The Short Reign of Fred Allen

Jack Benny's comic rival starred in a program refiguring "Weekend Update" and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Sixty years ago, Fred Allen, a 52-year-old comic known for wry jokes, bow ties, and baggy eyes, made the cover of Time magazine. The accompanying article lauded Allen’s radio work for its “angry big-city clank, a splashy neon idiom, and sort of 16-cylinder poetry.” Intellectuals loved Allen, as did his peers in comedy. Radio rival Edgar Bergen acknowledged him as “the greatest living comedian.” Some people would have given the nod to Jack Benny, and Allen might have agreed; the two had been friends for years and were professionally linked by a fake feud they waged on their respective radio shows. But for Allen even to have been in the running with the great Benny shows his high standing at the time.

Two years after his Time cover, however, Allen’s show was off the air and his attempts to transfer his topical badinage to television were floundering. That failure—along with the eclipse of radio narratives and sketches, the forms in which he excelled—has left Allen’s reputation in near eclipse. Undeservedly so, for he was one of the nation’s cleverest entertainers for the better part of three decades.

Fred Allen (the stage name of Boston native John Florence Sullivan) was a product of radio’s feeder medium, vaudeville, which had been diverse and flexible enough to accommodate international stars, including Sarah Bernhardt, alongside rank amateurs such as the one Allen described as “a middle-aged woman [who] used to hobble on the stage, leaning on crutches, and sing ‘Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage.’” He was little more than an amateur himself when he made his professional debut, at the age of 18 in 1912, in Boston. He followed a team of Chinese acrobats on the bill. Over the next decade, Allen played the North American circuits and roamed as far as Australia, establishing himself as a comic juggler and ventriloquist with a routine that involved the gradual dismemberment of his dummy, Jake. He was admired among vaudevillians for writing his own lines rather than patronizing joke dealers or swiping other comics’ stuff.

Allen devotes many pages of his posthumous 1956 autobiography, Much Ado About Me, to his vaudeville days and especially to the Dickensian characters with whom he trod the boards. Among them was Orville Stamm, the “Strongest Boy in the World,” who played the fiddle with an enormous English bulldog dangling from his arm. “The bulldog,” as Allen described it, “made graceful arcs in the air as Orville pizzicatoed and manipulated his bow.” Vaudeville, Allen deadpanned, “asked only that you own an animal or an instrument, or have a minimum of talent or a maximum of nerve. With these dubious assets, vaudeville offered fame and riches. It was up to you.”

Regularly broadcast radio shows first went on the air in 1920, and by 1927, 30 million Americans were tuned in. To fill the hours of the broadcasting day, networks and stations relied on material already known to be audience-pleasing, such as live or recorded music and routines performed by performers from Broadway and especially vaudeville. Allen was one of those. As Hollywood began grinding out talkies, advertising-supported radio—free once you’d made the initial investment in the appliance itself—was becoming habitual to mass audiences with shows like Amos ’n’ Andy, the first radio sitcom. Movies and radio, the cut-rate and increasingly polished rivals of live stage performances, doomed vaudeville, which quickly descended into burlesque. Allen, meanwhile, had graduated to the revue, an upscale blend of song and dance. When the Depression hit Broadway and his latest revue closed, he considered trying to make a living strictly as a literary humorist. But he was married now, to a former chorus girl named Portland Hoffa; she often took part in his act, playing a ditsy young woman with a quavering voice, and, being very much in love, he wanted to keep on performing with her.

On October 23, 1932, he went on the air with The Linit Bath Club Revue, half an hour sponsored by a beauty potion. His pleasantly nasal tone proved ideal for radio: after hearing it in a recorded audition, the president of Linit said, “Get me that man with the flat voice!” No sooner had the first program ended, however, than Allen knew he was in Dutch. He phoned a friend, the caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, to moan: “What am I going to do? I’ve used up my whole life.” His point was that a routine that seemed novel to each audience on the vaudeville circuit was a spent force once it aired on radio. George Burns complained that 17 minutes worth of material that had gotten him through 17 years in vaudeville lasted him 17 minutes on radio.

Allen coped by trying to do it all. Not literally—he employed a small staff of writers, including the future novelist Herman Wouk. But Allen rewrote their drafts to his liking, incorporating ideas he jotted down on sheets of paper folded into quarters and squirreled away in his suit pockets according to a system known only to him. “I looked as though I was a walking wastebasket,” he quipped.

