Satirists poke us with ideas. “Wealth is cheese in the rat race of life,” said Fred Allen. He also said a nymph is a wet pixie and no one fails, only gives up trying.
Satirists are curious. They want to know if we find the truth, hidden in their comments, on our own. I drink, said Groucho, to make other people interesting. Do our eyes go blank, ever so briefly, before a knowing flash appears? She who hesitates is a fool, said Mae West.
Satirists mostly find their curiosity dashed. Empty eyes in blank faces gawk, hopelessly. We laugh, instinctively, though the point is missed. This annoyed Bill Hicks to no end. Emotions are more easily stirred than is the mind. A guffaw evokes more quickly than does a thought. Satirists continue to poke, ever hopeful.
Satire works best when written. It endures when written, as in stone. You can carry an item of written satire wherever you go, if not written on too large a stone. “Better,” G. Bernard Shaw said, “is never late.” “A tavern,” Jonathan Swift said, “is a place where madness is sold by the bottle.” Durable and handy, the written form offers more chances to learn from satire, over time.
Verbal satire has a limited range: as far as you can yell. Radio lets us yell louder and farther. A few verbal satirists, such as Henry Morgan, snuck on to radio, as sponsors, their agencies and networks, were distracted as they tallied the profits.
Fred Allen is the most notable radio satirist. His pinched nasal voice carried far, with much effect. Edgar Bergen, a top radio star, said Allen “exposes and ridicules the pretensions of his times.” John Steinbeck, the author, said Allen was “a brilliant critic of manners and morals.” Jack Benny, a private friend and public foe, said Allen ad libbed, satirically, better than did anyone, on or off radio.
Allen was a listener favourite, too. Each week, for 17 years, he poked 30 million adults with ideas. Mostly in the top ten, “The Fred Allen Show” was number-one for the 1947 season.
The week of 7 April 1947, the cover of “Time” featured Fred Allen. “Time” was the leading news magazine. The cover picture was a coup. One hundred million adult Americans saw his face, each day, looking up and out from the newsstand stacks, as they passed.
His satire comes in “an angry, big-city clank, a splashy neon idiom,” claimed an unnamed writer for “Time.” Allen shares his wit and style with other Irish satirists, such as G. Bernard Shaw and Jonathan Swift. He, as did they, deals in “fiercely topical satire.”
Allen fell to the bottom of the ratings, in 1948. Radio was fast losing its audience to television. His shtick wore thin. ABC Radio aired a big-money give-away show against him. Times were changing.
NBC offered to air the Allen show at a worthy time. Allen declined. His blood pressure was higher than his ratings, he said; the question was, which would survive, the show or him. Combined affects ended his radio career on 26 June 1949, but he survived, as his undertaker confirmed.
Radio satirists fade, quickly. Allen yearned for success as a writer of satire for the eye, not the ear. After radio, he wrote two books: both were best sellers.
Satire draws attention to lessons hidden in current events. “The recent financial crisis,” says Leroy Jones, a retired literary agent, “helped me get back on my feet. The car was repossessed.” The example offers simple lessons. Don’t take on too much debt. Don’t trust big companies. Don’t trust government. Don’t believe the media. Be ever wary. Corny, yes, but laughter and lessons, fortunately, ride on the back of a disaster.
Satire, to rephrase Allen, has the life span of a short-lived butterfly. The enemy is detail. “It’s so hot in southern California,” says David Letterman, “Sarah Palin was happy to get a chilly welcome on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’” A few years from now, any mention of Palin may lead to a yawn and few will recall the television show.
Details change, but core ideas stay the same, such as the heat in southern California or financial crises. What we need to know or be reminded about are the outcomes of core ideas. Voters, said many a wit, get the elected officials they deserve.
Few know of Fred Allen, today: time changed the details, but not his core idea. His core idea, that big business erases freedom, prevails. Workers understand this idea, well, and will in 100 years.
In the 1930s and 1940s, sponsors, their agencies and radio networks censored the satire of Fred Allen. Box stores, today, censor a community. Such stores ruin small, local businesses; exist as a monopoly, pay only the barest wage and not much tax on their huge profits.
Allen as, say, Bill Hicks, would understand the box-store plague: it urges complacency. They'd know how to respond. Allen and all satirists speak out about such plagues, often and loud.
Fred Allen made Stuart Hample, a comedy writer, laugh. That was enough reason for Hample to write a book about him. Allen made millions of women and men think; this is more than enough reason to make sure he doesn’t fade away.
There was great hope and little expectation at the birth of John Florence Sullivan, the future Fred Allen (above), on Thursday 31 May 1894. His father, James Henry was a bookbinder at the Boston Public Library. His mother, Cecilia Herlihy, passed away in February 1897; Allen was two years old and his brother, Robert, was an infant.
His names, John Florence, came from his grandfathers. John Herlihy came from Ireland to Boston, in 1850. Florence Sullivan arrived in 1852. His middle name was common, at the time; pronounced, “Fineen,” it meant “fair offspring,” says Taylor.
After Cecilia passed, Henry Sullivan and the boys, John and Robert, went to live with a maternal aunt, Elizabeth. Aunt Lizzie, as Allen called her, took care of her disabled husband, Mike Lovely. She kept house for her two sisters and one brother, too. Aunt Lizzie was a stalwart role model, never complaining, likely stoic, always finding a way to survive.
“I didn’t remember my mother at all,” said Allen. “Even when I tried, I couldn’t remember what she looked like. To me, it seemed Aunt Lizzie had always been my mother.
“My father was a stranger,” said Allen. In an early draft of his autobiography, “Much Ado about Me,” Taylor says Allen wrote that, “Being my father was a hobby. He went all through life binding books and trying to make ends meet.”
“I had the impression Allen was an only child,” says Martin Gostanian (above), the media historian. “The surface facts are that he wasn’t. Yet, he was motherless, in a large sense. He was rejected by an alcoholic parent, who didn’t seem to know how to father. He doesn’t seem close to his brother. Allen was an only child, of a sort. His style seems that of an only child.
“His work, as an adult, is determined, but little swayed by others. Sponsors, their agencies and NBC or CBS, his radio networks, wanted comedy that attracted a large audience. Allen delivered, but mostly on his own terms.
“Common belief is his tendencies result from a doted-on or a severely neglected childhood. From what we know of his time in vaudeville, especially the year he spent in Australia, Allen seemed happy on his own. He was able to immerse himself in reading, writing or rehearsing. He could be alone without being lonely.
“Only children learn to fend for themselves. In his radio days, Allen dealt directly with sponsors, their agencies and the networks. He said lawyers were for cowards,” says Gostanian.
“Allen was selective about whom he befriended. He had friends and he had friends. He willingly supported an army of mendicants, street beggars and retired vaudevillians. Then he had intellectual friends, such as Oscar Levant, Robert Benchley and James Thurber.
“From what we know of Allen, he learned not to be lonely when alone. Long travel time between vaudeville dates allowed him think and read. What we see and hear in his work flows from intellectual development and discipline.”
Allen had a surprise gift for his fourteenth birthday. “His father got him a job at the Boston Public Library,” says Gostanian. “After an examination, of some sort, he began working, on Thursday 3 September 1908, from 6 pm to 9 pm as a runner, in Bates Hall, the main reading room.”
Libraries weren’t self-serve in 1908. A reader would ask for a book. A stack boy, only boys did such work at the time, found the book, on an upper floor, and lowered it, in a wire basket, to a runner. The runner delivered the book to the reader.
“The runner’s qualifications presented no problem,” said Allen. “All I needed was a sense of direction and enough wind to last me through the night. There was no school, during the summer, and I only had to work at night.” This left plenty of time for baseball and swimming as well as money to see vaudeville shows.
How quaint is that and wonderful. “Isn’t it,” says Gostanian. “Allen worked Tuesdays and Thursdays, while attending the Boston High School of Commerce. I think he made twenty cents an hour, sixty cents an evening, $1.20 a week, often picking up an extra evening or two. If he took the streetcar, it was five cents each way, from home and back, shrinking his pay to fifty cents a night.”
Sometimes after work, hunger overcame him. “He’d stop at the Waldorf Lunch,” says Gostanian, “for a Trilby and a glass of milk. The meal cost a dime. Then he’d walk home, saving the cost of the trolley.”
What’s a Trilby? “There are many versions of the Trilby sandwich,” says Gostanian.” For much of New England, a Trilby is diced ham, mixed with onions, on a large bun. In 1908 Boston, it was a fried egg on a large bun, topped with a huge slice of onion and smothered in ketchup.”
The sandwich sounds scrumptious. “Well, maybe; it’s a matter of taste, I guess. The cost was likely more influential than the cuisine.”
The Boston Public Library wasn’t always busy. Allen used the down time to develop a love of books and writing. Years later, when he was alone on the vaudeville circuit, in Australia, he filled time reading Dickens, Twain, Shakespeare, Eli Perkins, Josh Billings and others.
“I’m sure,” says Gostanian, “Allen appreciated the work of Voltaire as well as Robert Lay or any of the other great writers. I sense him drawn to the French. I think French literature matched his dry wit, ironic sense of humour and satirical approach or, at least, encouraged it.”
“I think,” says Leroy Jones, the retired publishing agent, “you can see Allen juggling books as he’s juggling ideas at the Boston Public Library. During this time, Allen surely read Artemus Ward, Bill Nye and others who wrote about humour. You can hear the influence.”
Allen discovered “Punch,” “Tit-bits,” “London Opinion,” and other English humour magazines, while in Australia. “I bought every joke book I could find in the different cities,” says Allen. “I started a collection of jokes and stories that I thought were funny.”
“His flare is purely American,” says Gostanian. “His main interest is how to tell a story, the characters and context. You can also see this style in Abbott and Costello, Milton Berle and Flip Wilson, among many others. Allen often used hillbilly or ethnic characters. One Long Pan, a Chinese detective, solved unusual crimes.”
The content, of a story, claimed Mark Twain, was the main concern of the British and French. “These influences led Allen to cleaver stories and satire,” says Gostanian. “One Long Pan puzzled over a murder in a radio studio. He discovered two bullet holes. Witnesses heard a single shot. Pan reckoned the murderer fired from inside the soundproof control booth and left the room so fast, the sound of only one shot escaped. Opening the control room door, he heard the second shot and solved the crime.
“I know there’s not enough nearly written on Allen or at least not in the mainstream for us to view him, fully, as a wit, in a serious sense. Still, he stands alongside Mark Twain. Allen, as did Twain, fit his time. His literacy, in a time of much semi-illiteracy, provided material for top-quality adlibs.”
Allen tested his expanding literary interest for comedy, in a school assignment. He took a course in how to sell, with a teacher who urged humour in selling and thought himself a wit. The teacher, likely envious, didn’t care for the talk by Allen.
“I prepared my talk,” said Allen. “The class received the story of kings and their jesters very well, but the teacher lit into me: ‘there was a time and place for everything. The schoolroom was no place to discuss comedy.’”
