Election of 1940 had quirky sidebar

Courtesy of publisher Radio Spirits; unabridged edition (June 13, 2008) and author Original Radio Broadcasts The cover of Gracie Allen’s campaign episodes from her whistle-stop tours for her presidential campaign in 1940. The collection includes 12 surviving campaign episodes of the classic Burns and Allen radio program, as well as campaign stops by Gracie on the Jack Benny and Fibber McGee and Molly radio programs.

Are you bored and fatigued of election news and commentary with months to go before the Nov. 4 date arrives? Well, so am I, and I’m a guy who has carried the label of “election junkie” for years.

But with the campaigning now running 12 months before the election, and the nasty mudslinging and millions of dollars in spending that now accompanies the process, it’s enough to make election diehards yawn.

There’s one election in the history books, however, that caught my attention and put me in research mode. I’m referring to the 1940 presidential election when Franklin D. Roosevelt whipped Republican candidate Wendall L. Wilkie and Socialist candidate Norman Thomas in lopsided fashion.

Roosevelt raced to a third consecutive term with more than 27 million votes. Wilkie garnered a little more than 22 million. Thomas was a distant third.

But here is where the 1940 election has a Menominee connection. Gracie Allen, a popular comedienne during the radio craze, was also a candidate for president. She ran on the “Surprise Party” ticket.

When asked about the new party label and how it got its name, Allen explained her mother was a Democrat, her father a Republican, and she was born a surprise.

Forming one of the great teams in American comedy, Gracie Allen and husband, George Burns, turned the campaign into a hilarious series on radio shows that served as delightful entertainment for their huge audience.

In fact, Allen made her announcement to run for president in a March 1940 radio show. I was a second- or third-grader at Epiphany School when all of this was taking place. After all, radio was the leading entertainment for families in the 1930s and ‘40s, and the Gracie Allen-George Burns show ranked right up at the top with Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, and Fibber McGee and Molly.

Several articles were written about Allen’s plunge into politics and the amusing excitement it created. One publication noted, “The wave of growing support crested when the citizens of Menominee, Mich., a town of 10,000 on the southern tip of the Upper Peninsula, elected Allen mayor. She was disqualified from assuming the office, however, on the grounds that a nonresident couldn’t legally serve as mayor.”

And to this ruling, Allen responded, “A person can’t live everywhere.” She continued her bid for the presidency.

It’s not surprising that readers of books about radio entertainers were startled when they read Gracie Allen was elected mayor of Menominee in April 1940 with the presidential election still seven months away.

People contacted the Michael J. Anuta Research Center. A couple of others called me about what they read in the books. At first I passed it off as pure fiction. When others wrote me or called, I discussed the “Mayor Gracie” tale with Mike Kaufman and others at the Anuta Research Center.

None had ever heard about the report. The mystery required some research.

There was nothing at the research center other than a copy of one of the history reports, but nothing to verify that Gracie Allen was elected mayor of Menominee.

After researching Menominee Herald-Leader and Marinette Eagle-Star newspapers of the 1940 spring and fall elections, there wasn’t a single word about Gracie Allen. A check of editor Jean Worth’s popular columns in the Herald-Leader failed to turn up any evidence.

City hall was my next stop to study the 1940 election results in each of the seven wards. I studied the canvas of votes in the April 1940 municipal election where anyone receiving a complimentary vote is listed on the books. There were no votes for Gracie Allen.

For the record, incumbent Michael C. Olsen was re-elected mayor by a 1,200-vote margin over Dr. F. S. Nicholas, a chiropractor and former owner of the Frontenac Dance Hall and manager of the Menominee Buckskins, a semipro football team.

Rudolph Cernoch was elected treasurer, Edward W. Nowack, assessor, and George E. Kramer, justice of peace. Seven aldermen were elected: Roland Baldwin, Lawrence J. Boucher, Abe T. Guy, Frank Utecht, Walter J. Bourgeois, John “Pat” Zimmer and Joseph L. Heraly.

With no trace of Gracie Allen in the official Menominee election books, I was at a dead end.

In the meantime, Kaufman found a copy of a Worth column that featured Mitchell Leisen, the son of Mr. and Mrs. James Leisen of Menominee, who left here and became one of the most colorful motion picture directors of his time in Hollywood.

In Hollywood words, he was regarded as “a sweetheart, on and off the set.” He directed some of the movie industry’s most famous entertainers of his era, stars like Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, Marlene Dietrich, Olivia de Havilland, Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Russell and Dorothy Lamour.

Vaulting from Menominee, Mich., to the bright lights of Hollywood is not routine. Kaufman and I now believe that a popular movie director from a small town with an Indian name attracted the attention of Gracie Allen and George Burns, and the “Mayor of Menominee” radio act was born.

It made for good entertainment and it sent Gracie’s supporters to their road maps to find out where Menominee was located. Perhaps the local Chamber of Commerce missed a golden opportunity to capitalize on the national mania and position signs at both ends of the city limits proclaiming Gracie Allen as “Mayor of Menominee.”

While the research on Gracie’s bogus election proved the claim was artificial, it was nevertheless interesting, and it set the record straight.

Maybe someday a native son from Menominee or Marinette will rise to become president of the United States. And the Hollywood cameras would suddenly find our towns on the map again.