The Linit show reached the end of its limited run, though not before being renamed Fred Allen’s Bath Club Revue. Allen was back on the air in the fall of 1933 with The Salad Bowl Revue, sponsored by Hell­mann’s mayo­n­­naise, which lent itself to goofy plugs delivered by its star. Responding to a trumped-up complaint about dinner guests who licked the mayo off their salads and then quit eating, Allen advised that “to force your guests to eat all of your salads, simply serve the salads with the mayonnaise underneath and the guests will gladly scamper through the fresh greens to reach this delicious dressing.” In quick succession for Allen came the Sal Hepatica Revue followed by an expansion to the hour-long Town Hall Tonight.

Allen’s wit was the funnel through which all manner of nonsense passed. He specialized in satirical takeoffs on the news, though not so much the headline stories as the human-interest fillers, mined from the nine newspapers he read daily and served up as “The March of Trivia.” To enact his riffs, he invented a parade of eccentrics played by a stock company. His lust for the highs and lows of the English language was another constant. While the long-standing feud with Jack Benny raged, Benny countered Allen’s charge that he couldn’t hack a violin piece called “The Bee” by playing it (wretchedly) on the air. Allen was ready with a critique on his next show: “Of all the foul collections of discord foisted on a radio-loving public under the guise of music, that herd of catcalls took the cake.” Sometimes he struck a note of homespun poetry, as when one of his characters described his own inamorata as “prettier than a peacock backin’ into a sunset.”

By the mid-1930s, Allen had built up a weekly audience of 20 million listeners. His program, pruned back to half an hour and restyled The Fred Allen Show, had settled into its classic form by 1945. One episode starts with introductory barbs by the boss, many of them aimed at Benny. Enter Portland, piping “Mr. All-en, Mr. All-en” with girlish enthusiasm. (In one show, her tremolo was so tremulous that Allen wondered, “Why don’t you put a weight on your tonsils and keep your voice in one place?”) The boss plays straight man as she fires off puns and non sequiturs. Next comes a segment in which Fred and Portland stroll down the imaginary Allen’s Alley, knocking on doors.

Alley denizens included Senator Beauregard Claghorn, a pompous Southern politician (played by Kenny Delmar); Mrs. Pansy Nussbaum, a Jewish Mrs. Malaprop (Minerva Pious); Titus Moody, a dour New England rustic (Parker Fennelly); and Ajax Cassidy, a dyspeptic Irishman (Peter Donald). They formed a marvelous set of hams who triumphed over what now seems too much reliance on ethnic stereotyping. In that 1945 episode, the chauvinistic Claghorn boasts of having lent Mason and Dixon “the chalk when they drew the line”; on other occasions, he ruled out drinking from any vessel except a Dixie cup, refused to set foot in Yankee Stadium, but returned again and again to the Cotton Club, though the only train he would ride was the Chattanooga Choo Choo. He was prone to repeating himself (“Ah own 500 acres—500 acres, that is”) and belaboring the obvious. His “It’s a joke, son” became a catch phrase, and the byproducts of his routine included a novelty compass pointing south only and the cartoon character Foghorn J. Leghorn.

Each show had to be put on twice, once for listeners in the eastern zones and again for those out west, with the second go-round wrapping at 1:00 in the morning. Allen typically worked an 80-hour week. He took summers off, but even so his one-man-band approach was debilitating. Hypertension forced him off the air for part of 1944. “I’ve been on a salt-free diet so long,” he joked, “I can run my tongue over the Bible and tell which page Lot’s wife is on.”

His blood pressure was kept high by the prissiness of the admen and network executives who combed his scripts for objectionable lines. Double-entendres and even such mild expletives as “hell” were verboten. Allen was told to lay off prune jokes after California prune packers took offense, and he was denied use of a ham gag because the Hormel Meat Company bankrolled another show on the same network. He bridled at the frequent, obligatory pauses for station identification: “If they did that in the theaters, people would burn up. Imagine a man coming out every half-hour during Hamlet and saying to the audience, ‘This is the St. James Theatre on 44th Street. You are listening to Maurice Evans and Kathryn Locke. We return you now to the Gloomy Dane.’”

Allen took his mind off the exhaustion and indignities by nurturing a hope: that he might contribute, in some small way, to literature. He told a friend, “If I get chased off the air I will start writing and perhaps have peace of mind for the first time in 10 years.” All the same, he took pride in his radio writing, preserving his scripts—more than 700 in all—and excerpting them in his first book, a memoir of his radio career called Treadmill to Oblivion. He had nearly finished his autobiography when he died in 1956. His collected letters came out in 1965, and “All the Sincerity in Hollywood . . .”: Selections from the Writings of Radio’s Legendary Comedian Fred Allen appeared in 2001. Four volumes of coruscating prose—that ought to suffice for a modest literary legacy.

