When wife Gracie Allen retired in 1958, George Burns had the rug pulled out from under his career. Figuring she'd eventually change her mind and come out of retirement, George carried on with the show in the form of a solo TV spin-off of "Burns & Allen," but without Gracie, viewers tuned out -- so in a bizarre turn, his sitcom morphed into a variety show and then back again. Six months after it premiered, "The George Burns Show" was canceled, so Burns had to reinvent himself.
"George Burns in the Big Time" was his first TV foray into the solo spotlight without Gracie and his supporting cast... so he brought along his friends from vaudeville, Eddie Cantor, Georgie Jessel and best friend Jack Benny, as well as up-and-coming talent Bobby Darin (who Burns would soon be headlining with in Las Vegas) and folk singers The Kingston Trio. Burns performed the sort of monologues about his childhood and career that he'd been honing on his TV show and would later perfect as a solo entertainer, Cantor and Jessel did their "Pals" vaudeville routine, Benny hammed it up as usual, Darrin and The Kingston trio performed some songs and joked around with Burns, who then crooned a few tunes solo -- and then all of the vaudevillians teamed up for an amusing comedy sketch and closing performance of "Pals." All in all, it's what one would expect from a variety show of the time... but there are two interesting footnotes.
This is the last known filmed appearance of Cantor, who was the man that had given George and Gracie their start on radio. It's clear from his voice and physical demeanor that his health was on a downward slide, but nevertheless it's nice to see that he went out singing with his "Pals." The special also lends some closure to Gracie Allen's career which viewers of their TV series never got. As George stands alone on the stage closing the show, Gracie's phantom voice echoes over his, arguing and correcting him (though he's either unwilling or unable to hear her) before finally declaring, "Say Goodnight, George" -- and quite fittingly, he ignores her and sings another song. Allen later made one similar voice-over appearance on Benny's program (doing a routine off-camera with George), but it's this brief vocal cameo which really marks the end of the couple's extensive showbiz career. For fans of Burns & Allen, the last few minutes of this program are truly a must- see. Thank God for kinescopes (crummy quality as they were) and the Internet or this little slice of showbiz history probably would've been lost forever.
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