“One hundred years, most of them in show business. To last that long in show business, you need a talent, and I discovered very early on that I had a great, great talent. So I married her.”
– Alan Safier as George Burns in Say Goodnight Gracie
Say hello, George.
“People expect the show to be funny, but the touching part is that this was the love of his life,” says Alan Safier, who portrays cuddly, legendary comedian George Burns in the one-man Say Goodnight Gracie, chronicling his life and career with his beloved wife/partner, Gracie Allen. “There are certain parts of the show that bring a tear to the eye.”
Written by Rupert Holmes, Gracie bowed on Broadway in 2002 starring late impressionist Frank Gorshin as George—who died in 1996 at age 100—earning a Tony nomination and becoming the third-longest-running solo show in Great White Way history. Tours featured a succession of actors, Safier assuming the role in 2008.
“It started in high school that I could do impersonations, but George Burns was not one I had done before,” Safier says. “He moved his hands when he talked in the rhythm of his speech. Getting the raspy-ness in the voice was the most challenging. The only thing I could not do was he smoked his cigar with his left hand and he was right-handed. I don’t know why he did that.”
As the setup, George waits in limbo, pining to join Gracie (who died in 1964). Before he’s granted admission to heaven, he must put on a command performance, tracing his life for God. Beginning with his upbringing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Safier’s George takes audiences on a journey through a career stuck in neutral for years in vaudeville. “He was constantly changing his name and his act, but he was able to stick with it long enough that he was able to find a partner who would help him be a success.”
Originally George delivered punch lines and Gracie played straight, but the act was flipped when Gracie’s ditzy persona got laughs. “I would imagine there was a part of him that was injured by that,” Safier says. “But a big part of him said, ‘You’re the funny one, let’s do it this way.’” Famous bits are re-created as Safier’s George plays off recordings by Didi Conn (Frenchy in Grease), plus in vintage photos and video clips.
After Gracie’s death, George struggled to replace her, including teaming with Carol Channing and starring in the short-lived sitcom Wendy and Me. Eventually, George re-emerged as a late-career actor in the Oh, God! movies, Going in Style and his Oscar-winning turn in The Sunshine Boys. Yet it’s the rim-shot routines of George and Gracie that endure in the annals of classic comedy:
Gracie: My father, my brother, my uncle, my cousin and my nephew all sleep in one bed.
George: I’m surprised your grandfather doesn’t sleep with them.
Gracie: He did, but he died, so they made him get up.
George: You had a smart mother?
Gracie: Smartness runs in my family. When I went to school I was so smart my teacher was in my class for five years.
God surely laughed and ushered George straight into heaven, where Gracie was waiting. Say hello—again—George.