GRACIE, A LOVE STORY by George Burns
New York, Putnam. 319 pp. $16.95
GRACIE ALLEN's talent lay in ditzing through a fabulous career as if it weren't going on at all. And George Burns's talents lay in going on without her. ``For 40 years,'' he says in this pleasant, if a little teary, biography, ``my act consisted of one joke. And then she died.''
``If I say the right thing,'' Gracie implored vaudeville audiences, ``please forgive me.''
She was Abie's Irish Rose, a practicing Irish Roman Catholic whose family still spoke some Gaelic in the house, in contrast to George's Orthodox Jewish background (his mother was Polish, his father, Austrian, and he was Nathan Birnbaum). In other families that might have made a difference, especially in the 1920s, when so many people were just off the boat.
But Burns and Allen were too busy being funny and following a career that took off early when they met in New York. In those days, vaudeville acts combined, split up, and recombined, searching for partners who could make 'em laugh and not drive each other crazy. All Gracie Allen and Nathan Birnbaum wanted was to be in show business. In retrospect, George put a light touch on their struggles, but you can read between the lines.
Gracie was already fairly popular when she met George. He was working with such luminaries as trained seals and a partner who stammered. He later found out she picked him over his partner for that reason alone, not the seal. But he had another talent; he was punctual, rare in the profession.
They started with George getting 60 percent of the take, but that quickly went to 50. And since they started at a theater in Newark at a lordly $5 a day, the split was important. At first Gracie was supposed to be the straight man. The first night the straight lines got more laughs than the punch lines and some changes were made.
Gracie's talent was finding the part of what you'd said but forgotten and concentrating on that.
George - ``Do you like to love?
Gracie - ``No.''
``Well, then, do you like to kiss?''
``Well, then, what do you like?''
``How many lamb chops can you eat?''
``You mean a little girl like you can eat four lamb chops alone?''
``No, silly, not alone. But with potatoes I could.''
And so on. And she listened to the words differently from most people.
``Dear, do you want to change the baby?''
``No, let's try this one out first.''
The book is a fond look at a time when performers were only a few feet from the audience in theaters with names you can exercise your mouth with - the Keith-Orpheum and the Rialto.
It follows them both into their successes in radio and finally television, a career that ended only when Gracie retired, just as color television was being developed. (She may have had to, since she had one blue eye and one green eye.) But television was scarcely more intimidating than a vaudeville audience at the Palace.
George - ``Gracie, why'd you stop?''
Gracie (looking directly into the camera) - ``Well, George, the red light came on.''
And the situation comedy lines were as ditzoid as ever.
Burglar (who has just broken in) - ``Are you alone?''
Gracie - ``No.''
``Who's wit ya?''
Their career was as long and happy as their marriage, which backs the theory that a good sense of humor beats counseling any day. Gracie was not too far from her stage character around the house and remained blissfully unimpressed with her own success. At home she called him Nattie and he called her Googie. People don't call each other things like that anymore. And Nattie gives her the credit for everything.
``Going into show business with my talent was brave,'' he said, ``but standing in front of an audience with Gracie was easy.''
There are other details of American comedy that are worth reading as well, all about the Jack Benny and Fred Allen era, and the early days of broadcasting. Gracie even ran for president, against Roosevelt, candidate of the Surprise Party. Surprisingly, she got a legitimate 50,000 votes.
Despite his success since, working alone, George Burns still says his only talent was in picking and marrying Gracie. A talent that permitted him to make lots of money by simply standing there asking things like ``How's your brother?''
Gracie - ``You mean the one who died?''
George - ``Yes.''
Gracie - ``Oh, he's fine.''
George - ``Say goodnight, Gracie.''
But you know that part.