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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Anyone remember George Burns and Gracie Allen? The story of Gracie Allen's White House Run

One of the few things I like on NPR is the Sunday evening Old Time Radio (wiki, shows on WAMU in Washington. Last Sunday they aired a retrospective that NPR had done in 2008 on Gracie Allen's presidential candidacy in 1940, followed by the episode of the Burns and Allen Show in which Gracie announces her intention to run.

The radio version of the Burns and Allen Show is one one of my favorites, and I've heard quite a few of those broadcasts. Burns and Allen were headliners in vaudeville in the 1920s - Burns was the straight man and Allen played a silly, addle-headed woman - and radio stars in the 1930s and 1940s. I'm not old enough to remember when the the radio shows first aired (I was born in 1948) but I do remember their TV show from the 50's (wiki), largely from re-runs*. Those younger than I (and most people are) might remember George Burns on his own, for example as God in the movie Oh, God - Gracie died in 1964 and George kept performing until a few weeks before his death in 1996 at age 100.

So, here's how it came about:

"I'm tired of knitting this sweater," Gracie Allen told her husband, George Burns one day, "I think I'll run for president this year." So began the fictional campaign of a big radio star of small physical stature, a girlish-voiced imp who injected silliness into American politics at the end of the Great Depression and the dawn of World War II.

Ms. ALLEN: George, I'll let you in on a secret. I'm running for president.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. BURNS: You're running for president?

Ms. ALLEN: Yes.

Mr. BURNS: Gracie, how long has this been going on?

Ms. ALLEN: Well, for 150 years, George Washington started it.

Mr. BURNS: But in the entire history of the United States, there's never been a woman president.

Ms. ALLEN: Yeah, isn't that exciting? I'll be the first one.

In February of 1940, with Franklin Roosevelt (wiki) and Wendell Willkie gearing up their respective campaigns, she went on the air announcing her candidacy.

Rather than making scathing remarks about either of the real candidates or vigorously attacking politics as a whole, Allen's style was gentler, always folding a charming, pure absurdity into the satire. For example, her party was "The Surprise Party," with a kangaroo mascot whose pouch bore the slogan "it's in the bag."

As part of the campaign she wrote a short book “How to Become President.” In it she reprinted her stump speech:

“This is the greatest night of my life. How glorious it is to be here among my friends, for you are my friends, at least until the election, in this fair city of _________, the garden spot of the great ___________ (APPLAUSE) I can say in all truthfulness that when I last tire of the mad whirl of modern life and want to find a place to die in, this is it.”

A selection of campaign quotes:

"Many candidates begin life as reformers. First they promote a little reform, then a medium reform, and then a great big reform. What they really need is chloroform."

“Presidents are made, not born,” she said. “It's silly to think that Presidents are born, because very few people are 35 years old at birth, and those who are won't admit it.”

“Don't try to impress your audience. Act like you don't know what you're talking about, then they won't think you're too smart for them. Fumble a word once in a while; the audience will yell it up to you and will thus have the thrill of being in on things. When the word is something like 'fiduciary' or 'incontrovertible,' you will be glad you got them in the habit of helping.”

“I don't think it's dignified for the President's husband to work. People would begin whispering that I couldn't support him, and anyway, now that I'm making good money it's high time he took things a little easier. I'll even send out our dirty linen.” 

Eleanor Roosevelt (2nd from left) and Gracie Allen
(far right) at the Women's Press Club Stunt Night
At the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt Gracie Allen appeared at the Women's National Press Club in Washington D.C. “Now that I think of it, have you ever considered what a great President Mrs. Roosevelt would make? It's not just her charm and personality. She has the intellect, tact, humor and a keen sense of her responsibilities to ---but wait a minute! Who am I campaigning for: Mrs. Roosevelt or me?” 

Allen used the occasion to announce the Surprise Party convention in Omaha and a whistle stop train tour. 

Flanked by George Burns and Laura the stuffed kangaroo, the Surprise Party's mascot, Allen set off from Hollywood to Omaha. At Creighton University she was unanimously nominated by a cheering crowd. There was no vice president candidate because Gracie promised there would be no vice in her administration.

Gracie Allen did win one election that year. The voters of Monominee, Michigan elected her mayor but promptly disqualified her for being a non-resident. In the fall she did receive, apparently, a few thousand write in votes for president - accurate numbers are not, of course, available.

After the election, Gracie Allen published a book about her campaign (individual chapters are reproduced here). She left these words of advice for future presidential candidates: "No matter what people say about them or what they say about each other, candidates are human beings, and we need them."

Here's her theme song:

*I don't remember the shows from the 50's, since I was too young to watch TV in the evening, and we had terrible reception where I grew up - 80 miles from the NYC signal meant that things were fuzzy at best and generally unwatchable.

1 comment:

  1. Burns and Allen might be the funniest OTR comedy. Only Jack Benny compares. Next level for me, Duffy's Tavern, Fibber McGee and Mollie. Sweet, nice and funny. Not much today that can say that.
    Mean and snarky is easy, the old time shows were great.