Gracie Allen for President!
Whaddya mean “she’s dead!”? What does that have to do with anything? According to the U.S. Constitution, a presidential candidate must be a natural born citizen, at least 35 years old, and a resident within the U.S. for 14 years. Nowhere in that venerable document does it say a candidate has to be alive.
Seriously, though, between Feb. 28 and May 29, 1940, Gracie Allen launched a tongue-in-cheek campaign for the presidency on the Burns and Allen Program (technically, the Hinds Honey and Almond Cream Program, since radio shows of the time were actually named for their sponsors). She declared herself the candidate of the Surprise Party Ticket.
Gracie’s campaign, like her 1933 “search” for her “missing” brother, crossed over to other radio programs of the time, including Jack Benny and Fibber McGee and Molly. Surviving campaign episodes are collected in the Radio Spirits collection: Burns and Allen: Gracie Allen for President.
The Gracie Allen character was a bit scatter-brained (though the real life Gracie Allen was very smart; according to the Burns and Allen entry in John Dunning’s On The Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, she held her own as a guest on the quiz show Information Please), and at one point in the Feb. 28, 1940 broadcast, she said she’d make a sign with nothing on it. “For the nudist vote.”
Asked if she’s in favor of monopolies, Gracie said she doesn’t play Monopoly. She likes Mahjong better.
She also said we should be proud of our national debt. “It’s the biggest in the world.”
The Surprise Party was represented by a mother kangaroo with a baby protruding from the pouch. Gracie said her election slogan was “it’s in the bag.”
Another Surprise Party slogan was “down with common sense.”
When dictating a letter, Gracie started out with, “to all other presidential candidates, semicolon, United States of America, period. Gentlemen, question mark.”
George Burns interjected, “gentlemen, question mark?” as Gracie continued with, “well, boys. The jig is up.”
In that same letter, she also asked the other candidates to vote for her. As she explained to Burns, “there are so many presidential candidates that if I only get half of them to vote for me, I’m bound to be elected.”
Burns tried to dissuade her from running; and he wasn’t the only one to question Gracie’s candidacy. However, Gracie didn’t always recognize others’ statements of doubt. In describing a recent appearance on the Jack Benny show on the March 6, 1940 Burns and Allen show, Gracie said, “Mary Livingtone’s going to be queen of England.”
“Mary Livingtone’s going to be Queen of England?” Burns repeated.
“That’s what she said,” Gracie replied. “She said, ‘Gracie, when you’re president of the United States, I’ll be the Queen of England.’”
To put these broadcasts into historical perspective, Roosevelt was finishing his second term in 1940. Up to that point, no president had run for a third consecutive term; and, in point of fact, FDR isn’t even mentioned as a candidate in any of the various radio episodes (ironically, neither is eventual Republican nominee Wendell Willkie) in the Radio Spirits collection. In fact, at one point in the Feb. 28, 1940 Burns and Allen episode, Gracie said that if she were the current president, she’d have to move out soon. And in the March 6, 1940 episode, she gets a call from someone asking if she can recommend a good trucking company to move some items. When Burns asks who called, Gracie replied, “President Roosevelt.”
As to the other candidates, both parties had a slew of them. Democratic candidates included vice president John Nance Gardner and former postmaster general James Farley. Republicans included former president Herbert Hoover, Manhattan District Attorney (and later New York Governor) Thomas Dewey, and Michigan senator Arthur Vandenberg.
Gracie’s campaign also included a whistle-stop tour to the Surprise Party’s national convention in Omaha (the May 5, 1940 Burns and Allen episode was broadcast live from that city).
She even had a campaign song, “Vote for Gracie”, which debuted on the March 6, 1940 episode of Burns and Allen. One lyric from the song: “even big politicians don’t know what to do. Gracie doesn’t either, but neither do you.”
The song’s music and lyrics were available by mail not long after.
According to a program booklet by Elizabeth McLeod, Gracie addressed a crowd of more than 80,000 in Omaha; and her “candidacy” got a write-up in the March 18, 1940 edition of Time Magazine. McLeod wrote that not even Dewey, the presumptive front runner, got coverage that favorable in Time publisher Henry Luce’s publications that spring.
She also writes that Harvard students “voted Gracie their endorsement”, even over alumnus FDR.
According to McLeod, no records survive to say for sure whether Gracie got any actual votes in November 1940 (she did get 63 votes in Wisconsin during the primary). But McLeod adds, “given the American habit of seeing the humor in just about any absurd situation, and given the unmistakable appeal of the Surprise Party’s nutty-pine platform, we wouldn’t be surprised.”
These radio episodes might not be for everyone, but if you enjoy comedy and/or politics (which can sometimes be comedic in and of itself), you’ll probably like them.
Copyright 2012 Patrick Keating