In 1910, the Library began staying open until 10 pm and Allen, for Sundays only, became head of the room dedicated to children. His pay increased to $3.50 a week, which was good for a 16-year-old, at the time. His new wealth allowed him to attend more afternoon vaudeville shows.
Lobby Shot, left; Allen with a ventriloquist dummy he bought in San Francisco, on his way to Australia, in 1915.
“Allen liked juggling acts,” says Martin Gostanian. “If a routine struck him as unusual or difficult, he tried to duplicate it. He especially liked jugglers who joked or added a monologue to their act.”
In 1911, Allen graduate from high school and gave his first stage performance as a juggler. The Library staff held a talent show. He agreed to perform. He thought he might be a hit, given most everyone was singing or dancing.
“As the show date grew near,” said Allen, “I became panicky. I had no act. I arranged a few tricks using tennis balls, plates, cigar boxes and silk hats. I even memorized a few jokes. For example, ‘I had a dream last night. I dreamed I was eating flannel cakes. When I woke up the blanket was half gone.’
He devised a brief monologue, too. “What’s that, Mrs. Tiller? You won’t be with us tonight. Oh, the still exploded; blew you and your husband out into the street. What’s that? It’s the first time you’ve been out together in ten years.
“You think your husband is suffering from shock, Mrs. Tiller. Why, what’s he doing? Oh, he’s running up and down the streets in his union suit. Tell him to be very careful, Mrs. Tiller. Summer is over, winter draws on.” *
“The first Allen monologue calls for a bit of perspective,” says Leroy Jones. “A union suit, also known as Long Johns, is underwear first sold after the American Civil War. Its one-piece runs from shoulder to ankle, buttoned from neck to crotch, with a flap in the back. The flap is a constant source of minor toilet humour. A colloquial name for a union suit is drawers, as in a desk drawer. Add a New England accent and drawers become draws.”
Allen was the hit of the Library talent show. His comic flips added much to the juggling. Between the lines of what Allen wrote about his first show, it seems he thought the audience more enamoured by his verbal juggling than his juggling of cigar boxes and silk hats.
After the Library show, a throng of admirers encircled him. An anonymous young woman said, “You’re crazy to keep working here at the library. You ought to go on the stage.”
“I often wonder who that girl was,” said Allen. “If she had only kept her mouth shut, today I might be the librarian of the Boston Public Library.” Still, this was the trigger.
“The anonymous urging drove Allen to develop a routine,” says Gostanian.” I don’t think he was optimistic about a career, at that point. The comment stuck, as a challenge, of sorts, for a young boy.”
Allen liked Amateur Night shows; he attended many. The comment, by the anonymous young women lingered. He decided to give it a go, thinking it might be fun.
Every neighbourhood vaudeville house, in New England, had an Amateur Night. The shows were hugely popular and inexpensive to present. Allen thought the audiences encouraging or sympathetic.
If the local talent pool ran dry, Sam Cohen, a Boston-based promoter, stepped in to help. For a price, he supplied an Amateur Night. Cohen emceed, presenting singers, dancers and whatever acts he could find. At the end of the amateur show, the acts lined up on the stage; audience applause ostensibly decided the winner.
It was a sham, of course. Cohen pocketed the advertised $25 in prizes. He paid singers and dancers fifty cents a show; “There were so many of them,” said Allen. Less common acts, such as jugglers, earned a dollar a show.
According to Allen, after his first Amateur Night, the manager of the vaudeville house said to Cohen, “That juggler, the audience couldn’t hear what he was talking about. Bring him back next week. Tell him to talk louder.”
“The next day,” says Allen, “Cohen told me he liked my act and he could use a juggle every night,” said Allen. “I reasoned the rational economics involved. Why work all night at the stuffy library for sixty cents when I could have a lot of fun and excitement at Amateur Nights and earn one dollar?”
After a few months of relentless practice and Amateur Night shows, Cohen booked Allen into the Columbia Theatre. “This was the top Amateur Night in Boston,” says Gostanian, “with the most acts and biggest audience.” Allen was a hit.
Cohen booked many Amateur Nights and assigned trustworthy “boys” to emcee and collect his money, when he couldn’t attend. After a few months, Allen was a Cohen emcee, making two dollars a night. While emceeing, Allen met Harry LaToy (“la-twa”).
A tramp juggler, LaToy, in his middle thirties, was a vaudeville veteran. He worked amateur shows when short of money or bookings, which was most always. His act was typical and Allen saw him perform, often.
In 1912, many minor vaudeville jugglers dressed as tramps. They lit matches on sandpaper beards and wore layers of clothing. An extra vest was the reason a trick went wrong. Discarding it gave the juggler a second chance. These vaudeville tramps juggled Indian clubs or plates, sometimes while talking about this or that, or blew a feather into the air, letting it fall, gently, to rest on their nose.
Born Harry Shepard, he took the stage name, LaToy, because it sounded like LaCroix (“la-crwa”). Paul LaCroix was a top vaudeville juggler; he devised the Dancing Hats routine, which jugglers still use. LaToy stole the routine, but returned homage, with a like sounding name.
In a way, LaToy tutored Allen. He taught him new tricks and told him where to buy inexpensive props. For a time, Allen idolized LaToy.
They often talked about big-name jugglers. LaToy had not roamed. He was a “coast act.” His bookings were mostly in Boston and its suburbs.
LaToy was a voracious reader of vaudeville trade papers, such as “Billboard” and “Variety.” This is where he found out about big-name acts. This is how LaToy impressed Allen.
“As I spent more time with my idol,” said Allen, “I realized that among his multiple shortcomings he was allergic to spending. I bought all the meals and spent any money spent when we were together. LaToy had short arms and he carried his money low in his pockets. He taught me a few juggling tricks, but he was well paid.”
“LaToy took whatever bookings came his way,” says Gostanian. “Sometimes he had paid bookings, in full-fledged vaudeville theatres. Other times, he worked amateur shows for much less money. Thus, LaToy worked under various names.
“During a three-week booking on the Keith Circuit around Boston, LaToy found a spot on a Professional Tryout, for $5. This appearance on an amateur show he wangled using the name Paul Huckle. For the night of the Tryout, LaToy was double booked.
“As well, if the Keith Office discovered he worked an amateur show, while on their circuit, it would fire him and refuse him further bookings. LaToy offered Allen the Tryout, only if Allen used the name Paul Huckle. Allen got two of the five dollars, thus doubling his usual fee as a juggler.”
Allen was a hit as Paul Huckle. B. F. Keith wanted to book Paul Huckle in all its theatres throughout New England. Compromised, LaToy devised a wobbly cover story: Paul Huckle was Fred St. James, a star of the big vaudeville circuit west of Chicago. In Boston on a visit, the Tryout was a lark, so his relatives could see his act.
“LaToy convinced Allen to go along,” says Gostanian. “A photographer friend of LaToy took Lobby Shots of Allen. Theatres posted Lobby Shots to promote current and coming acts. Every paid act, in vaudeville, used Lobby Shots; it was expected.
“Allen and LaToy had their stories straight. The ruse worked. Ten days later, Allen, as Fred St. James, opened for a week at the Scenic Temple, in East Boston.”
The name, Freddy St. James, suited Allen. “The name, he thought, fit his goal of being a bit different, maybe a bit eccentric,” says Gostanian. “Allen thought the new name promised fractured juggling with a humorous monologue. He used St. James for almost ten years.
“In 1913,” says media historian, Martin Gostanian, “Allen saw the juggler, Griff, at the Academy of Music, in Boston. Griff, from England, awed Allen. His juggling was plainly easy, but the comedy was subtle. Audiences liked Griff more as a storyteller than as a juggler, even if his punch lines were sometimes lost on them. Here’s the American preference for character over content.
“Griff parodied a tightrope walker; he juggled on a high wire, which lay, limp, on the stage. He mimicked a ventriloquist. He sat a dummy on his knee and, while drinking a glass of water, pretending to sing. Someone off-stage did the singing. Griff flubbed easy juggling tricks. He’d say, ‘I did that one, last night, without fault. You should have been here.’”
"Misses" refers to juggling tricks
not done correctly for humorour purposes.
After seeing Griff, Allen turned to comedy monologue. “The laughter beguiled him,” says Gostanian. Griff succeed by talking, not by juggling. Allen already used prattle, mostly to defray tension. Practiced talk would become his focus. At one point, Allen used photographs of former US Presidents to evoke applause (above).
“Allen now studied comedians more than he did jugglers. Harry Norton agreed to give his new act three nights, upstairs, at Winthrop Hall. Billing himself as, ‘Freddy James, Almost a Juggler,’ Allen was a hit.
“Mike Lydon owned a string of theatres in South Boston. Noting the success Allen had at Winthrop Hall, Lydon booked Allen as Freddy James into each of his theatres. Again, Allen was a hit, with steady work, at least for a time.”
Boston agents thus discovered Freddy James. In early 1914, Allen had regular bookings in Boston and its suburbs. He appeared all over New England and in Nova Scotia, too.” At twenty years old, he was not a coast act, but a roamer.
Vaudeville theatres closed for the summer. Cost-effective air-conditioning was forty years away. Allen worked amusement parks during July and early August.
“When his summer bookings ended for 1914,” Gostanian says, “Allen exhausted his Boston-area booking potential. It was time to move on or get out of show business. He might wait a few months, work on his act, change his name and try his luck locally, again. This would make him a version of LaToy, a coast act. Allen wisely decided to move on, to try his luck in New York City, the hub of vaudeville.
“When Allen decided to move to New York City, he had $100 saved. Forty dollars he took with him. The $60 he banked, with his friend, John Murphy, as cosigner.
“His plan was simple. When the $40 was gone, Allen would wire Murphy for travel money back to Boston. He’d retire from vaudeville and have a small nest egg, so he could help Aunt Lizzie, while he searched for another way to make his fortune.”
After a show at the Princess Theatre, in Wakefield, MA, Allen took the train to Fall River and the overnight boat to New York City. On Friday 18 September 1914, Freddy James, “Almost a Juggler,” arrived.
Although there were many down periods, New York City was mostly ups for Allen. His successes lead to bookings in Chicago, where Benjamin Fuller, owner of a vaudeville circuit in Australia, saw him. Allen spent 1916 in Australia, as Freddy James, “World’s Worst Juggler.”
Back in the USA, in 1917, Allen was as good as a new act. A year away from US vaudeville was a long time, since all it took was a name change to rework the theatre circuits. Allen now had a more polished act, with a global flare that bookers exploited.
The stage name, Fred Allen, came about in 1919. “Vaudeville booking agencies were competitive,” says Martin Gostanian. “If Fox booked an act into one of its theatres, Keith blacklisted the act. This was policy at every agency and acts changed name, often, even from town to town or in a large city, to avoid the blacklists.
