4 November: Burns & Allen learn their lesson

The flirt routines got old; their real life marriage helps prove their radio rescue . . . (Photo: NBC.)

The flirt routines got old; their real life marriage makes their radio rescue . . . (Photo: NBC.)

By the end of the 1940-41 season, George Burns and Gracie Allen have a serious problem on their hands. The longtime boy-girl core of their routines may have made them stars when they took them from vaudeville to radio, but they now seem as refreshing as a year-old beer.

The team managed a temporary ratings boost earlier in 1940 with the unforgettable, hilarious “Gracie for President’ series, nearly the equal of the legendary (and far more wild) hunt for Gracie’s missing brother, the stunt that secured them as national figures. Beyond that, however, Gracie Allen has complained her lines fit a nubile ingenue rather than a comely but mature married woman. And the show ratings finally seem to bear her complaint out.

Burns & Allen finished the 1940-41 season thirtieth overall. Their 12.8 Hooper rating fell below both the average and the median ratings on the season. That it was still good enough to place them fourth on Monday nights and for being the most popular comedy on the night (handily beating their CBS timeslot competition, Blondie) is little mitigation for them.

George Burns, however, is no fool, no matter how much he will milk the “where would I be without her” image for the rest of his life. Aside from vaudeville being gone forever, Burns knows how successful his best friend Jack Benny has been since Benny transformed his show to a kind-of situation comedy, with characters remaining constant, even if Benny still likes to dedicate half his program to satires spoofing movie hits, other radio shows, or popular novels.

Burns and his writing staff went to work retooling what would become The New Burns & Allen Show. Now, Burns & Allen would be portrayed as the settled married couple they actually were. They’d be visited by anyone from half-cracked or half-baked neighbours to guest stars from the Hollywood cognoscenti with whom they were friendly. And Gracie—wife or no—could and would still be Gracie. In fact, her illogical logic will seem even funnier from a wife than it sounded from a girlfriend, actual or would-be.

The new format gives Burns & Allen a ratings bump at once, returning them to the Top Twenty for the 1941-42 season. They’ll finish fourth on their new Tuesday night schedule but win their timeslot handily once again. They’ll begin adding impeccable supporting performers, including Bea Benaderet (a Burns & Allen stalwart for the rest of their broadcast lives), Elvia Allman, Mel Blanc, Hans Conreid, and others from what becomes known as the West Coast’s Radio Row.

And, they’ll become radio’s second most popular husband-and-wife team behind Tuesday night’s ratings champion, Fibber McGee & Molly. For three seasons, anyway. Even hopping back to CBS from NBC—and back again.



The New Burns & Allen Show: Playing Mrs. North (NBC, 1941)

After Gracie (Allen) gets a call from her mother, George (Burns) comes home to say MGM wants Gracie to play the female lead in another Mr. & Mrs. North crime film, while Bill (Goodwin) hankers to play Mr. North, amusing George but unnerving Gracie, who doesn’t want to “get on the screen and say silly things, I want to act natural.” The further problem: an MGM producer is coming to the house with the film contracts, but Gracie needs to go with Paul (Whiteman) to retrieve an heirloom she inadvertently traded.

You got it.

Announcer: Bill Goodwin. Music: Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Jimmy Cash. Writers: Paul Henning, Carroll Caroll, Keith Fowler, possibly Hal Block, George Burns.


Further Channel Surfing . . .


Fibber McGee & Molly: New Furniture (NBC, 1941)—Jim & Marian Jordan, Amanda Randolph, Gale Gordon, Bill Thompson. The Wistful Vista premiere of their film Look Who’s Laughing has the McGees nervously excited about refurnishing their abode, the better to host Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. So who’s the dummy? Writer: Don Quinn.

The Fred Allen Show: Mash Notes (NBC, 1945)—Fred Allen, Portland Hoffa, Kenny Delmar, Parker Fennelly, Minerva Pious, McGee & McGee. The Alley contemplates the Victory Loan Drive; Fred tried unsuccessfully to score with Martha Raye as a date and a partner to his film hit Love Letters‘s sequel. Top of the line. Writers: Fred Allen, possibly Nat Hiken, possibly Robert Weiskopf.

Our Miss Brooks: Connie Tries to Forget Mr. Boynton (CBS; AFRS rebroadcast, 1951)—Eve Arden, Robert Rockwell, Jane Morgan, Richard Crenna, Gale Gordon, Gloria MacMillan, Joseph Kearns. Connie decides it isn’t worth it pursuing disinterested Boynton—until every one she sees resembles him somehow. Only this show. Writers: Al Lewis, Joe Quillan.

Drama/Dramatic Anthology

The CBS Radio Workshop: Colloquy #4—The Joe Miller Joke Book (CBS, 1956)—Virginia Gregg, Joseph Kearns, Peter Leeds, Ben Wright, Daws Butler, Howard McNear, Jana Bellow, Joe Forte. Host: Frank C. Baxter, Ph.D., USC Professor of Literature. Examining the legendary 18th century British actor and the published joke collection he inspired—a collection that became synonymous with old, time-worn jokes and provoked scores of new gags at its own expense. Wait for the twist, too. Writer/director: Paul Franklin.

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15 Responses to 4 November: Burns & Allen learn their lesson

  1. Yowp says:

    As far as I know, McGee and McGee were John Brown and Charlie Cantor.

    • Jeff Kallman says:

      Interesting. They do sound like Brown and Cantor with a tight ear tuned to them. But it’s difficult to confirm, since by 1945 announcer Kenny Delmar began giving cast credits individually (if not tonight, when he references, merely, the Tenderleaf Workshop Players, an appellation dropped soon enough) but would refer to them merely as McGee and McGee.

      Allen biographer Robert Taylor (Fred Allen: His Life and Wit) references John Brown without tying him to the McGee and McGee team. Of McGee and McGee Taylor writes only that, when the Falstaff Openshaw character played by Alan Reed disappeared for a spell in 1945, McGee and McGee, “a team of songwriters,” took his place in the Alley. But Taylor didn’t mention who played the pair specifically. In the final portion of Treadmill to Oblivion, Fred Allen himself wrote of John Brown playing the early Allen’s Alley character John Doe, and Charlie Cantor playing Socrates Mulligan in the same period, but he didn’t refer to either player and any other characters they played any further in the chapter.

      There is a reference to an earlier McGee character in Treadmill to Oblivion, however: it comes in the “Town Hall Tonight” chapter, when Allen recalls (and includes a script extract from) a “Town Hall News” segment tied to the opening of the New York World’s Fair, with Allen interviewing one Balzac McGee. Since I don’t have the surviving recording of that particular show, I can’t confirm whether Brown or Cantor played that role.

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