Great Old Radio Shows – Burns and Allen – The Early Years

The Burns and Allen Show was one of the most popular of all the great old radio shows.   However, it was a long way from the streets of New York City to Beverly Hills.

George Burns was  born Nathan Birnbaum on Jan 20, 1896.  He began his singing career at the age of eight on street corners and ferry boats in a group called the Pee Wee Quartet.  A lover of show business, George eventually found his way into small town vaudeville houses.  He once said:  “After a playing a town I would change my name. The talent booker would never give me another job if he knew who I was.”

Gracie was born Gracel reggae radio show  Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen in 1903 in San Francisco.  Her show business career began even earlier than her husband’s.  Gracie’s father was a vaudevillian performer and introduced her to performing on stage at the tender age of three.

The future Mr. And Mrs. Burns met in New Jersey in 1923, and it seems George had quite a reputation as a ladies man.

Gracie was engaged to another Vaudevillian by the name of Benny Ryan.  Show business being show business, Gracie and Benny were separated for long periods of time as they made the show circuit. Before Ryan moved on to his next town he made Gracie promise she would stay away from that George Burns character.

Meantime, George had just split with his stage partner, Billie Lorraine.  Gracie, looking for work, went back stage to meet Lorraine to see if he would consider her as a new partner.  Gracie mistook George for his partner and George went along with it.  He told her that he was, indeed, Billy Lorraine and invited her to team up with him to become an act.

George carried on the subterfuge for an entire week before sheepishly telling her that he was George Burns –  the fellow her boyfriend had warned her against!

It didn’t take long for  George to realize he was falling in love with Gracie.  He often said it was the first time he had ever fallen for a nice girl.   It took him a year to tell Gracie how he felt about her.  She was still planning to marry Benny Ryan.  All of this was difficult for George because they spent so much time on the road.  They slept in separate hotel rooms and had separate bunks on the trains – George always took the upper.   They became such close friends that Gracie would frequently talk to George about how much she loved Benny Ryan.

In the meantime, they were appearing together on the Vaudeville circuit, and as the years went by they became more and more successful.   Burns and Allen eventually made it all the way to the Palace Theater on Broadway.  The year was 1928 they played for 17 weeks with Eddie Cantor and George Jessel. 

Their first appearance on radio was on the BBC while touring England in the late 1929.  Then,  in 1931, back on Broadway working with Eddie Cantor at the Palace,  Cantor invited Gracie to be on his radio show.  Cantor’s show was one of the most popular old time radio shows of the 30’s.  George agreed to let her appear without him as long as he could write her material.

Gracie was a smash!

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