“Mark Leddy promoted Allen. He wanted top agents, Claude and Gordon Bostock, to see the new “World’s Worst Juggler” act. Leddy got Allen a booking at a Fox theatre called, “The City.” A Keith theatre was nearby, kitty-corner, in a way; close enough to cause concern. To avoid blacklisting Freddy James, Edgar Allen, who managed “The City,” changed Freddy James to Fred Allen for this short run.
“Edgar Allen had generously given me half of his name,” Fred Allen said. “I have been Fred Allen since then. This upset one person. A Boston politician, Francis X. Coyne, tried to pass a bill compelling actors playing in Massachusetts to bill themselves under their true names.”
Coyne likely spoke for innkeepers and businesses that serviced vaudeville. Many entertainers left town without paying for lodging, food and so forth. The actors might not return for a year or more. They often came back using a different name. Bill collection was difficult. Coyne wanted to make it easier.
“Fred Allen was a noteworthy vaudeville performer,” says Martin Gostanian. “He mockingly billed himself as, ‘The World’s Worst Juggler,” and pattern himself, but didn’t copy W. C. Fields.
“As early as 1910, Allen saw Fields perform and admired him. Fields was close to what Allen hoped to achieve. Allen had this goal before he saw Fields. Seeing Fields likely gave Allen a sense of form and confidence.
“Originally, Fields worked as a tramp juggler. His physical and verbal dexterity were exceptional. While juggling ten cigar boxes and balancing a pool cue on the arch of his right foot, Fields delivered a non-stop and sneering monologue.
“His range of tricks expanded quickly,” says Gostanian. “Fields soon dropped the tramp persona. He became “The Eccentric Juggler,” with a distracted, seemingly mumbled monologue, but everyone could hear him, well.
“By 1915, Fields is most famous for the ‘Pool Shark.’ This skit involved mumbling a cutting monologue as he played a game of pool, with a severely bent cue. Fields performed the “Pool Shark” in the 1934 movie, ‘Six of a Kind.’
“Fields was well-read, as was Allen. From his love of classic literature, Fields created a deft monologue, which was subtle. The humour of W. C. Fields blended a literary deftness with language and street smarts: verbal cunning, wry, dry and risqué.
“The result was a wide appeal for Fields. The well-read, astute and perceptive audience enjoyed him, most. For the lower-brow audience, Fields opened a wider world for them or, at least, gave them the impression this is what he did.”
“This approach,” says Gostanian, “influenced Allen. Inspired by Fields, Allen wanted to build on that basic idea and create a unique act. In vaudeville and on Broadway, Fields balanced juggling and comedy. Allen now billed himself, mockingly, as the “World’s Worst Juggler,” stressing comedy more than juggling.
“Juggling, for Fields and Allen, was a comedy tool,” says Gostanian. “Allen was urbane; Fields succeeded as an intelligent, lovable and streetwise zhlub. Fields said, ‘You can’t cheat an honest man.’ A poetic and prophetic, it was less wry and cynical than expected of Fields. Still, it's true satire, nonetheless.”
Allen put a personal, stylish, middle-class scorn on his comedy. “During the days of Samuel Johnson,” said Allen, “big men enjoyed small talk. Today, small men enjoy big talk.” He ferally badgered the “Molehill Men,” who interfered with the content of his radio show. Every worker understood the Allen monologue, if subconsciously.
“Uncle Jim” Harkins was a long-time friend of Allen. They worked together in vaudeville and Harkins was the troubleshooter on all the Allen radio shows. He said Allen lost many vaudeville bookings because he talked over the heads of the audience.
“I’m not surprised to hear that comment,” says Gostanian. “Allen made audiences work for the laugh and his implicit message. A satirist, not a jokester,” Allen said American is tacit injustice; starvation, not sin, is the parent of crime.
Fired, after his first show at the famed at the Palace Theatre, in New York City, the Allen satire may be at fault. The Palace was the top vaudeville theatre in the USA, its gold standard. Other theatres booked “Palace Acts,” sight unseen.” Playing the Palace was money in the bank, for months afterwards.
The same awed tones usually go with talk of the Winter Garden Theatre as well as the Palace. “The Winter Garden has its charm and mystic,” says Gostanian, “but the Palace was more impressive. Burt Williams broke the colour barrier, at the top of vaudeville, by headlining the Palace. I don’t think headlining the Winter Garden would have broken the colour barrier or not as easily.”
Williams did a snappy dance and joke act. A smooth and slick dancer, his monologues were worldly, wise and sly. His talent helped him to avoid many ethnic indignities.
In 1916, Williams starred in a film short, “Natural-Born Gambler.” Film shorts were all the rage in pre-war America. “Gambler” was the first film to use a Black supporting cast.
“When Allen played the Palace,” says Gostanian, “the manager fired him after the early show. The highbrow material, his satire, didn't work for the audience, said the stage manager. The audience enjoyed his act, said Allen, but he got the boot. His material didn’t work for the stage manager.”
The unceremonious firing from the Palace eventually opened the door for Allen on Broadway. “The day after playing the Palace,” says Gostanian, “Allen almost headlined at the Proctor Theatre, in Troy, New York. For the next few months, he toured the Pantages circuit, doing four-to-six shows a day, often seven days a week. Finally, after almost a year on the Loew circuit, Allen agreed to help write ‘Frank Fay’s Fables,’ a Broadway revue.”
Frank Fay (above) was a comedian, popular in the New York City area. His style was light humour, which is most difficult. His material was always tops; he hired the best and freshest writers. After seeing Allen, at the Colonial Theatre, Fay wanted him to work on “Fables,” scheduled for fall 1921 opening.
Jimmy Duffy and Allen wrote the revue. Rehearsals went well, but the show didn’t open because the financiers pulled out. Fay hadn’t lined up reliable backers or made a strong enough case for the potential success of his show.
Allen returned to vaudeville for a time. He worked the Shubert circuit for $400 a week, his highest salary, to that point. He also learned new skills.
The Shuberts assigned Allen to “Snapshots.” This was a condensed and touring version of the Broadway show. Allen learned how to write and work another medium, theatre, and met Richard Rogers.
When “Snapshots” ended its run, Allen joined the Nora Bayes tour. Bayes was the most popular woman entertainer at the turn of the twentieth century. Her recording of “Over There,” composed by George M. Cohan, was the anthem for US soldiers during the First World War. Bayes co-wrote, “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” with then-husband Jack Norworth and was the subject of a biopic, of the same name, in 1944. This was the top of heap, for Allen.
“Shubert vaudeville,” said Allen, “enabled J. J. Shubert to see my act several times. One day, Mark Leddy, my agent, called to tell me we had an appointment with J. J. Shubert. The following day, as the door of Shubert’s office closed, Mark said, ‘Congratulations! You are finished with vaudeville for a while.’” Allen worked Broadway for the next decade, save for the season he toured vaudeville, as Yorke and Allen.
Broadway kept Allen off the road. “Touring vaudeville theatres,” Martin Gostanian says, “took a heavy a toll on Allen. Vaudeville tours involved travelling every week, twice in a split week, whereas a Broadway show settled into a theatre for a few weeks or months. The repetitiveness, of vaudeville, doing the same jokes twenty or more times a week, bored Allen; Broadway offered a new challenge.”
Shubert hired Allen to work the Winter Garden as part of “The Passing Show of 1922.” Harold Atteridge wrote all the Shubert shows, which kept him busy. Allen said Atteridge was an octopus in a revolving door.
Hired as an actor for the “Passing Show,” Allen wrote his own material, as Atteridge was too busy. During a monologue, Allen held a coat hanger. At the end of the monologue, he said he was off to court, where hoped to win a suit. Later in the show, he did an “in one,” while holding a feedbag; he said he was dating a young woman who ate like a horse.
“This is corny material,” says Gostanian, “with long-lost referents, today, but not in 1922. George White’s ‘Scandals,’ the top annual revue, of the time, was only a little less corny. As an aside, W. C. Fields was in ‘Scandals’ the same season Allen was in the ‘Passing Show,’ 1922.
“‘Passing’ opened in Atlantic City on Labour Day. The curtain went up for the first act at 8:30 pm; the final curtain came down at 3:30 am. It was a nightmare.
“Allen camped out on a stool, stage right, during the first show. Whenever anything went wrong, he ran on stage to cover. He covered for mishaps eighteen times during the show, that is, once or twice an hour.”
This show featured the cemetery curtain. “Allen came up with a novel idea,” says Gostanian, “based on an old theme, ‘The Old Joke Cemetery (below).’ On a curtain, he painted a jug-eared full moon beaming down on forty-six head stones. Under the arched cemetery entrance hangs a sign, ‘This is a one way street.’
“On each head stone, he inscribed a worn out joke. For example, “The church is on fire: holy smoke.” “A prohibitionist lies here – his ails are over – he’s on his bier.” “I see you’re still growing – you’re nearly through your hair.”
“‘The Old Joke Cemetery’ curtain rose, slowly,” said Allen, “while the orchestra played a gentle, toe tapping rhythm. The audience laughed as jokes on the tombstones came into view. By the time the entire cemetery was visible, the theatre was full of laughter.”
It’s a simple idea from Allen that works well. When Allen left the roadshow of “Passing,” he had a legal fight to keep the curtain. He was sure Shubert copied the curtain before giving back the original. As he could not confirm copying or use of the curtain without permission, he let it go.
“Allen was in another Shubert show about this time," says Gostanian, ‘Artists and Models.’ It was a blatant copy of the ‘Folies Bergere,’ including the nudity. Allen replaced the original lead comedian for a while.”
The original comedian wanted his job back. He claimed he had incredibly beaten his addiction, thanks to will power and Sen Sens. He was now a winner, filled with tiger blood and a better plan. His lawyers demanded he reclaim his job. To avoid a lawsuit, the Schuberts agreed. Fred Allen was temporarily out of work.
For “Vogues,” produced by Lee Shubert, who normally handled business matters for the Schuberts, Allen worked with Jimmy Savo, a pantomimist. Savo worked well with the verbose Allen. Again hired as an actor, Allen wrote for himself and Savo.
Savo and Allen did an “in one” vaudeville act. An “in one” worked in front of the curtain. Behind the curtain, stagehands changed scenery or set up acrobatic rigging. The “in one” kept a show moving for the audience.
Allen wrote a theme that didn’t depend on the storyline of “Vogues.” He and Savo were the authors of “Vogues,” released from an asylum between acts. Audiences and critics took to Allen and Savo.
“‘Vogues’ didn’t open well and struggled,” says Gostanian. “The touring version ended before Chicago. Savo and Allen had a falling out, too.”
To make up the twenty weeks left on his contract, the Shuberts gave Allen a role in “The Greenwich Village Follies.” When “Follies” opened at the Winter Garden, Allen did two monologues, “in one.” After the comedic lead actor, Don Barclay, left the “Follies,” Allen took his role.
“This was the first time Allen worked theatrical and musical comedy skits, as an actor,” says Gostanian. “To this point, he was mostly a monologist, working in one. Now, Allen learned how to work with actors, how scenes were built and directed.”
