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February 27, 2005

A Theatrical First

Roy Meachum

With Frank Gorshin as George Burns, "Say Goodnight Gracie" opened at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre the other night. Mr. Gorshin's curtain call left me with eyes full of moisture. (I had also laughed out loud harder than I can remember, along the way.)

But tears? That had not happened before, not in the 39 years since I wrote my first review. (A Tennessee Williams' play directed by Davey Marlin Jones, my future brother-in-law.)

To give some idea of how long that's been: Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. Birth control pills had only recently appeared in drug stores triggering the nation's continuing sex revolution that's still going on. And, in that pre-computer era, critics were still handed "Annie Oakleys" - printed tickets with holes punched to show no money had changed hands.

That, of course, was what free seats were called when Nathan Birnbaum broke into show biz: Teddy Roosevelt sat in the White House. (The lady sharpshooter herself was still alive - for another 20 years.)

What's happening in Baltimore celebrates Nattie Birnbaum's transformation into George Burns, then Gracie Allen's husband and Jack Benny's best friend, and on to what passes for immortality in America's celebrity pantheon. (Speaking of immortality, he played God Himself in three films.)

Working with award-winning playwright Rupert Holmes and director John Tillinger, Star Gorshin has crafted a theatrical masterpiece that dances with every human emotion. Masterfully! Crafting the production, the talented trio got lots of help: radio recordings, film clips and snips of the show that figured prominently in what is now called television's Golden Age.

In the astonishing career that ended shortly after his 100th birthday, three years ago, George Burns fastidiously played second fiddle to Gracie Allen, his co-star. In life, as well as Mr. Gorshin's portrayal, he gives the credit to his wife of 42 years.

In fact, much of Gracie's zany material was written by her husband, who had the genius and common sense to recognize what the real God had given him in his San Francisco-born, Irish-Catholic partner.

And speaking of genius, without taking anything away from his two off-stage partners, longtime comic and impersonator Star Gorshin shines; he pulls off the miracle of bringing the nation's most beloved straight man back to life.

Sitting in the opening night audience, I found myself totally enthralled and enchanted: that was George Burns up there on stage! It took an occasional reality check to realize otherwise.

Frank Gorshin enjoys the sort of triumph that fully earned the audience's thunderous applause and standing ovation, complete with cheers.

Tears cannot be guaranteed, but I promise you'll laugh hard and frequently, if you get over to Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre before stagehands pack up "Good Night Gracie" and its bountiful cigar humidor. Your last chance comes Sunday, March 6.

Do yourself a favor: Go!

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