Forgetting Fred Allen

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Back in the days when radio ruled the airways among discerning listeners, one man was king. Fred Allen is forgotten today, but for two decades his comedy show set the standard for the best of American humor. His combination of satire, puns and topical comedy influenced what shows such as "Second City" and "Saturday Night Live" sought to do. 

Allen was born John Florence Sullivan into a typical Irish Catholic family in Boston in 1894. He took the name Fred Allen in the 1920s when he entered show business but remained the typical dry New England Yankee. Like other comedians, Allen suffered family tragedies as a young man. His mother died when he was three and he and his father went to live with one of her sisters. 

Allen drifted into show business through vaudeville, which in the first quarter of the 20th  century included a number of successful Irish American entertainers: Nora Bayles, Gallagher of Gallagher and Shean and of course, George M. Cohan.  Allen did a juggling act which included comic comments on his skills, making a good living. He was never a top-of-the-bill performer but he did play the Palace. He was a popular monologist who made fun of his own foibles, labeling his act as “The World’s Worst Juggler.”  He wrote his own material, a practice that he would continue for the rest of his career.

Allen traveled throughout the United States and even spent 11 months in 1916 touring Australia. In the 1920s, he made the transition to Broadway and appeared in a number of successful revues, where he honed his sharp observations on the days. He also met his wife, Portland Hoffa, while working on Broadway. When told to drop her from the act, Allen’s reaction was simple: if you didn’t want Mrs. Allen, you wouldn’t get Mr. Allen either.  

Allen went into radio in 1932, doing a sketch act that was a mixture of music, comedy, and cerebral commentary from Allen. The show was a surprise success. For two decades, he was one of the most successful performers during radio’s Golden Age.

It took Allen awhile to develop the format that made him famous: a combination of music,  topical humor and a performance by the “Mighty Allen Art Players,” a concept copied by Johnny Carson for his late night show. In 1936, Allen joked about Jack Benny’s violin playing which launched radio’s greatest feud. It went on for over a decade, with both parties ridiculing each other on the air even though they were good friends. They appeared on each other’s shows with Allen peppering Benny with barbs about his cheapness and violin playing. Benny always gave Allen the best jibes. A typical exchange: “You couldn’t ad-lib a belch after a “Hungarian dinner.” “You wouldn’t say that about me if I had my writers here,” was a typical Benny retort.

Allen had one of the most popular shows on radio and he attracted major sponsors: Ipana toothpaste, Texaco, Ford. Allen wrote most of the show, but he now had writers helping him, among them Herman Wouk who would later become a popular novelist. Wouk labeled Allen “one of the most honorable men I ever met,” and “the best comic writer radio ever developed.” This sentiment was shared by Allen’s peers. Edgar Bergen, then at the height of his popularity with his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, described Allen as radio’s “greatest living comedian.” John Steinbeck compared him to Mark Twain, calling Allen “the best humorist of our time.” Even President Roosevelt was said to have listened to his show.

On his earlier shows, Allen had always included a segment that enabled him to lampoon the day’s events similar to what Will Rogers had done in vaudeville.  In December 1942 he introduced one of the most innovative comedic concepts in radio’s history and the best remembered part of his show: Allen’s Alley. Portland Hoffa would prompt Allen about what question he would ask the denizens of his Alley — it could be something simple such as the price of sugar, or serious, like how General Eisenhower was doing. He and Portland would then start down the street. Knocking on the door gave Allen a chance to introduce each character. 

One of the first successful characters he created was the awful poet, Falstaff Openshaw, played by the well-known character actor, Alan Reed, later the voice of Fred Flintstone on television.

“The rancid Rabelais is yours to command,” and then launch into one of his rhymes: “She was only the Ashman’s Daughter, that why she was down in the dumps.” “Those aren’t spots on the sugar, mother, you are putting your dice in your tea.” After Reed left the show, he was replaced by the comedian Peter Donald playing an irascible Irishman, Ajax Cassidy. Donald’s act consisted of typical stage Irish dialect routines about his friends down at the local pub. 

The two most popular of the residents on Allen’s Alley were Mrs. Pansy Nussbaum played by Minerva Pious in a stage Jewish dialect and Senator Claghorn voiced by announcer Kenny Delmar in an over-the-top Southern drawl. Pious’ Nussbaum always greeted Allen with wise crack: “You were expecting, Cecil B. Schlemil.”  The Nussbaum segment always included remarks about her worthless husband, Pierre, who was never heard and was usually at the racetrack, either “Epstein Downs” or “Hia-Levy.” She told Allen how she won him: “I am washing everything in Lux. I am brushing with Pepsodent the teeth. I am taking by Arthur Murray dancing lessons. I am also learning magic tricks and using Mum.”

By far the most popular character in the Alley was Senator Beauregard Claghorn who became famous overnight with his favorite sayings: “That’s a joke, son,” and “Pay attention, boy.” Claghorn was so Southern that he only drank from Dixie cups, refused to use the Lincoln Tunnel and wouldn’t attend Yankee games. The Claghorn character became so popular that it was recreated as “Foghorn Leghorn,” a big rooster for Warner Brothers children’s cartoon, although Delmar never voiced the part.

The last resident of Allen’s Alley was Titus Moody played by Parker Fennelly as a typical dry Yankee who greeted Allen with a cheery, “howdy bub.” The Moody character got the fewest laughs but Allen predicted that he would outlive all the residents of the Alley because the character wasn’t over the top.  He was right. Fennelly spent twenty years on television as the spokesman for Pepperidge Farms products.

All of the characters that Allen developed for his Alley segment were done with affection and given the best lines. Such an act couldn’t be done today given our ethnic sensitivities. It might be possible to get away with the Jewish humor of Mrs. Nussbaum but Claghorn, the stereotypical Southerner, would not be tolerated today. We have lost our sense of humor it seems.

In 1948, Allen had the top rated show on radio but his reign didn’t last long. The first of the big radio giveaways "Stop the Music" began that year that soon knocked Allen off his perch. His show began a decline that was intensified by his poor health and the rise of the one form of entertainment that Allen failed to conquer, television.

Many of radio’s successful shows made the transition to television in the early 1950s: Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Ozzie and Harriet among them.  Allen didn’t believe that his radio format would work on television and he didn’t enjoy the hectic nature of early live television. He told a friend he wasn’t able “to relax on a television stage with all those technicians with earphones wandering back and forth while I’m trying to tell a joke.” A certain bitterness crept in to his comments about television. His verbal humor didn’t serve him well as he found out earlier when he tried that other visual art form, the movies.

Allen described television as a medium “because anything well done is rare.” Attempts were made to come up with a format to suit his unique skills, something like a quiz show like Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life,” which would take advantage of his ability to ad lib. Nothing worked out. He had a heart attack in 1952 and seemed to have lost his drive. He spent his time as a guest on other shows, gave speeches, and in 1954 produced a memoir of his career in radio, with a typical Allen title, Treadmill to Oblivion. It was a best seller and was filled with sketches from some of his best shows. He was working on an account of his days in vaudeville and Broadway, Much Ado About Me before he died. It was completed by his wife.  

For the last two years of his life, he served as one of the panelists on the highly popular “What’s My Line” show which returned him to the spotlight and which he appeared to enjoy. Allen died on St. Patrick’s Day in 1956 and like the radio of his heyday was quickly forgotten.  Fortunately today some of his best work has been preserved on You Tube. 

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