In 1928, Roger Hammerstein offered Allen a role in a new Broadway musical comedy, “Polly.” The show failed, but Allen got rave reviews. In April, a new revue, “The Little Show,” opened, with Allen as the comic lead.
“‘Little Show’ set a standard for revues,” says Gostanian. “Directly and indirectly, the revue brought Allen together with Arthur Schwartz, Moss Hart and Richard Rogers. When “Little Show” closed, Allen moved to ‘Three’s a Crowd.’ His co-stars were Clifton Webb and Libby Holman.
Webb, Holman and Allen, about 1930
“‘Crowd’ ran for three years, in New York City and on tour. For Allen there was little money, in the show, but a huge amount of acting and writing experience. A few months after ‘Crowd’ ended its run, Allen was using all his experience on radio.”
Broadway may have run its course for Allen. “Radio,” says Martin Gostanian, “offered a new challenge. It seemed to offer more autonomy than did theatre or vaudeville. Allen always wanted autonomy.
“A vaudeville stage manager could drop an act arbitrarily, without warning or pay. Broadway revues had to pander to the basest emotions; the big draw for “Artists and Models” was nudity. Radio, in 1932, offered a huge audience; solid contracts, paying top dollar, and, ostensibly, much creative freedom.”
Radio flourished, in its early days, because of vaudeville. A successful vaudeville act typically found success on radio. Eddie Cantor and Ed Wynn, for example, moved their live acts to radio, intact, with great success. Often, listeners had seen the act, live, and that fired their imaginations.
For Fred Allen and Jack Benny radio began in 1932. “Benny started in May,” says Gostanian, “and quickly found his niche: a vain miser. Returning players, such as Mary Livingstone, Don Wilson and Phil Harris, developed around Benny. He also saw the need for top-notch writing.
“In October 1932, Allen was on the air. As ever, he aimed to offer topical material in a different way. He seemed allergic to writers, likely an outgrowth of how he created vaudeville and Broadway acts for twenty years. Allen struggled, mostly on his, and was successful.”
Allen developed an audition show, which recorded in September 1932. “His agent, through a series of missteps,” says Gostanian, “got the president of the Corn Products Company, which made Linit Bath Soap, to listen to the audition. Too busy to listen to more than the opening of the show, the president of Corn Products said, “Get me that man with the flat voice.” Fred Allen was on radio.”
The “Linit Bath Club Revue,” for Linit Soap, aired on CBS, in 1932-1933. From August to December 1933, Allen did “The Salad Bowl,” for Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, on NBC. Later, there was an interesting radio deal with Bristol Myers.
“One sponsor,” says Gostanian, “but two products, Sal Hepatica, a laxative, and Ipana Toothpaste. The 30-minute Sal Hepatica Revue” aired at 9 pm, on the east coast, beginning Wednesday 3 January 1934. At midnight, the cast and crew repeated the show for the west coast.
“The ‘Revue’ expanded to an hour on 21 March 1934. It was renamed the ‘Hour of Smiles.’ Sal Hepatica sponsored the first half-hour; Ipana Toothpaste sponsored the second half-hour. At 9 pm, ‘Smiles’ aired live to the east coast. At midnight, east coast time, the show aired live, again, for the west coast.”
On 11 July 1934, the Allen show for Bristol Myers calmly became “Town Hall Tonight.” “There was no big deal,” says Gostanian. “One week the show was the ‘Hour of Smiles.’ The next week it was ‘Town Hall Tonight.’”
Allen aimed for an audience in the American heartland. Other shows, he thought, aimed for an urban audience. To attract and hold his target audience, Allen believed he needed a show title that suggested small-town entertainment. “Town Hall Tonight” fit his needs, well.
The title, of the show, changed three times in seven months, which is a lot to expect of the audiences. “Yes,” says Gostanian, but its time slot remained the same. At 9 pm, Wednesdays, on NBC, listeners heard what they expected: satirical humour, with an emphasis on what they read in the newspaper. Audience size grew, week to week; the name of the show didn’t matter.”
“‘Town Hall’ let Allen to roam, creatively,” says Gostanian. “There were skits, music and singers, an amateur contest and much room for topical comment through humour. Each show was content heavy.”
Research was the key for Allen. “He read up to a dozen newspapers, every day,” says Gostanian, “plus magazines and books. He combed newspapers for topical humour. When he found an item, with a possible comedic slant, he tore it out of the paper or magazine and stuffed it in his coat pocket.
“The clippings formed the basis for newsreel parts of his shows. Allen believed, correctly, that listeners liked humour drawn from the news. He built radio shows around ‘Town Hall News,’ ‘March of Trivia,’ both newsreel skits, and ‘Allen’s Alley,’ which was akin to public opinion polling.”
“Saturday Night Live, for example, is beholding to Allen. Its “Weekend Update” is an offspring of the newsreels used by Allen, starting in 1932. To some extent, “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” descend from Allen, too.
Best remembered, of these skits, is the “Alley.” Allen asked residents of the “Alley,” such as Ajax Cassidy or Senator Claghorn, to comment on a current event. How, for example, did they adapt to wartime rationing of meat, coffee or car tires. Allen was exceptional at finding humour in news.
“Topicality,” Gostanian says, “was the basis of his radio success. Allen performed skits, talked with guests and featured music and singers; so did every variety show at the time. His uniqueness was milking news and current events for laughs.
“Bob Hope used a gaggle of writers to produce jokes based on the news. What Hope did, he did well; still, he appealed to an aware, not necessarily knowing audience. Allen appealed to an aware and knowing audience, which no one did as well as did Allen. His singular ability to ad lib helped, too.”
Topicality and ad libbing led to many problems. “Allen was an easy target,” says Gostanian. “If he satirized wartime rationing, he was unpatriotic. When Allen satirized NBC, a programming executive, Clarence L. Menser, cut the live-to-air feed of the show.”
Other radio comedians, such as Red Skelton, Bob Hope and Eddie Cantor, spoke, publicly, against NBC for cutting the live-to-air feed of the Allen show. J. Walter Thompson, the advertising agency that oversaw the Allen show, billed NBC to recover the cost of the 25-second silence. NBC relented.
Radio Lobby Shots to satisfy Molehill Men at NBC.
Allen called executives, such as Menser, “Molehill Men.” They made his life miserable. He spent at least two days, of his seven-day workweek, solving problems created by “Molehill Men.”
These executives worked for the sponsor, its advertising agency or the radio network. When these “Men” came to work, at 9 am, a molehill sat atop their desk. They had until 5 pm to make a mountain of it.
Many “Men” did a day’s work before noon. Those who worked quickly got to lunch away the afternoon. At CBS, said Allen, “Molehill Men” could not have a sense of humour.
Although he had endless feuds with sponsors, agencies and networks, Allen always found a sponsor. He did most of the writing and the cast was small. This kept costs down. “Time” magazine reported the Texaco Dealers’ Association paid $22,000 a show to sponsor the Allen show, a hefty sum for 1947.
Allen didn’t underestimate the ability of the American audience for radio,” says Gostanian, “but maybe NBC did. Allen did not spin the most basic appeals to listeners. His listeners had to reach up, a bit, to stay with him or be on top of political happenings, already.
“This scared sponsors. I suspect those who censored his on-air work knew this fact. They didn’t like it, as it took control from them and gave it to Allen and his audience.”
“Allen said, often, that he worked for three masters,” says Gostanian. “The advertising agency, which produced his show, vetted each script. The sponsor reviewed each word, as did the network.
“His problems likely stemmed more from his satire going over the heads of those charged with vetting his material, than its affect on listeners. He never worked blue, but the censors missed a few clever, risqué comments. ‘Pansy Nussbaum,’ an ethnic character portrayed by Minerva Pious, defined a nymph: a pixie, ‘but is wet.’”
Allen said the censors had no sense of humour. “Exactly,” says Gostanian, “and Allen often berated the censors without them knowing it or so it seemed. Falstaff Openshaw, a poem-writing character dubbed the Bard of the Bowery, was a vehicle for taunting censors. Openshaw would recite, ‘those aren’t spots on the sugar, mother, you’re putting your dice in your tea.’ Allen then roundly chastised him for the meaningless and foolish poem.
“On the surface, the poetry, which Allen wrote for Openshaw, portrayed by Allen Reed, seemed innocuous or benign. The poetry, laced with cynicism and sarcasm, often was a delayed bomb: ‘when mother wore a bustle, everyone thought it was her muscle.’ In many cases, the censors missed the meaning.”
A week later, the censor would awaken, startled, in the middle of the night, finally realizing the implicit meaning of the poem. “Almost surely,” says Gostanian. “It was to his credit that Allen could write such fluid, flowering and funny poetry. His writing struck hard at the pomposity of those who took him too seriously; that is, the censors and vapid critics.”
All media are informative. Satirizing news, public policies and officials, Allen took insight to a new level. He worked hard to stir thought, knowing emotions evoked easily. The result was endless battles with agencies, sponsors and networks, of which Allen won most as well as the war.
Wicked work weeks, writing radio shows, made a hermit, of Allen. “He worked those shows for up to eighteen hours a day,” says Martin Gostanian, “seven days a week. There were rehearsals, battles with censors and performing on air. Until the early 1940s, each show aired live to the east coast and, three hours later, live to the west coast.” Allen had a chance to refine, further, the script for the rebroadcast.
“Topical context,” says Gostanian, “such as a newsreel skit or the ‘Alley,’ meant creating new characters and unique dialogue, from scratch, each week. Sitcoms, for example, have casts of recurring characters, with idiosyncrasies that listeners come to know. ‘Two and Half Men,’ today, is an example.”
Although Allen mostly worked alone, a few writers did help. “In the early days of ‘Town Hall Tonight,’” says Gostanian, “Harry Tugend wrote with Allen. In 1936, Herman Wouk and Arnie Auerbach joined the show. Wouk won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Caine Mutiny’; Auerbach also wrote for Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle and created the ‘Sergeant Bilko’ character for Phil Silvers. Other writers helped along the way, too.
“Despite the high-quality help, Allen completed and polished every show. He wanted the parts to fit and the show to flow. For Allen, fit and flow meant a single mind must write the final version of each script.”
“Our weekly schedule,” Allen said, “was a treadmill, revolving in a seven-day cycle. Our second broadcast, to the west coast, finished at one am Thursday morning. The writers, the director and I adjourned to a runt-sized all-night delicatessen, on Sixth Avenue. We hashed over the next program and the problems it presented, for two or three hours.
“Arriving home at 4 am, Thursday morning” says Allen,” I tried to sleep, but usually gave up about 11 am. That afternoon, I visited the guest star, for the next show, to explain what we planned for him or her, invite suggestions and take notes.”
