Morning names: the two Gracies

This is a tribute to the associative abilities of the human mind. When I woke this morning, my iTunes was playing what I recognized as comic songs by Gracie Fields, and what came into my mind was a bit of imagined comic dialogue:

(1) A to B: Say hello to the kids.  B: Hello to the kids.

in which there’s a quotational scope ambiguity, over how much of what A said is used and how much mentioned.

I quickly figured out the route from Gracie Fields songs to (1): from Gracie Fields to Gracie Allen (both comic actors with the first name Gracie) to this famous but (as it turns out) apocryphal exchange:

(2) Burns to Allen: Say good night, Gracie.  Allen: Good night, Gracie.

to (1) as a new variant of the joke in (2). But this path was beneath the level of my consciousness, producing an almost instantaneous short-circuiting from the music to (1).

Quotational scope ambiguities. I’ll start with (1). What A intends in (1) is

(1a) Say “hello” to the kids.

(with only hello quoted) but what B understands, and acts on, is the much sillier:

(1b) Say “hello to the kids”.

(with its wider scope of quotation).

Similarly with (2). What Burns intends is the narrower scope for quotation:

(2a) Say “good night”, Gracie.

(and Burns did say this, repeatedly, at the end of their shows), but in the joke, what Allen understands, and acts on, has wider scope:

(2b) Say “good night, Gracie”.

Burns, Allen, and “Say good night, Gracie”:


On “Say good night, Gracie” from Wikipedia:

The legend was born of their vaudeville routine and carried over to both radio and television. As the show wrapped up Burns would look at Allen and say “Say good night, Gracie” to which she would usually simply reply “Good night.” Popular legend has it that Allen would say, “Good night, Gracie.” According to George Burns, recordings of their radio and television shows, and several histories of old-time radio (John Dunning’s On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, for example), Gracie never used the phrase. The confusion may have been caused by Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Stars Dan Rowan and Dick Martin used a similar sign-off routine wherein Rowan would tell Martin to “Say good night, Dick.” Martin’s reply was always “Good night, Dick.” It seemed like something Gracie Allen would have said.

George Burns himself said as much in an interview years later, adding that, surprisingly enough, no one ever thought of having Allen say “Good night, Gracie”. However, the former Burns and Allen head writer, Paul Henning, did use the “say good night” bit in at least one episode of the Beverly Hillbillies (“The Richest Woman”, aired January 5, 1966, two years before Laugh-In premiered. JED: “Say good night, Jethro.” JETHRO: “Good night, Jethro.”)

Background on Allen, from that Wikipedia article:

Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie “Gracie” Allen (July 26, 1895 – August 27, 1964), was an American comedienne who became internationally famous as the zany partner and comic foil of husband and “straight man” George Burns.

Allen was born in San Francisco, California, to George Allen and Margaret Theresa (“Molly”) Allen (née Darragh; later Mrs. Edward Pidgeon), who were both of Irish Catholic extraction. She made her first appearance on stage at age three and was given her first role on the radio by Eddie Cantor. She was educated at the Star of the Sea Convent School and during that time became a talented dancer.

She soon began performing Irish folk dances with her three sisters, who were billed as “The Four Colleens”. In 1909, Allen joined her sister, Bessie, as a vaudeville performer. At a performance in 1922, Allen met George Burns and the two formed a comedy act. They were married on January 7, 1926, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Gracie Fields. Fields also started performing as a child. From Wikipedia, with a fair amount of her life story:

Dame Gracie Fields, DBE (born Grace Stansfield, 9 January 1898 – 27 September 1979), was an English actress, singer and comedienne and star of both cinema and music hall. She spent the later part of her life on the isle of Capri, Italy.

Fields was born Grace Stansfield, over a fish and chip shop owned by her grandmother, Sarah Bamford, in Molesworth Street, Rochdale, Lancashire. She made her first stage appearance as a child in 1905, joining children’s repertory theatre

… Her professional debut in variety took place at the Rochdale Hippodrome theatre in 1910 and she soon gave up her job in the local cotton mill, where she was a half-timer, spending half a week in the mill and the other half at school.

Fields met the comedian and impresario Archie Pitt and they began working together. Pitt gave Fields champagne on her 18th birthday, and wrote in an autograph book to her that he would make her a star. Pitt began to manage her career and they began a relationship; they married in 1923 at Clapham Registry Office.

… Fields came to major public notice in Mr Tower of London [1924], which appeared in London’s West End. Her career accelerated from this point with legitimate dramatic performances and the beginning of a recording career.

… Following her divorce from Archie Pitt, she married Italian-born film director Monty Banks in March 1940. However, because Banks remained an Italian citizen and would have been interned in the United Kingdom after Italy declared war in 1940, she went with him to North America, possibly at the suggestion of Winston Churchill who told her to “Make American Dollars, not British Pounds”, which she did, in aid of the Navy League and the Spitfire Fund. She and Banks moved to their home in Santa Monica, California.

… Monty Banks died on 8 January 1950[7] of a heart attack while travelling on the Orient Express. On 18 February 1952 in Capri, Fields married Boris Alperovici, a Romanian radio repairman

… In 1956, Fields was the first actress to portray the title character in Miss Marple in a US TV production of Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced. The production featured Jessica Tandy and Roger Moore, and predates the Margaret Rutherford films by some five years.

Fields performed comic songs in a working-class persona — for example, “Walter, Walter (Lead Me to the Altar)”, “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World”, and “I Took my Harp to a Party” — a in decidedy non-standard variety usually identified as Cockney. In this persona, she was cheeky and somewhat off-color (this is the material I was listening to this morning). You can experience “Walter here; “Aspidistra” here; and “Harp” here.

But then many of her songs were serious, tuneful, even sentimental (and in a much more standard variety), and very much loved: her signature song“Sally”, “Now Is the Hour”, and “When I Grow Too Old to Dream”, for example.

She was both a great entertainer and a celebrated patriot, and for years she was in a sense the voice of Britain: “Our Gracie”, as on the cover of this collection:


One Response to “Morning names: the two Gracies”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I never knew that Gracie Allen had as many given names as a British royal.

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