TNB Night Owl – The Surprise Party

1940 Gracie Allen for President Campaign Poster. Screen Capture by Richard Doud.

Eighty years ago, an upstart third-party candidate ran for president against mainstream party candidates Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt (running for his third term) and Republican challenger Wendell Willkie. What started out as a publicity stunt became so popular, it nearly took on a life of its own.

In the 1930s, George Burns and Gracie Allen were stars of one of the most popular radio programs of the time. In addition to their talents as comedians and entertainers, they were also geniuses at pulling off epic publicity stunts. On their February 28, 1940 radio show (sponsored by Hinds Honey and Almond Cream) Gracie announced that she was running for president.

In the following weeks, she made “unannounced” appearances on several other radio shows, beginning with the Jack Benny program on March 3 (Jack was very good friends with George and Gracie). Radio audiences loved the apparent spontaneity, and it didn’t hurt that she was one of the most popular personalities in the country. Gracie would come on a show, often seemingly surprising the hosts, to discuss her new political party, “The Surprise Party”. Topics ranged from the party platform to her political positions. Her character was that of an empty-headed “dizzy Dora”, and she was always “on” whenever in public. The party platform was “redwood trimmed with nutty pine”. Someone asked her if, as president, she would recognize Russia, to which she responded,  “I don’t know. I meet so many people”.

The campaign employed additional publicity vehicles as well. There was a “Vote for Gracie” campaign song (0:36). There were books, ghost written by the Burns and Allen comedy show writers. There was a stuffed kangaroo mascot – note that 1940 was a leap year – with a baby joey in its pouch, so naturally the campaign slogan was “it’s in the bag”, underlining a pretend confidence in winning the fall election.

The stunt exceeded the expectations of its creators. Eleanor Roosevelt invited Gracie to be the guest of honor at a meeting of the Women’s National Press Club. At this time, Gracie announced the Surprise Party’s national convention to be held May 15-18 in Omaha, Nebraska.

Omaha had arranged the convention and helped line up a “campaign special” train with Union Pacific, that would take Gracie on a whistle stop campaign from Los Angeles to Omaha, with about three dozen stops along the way. The train departed on May 9, and was met by thousands of cheering people at each stop along the way. Such was the popularity of Gracie Allen. At the convention, 8,000 “delegates” voted to nominate Gracie as the candidate of the Surprise Party.

The Gracie for President campaign only lasted twelve radio shows, from February 28, until May 29, 1940. The Burns and Allen team may have grown too uncomfortable with the campaign’s success. Shortly afterwards in a rare, serious speech, Gracie announced that she was ending her campaign due to the grave “state of the world” so that the real candidates could get on with the election. In November, many people voted for Gracie anyway, as a write-in candidate. Estimates of the number of votes she received range from hundreds to thousands of votes, nationwide.

Through the 1940s, Burns and Allen remained extremely popular. You can listen to the original show recordings covering Gracie’s run for president – twelve in all.

Question of the night: Who is your favorite comedian or comedienne?

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About Richard Doud 104 Articles
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