Some weeks, Allen took a day off, usually Friday. He answered mail from fans and friends. In the evening, he and his wife, Portland Hoffa, had a night out for dinner, usually at an Italian restaurant, maybe the theatre, a movie or visiting friends. Each summer they spent in Maine, usually Old Orchard Beach.
Staying topical is hard work. “Saturday morning,” says Martin Gostanian, “Allen studied items he clipped from reading up to a dozen newspapers each day. He sorted and reviewed the clips, seeking useable material.”
Allen tried to avoid recurring characters. “This meant,” says Gostanian, “creating new characters, for the Might Allen Art Players to learn and perform each week. It was a writing challenge that added much to the difficulty of rehearsing and directing the show.
“Saturday afternoon, Allen worked on a routine for Portland. He also framed an interview he would conduct, on the show, and developed the sketch drafted at the delicatessen. This was perhaps the most intense few hours of his week.
“Saturday night, he rewrote, redacted and polished the scripts filed by the writers. Late Saturday evening, his desk was a muddle of ideas and items for the show. Now, he could try to sleep.
“Sunday, after church, Allen wrote more material for the show. Then he put it together, blending the pieces into an ostensibly coherent show. This took about fourteen hours.
“Overnight, a secretary or his sister-in-law, Lastone Hoffa, typed a full draft of the show. At 8 am, Western Union picked up the script and delivered it for mimeographing. At 1 pm, on Monday, the cast and crew saw the script, for the first time, and rehearsals began.”
During this three-hour rehearsal, ideas for improving the script or cutting it to fit the one-hour format flowed. Allen then went home to rewrite about 50 pages for the final script. Overnight, someone, again, typed and copied the script for circulation. Tuesday, his next to last script went to the NBC censor, the sponsor and the advertising agency that produced the show.
“We had to be available on Tuesday,” Allen said, “ready to make script changes or defend a joke that aroused anyone of sufficient importance. We never knew what the molehill men might want.”
“On Tuesday afternoon,” says Gostanian, “Allen met, briefly, with his writers and director. They talked about ideas for the next show. This gave them a head start before the early-morning meeting, at the delicatessen.
“Wednesday, show day, rehearsals began at 10 am. A dress rehearsal went at 1 pm. By 5 pm, final cuts and changes to the script were underway.
“At 9 pm, the show, cut to 52 minutes, aired on the east coast. At midnight, the cast and crew reassembled to redo the show for the west coast. At 1 am, Allen, his writers and director, were off the runt-sized delicatessen on Sixth Avenue to start working on the next show.”
Allen worked 14-to-18 hours, at least six days a week and often seven, 39-weeks-a year, for about nine years; that’s about 40,000 hours. He had little time to develop friendships, go to nightclubs or enjoy his celebrity. “Uncle” Jim Harkins said Allen went to a nightclub three times, for work-related reasons. Two or three mornings a week, Allen boxed or lifted weights at the YMCA, near his home on Fifty-Sixth Street, in New York City.
“When his show scaled back to thirty minutes, as of Sunday 4 October 1942,” says Gostanian, “Allen said he was as happy dividing as a rabbit was multiplying. Although script-related problems, with censors, agencies and advertisers, continued, there was less fodder in a thirty-minute show.”
His work schedule took a heavy toll. Almost a decade of one hundred hour workweeks compromised his health. The price of satire is high.
At work; shelf, left, bound script from earlier shows.
His best friends, said, Henry Morgan, the satirist, in a 1947 interview with “Time” magazine, are barbers, waiters or storekeepers. Among them, Allen is sociable. From them, he gets the spirit as well as the language for his characters.
Although he never appeared, the owner of a general store, Hodge White, was the topic of much talk on “Town Hall Tonight.” Charles “Hodge” White was a childhood friend of Allen, from Dorchester, a suburb of Boston. He owned a small grocery store and inspired the storekeeper character. White liked that Allen used his name and no actor portrayed him.
“Senator Beauregard Claghorn,” says Martin Gostanian, “may be the most widely remembered Allen character. A loud, pompous zealot of the American south, Claghorn resided in ‘Allen’s Alley.’ It was on his door that Allen knocked, first, when visiting the ‘Alley.’
Jack Smart portrayed a less long-winded version of Claghorn, Senator Bloat; he always hoped for the success of one or another Bloat Bill. Allen extended Bloat to Claghorn, in 1945. Kenny Delmar, now the announcer for Allen, portrayed Claghorn. Delmar made two movies, as Claghorn, and a cartoon series, based on the character, aired on Saturday morning television.
“Supposedly,” says Gostanian, “Claghorn was from Charleston, South Carolina. He was an extreme patriot of the south. He wouldn’t sit north in a game of bridge, attend a baseball game involving the Yankees or enter a room that didn’t have a southern exposure.”
On 24 February 1946, Claghorn said the US Senate honoured the birthday of George Washington by speaking only the truth. “It was,” he said, “the quietest day I have ever spent in the Senate.” After listening to the inanity spewing from Claghorn, Allen might say, “There are no files on the Senator. There are some things a fly won’t stoop to.”
Claghorn, although best remembered, was less important than Mrs. Pansy Nussbaum, the voice of urban, working-class women, portrayed by Minerva Pious. Starting on the ‘Sal Hepatica Revue,’ Pious and Jack Smart formed the core of the Mighty Allen Art Players. In 1945, when Allen knocked on the door of Mrs. Nussbaum, she answered, in Yiddish, “Nu.”
Allen would ask, “Mrs. Nussbaum?” Pious would reply, in a heavy accent, “You are expecting maybe Veinstein Chuychil?” Her candour was disarming.
“Pious was a small, quiet woman, a chain-smoker, when I met her,” says Ken Meyer, who produced “The Big Broadcast,” for WBZ-AM, in 1975. “Malapropism flowed easily from Mrs. Nussbaum. A recipe she liked included, “carrots, strangle-a-beans and rutta-bagels.
“The humour from Mrs. Nussbaum often came at the expense of her husband, Pierre. The original Nussbaum character was Pierre. After a few shows, in the early 1940s, he vanished, replaced by his wife.”
“Molehill Men” at NBC tried to scuttle Mrs. Nussbaum. They claimed she was offensive to all Jews. Allen won that skirmish, correctly claiming Jewish dialect humour had been a staple of American humour for more than one hundred years.
Poet, Fallstaff Openshaw, was the Bard of the Bowery. Portrayed by Alan Reed (above), Openshaw was the first named character, other than Portland Hoffa, to appear weekly. Allen wanted content more than characters.
“Before Openshaw,” says Allen, “we had been inventing a variety of grotesque characters that could be impersonated by our cast. Listeners tired of stooges heard in the same roles, week after week. She or he knew what the stooge was going to say, anticipating every line. I felt that if we could conjure up good comedy material and have it performed by versatile anonymous actors, our artistic life would be far longer.”
Openshaw arose from another occasional character, the poet, Thorndyke Swinburne. To fill time, on “Town Hall,” Allen wrote a brief poem for Swinburne to recite. “Eventually,” said Allen, “a poet character seemed a good way to close a newsreel or visit to the Alley.’
“The synthetic name, Falstaff Openshaw, came from two sources,” says Allen. First, there was Sir John Falstaff from “Henry IV.” Second, there was a shipyard worker, in Maine, named Openshaw. Shakespeare couldn’t sue us; fortunately, the fellow in Maine didn’t.
Openshaw lived in the ‘Alley’ from 1942 until 1945. The character, played by Alan Reed, born Teddy Bergman,* the original voice of “Fred Flintstone,” was caustic. About an egg surplus he said, “These eggs must stop, bureaucrats cry or there will be arrests. We’ll subpoena every Plymouth Rock and padlock all the nests.” **
Portland Hoffa about 1920, 1940, 1960.
A basic part of comedy, by the 1920s, was “Dumb Dora.” Think of a blonde-joke, today, and you have a good sense of “Dora.” On the various Fred Allen shows, Portland Hoffa portrayed a “Dumb Dora,” perhaps, all too well.
Allen met Hoffa in “The Passing Show of 1922.” She was, says Taylor, brown-haired, slender and pert, with fresh open features. Hoffa danced in the chorus, as did her sister, Lebanon. “I had no desire for show business,” said Hoffa, “but I got the breaks.”
Her name likely caught the attention of Allen. Portland was not a common name, in 1922 or 2011. Her father, Dr. Frederick Hoffa, was a jovial optometrist, widely known for his good humour and mood. She inherited his spirit, fully.
Dr. Hoffa liked to name his children for the city of their birth. Sisters Portland, for Portland, Oregon, and Lebanon, for Lebanon, Pennsylvania; a brother, born in Harlem, New York, was so named. The ostensibly last daughter got the name, Lastone. The in fact last daughter was Fredericka.
Allen and Hoffa were mutually smitten. They courted for three years. Then Allen returned to vaudeville, briefly. He formed an act with Bert Yorke, which toured for a season. This kept him away from New York City. During his absence, Portland converted to Roman Catholicism.
Allen was a devout Catholic. This likely kept him from marrying Hoffa. “The next thing I knew,” said Allen, after learning of her change-over, “I had bought the ring and Father Leonard was marrying us at the Actor’s Chapel, on West Forty-Ninth Street.”
They married in May 1927. Allen was on vacation. Hoffa was out of work.
“When a vaudevillian marries, he puts his wife in the act,” Allen said. “The wife didn’t need talent. It was an economic strategy. With a double act, came a salary increase. The extra money paid for extra wardrobe, railroad fares and hotel expenses. In vaudeville, an actor roamed, upkeep on a nonworking wife was an important item.” A double act allowed the actor to concentrate on acting.
“A wife,” said Allen, “who was not in the act had to wait around until the husband finished. With an act, Portland and I could be together, even if we couldn’t find any work.” During the summer, of 1927, in Maine, Allen wrote a vaudeville act that included Hoffa.
A few minutes into the act, Portland appears on stage. She hands Allen a note. It’s a letter of introduction, which he reads, aloud.
“This will introduce Miss Ann Howe. She lives around the corner and has had a fight with her folks. She wants to do something in the neighbourhood to disgrace them. I thought it would be nice if she could be seen up on the stage with you.”
After some bantering, Portland leaves the stage. Allen juggles and jokes. Portland returns, briefly, for more banter. Allen finishes the act with topical jokes. “I may have to go to Florida tomorrow. I’ve just had word that somebody found land on my property down there.”
After a summer of rehearsing, Hoffa was ready to go live. Allen booked Labour Day Weekend at Nimpic Park, near Boston. The first appearance of Allen and Hoffa cancelled because of no attendance; the second show played to a handful of women and men.
E. H., an otherwise anonymous reviewer for “Billboard,” wrote that Allen had a good act. The unbilled young woman was a highlight, but underused. E. H. advised Allen to find a larger role for her. He did, as a dumb little girl.
Her voice, said Allen, fit no known category. I had to create a character, for Portland, “a small E-flat Frankenstein monster.” On radio, said Allen, her was as two slate-pencils mating or a clarinet reed calling for help. **
What came about was a dim-witted juvenile, “who talked in tones you had to associate with Portland. Those sounds could come from no other source.” Hoffa became a “Dumb Dora” child-character, akin to the “Little Girl” character on “Fibber McGee and Molly.”
