She had three
sisters and one brother. At the age of 5, her father left the
family. She never spoke of him again, socially. She DID,
however, make up funny things about her father in the Burns & Allen
Show from time to
time. Her start in show business was with "The Allen Sisters," an
Irish dancing group composed of her and her three older sisters Bessie,
Hazel, and Pearl. Gracie was attending secretarial school in San
Francisco (Star of the Sea, School for Girls) before her full-time show
business days. Her roommate invited her to go to
Union Hill, New Jersey to see if she was interested in working with
either member of a vaudeville act that was splitting up. The act
was George Burns & Billy Lorraine. Gracie chose George.
The Burns & Allen comedy act started in 1922. Their debut was
at Hillstreet Theatre in Newark, New Jersey. Each was paid $5 a
day. Originally, George was the ditz and Gracie was the
straight-man. The audience found Gracie funnier and they loved
her. George felt the same way. He immediately reversed
their roles in future performances. After that, they became a
hit! They were not married until 1926. Despite this, they
played singles long into their radio show days, which began in
it became so obvious that the two were married, the radio show
producers and everyone else told them, "Just get married, already," and
they did. As a matter of fact, becoming "married" on radio
significantly brought up their sagging ratings. Burns often
were the only radio couple to get married because we had to." In 1934, the Burns & Allen radio show began on NBC,
later continuing on CBS until 1950. The TV series ran from
1950-1958 on CBS.
Gracie always suffered from migraines in adulthood. They were
terrible, but it rarely caused her to miss work. There was one
radio show in 1949 that she couldn't be on because of a migraine.
Jane Wyman was her substitute for that day. It was the only show
Gracie missed in working with George for 36 years. The
heart attacks is what was the beginning of the end for the show.
Gracie began having mild heart attacks in the late
1950s. Her health was such that the hurried pace of a weekly TV
show was not in her best interest. She retired, ending the Burns
& Allen TV show, in 1958. She continued to have these small
heart attacks for the rest of her life, which ended in 1964.
In a Penthouse magazine interview very late in George's life, he said
that upon Gracie's death, "I cried and cried until I couldn't
cry." He subsequently took a long break from show business, not
working again for three years. But even in the late 60s and early
70s, he only did a handful of small roles in film and television.
It wasn't until he did a movie in 1975 called "The Sunshine Boys" that
everyone knew he was back full time. The movie was a hit, and he
won an Oscar for the role. George had reinvented his act to being
a surprisingly active, likable old man. He became so popular on
his own as a very old man that some younger people didn't even realize
there was a Burns & Allen. And for those who knew about Burns
& Allen, there was a very definite distinction. But no matter
what, Gracie was always the one responsible for making George the star
he had become from youth to old age.
Gracie was very little like her stage persona. She was always
asked how she did it. Gracie always said that she wasn't really
acting, she just "did." If it didn't make any sense to her, she
couldn't do it. To her, the Gracie character always made sense,
but in an illogical sort of way. She wasn't crazy, she just
wanted to help people. Gracie (the character) thought she was
very smart and that everyone else was a little off-center. She
wasn't retarded by any means, but she didn't know as much as she
thought she knew. And as quick as she delivered her lines, she
always blind-sided even the daffiest of characters. The Gracie
character is so brilliantly stupid that you can't help but be drawn
like a moth to flame when you see her on screen.