Jewish Comic George Burns Lives on in One-Man show
Born in Cleveland—where George Burns and Gracie Allen were married—Alan Safier keeps the legendary comedy duo alive.
Made up to look like Burns and holding a cigar, Safier says onstage in Burns’s voice, “Gracie said she put salt in the pepper shaker and pepper in the salt shaker. Why? Because if she made a mistake she’d be right.”
Safier’s one-man show “Say Goodnight Gracie,” written by playwright Rupert Holmes, tours the country and recently stopped at the Bristol Riverside Theatre in Bristol, Pa. Amy Kaissar, managing director of the Bristol, is a big fan of Burns and Allen and picked Safier’s play because she “knew that some in our audience were [fans], too.”
“The audience loved [Safier],” Kaissar told JNS.org. “We had a lot of great feedback about the show and Alan’s performance. It’s a wonderful way to relive both [Burns and Allen’s] humor and the story behind it all as well.”
That story started when Burns was born Naftaly Birnbaum to Jewish immigrants from Romania in New York City on Jan. 20, 1896. One of 12 children, his father was a substitute cantor at the local synagogue. A comedian, actor and writer, Burns is one of the few entertainers whose long career spanned vaudeville, film, radio, and television. He died at 100 in 1996.
Safier is a stage, television and voice artist as well as a singer. His show looks back on Burns’s impoverished youth growing up on the Lower East Side, his vaudeville days, the momentous moment he met Allen, their chemistry, their perfect timing, their marriage and their subsequent vault to fame in movies, radio and television.
“Growing up, [Burns] lived in a small tenement,” Safier told JNS.org. “I’ve been in them and I can’t imagine 14 people living in three rooms like that. His father was a Jewish scholar and he didn’t have a lot of money. He died when George was seven and that’s when he started working selling newspapers and ice and working in a candy factory.”
Burns always gave Allen most of the credit, and this became part of his act.
“He supposedly had no talent and Gracie was the one with all the talent and he hitched his wagon to her star, but this couldn’t have been further from the truth because he wrote their act,” Safier said. “Gracie’s persona of the ditzy girl who believes what she’s saying comes from his imagination. Originally he created it for himself where she was the straight man. With her personality and unusual voice and the way she delivered lines, they decided to switch roles and that’s when their careers took off.”
“Say Goodnight Gracie” took off in 2002-3, when it became the longest-running play of the Broadway season. It has also become the third-longest running “one-actor play” in Broadway history, exceeded only by “Defending the Caveman” and Lily Tomlin’s “Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.” In 2003, “Say Goodnight Gracie” was nominated for a Tony award in the “Best Play” category.
Safier said he worked diligently to do as close an imitation of Burns as possible, working on impressions since he was in high school. Unlike others who have portrayed the comic, his version of Burns includes the comic’s New York dialect.
How did Burns’s Jewish background impact his life and work?
According to Lawrence Epstein, author of George Burns: An American Life, Burns’s Jewish background has to be seen in the context of the place of Jews in American society between the two world wars.
“Many Jews, Burns included, either did face or feared they would face direct anti-Semitism,” Epstein told JNS.org. “That was one of the reasons he gave himself the name George Burns [although he never legally changed his name]. Burns was typical of many Jewish males of his generation in being proud to be Jewish but being reluctant to talk about it in public. He worked hard, that is, to repress his desire to be Jewish in public. He feared that recognition as a Jew would adversely affect his career; he was probably correct in thinking this. The Jewish love of language combined with that generation’s adoration of the Jewish mama is what let Burns create Gracie’s character.”
Epstein said Burns did not follow Jewish religious practices, but did give money to Israel and Jewish causes quietly.
“All his close friends, such as Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor, were Jewish,” Epstein noted. In that sense, he was ethnically and culturally Jewish. When he saw his friend George Jessel play the lead in the Broadway version of ‘The Jazz Singer,’ Burns cried, for in the story of an entertainer who abandoned his father’s Jewish traditions Burns saw the arc of his own life.”
One of the keys to the success of Burns and Allen, Epstein said, was that they talked about eternal subjects: love, family, marriage.
“They explored the human condition in a way that allows current audiences to enjoy the material,” Epstein said. “Any comedy that talks about timely subjects or in one way or another restricts itself to the ideas of a particular time is bound to date itself. Do you know the comedy team Wheeler and Woolsey? They were the chief competition for the Marx Brothers in the 1930s. It’s instructive to see some of their films and understand why they didn’t last when the Marx Brothers did. In music you can compare Bob Dylan to Phil Ochs. Ochs wrote about the headlines and Dylan more and more avoided that. Burns and Allen looked for the timeless.”
Burns, according to Safier, is destined to remain timeless.
“There’s nothing topical or mean in the material,” Safier said. “It’s all good natured and universal. The illogical logic that Gracie does all the time, that’s a timeless thing that will go on forever.”