“Where do you live, little girl,” says Allen. “In Schenectady,” says Hoffa. “How did you come to get lost in New York,” asks Allen. “I didn’t come to get lost,” says Hoffa. “I came to go on the radio. I won a contest and ran away from home.” *
On the “Linit Bath Club Revue,” Allen tries to buy the little girl a ticket back to Schenectady. He can’t spell the name of the city, correctly. “Look,” says Allen, “I’ll buy you a one-way ticket to Troy and you can hitch-hike the rest of the way.” *
On the third “Linit” show, the running gag, of Schenectady and the little girl, continues. “I took the money you gave me last week,” says Hoffa, “and went home.” Allen says, “They must have a rubber [train] depot there, the way you keep bouncing back here.” *
After that show, Hoffa expands to other characters. Her yodelling, of “Hello-o,” appears on most shows. She is the bridge between skits. Hoffa ostensibly disrupts the flow and maybe talks about her mother, briefly. This allows Allen to shift from a political talk, with the announcer, to “Allen’s Alley” or “Main Street,” for example.
Her comic style, says Taylor, was “nimble and [she] soon developed into an ingratiating comedienne. Her breathless vocal projection retained a startled clarity.” It was good on radio.
“Hoffa used an exaggerated inflection,” says Martin Gostanian, “that fit the Allen style. Her characters offered a ‘gee-gosh’ humour and she usually got the punch line. Allen played straight to Hoffa.
“To me,” says Martin Gostanian, “this makes Hoffa an essential character. She steered the flow, of the show, in the direction Allen wanted it to go. Hoffa played with such a willing and strained bewilderment and wonder, there wasn’t a better foil for his humour.”
Views vary about what Hoffa added to the Fred Allen radio shows. “She did nothing for me,” says Mel Simons, the Boston-based maven of old-time radio. “She had a high, shrill, grating voice: a very weak, ‘Mr. Allen,’ to open the shows. Hoffa was not one of the better second bananas on radio.”
Ken Meyer, who hosted “Radio Classics,” on WEEI-AM, in Boston, says, “Hoffa played her role well. On radio, Portland was a character, a role; off stage, she was Portland Hoffa Sullivan. As with Jean Stapleton, on “All in the Family,” Hoffa was more subdued, off air, calm and her voice wasn’t scratchy or grating.”
“Hoffa,” Martin Gostanian says, “was an essential part of the satire. Some think, wrongly, she was separate or adjacent to the satire. If you listen, closely, you’ll realize she was a central part of the Allen shows.
“Hoffa was subtle,” says Gostanian. “Mary Livingstone, on “The Jack Benny Show,” and Gracie Allen, on “Burns and Allen,” played their roles openly, in a forthright way. Hoffa lurked in the background. Although she rarely, if ever, spoke in the ‘Alley,’ for example, listeners knew she was there, with Allen.
“Hoffa offered a dry, skewed and sardonic sense of humour. The listener, to Allen, knew there was much below the surface of her characters. Hoffa wasn’t front and centre, as were Mary Livingstone and Gracie Allen, yet she made much of what she did. She’s often the topic of talk about old-time radio, today, even when Allen isn’t mentioned.”
Taylor says the deep warmth between Allen and Hoffa comes through, clearly, when listening to the shows. Their inflection, tone and delivery don’t lie. After she says, in her yodelling way, “Mr. Allen,” he says, “Why? Portland!” There’s no missing their affection.
Peeks into their personal life are few, but touching, says Taylor. Before bed, each night, the Allens usually walked, holding hands, around their neighbourhood. For most of the run of the Allen radio shows, they lived in a hotel, on West 56th or the Alwyn Court Apartments, at Seventh Avenue and West Fifty-Eighth Street, in New York City.
Once, Portland took the Fifth Avenue bus to visit her family on Long Island. As the bus moved away, Fred gave Portland an off-to-Buffalo shuffle. He waved until the bus faded from sight.
In 1944, his sponsor, Texaco, wanted Hoffa off the show. Allen refused, says Taylor, letting loose his gale-force wit. He suggested that if the Texaco president divorced his wife, he might consider dropping Portland from the show.
"Allen's Alley": Fred Allen, Kenny Delmar, as Senator Claghorn; Minerva Pious, as Pansy Nussbaum; Peter Donald, as Ajax Cassidy, and Parker Fennelly, as Titus Moody, about 1946.
Although far from his best work, “Allen’s Alley” is the most popular and widely known. Allen spun an idea from O. O. McIntyre, the syndicated columnist of “Day by Day.” McIntyre wrote fondly about what and whom he saw on his strolls through Chinatown or the Bowery. McIntyre seldom left his hotel room. The column was an invention.
Allen believed the idea worked for radio, if he added a person-in-the-street interview to it. After a brief chat with Portland, Allen would say, “As my left eye said to my right eye, ‘Grab your bag and let’s go.’ Off they were to “Allen’s Alley.”
The “Alley” was home to returning characters, such as Ajax Cassidy and Titus Moody. Allen asked “Alley” residents about items in the news. “Following reports of a blood shortage, in the New York City area,” says Ken Meyer, “Allen asked Titus Moody, portrayed by Parker Fennelly, if he planned to donate blood. Moody said he was so anemic that if he cut a finger it didn’t bleed, only puckered up and hissed.”
Havig says the “Alley” gave listeners a sense of place, as did the bar on “Cheers,” forty years later. “Alley” residents offered personal anecdotes, which hid the satire from censors. The “Alley,” Havig says, is a yardstick for the growth of Fred Allen as a radio artist.
Above, Jack Benny, left, and Fred Allen square off for the most famous media feud of all time, in 1937. Wives, Mary Livingstone, left, and Portland Hoffa, right, hold the suit coats of the competitors.
Allen feuded, endlessly, with sponsors, their agencies and radio networks as well as effete critics. He mock feuded with his great pal, Jack Benny. Feuds are a common way to get media attention. In 2011, Charlie Sheen feuds with Chuck Lorre. The Allen and Benny feud is the most widely known and most idealized.
Late in 1936, Allen and Benny began taunting each other. Benny thought himself a great violinist. Allen hung much humour on the claim.
“On 30 December 1937,” says Laura Leff, President of the International Jack Benny Fan Club, “the feud began. It lasted, off and on, for twenty years. The best feud shows aired in early 1937.
“An unscripted part of the Allen show, ‘Town Hall Tonight,’ featured a 10-year old violinist, Stuart Canin. He played ‘The Bee,’ by Shubert. He played it masterfully. After the performance, Allen said, ‘A little fellow, in the fifth grade at school, and already he plays better than does Jack Benny.’”
Allen said he told Canin about an ancient and rancid violinist, who lived in Hollywood. “If Mr. Benny heard this tyke’s rendition of ‘The Bee,’ he should hang his head in symphonic shame. Then Benny should pluck the horsehairs out of his bow and return them to the tail of the stallion from which they came.”
“Allen made this comment on the east coast version of his show,” says Leff. “No one knows exactly what Allen said on the west coast version that Benny heard. Sadly, no recordings of the west coast version, of the Allen show, exist.
“The following week, on his show, Benny claimed Allen said, ‘The cat-gut, of his violin string, wants back into the cat.’ At the end of that show, Benny says, ‘Mary, take a letter to Fred Allen. Tell him I’m not ashamed of my playing. I could play ‘The Bee.’
“Benny aired at 7 pm on the east coast, says Leff, “Allen at 8:30 pm. Allen had about 90 minutes to respond. Each week, he came up with something to egg on Benny. The west coast version, which Benny heard, was likely wilder than the east coast version. Allen had more time to think about his response, for the west coast, and the censors were likely asleep.”
“When Jack and I started to ignore precedent,” said Allen, “and bellow at each other, the radio audience perked up. It was akin to dropping a mongoose into a snake pit: things started coming to life. Finally, when our synthetic invective had reached a crescendo, Jack challenged me to a fight.”
“Allen and Benny went back and forth for a few weeks,” says Leff. “In March 1937, Benny took his show to New York City. Allen and Benny had it out, appearing on each other’s show before the famed fight.”
On Sunday 14 March 1937, the boxing match took place at the Pierre Hotel, in New York City. “The audience was in a mood of anticipation,” said Allen. “The dialogue frankly didn’t live up to the pandemonium.”
The match attracted the largest radio audience to that point. The feud faded in and out until Allen passed away, suddenly, in 1956. It remains an often much used, if little understood, cultural marker.
In 1954, Allen said, “I didn’t plan the feud. I didn’t want to explain how the feud would be better for us than for Benny. With our smaller audience, it would take an academy award display of intestinal fortitude to ask Benny to participate; I’d be hitching my gaggin’ to a star. All I could do was hope Benny would have some fun with the idea and we could watch it develop.”
Allen and Benny had different audiences. For Allen, his ratings came from the east coast and Midwest. Jack Benny dominated the west coast, with one-in-three listeners; across the country, he had about 2-in-5 of all listeners: the audience for Benny was huge. Fortunately, Benny was on well before Allen and not up-against him.
“Benny portrayed a generic character, pompous, vain and miserly,” says Gostanian. “Allen portrayed many characters. His comedy was topical, urbane and erudite.
“Benny attracted more listeners, his characters steady and easy for listeners to appreciate. Allen was more of a moving target. Listeners identified with residents of ‘Allen’s Alley,’ but the weekly topic might not hold their interest.
“In a way, Benny was predictable. Allen was not. Benny appealed to a wider audience. Allen appealed to a narrower awareness. Benny was a sitcom. Allen dealt in satire and irony. Benny devised his own reference points, early on, and mostly kept within these limits. The Allen style needed listeners to keep up with changing cultural markers.
“Listen to a few Benny shows and you quickly recognize his touchstones, such as vain and cheap, the Maxwell, the ensemble characters. Listening to Allen called for staying alert and current; his actors were largely nameless to keep the focus on the comedy. It was more work to listen to Allen than to Benny.”
Stop the Music
Following a three-year study, the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, forced NBC to sell one of its two radio networks. Edward Noble, owner of Life Savers and the Rexall drug store chain, bought the NBC Blue network; that was in 1943. A few months later, Noble renamed the Blue Network to the American Broadcasting Company, ABC.
ABC focused on counter-programming, such as game shows. Such shows were inexpensive and attracted large audiences. One example is “Stop the Music,” which sealed the radio fate of Fred Allen.
Prizes on “Stop the Music,” ranged from $20,000 to $30,000. At the time, the median family income was $3,120; a typical non-farm worker earned less than $4000. The prize money, on “Stop the Music,” was too tempting.
