By D. A. Blackburn
“I’m going to stay in show business until I’m the last one left.” These were the words of comedian George Burns, and even now, more than 12 years since his passing, the sentiment seems plausible. Burns was an icon of American comedy for more than three quarters of a century, and even today, his story and his love of wife Gracie Allen continue to enthrall audiences. The latest production to take the stage at Detroit’s Gem Theatre, “Say Goodnight Gracie,” promises a unique glimpse into days gone by, through the wide-framed glasses of Burns himself.
“A lot of people come in thinking, ‘Oh, it’s a one man show, and it’s going to be George Burns standing up there and doing a bunch of his routines,'” said actor Joel Rooks. “But it’s so not that. People all walk away saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize this about him, and how he met Gracie, and his friendship with Jack Benny,’ so even though it’s just one person up there, you don’t feel like it’s just a monologue.”
Rooks, who understudied Frank Gorshin in the role of Burns during the Tony Award-nominated Broadway production of “Gracie,” took over the role following Gorshin’s death in 2005. He has since performed the role more than 100 times in theaters throughout the nation.
In preparing for the role, Rooks poured over archival material, much of which was incorporated into the work by playwright Rupert Holmes. These materials allow Holmes, and Rooks, to tell the Burns/Allen story with a unique realism, in essence, through the very people involved.
“There are a lot of slides, a lot of old film clips and still photographs,” said Rooks. “Some of the biggest laughs in the whole show are probably 75 years old. They’re film clips of these little short comedies that George and Gracie did back in the 30s. They made about 15 of these short nine-minute one-reelers, and they’re just hilarious.”
Though the work navigates through Burn’s extensive career, it’s also an intimate depiction of his unique relationship with wife Gracie Allen. And moreover, according to Rooks, it’s a story with a special historical significance, which resonates throughout the American experience.
“His story is not unlike a lot of stories of people of that world, and that generation, who were born of immigrant parents. They came to this country in poverty, basically. The guys and girls who came up out of that world, who became entertainers, there’s something very compelling about that, that they used comedy to make it. It’s the American success story.”
“Say Goodnight Gracie” plays at the Gem through Nov. 16. These performances constitute the work’s Detroit premiere, but with the critical and commercial success it has seen elsewhere, it’s likely that George Burns will hang around show business for the foreseeable future. Though the comic is gone, his act, and his story live on in Holmes’ play. Burns, himself, had a good outlook on this posterity. “I look to the future because that’s where I’m going to spend the rest of my life.”
‘Say Goodnight Gracie’
The Gem Theatre, 333 Madison Ave., Detroit. Wed.-Sun. through Nov. 16. Tickets: $39.50. For information: 313-963-9800 or http://www.gemtheatre.com.