Just as silent movies flickered out after having reached new heights of artistry, so the last years of radio are thought to have been the best. Allen may not have been the most unbiased commentator on the death of radio narrative and comedy, but his lament is still poignant:

The radio listener saw nothing; he had to use his imagination. It was possible for each individual to enjoy the same program according to his . . . mental capacity. . . . With the high cost of living and the many problems facing him in the modern world, all the poor man had left was his imagination. Television has taken that away from him.

In truth, however, The Fred Allen Show was in trouble even before television caught on. By 1948 the show’s format had gone stale. Allen replaced Senator Claghorn and Ajax Cassidy with a couple of other characters, notably Sergei Stroganoff, music critic for Pravda, but they failed to resonate with listeners. New competition came from another network: Stop the Music, a quiz show in which host Bert Parks dialed a phone number at random while the orchestra played a pop tune. When someone answered the phone, Parks screamed, “Stop the music!” Correct identification of the aborted song could lead to as much as $30,000 in prize money. Listeners fell for the gimmick, and Allen’s audience began to drop off. He parodied the nuisance as “Cease the Melody” and promised to indemnify anyone who lost out because they’d been listening to him when a quiz-show emcee called, but the decline continued. Allen’s show went off the air for good on June 26, 1949.

By then television was well on its way from novelty (172,000 sets in use in 1948) to necessity (17 million sets in 1952). Not just radio networks but movie theaters, nightclubs, and restaurants were losing business to the upstart. In 1950, trying to recoup, NBC Radio launched The Big Show, a weekly 90-minute extravaganza emceed by Talullah Bankhead, with Allen as second banana. The two stars assaulted television head-on. “I’ve been dabbling in something,” Allen admitted, “which for want of a better name we shall call tee vee.” “Please, dahling,” Bankhead snarled, “people are eating!”

“Dabbling” was an understatement. Allen was all over the tube. He tried to import “Allen’s Alley,” first with live actors, then with puppets. Neither way clicked. He briefly joined the rotating hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour and a variety show called Sound-Off Time. He made multiple guest appearances, always on the lookout for a match between television and his proven talents.

One problem, as Allen knew well, was that he was not photogenic. “I had a face for radio,” he acknowledged, mindful of his sharp nose and eyes that narrowed at the sides and bagged underneath. One of his most-quoted lines had been inspired by a bassist of woeful countenance who played in the house band: “What would you charge to haunt a house?” As TV viewers could see for themselves, that crack could be returned to sender.

Then, too, Allen was a sick man. In the fall of 1952, he was slated to host a TV game show called Two for the Money, a gig that might have showcased his quick wit, much as You Bet Your Life was doing for his friend Groucho Marx. But Allen suffered a heart attack and had to cancel. He recovered to be a panelist on What’s My Line?, a charming game show whose value Allen recognized. “I am on What’s My Line? to keep alive artistically,” he told a friend, “and to enable me to have the entire week to write.” On the night of March 17, 1956, after working on his autobiography, he went out for a walk, collapsed on a sidewalk across the street from Carnegie Hall, and died.

Allen’s aspirations conflicted with the limited imagination of early network television honchos. While they were still figuring out how to package real news programs, lampooning the news was not in their repertoire. The American public had to wait 15 years for the TV debut of news-based satire, a short-lived 1964 borrowing from British television called That Was the Week That Was. Another decade went by before the “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live finally scored. And neither of these formats was quite what Allen had in mind: fooling around with the reported antics of eccentric Americans. (Chuck Shepherd’s “News of the Weird” column, found in many urban weeklies, comes closer to the mark, as do segments of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.) He was too far ahead of his time, as well as too ill, to mount a strong assault on the conventions of broadcast television.

The radio era was surprisingly short-lived: only two decades elapsed between the network debut of Amos ’n’ Andy in August 1929 and Allen’s last sign-off. And the medium has been ill served by modern repackaging. Classic comic strips are being reissued in book form and episodes of TV series are available on dvd, but vintage radio shows are hard to find. It takes determination—or good eBay nerves—to track down Fred Allen.

His fall into obscurity probably wouldn’t surprise him. He aimed his satire at everything the censors would allow, including radio itself, which he may have sensed would let him down in the end. Early on, his curmudgeonly New Englander Titus Moody had dismissed the whole idea of the medium with a tart one-liner: “I don’t hold with furniture that talks.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World and the author of Mile-High Fever, a history of the Comstock Lode silver rush.


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