Jobs grew more plentiful, after 1946. Wages were increasing, as were the number of two-income families. A tsunami of consumer goods, refrigerators, stoves and television sets, was forming. “Give-away shows, such as ‘Stop the Music,’” says Ken Meyer, “hastened the flood of consumer products.” These shows, says Taylor, “articulated the bland materialism of the late 1940s.”
“The premise, of ‘Stop the Music,’ was simple,” says Martin Gostanian. “The studio orchestra played a current song, perhaps with a singer. The host, Bert Parks, would call a phone number, ostensibly at random. When someone answered the call, Parks yelled, ‘Stop the Music.’ The contestant, on the phone, had a chance to name the music the band played. If the contestant gave the correct answer, she or he won a huge pile of prizes and move on to a more difficult, but more rewarding, challenge.”
Mark Goodson, producer of “Stop the Music,” said, “We do not identify listeners in advance.” * This was a half-truth. The afternoon of the show, the producers called potential contestants. “Wait by the phone,” a producer said, “while the show is on.”
During the show, the producers made ostensibly random calls to the pre-selected group. Contestant pre-selection, which may have involved some randomness, ensured someone to answer the phone call and win. Unanswered phone calls did the show no good. The idea was to make it seem everyone in American was listening to “Stop the Music.”
“The ABC Radio Network aired ‘Stop the Music’ from 8 pm to 9 pm on Sunday,” says Meyer. “NBC aired Fred Allen at 8 pm. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, also on NBC, at 8:30 pm.”
Martin Gostanian says, “Bergen escaped to CBS, in 1948. Fred Allen left weekly radio. ‘Stop the Music’ aired, on ABS Radio, until 1952.
“During the 1946 and 1947 season, Allen had a 28.7 Hooper. That means 28.7% of all radio sets in the USA tuned to Allen for at least half his show, in an average week. This is a huge audience, even today.”
In 2011, the number one television sitcom, “Two and a Half Men,” has a weekly audience of about 14 million. This is a rating of about 5.0, but only among adults, 18-to-49 years old. For the season ending in June 1947, 50 million listeners tuned to Allen each week. Today, only the once-a-year Superbowl has a larger audience than did Allen, in 1947.
For 17 years, Allen created a top radio show, 39 weeks a year. That’s roughly 60,000 hours of writing and performing. As for the 30,000 pages of scripts he wrote, Allen said, “I’m probably the only man who has written more than he can lift.”
In 1947, an anonymous writer for “Time” magazine described Allen as a “cushion against hard fact. Few entertainers are comfortably so close to reality; still fewer crowded so hard by sanity. His work seems an act of reprisal, rich with rancor, hurled in the face of sham. Of a snob-noxious Hollywood actor, travelling with is “secretary,” Allen said acidly: he’s travelling a la tart.”
From the start of 1947 and 1948 season, ratings for the Allen show fell, fast and hard. The show began to unravel. Allen blamed game shows, only, but other issues came into play.
The wartime freeze on television lifted. Dozens of new stations, especially in large cities, went to air, starting in late 1947. Television was all the rage. Advertisers leapt from network radio to television, as rats from a sinking ship.
For the final season, of “The Fred Allen Show,” the Texaco Dealers’ Association paid $858,000. There was no way to justify this much money for the number thirty-eight show on radio, for another season. Television offered much larger returns for the same money.
“Allen liked the spontaneity of radio,” says Martin Gostanian. “He could revise a radio script right up to air time or while on the air. Changes, on the run, were impossible for television, with its stage managers, directors, producers, camera operators and so forth. Each crew-role had input to script changes because it affected his or her job, on the show.”
The Allen format was likely wearing thin, too; the ethnic characters losing their meaning and appeal in a much more urbane America. In 1948, he dropped the “Alley” for “Main Street.” It was a reversion of the “Town Hall” idea. “Main Street” didn’t work, as listeners preferred watching the burlesque of Milton Berle.
The shift to visual humour, such as Berle, was easier for the audience. The aural humour, of Allen, no longer met the aesthetic demands of listeners. Why work, imagining a character or setting, when television handed out a full package, no extra effort for viewers?
Wife, Portland Hoffa, was an integral part of the Allen show. Yet, her “Dumb Dora” character chafed at least one sponsor, Texaco, as well as agencies and networks. More than once, Allen refused good deals that excluded Portland from the show.
Twice, in 1942 and 1945, Allen took time off for health reasons. He suggested his blood pressure was higher than his ratings. His sixty-to-ninety-hour workweek took a huge toll.
Allen always said he wished he could write. Nearly 650 radio scripts, 30,000 pages, didn’t matter. He wanted to shift his satire to the more enduring printed page.
Whatever the reason, the final Allen show aired on Sunday 26 June 1949. The guests were Jack Benny and satirist Henry Morgan. Although subdued, there was no hint it was the last show. At the end of the show, Allen said, “See you on the third of October.”
“He still had hope,” says Martin Gostanian. “By Thursday, of that week, the decision not to renew the Allen was made. A deal could not be cut.”
Allen wanted to write for print, the eye not the ear, and two books resulted. In “Treadmill to Oblivion,” he tells the story of the radio shows. Barbed, “Treadmill” shares deep concerns, with Edward R. Murrow, among others, about the dangers of the media.
The unfinished “Much Ado about Me,” focusing on vaudeville and Broadway, published after Allen passed away, in 1956. This book records the misgivings and fears shared by workers, then and now, regardless of where they work. Its appeal is universal.
Best sellers, both, these books confirm Allen could write, effectively. He also had an interested and willing readership. Both books are available, today.
“There were furtive efforts to find a television show for Allen,” says Ken Meyer. “Taking a page from “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” a top-rated ad-libbed show using puppets, the ‘Colgate Comedy Hour’ tried to recreate ‘Alley’s Alley,’ on television.” The show failed, miserably: it was foolish idea, unworkable idea.
On the television set of "Allen's Alley."
“Allen was set to host ‘Two for the Money,’” says Meyer. “This was a game show produced by Bill Goodson, no less. The 1952 pilot show went well, although Allen was clearly uncomfortable.
“The show, ‘Two for the Money,’” Meyer says, “was a version of ‘You Bet Your Life,’ hosted by Groucho Marx. Pre-selected guests chatted, with Allen, extemporaneously. Nonsense games led to small prizes.”
The show was all for laughs. On the “Linit Bath Club Revue” and “Town Hall Tonight,” Allen ad-libbed, effectively, with ordinary women and men. Usually, he evoked great humour from these guests, in good taste. There was no reason to believe he wouldn’t succeed on “Two for the Money.”
A few weeks before ‘Two’ was to air, Allen had a heart attack and withdrew from the show,” says Meyer.
“Herb Shriner took over as host,” says Martin Gostanian. “Shriner portrayed a homespun character, from Indiana. Maybe, he was better suited to the short-lived ‘Two for the Money,’ than was Allen.”
Allen had a knack for narration. “I think his niche was found,” says Gostanian, “when he narrated ‘Project 20: the Jazz Age.’ Allen performed exceptionally well as the sardonic and omniscient, forlorn and forlornful chronicler of the 1920s. Had he not passed away, prematurely, demand for him as a narrator would surely have developed.”
In 1952, his contract with NBC ended. Now, CBS tried to find a television show for Allen. Again, inspired by “You Bet Your Life,” CBS aired a few episodes of ‘Judge for Yourself,’ in 1954. “The idea harkened back to Allen interviewing amateur talent and ordinary women and men on ‘Town Hall Tonight,’” says Gostanian.
“Allen seems distracted on ‘Judge,’" says Ken Meyer. “The strict time constraints clearly affect him; he keeps looking to the producer for reassurance. That show didn’t work, either.”
Television changed comedy. This is why Fred Allen couldn’t find a workable format. It wasn’t his sour expression, as the comedian, Steve Allen, said, in an envious tone.
“Fred Allen called television a meat grinder,” says Martin Gostanian. “It ate material faster than he could create it. Allen was used to writing and polishing scripts, on his own, but it took a gang of writers to make television work. At the root of his problems, with television, was the Fred Allen style.”
“In the end,” says Ken Meyer, “Allen and his aural satire weren’t suited for give-away shows or sitcoms. Over the years, he took several dramatic roles, on radio, such as ‘William, the Terrified,’ on ‘Family Theatre,’ that confirmed his acting ability. Yet, his earliest days in vaudeville, doing an in one, defined what he thought he could and should do.”
In 1954, Fred Allen joined the panel of “What’s My Line.” This show had a simple premise that lasted 25 seasons and 974 episodes. In turn, each of four panellists questioned a contestant, about his or her line of work, until they got a “No” answer. More “Yes” answers meant more time between panellists. This gave Allen a chance to prepare ad-libs.
“Allen fit ‘What’s My Line,’ well,” says Gostanian. “’Line’ played to his strengths. It was improvised, spontaneous and urbane, satirical, with few rules, airing at 10:30 pm on Sunday."
“Line” didn’t rehearse, as it had no script. “Supposedly,” says Ken Meyer, “John Daly, host of ‘Line,’ dined each Sunday evening at Sardi’s, in New York City; while the chef prepared desert, he slipped over the CBS studios to host the show.” “What’s My Line may be the most easygoing television show, ever.
If Allen walked directly to the CBS studios from home, at Fifty-Eighth Street and Seventh Avenue, did the show and came right back, afterwards, “What’s My Line” took little more than two hours a week. This gave Allen 166 hours to write. More than anything, he wanted to write, but not radio scripts.
March 1957 was wintry, in New York City. On Saturday 17 March, the Allens decided to forgo their nightly stroll, but Fred went to the corner for a newspaper. “He was a voracious reader of newspapers,” says Gostanian, “as many as a dozen a day.”
For a while, Allen talked to Stanley Truchlinkis, who worked the newsstand. Then he headed home. There is a slight incline in the street, says Taylor, across from Carnegie Hall, which Allen had to navigate. As joggers know, the control needed to go safely downhill takes much strength and effort.
“Before he had covered fifty yards,” says Taylor, “Allen collapsed on the sidewalk.” Passers-by tried to help, but death was instantaneous. A medical examiner confirmed the fact at 12:05 am, on 18 March 1956.
“A police officer,” says Taylor, “asked Portland Hoffa, ‘How old was your husband.’ Her only response was, ‘is.’”
The police returned his possessions to Portland. “A worn ruby ring,” says Taylor, “given him by Aunt Lizzie when he graduated from the High School of Commerce,” in Boston. He also carried a wristwatch and rosary.
Allen had two rolls of paper money in his pockets. One roll clasped. The other bills were loose, intended for the mendicants he met while walking.
When Allen passed away, in 1956, a quarter went farther than a dollar, today. Yet, Allen prepared to give mendicants a dollar or two, which, today, might be five or ten dollars. His satire begged for social equality, as did his practice.
During his 24-year media career, Allen worked in radio, movies and television. He succeeded, wildly, in radio. Video seemed wildly beyond him.
As Havig says, Allen was best when focusing on the verbal. His art was verbal slapstick, which continues to stand out. He typed many letters, packed with irony and satire, each one in lower case, as he couldn’t shift for himself.
