Veteran comedy writer
Saturday 04 November 2006
George Balzer, writer: born Erie, Pennsylvania 1 September 1915; married 1942 Ada Marie Anderson (died 1997; one son, two daughters); died Van Nuys, California 28 September 2006.
'We had a situation between star and writer that was unheard of, and it's still unheard of," said the Emmy award-winning comedy writer George Balzer, who wrote for the American comedian Jack Benny for 25 years. "I never had a disagreement with Jack, and nobody - and I mean nobody - touched the script." The veteran Balzer also, in a 34-year career, wrote for such comedy icons as Lucille Ball, George Burns and Gracie Allen and Red Skelton.
Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1915, Balzer was four when his family moved to Los Angeles. After high school, he drove a delivery truck for his father's laundry service which specialised in baby's nappies. Determined to become a writer, he sent humorous vignettes to his local newspaper. His first professional writing assignment was for radio - Kraft Music Hall, turning out folksy gags for a bucolic comedian called Bob Burns. This led to George Burns (no relation) signing him for the series he did with his wife Gracie Allen. On The Burns and Allen Show, he was paired with the more experienced scripter Sam Perrin. The two writers were a natural team, despite the fact that Balzer was a devout Catholic and Perrin a Jewish atheist.
In 1943 Jack Benny's two top writers left him just as his weekly radio show dropped from number one to a position below rival programmes starring Bob Hope and the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. Benny brought in four new men, Perrin and Balzer, John Tackaberry and Milt Josefsberg. The new team streamlined the show and it gradually began to rise in the ratings.
Balzer came up with many ideas that became popular running features. He invented the racetrack tout (Sheldon Leonard), who would sidle up to Benny and give him sotto voce tips.
"Pssst! Hey, bud! Where ya goin'?"
"Just to buy some chewing gum."
"Yeah? What kind?"
"Nix on that! Take my advice - get bubble gum."
"Bubble gum? Why?"
"It's great in the stretch."
Balzer dreamed up a national contest in which listeners vied for a $10,000 prize by stating, in 25 words or less, "I can't stand Jack Benny because . . ." He also provided Eddie Anderson, who played Benny's long-suffering manservant Rochester, with some of his best lines.
In 1945 Balzer and Perrin took a leave of absence from Benny to write the book of a Broadway musical called Are You With It?, which ran for 267 performances. Universal Pictures made a low-budget screen version starring Donald O'Connor, of which Balzer said, "It probably made about 19 cents."
In 1950, Benny bowed to the inevitable and moved to television. Balzer and Perrin moved with him, winning two Emmy awards for their scripts. When Benny stopped doing his weekly TV series, they worked on Lucille Ball's Here's Lucy show. "Then I wrote one year with Red Skelton," he told Jordan R. Young in The Laugh Crafters (1999):
Then he went off the air. Sam Perrin and I put in a year with Don Knotts, who had his own show. When we finished with that, he went off the air too. We were doing real good!
George Balzer retired in 1971. "I don't know if I called it retirement at the time," he told Young. "I was probably just out of work."
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