Straight Man

4 minute read

George Burns, the most famous straight man in U.S. radio, observed his 40th anniversary in show business this week with a straight man’s true imperturbability. As “the brain” and foil of the comedy team of Burns & Allen (CBS, Tues., 9-9:30 p.m E.W.T.), he was thankful that his old vaudeville routines, neatly brought up to modern times, were worth $10,000 a week as a package show to his sponsor (Swan Soap), and he was delighted with the show’s 15,000,000-odd listeners.

Now 47, dry, petulant, hawk-voiced George Burns has played straight man so long that he is sometimes given to echoing questions addressed to him. If a waiter asks “What are you going to eat today?” Burns is likely to reply “What am I going to eat today?” The character of George Burn’s offstage conversation is better suggested by the fact that his best friends include Jack Benny, Harpo Marx, Lou Holtz and Bert Lahr. Though he travels in such fast company; Straight Man Burns has no trouble keeping ahead of it.

Jack Benny has never forgotten his attempt to be funny on the night, 15 years ago, when George Burns married his partner, Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalia Allen, in Cleveland. Benny’s idea of humor was to call up the newlyweds from San Francisco at 3 a.m. He did so and, getting a male voice, inquired, “Hello, George?” The male voice at once barked, “Send up two orders of ham and eggs” and hung up.

Burns is also curiously remembered by a foursome at Los Angeles’ Hillcrest Country Club. An inconspicuous character and a wild-eyed man who somewhat resembled Harpo Marx asked to be allowed to play through. This proper request was granted. A few minutes later another duo made the same request. They bore a strange resemblance to the first pair except that they were heavily mustached. Shortly after they had disappeared ahead, the foursome was hailed by still another pair. This last couple was uncannily like the others save for caps and full beards.

Small Four. George Burns had an early training in antics. Born Nat Birnbaum into a family of twelve children on Manhattan’s crowded Pitt Street, he began his theatrical career of necessity at the age of seven, after his father died. George organized the Pee-Wee Quartet, featuring himself and a six-year-old basso. The four took turns passing the hat in saloons and backyards.

Five years later Burns and a youth named Bern rented a second-floor loft and opened BB’s College of Dancing. They got together a four-piece band so noisy that it had to play near an open window to let the bulk of the syncopation blast into the street. This also served as ballyhoo. The boys got some of their customers by going to Ellis Island and approaching immigrants just off the boats. The sales talk: one of the first requisites of U.S. citizenship was a $5 course of dancing lessons.

At an early age George quit public school and joined a roller-skating act. Then he formed a ballroom-dancing act with a 16-year-old girl whom he named Hermosa José, after a five-cent cigar.

Big Seven. In 1922 one of George’s friends brought Gracie Allen, daughter of a song-&-dance man, to see Burns ‘s act at Union Hill, N.J. Hunger had persuaded Gracie to abandon vaudeville for secretarial school. Burns promised to feed her if she would join him. When he found that as the straight member of the act she was getting all the laughs, he forgot his comedian’s pride and took the straight role himself.

Today Burns and five gag writers do all the preperformance work on the script. Gracie stays home with their two adopted children. Time and the public temper have led Burns & Allen to abandon such pitter-patter as the following:

George: “Do you love me?”

Gracie: “Sure, Harry.”

George: “But my name is George!”

Gracie: “I keep thinking this is Tuesday.”

But the vaudeville mood is still their mainstay, despite the elaborate plot of the script and the guest stars. Last week this was apparent in the opening dialogue introducing Charles Boyer. Going home from a Boyer movie, George said:

“Gracie, could you walk a little faster?”

Gracie (in a daze): “Hmmm?”

George: “I said, could you walk a little faster?”

Gracie: “If you wish, Charles.”

George: “Gracie, I’m George Burns, your husband. Remember? I’m not Charles Boyer!”

Gracie: “Oh, well, that’s life.”

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