"Nattie" Birnbaum's droll posthumous Valentine to his beloved "Googie" makes George Burns' Gracie: A Love Story (G. P. Putnam's,$16.95) a beguiling read, the kind of summer stuff you can lay down every time the comic verbally puffs on his stogie (a signal to the audience that something funny has just happened). His stage name Burns alludes to a New York coal company as more marquee worthy than his natal monicker. The George he nipped from his brother Izzy, who found it more assimilationist as well.
He and Googie (he coined it to allay her midnight wakeup fears) surely must have managed the most successful interethnic marriage in American show biz history. I was astonished to learn that Gracie grew up in the San Francisco Richmond working class district a few blocks from where I boarded with a Chinese landlady in 1984.
I can see in retrospect why my Fitzpatrick clan was so inordinately fond of her. Her Irish Catholic success in the entertainment industry pre-figured Kennedy's arrival in politics a generation later. That and because her dumb Dora persona was so perennially funny and easy to comprehend. When the historians talk about Depression radio being a psychic band aid, they must have had George and Gracie, Goodman and Jane Ace, and Fibber McGee and Molly in mind.
Yet how innocent and simple were their comedic strategies. The overstuffed closet, the Easy Aces malapropism, and Gracie's silly sense. When she went to the Los Angeles General Hospital in a skit, she demanded to see the General, and when they wouldn't allow her to go to the top with her complaint, she then insisted on at least seeing Private Ward.
And her missing brother became a shtick that allowed her to seed her zany radio schedule on every other network program. I must say "classic" radio reads better than it plays--I find myself tuning out in disappointment at WCAU's replays when the Phillies are rained out.
Once you get the hang of the formula, it goes pretty slow. Unlike, say, swing band golden oldies from the same era. Goodman, Shaw, Miller, and Dorsey don't date at all to my ear. Yet these entertainers were both appealing to the same median audience.
Her candidacy in 1940 for the Surprise Party completely eluded my thirteen year old mind. Thousands met at her whistle stops from L.A. to Omaha, in spite of the fact that she was so neurotic about its possibilities that she almost backed out before she saw the moiling crowd behind the train at their first stop in Riverside.
Given her terrible affliction of migraine headaches, it appears clear that what Nattie lacked in comedic talent he made up for his his nurturing of her muse and nursing of her body and mind. It's a mark of Nattie's generous spirit and entrepreneurial shrewdness that when it became evident she was no good as a straight man in their first vaudeville act that he flipped and became her straight person.
In fact, the subtext of the memoir is the way the couple and their peers used the seats of their pants to see how you "did" radio, then movies, and finally, hardest of all, for a comedienne without broad sight gags, television. The way they tried to come to terms with the phenomenon of the studio audience and how to manage laughter, live, nonexistent, or canned is a fascinating episode in the evolution of pop culture genres. They knew they had it whipped when, prodded by a sponsor to offer free audience tickets to paying vaudeville customers, the fans paid for the vaudeville, skipped the show, and came to watch radio.
Reading this book doesn't deepen my hunch that Burns was a man who made a little talent go a long, long way. Much. I wonder how many of his fans come forty years later to be reminded of Gracie. A bunch, I'll bet.