Allen said he was easily upset because a canoe frightened his mother. He called the wife of a neighbour, Eczema, because she has many rash moments. After a guest praised her hometown, Pittsburgh, Allen said, “It soots you.”
He saw a scarecrow, on his vaudeville travels, that was so scary the crows were returning corn they stole two years ago. This was the favourite Allenism of satirist James Thurber. It’s good when peers like your work.
Allen peeled the onion of doubt. In 2011, he might say the available information is ten trillion times what it was sixty years ago, but what of wisdom. He might decide, today, he was correct when he said the best substitute for experience is youth.
Allen did more with less. Asked if he had vertigo, Ajax Cassidy, a resident of the ‘Alley,’ said, “No, only two blocks.” Allen was an artist in sound and almost alone, during his time, except for Henry Morgan and then only maybe.
Time and context make the difference for satirists. Allen is no exception. About Fiorello La Guardia, mayor of New York City from 1934 until 1945, Allen said he’s a dynamo, which is why City Hall must be near the Battery. Few, today, outside New York City, know of the small-in-stature Fiorello La Guardia or the Battery section of Manhattan.
More time worthy, perhaps, is an exchange with Timken Slaw, who says he’s a kite retailer. “Oh,” says Allen, “you sell kites, retail?” “No,” says Slaw. “If the tail comes off your kite, I’ll re-tail it for you.”
Mr. Shill is the cream of café society, said Allen, and we curdle in his presence. About his announcer, Jimmy Wallington, he says, “You’re so wet, if you lie down for a nap, the government will stock you with trout.” Hanging, said Allen, is too good for a punster; he or she should be drawn and quoted.
Not only did Kenny Baker, the singer, not know anything, said Allen, he doesn’t suspect anything, either. On 7 May 1941, Allen aired a 60-minute “panaversary” to the radio career of Jack Benny. During the show, Allen never mentioned the name, Jack Benny. Euphemisms and allusions, intonations and inflections did the job better than did words.
Allen committed fewer gender blunders, by the standards of today, than expected. Mrs. Nussbaum was strong and independent, creative and funny, without devaluing women. The character, Portland, cut from the mould of “Dumb Dora,” often got the final word, as did the seldom heard, Mrs. Prawn.
Pansy Nussbaum was not a feminist. “For two years,” she says, “at Far Rockaway [beach,] I am Miss Low Tide.” Pansy said she stole her husband, Pierre, from his girlfriend; after twenty years of marriage, she knew crime did not pay. **
“Allen,” Martin Gostanian says, “was almost completely east coast, as heard in his many references to suburbs of New York City. On ‘The Jack Benny Show,’ Mel Blanc, announcing train departures, would say, ‘Train leaving on track five for Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga,’ towns near Los Angeles.
“The Allen shows did well on the west coast and in between, but not as well as on the east coast. Allen remained in New York City, when others, such as Jack Benny moved to Los Angeles. Allen had an east coast flavour that other top-rated shows did not.”
The Portland character used mostly gender-neutral bad jokes as a bridge. A man or woman could deliver her material, without ruin. “American, today, is like a bowling alley,” said Portland. “There are strikes everywhere.”
On one show, Portland revealed that, “Mother won a thousand bars of Oh-boy soap.” Allen asked, “How did she win the soap.” “Mother completed the phrase, ‘I use Oh-boy soap because,’ in less than twenty-five words.” Allen asked, “What did she write?” Portland said, “Mother wrote, ‘I use Oh-boy soap because I’m dirty.’”
The search, for Fred Allen, aimed at honour and freedom for everyone. He suffered the abuse of bookers and stage managers. He was no different from an assembly line worker, DJ or insurance salesperson: at the mercy of a boss.
Radio success gave Allen the means to rise above abusers. He won battles against “Molehill Men” that wanted to censor his show. Allen wanted everybody to make his or her own way, not dance as a puppet, on strings pulled by someone else, for their good, not yours.
Edward R. Murrow shared many ideas with Allen. They worried about how machinery rolled over ideas. Neither, in any way, was a Luddite; there were no wrenches jammed in the workings of progress.
Allen and Murrow knew how the cost and complexity of equipment affected content decisions. Murrow battled the McCarthy witch-hunts and won. For his patriotic duty, CBS banished Murrow to Sunday afternoons, the graveyard of pre-football television. Advertisers, with deep pockets, affected miserly networks.
P. T. Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Fred Allen said, "There’s a moron born every moment.” Morons came in two forms: someone who exploits others or someone who didn’t bother to notice the abuse they suffer and try to do something about it.
Satirists poke us to see what happens. Too often, we don’t respond. They keep poking, as did Fred Allen.
Satire aims to reveal social evils. Hyperbole, wrapped in irony or scorn, is the main tool of satirists, who may be gentle or harsh, urbane or coarse. The goal of satirists is to teach or reform as they entertain.
As a satirist, Fred Allen is in good company. Jonathan Swift, the seventeenth century satirist, thought as did Allen. “Government without the consent of the governed,” said Swift, “is the very definition of slavery.” “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed,” which Allen echoed, often.
G. Bernard Shaw, who shared the earth with Allen, offered comments in line with Allen. “A gentleman,” said Shaw, “is one who puts more into the world than he takes out.” “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” “All great truths begin as blasphemies.”
Bill Hicks agreed with Allen, Swift and Shaw, but was much more direct. He plainly called those who didn’t heed his warnings, Puppet People. Doomed to dance to a tune played by someone else, abuse by inept leaders, dim-witted media and greedy business was their fate.
Allen was the first and best broadcast satirist. A great many want-to-be broadcast satirists have come and gone, but Allen remains. He worked for ear and mind, not only money.
“We need to know about Fred Allen,” says Ken Meyer, “but that seems to take much luck, today. Jack Benny was on television for twenty years. For this reason, awareness of him and his work lingers. Allen didn’t get along, well, with television, other than two seasons on ‘What’s My Line.’ This seems to make him invisible.
“About the only way someone knows of Allen, now,” says Meyer, “is if she or he is a fan of old-time radio and stumbles across the Allen shows. That’s how I know about him. In fact, someone, today, might overlook Allen because his comedy was so topical.”
“Given a chance, I think it’s easy to acquire a taste for Allen,” says Martin Gostanian. “Taken in context, his characters, such as Senator Claghorn or Ajax Cassidy, are hilarious. Out of context, of course, Claghorn, Cassidy and other Allen characters may easily offend.”
Getting offended, occasionally, is nutrition for your mind. There’s something to offend everyone in the work of Fred Allen. This is good. Any time you’re offended, you, at least subconsciously, re-evaluate your ideas. If your ideas remain intact, you were on the mark before the challenge. If your ideas change, after you’re offended, you’re in a better place.
* * * * *
Satirists are important. Their concern for the common good is crucial. If we pay attention, we benefit, a great deal.
If we don’t pay attention, shame on us. If we paid attention, 4,439 young American women and men would be joking with friends, laughing like children: loving and living. So, too, would 100,000 or more Iraqi civilians.
Satirists have a huge appetite for lessons that make us laugh. What we learn in laughter, we remember most. There lies the heart and soul of Fred Allen, satirist: laughing, learning and living.
Martin Gostanian is a media historian, living in Los Angeles, California.
Laura Leff is Founder and President of the International Jack Benny Fan Club (IJBFC). Click here to visit the official IJBFC web site.
Bobb Lynes is co-host, with Barbara Watkins, of “Don’t Touch that Dial,” on KPFK-FM, in Los Angeles, California. The show, now in it's 38th year, is all about Old-time Radio. Lynes served several terms as President of SPERDVAC, which aims to preserve and encourage radio drama, variety and comedy. Lynes co-authored, with Frank Bresee, “Radio’s Golden Years.”
Ken Meyer hosted "Radio Classics," on WEEI-AM, in Boston. He produced "The Big Broadcast of 1975," the first old-time radio convention, for WBZ-AM, in Boston. He is a frequent guest on radio shows featuring old-time radio.
Mel Simons is a Boston-based entertainer, specializing in old-time radio. Click here to visit his web site.
Fred Allen (1954) "Treadmill to Oblivion," published by Wildside Press.
Fred Allen (1956) "Much Ado About Me," published by Wildside Press.
Eric Barnouw (1966), “Tower in Babel: a history of broadcasting in the United States to 1933,” published by Oxford.
James E. Downey (1913), "Education for Business: the Boston High School of Commerce," in "Journal of Political Economy": 21, 3 pp. 221-242.
John Dunning (1998), “On the Air: the encyclopedia of old-time radio,” published by Oxford.
John Dunning (1976), “Tune in Yesterday: the ultimate encyclopedia of old-time radio: 1925-1976,” published by Prentice Hall.
Norman H. Finkelstein (2000 ), “Sounds in the Air: the golden age of radio,” published by Authors Guild Backinprint.com.
*Martin Grams (2033), "Information Please," published by Bear Manor Press.
Allan Havig (1990), "Fred Allen's Radio Comedy," published by Temple University Press, is a study of humour for which Allen is the exemplar.
Charles Laughlin (1994), "J. Scott Smart aka the Fat Man." Three Faces East Press
Thomas DeLong (1991), "Quiz Craze: America's infaturation with game shows," published by Praeger.
Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd (1957 ), “Middletown: a study in modern American culture,” published by Harcourt Brace.
Elizabeth McLeod (2005), “The Original Amos ’n’ Andy: Freeman Gosden, Charles Correll and the 1928–1943 Radio Serial” published by McFarland.
Gerald Nachman (1998), “Raised on Radio,” published by University of California Press.
Walter Lippmann (1922), “Public Opinion,” published by the Free Press.
Geoffrey Perrett (1982), “America in the Twenties,” published by Simon and Shuster.
dr george pollard (2010), "Muck Made Meyer: interview with Ken Meyer," posted on grubstreet.ca
Tong Schwartz (1973), “The Responsive Chord,” published by Doubleday Anchor.
Anthony Slide (1982), "Great Radio Personalities," published by Vestral Press.
Warren Sloat (1979), “1929: American before the Crash,” published by MacMillan.
"Time" Magazine (1947), "Radio: the world's worst juggler," cover story for the week of 7 April.
*Robert Taylor (1989), “Fred Allen: his life and wit,” published by Little, Brown, is an autobiography in the guise of a biography.
Llewellyn White, (1959), “The Growth of American Radio: ragtime to riches,” in Wilbur Schramm, editor, “Mass Communications” published by the University of Illinois Press: second edition.
Jordon R Young (1999), "Laugh Crafters," published by Past Times.
This posting contains historical materials, analysis of these materials and conclusions drawn from the materials and analysis. As such, this posting may contain comments or depictions that some view as ethnocentric. The historical materials reasonably and honestly reflect the common use of images and language, opinions and attitudes extant at the time and place of creation.
Revised 7 April 2011.
dr george pollard is a Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa.
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