By 1939-40, George Burns and Gracie Allen are among old-time radio’s most frequent time and sponsor changers: this season shows the couple with their fifth such change in eight radio seasons, working at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night on CBS for Hind’s Honey & Almond Hand Cream.
You’d think they’d be feeling flush enough considering a) they’ve made money with every such change, including a bump to $9,000 a week (that’d be $146,500 in 2013 dollars); b) they’d just turned a nice dollar for their appearance in the MGM film Honolulu; and, c) Gracie Allen had a somewhat successful solo flight in the Paramount film version of The Gracie Allen Murder Case, based on the S.S. Van Dine novel of the same name. (“S.S. Van Dine is silly to spend six months writing a novel when you can buy one for two dollars and fifty cents,” Gracie said incomparably.)
The problem is that Burns & Allen in 1939-40 are also trying to overcome a three-year radio ratings slump. And this season won’t help them despite the unforgettable “Gracie for President” stunt. Desperate for something equal to the old missing brother stunt that worked so well for them in 1933, George Burns and his brother Willie, who also manage the couple, dream up the idea of Gracie running for the presidency as the Surprise Party candidate, a takeoff on Will Rogers’s and Eddie Cantor’s prior such stunts, the difference being that Gracie’s stunt included showing up unexpectedly on other shows to make campaign appearances as well as her to-be-fabled whistle-stop tour.
The good news will be that the stunt works for Burns & Allen’s positioning on Wednesday night; they’ll finish the season as CBS’s top show for the night. Burns & Allen will be beaten on the night only by Kay Kyser, Fred Allen, and Lowell Thomas’s news and commentaries, all on NBC; they’ll beat Al Pearce, Ken Murray, Dr. Christian, Amos ‘n’ Andy, and Ben Bernie on their own network and I Love a Mystery on NBC to finish fourth on the night.
The bad news is that Burns & Allen’s 14.3 Hooper rating on the season will give them a top 25 overall finish but still be a full point lower than their 1938-39 rating.
They’ll hopscotch again in 1940-41, returning to NBC on a new night and under new sponsorship (Hormel, promoting Spam), and lose more of their audience, showing a 12.8 Hooper rating—good for a fourth-place Monday night but a tie for 30th place overall . . . with their rating losing 2.5 points.
Not until 1941-42 would Burns & Allen rebuild audience—after George Burns finally gets the a-ha! and realises, thanks in large part to Gracie’s complaint, that the couple’s longtime boy-girl flirt-based routines just haven’t fit them any longer. Not when they’re well known as a married couple, she’s 46, and the flirt bits work better for a couple half their age.
Changing sponsors yet again, to Swan Soap, Burns & Allen will retool as what they really are: a married couple in assorted slightly whacky domestic situations. And it gets the couple a 22 percent audience gain and a kick back into the seasonal top twenty.
They’ll never be a top ten seasonal attraction again (they achieved it only three times during the 1930s), but Burns & Allen will remain a reasonsably respectable ratings draw for the rest of their radio lives, with regular top ten finishes on their night no matter what night it might be, until they say goodbye to radio in May 1950, moving to television that fall for a successful eight-year run.
TUNE IN TONIGHT:
Gracie (Allen) is full swing into her presidential racie . . . kvetching about Congress’s rules on campaign spending limits (“Three million dollars for a campaign fund—why, they spend more than that to run the government!”) . . . and this is the woman who once dropped ten thousand dollars on tips at a convention (“It was a Shriner’s convention and I thought they were redcaps”) and thinks the cows will tell her everything.
Hey, you could do (and have done!) worse for a presidential candidate . . .
Additional cast: Frank Parker, Truman Bradley. Music: Ray Noble Orchestra. Writers: Keith Fowler, Frank Galen, Paul Henning, George Burns.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
Amos ‘n’ Andy: The Marriage of Andrew H. Brown (CBS, 1939)—Freman Gosden, Charles Correll, possibly Madaline Lee. Perennial bachelor Andy isn’t looking for any escape hatch when Walida Green (possibly Madaline Lee) has him ready to say he do at last, but the preparations have nothing compared to the bang awaiting Andy at the altar. Writers: Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. (Note: This is one of the extremely few surviving editions of the original fifteen-minute serial comedy-drama to remain completely intact, including opening and closing theme music and Campbell’s Soup commercials, and with above-average sound quality.)
mr. ace and JANE: The Cigarette Slogan (CBS, 1948)—Goodman and Jane Ace, Leon Janney, Eric Dressler, Florence Robinson, Ken Roberts. Ace finds out the hard way that his clever idea for a cigarette ad campaign—on NO SMOKING signs, no less—was smoked right out from under him by brother-in-law Paul, who lives by his wits, which Ace knows well enough is living by half. No half comedy otherwise here.
Our Miss Brooks: April Fool’s Day (CBS, 1949)—Eve Arden, Richard Crenna, Jeff Chandler, Jane Morgan, Gloria McMillan, Gale Gordon, unidentified additional cast. Connie is wary of April Fool’s Day prankishness when Walter reads an advice-to-the-lovelorn letter—sounding suspiciously as though someone were pranking her unrequited love for Boynton—and the culprits just so happen to be a pair of established Madison lovebirds. Naturally.
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: The Sponsor’s Daughter (NBC, 1949)—Phil Harris, Alice Faye, Gale Gordon, Robert North, Anne Whitfield, Jeanine Roos, Elliott Lewis. Sponsor Scott’s daughter Marjorie wants the Harris band to play at her school prom—and Marjorie herself has a fat crush on the bandleader, unnerving both the object of her affection and her father alike. Of course.
The Jack Benny Program: Journey to the Surface of the Earth (CBS, 1955)—Jack Benny, Joseph Kearns, Don Wilson, Frank Nelson, Eddie Anderson, Dennis Day. Vault guard Ed comes up for a visit to earth above, which he hasn’t seen since around the McKinley Administration, but it proves a lot more than the mild-mannered guard can handle. And a lot of fun for you to handle.
Dragnet: The Big Streetcar (NBC, 1952)—Jack Webb, Barney Phillips, Helen Klieb, Herb Ellis, Jack Kruschen. A domestic quarrel leaves a man with multiple gunshots, and Friday and Jacobs hear neighbours describe a day long argument . . . and a possibly philandering wife threatening to shoot anyone coming near her. That’s just the facts, sirs and ma’ams.