The late George Burns, who lived to be 100 and entertained millions for almost that long, becoming, arguably, America’s favorite comedian, actor, raconteur and singer – well, the last may be a stretch – was often asked how he had such a long and successful show business career. “First, you have to have talent,” he always replied, “then you have to marry her, like I did.”
Burns was speaking of Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen, his partner on and off the stage for decades, the lovable and ditzy “Gracie” of vaudeville, radio, film and television fame, whose “illogical logic” patter made “Burns & Allen” comic routines work. “I have a great recipe for roast beef,” she offered. “You cook two roasts, one large and one small. Put them in the oven and when the little one is burned, the big one is done.”
George knew well that Gracie was the source of the team’s appeal. Gracie did, too, as she once explained to the tax man.
IRS: “What do you make?”
Gracie: “Oh, cookies, cakes, that sort of thing.”
IRS: “No, I mean, what do you earn?”
Gracie: “George’s salary.”
A Tony Award-nominated play, “Say Goodnight, Gracie,” by Rupert Holmes – who finished and put music to Charles Dickens’ final work, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” – has its final performance at 2 p.m. Sunday in 710 Main Theatre, having been in town unfortunately for only a few days. Alan Safier, not a household name but a consummate pro, with performing credits gathered over 50 years, brings storytelling, cigar-puffing, aged, shuffling, George to remarkably eerie life in this personal, one-man recollection of a life well lived, from teeming immigrant streets as a child on New York City’s Lower East Side to recognition by England’s Queen Elizabeth II and everything in between.
“Say Goodnight, Gracie” begins simply. It’s 1996. George has just died. His old-age jokes have reached heaven’s gates before him: “I’m so old, when I was a boy the Dead Sea was just sick,” he always said. Or, his take on his diet: “I personally stay away from natural foods. At my age I need all the preservatives I can get.” But before he can proceed to meet Gracie, who died in 1964, he must tell his story, prove his worth.
So he begins at the beginning, birth in 1896, early dirt-poor years, street singing with the Pee Wee Quartet, an up-and-down vaudeville career until Gracie came along, record-setting radio years that made Sunday-night listening in America a must, a succession of short films, a few features and a television series that continued until 1958. “Some people called our shows avant garde,” George bragged. “I just called them funny.”
Playwright Holmes has assembled an eclectic mix of old and hilarious Burns & Allen vaudeville and radio routines (with spot-on voice-overs by Broadway veteran actress Didi Conn), television skits and hilarious film clips such as this one: Gracie is asked why she is reading a book under her bed. “Because someone said to read Dr. Jekyll and hide.” she deadpans. Burns wrote most of the material but it was Gracie who made it all click.
Safier walks, talks and occasionally looks exactly like Burns and is blessed with textbook timing in the telling of his tales. Burns is arch and amiable in Safier’s hands, wise, self-deprecating, loving, foolish:
Gracie: “Do you want to change the baby?”
George: “No, I thought we’d try this one for a while.”
It’s a chuckling, gentle, nostalgic night, this “Say Goodnight, Gracie,” some saccharine and tear-jerking moments not even close to marring the fun and warmth, all thanks to Alan Safier, a masterful narrator, a splendid portrayer of a 20th century treasure.
“Say Goodnight, Gracie”
2 p.m. Sunday at 710 Main Theatre, 710 Main St. For tickets, (800) 745-3000, ticketmaster.com.