by PETER TATCHELL (reprinted from LAUGH MAGAZINE #4, 1992)
Many of today’s comedians rely on four-letter words for most of their material. Sixty years ago American radio funnyman Fred Allen was content to use a three-letter word … wit. Allen was widely regarded as the leading light of the golden age of broadcasting from the early 1930s until the dawn of the television era twenty years later. His cleverly structured wordplays endeared him to millions of listeners across the country and his program was a Sunday night institution for much of its run.
Fred Allen loved the English language and in addition to writing most of his scripts, he was adept at producing a clever and totally spontaneous ad-lib should the occasion arise. His humorous approach to everyday life surfaced off-air as well, as evidenced by his prodigious letter writing (a collection of which appeared in print a decade after his death).
Born John Florence Sullivan in Massachusetts on May 31 1894, he first achieved fame as a juggler (like that other great wordsmith, W.C. Fields). A vaudeville tour to Australia in 1916 was the catalyst to his becoming a comedian, though at that stage of his career he was known as Freddy James. Soon after his return to the U.S., a mix-up by a booking agent had him billed as Fred Allen, the name he would use for the rest of his life.
The next few years saw Fred progress from small-time vaudeville circuits to starring roles on Broadway. His first appearance there was in The Passing Show Of 1922 for the Shuberts, who then used him in a number of their other productions: Artists And Models, Vogues Of 1924 and The Greenwich Village Follies. Though not particularly notable in show business terms, they did serve to introduce Fred to the love of his life, Portland Hoffa. The pair formed a double act both professionally and offstage (they were married in early 1927).
Fred’s next venture on Broadway was the musical Polly which despite a lengthy series of out-of-town tryouts couldn’t survive longer than a couple of weeks in the big time. Within three months though, he was back with The Little Show and finally on the road to stardom. Co-starring with Clifton Webb and Libby Holman, Allen (and wife Portland) had a hit on their hands. One of the revue’s main sketches, The Still Alarm, was subsequently filmed by Warner Bros. as a Vitaphone short, with Allen and Webb repeating their stage roles. Fred also appeared in a Paramount short called The Instalment Collector but was never to find success as a movie star.
Allen, Holman and Webb repeated their Little Show success in Three’s A Crowd which opened in October 1930 and ran for some 272 Broadway performances before embarking on a tour, but the early 1930s saw the height of the Depression and the show was forced to close soon after. Back in New York, Fred was not encouraged by the precarious state of flesh and blood theatre and decided to try his luck in an entertainment medium then in its infancy … radio.
On Sunday night October 23rd 1932 Fred Allen debuted in the half-hour Linit Bath Club Revue over C.B.S. His $1000-a-week salary (out of which he had to pay his cast) was considerably less than that paid to others on the airwaves like Al Jolson, Ed Wynn or Eddie Cantor, but in a matter of weeks he was making a name for himself. His witty playlets and oddball characters took a sideways look at life which appealed to listeners everywhere, and was in stark contrast to the more recognizable offerings by his radio rivals. By the end of the 26-week season he was pleased to receive a letter of encouragement from Groucho Marx.
Hellman’s Mayonnaise picked up the sponsorship for Allen’s second season and The Salad Bowl Revue aired on Friday nights over NBC stations during the latter half of 1933.
With his success as a radio comedian, Allen found himself on a treadmill to oblivion (to quote the title of his memoirs). Week after week he was required to come up with a new collection of routines for the program, and the quest to be original and imaginative was a daunting task.
Moving to a Wednesday night timeslot in January 1934, Allen headlined The Sal Hepatica Revue which ran for eighteen months, initially as a half-hour show before expanding to a 60-minute offering for the bulk of its run.
By the mid-1930s, network programming had settled into the traditional October to June seasons, and Fred took over the 9pm to 10pm slot with his memorable Town Hall Tonight and stayed with N.B.C. until the end of the decade. The format for the show included interviews with unusual guests (often with strange occupations) and performances by ‘The Mighty Allen Art Players’, his group of radio professionals adept at providing vocal characterisations for his imaginative sketches.
Allen satirized the news stories of the day and conducted dummy interviews with some spokesperson or man on the street who’d comment on the topic under discussion.
The broadcast of December 30 1936 was particularly notable in creating a running gag that became one of radio’s most successful routines … Allen’s feud with Jack Benny. Fred’s guest that night was a child violinist whose playing of The Flight Of The Bumblebee inspired an Allen ad-lib which praised the ten-year-old’s performance and suggested in comparison Benny should hang his head in shame. The following Sunday night, Jack responded with an Allen put-down on his program and the ‘tit-for-tat’ mud-slinging was on in earnest. In private life, the two were the best of friends, and the rivalry on air led to a public confrontation at New York’s Hotel Pierre, the movie Love Thy Neighbor, and countless guest spots on each other’s broadcasts throughout the 1940s. The gag was still going strong when Fred appeared on Benny’s television show in 1953.
At the end of 1940, Fred switched to CBS and hosted The Texaco Star Theatre, another hour-long program in his old timeslot on Wednesday nights. In early 1942 the show switched to Sunday nights, and from the 1942/3 season onwards became a 30-minute broadcast (in line with most of the other big name offerings).
Highlight of these new half-hour programs was a feature called Allen’s Alley where Fred would discuss a weekly topic with the residents of a mythical, multi-cultural neighbourhood. As he wandered from house to house he’d get the views of Mrs. Pansy Nussbaum (a Jewish immigrant lady played by Minerva Pious), cantankerous Irishman Ajax Cassidy (Peter Donald), rustic hayseed Titus Moody (Parker Fennelly) and a southern politician Senator Beauregard Claghorn (Kenny Delmar, Allen’s announcer). The Claghorn character was notable in inspiring an animated spinoff, the loud-mouthed rooster Foghorn Leghorn of Warner Bros. cartoons. The Alley lasted the rest of Allen’s radio career and along the way other inhabitants came and went (depending on their popularity), including the Shakespearian thespian Falstaff Openshaw who recited pretentious poetry (portrayed by Alan Reed, who later achieved fame as the voice of Fred Flintstone).
Having a shorter, tighter show had its drawbacks though. Fred often found his adlibbed remarks sprinkled throughout the performance resulted in the audience laughing much longer than had been allowed for, and as a consequence the half hour was up before the final sketch had been completed. On such occasions, network executives simply faded the proceedings mid-sentence to allow the following program (paid for by a different sponsor) to begin on time.
Allen was also unhappy with the industry bureaucrats who seemed intent on blunting his satirical comments lest they offend some minority or ethnic group. Having slaved over a hot typewriter wracking his brain for ideas (often until early morning) he resented this continual interference with his creativity.
By the end of 1944, Fred’s health was beginning to suffer the years of overwork, and high blood pressure forced him to take a year off. He returned to the airwaves in October 1945, again on Sunday nights, but back on N.B.C.
With television in the wings, the golden days of radio were almost over and Allen’s program wasn’t helped when a big-money giveaway show called Stop The Music was scheduled up against him. Within months his ratings suffered badly as a sizeable portion of his audience was lured away by the promise of cash and prizes, and by mid-1949 The Fred Allen Show made its last broadcast.
A year later, Fred was signed for television to star in The Colgate Comedy Hour (in rotation with Eddie Cantor, Bobby Clark and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis). Despite his considerable experience on the stage, he wasn’t at ease in front of the cameras, and disliked having to memorise the material (having spent nearly twenty years reading from a script). An attempt to transfer Allen’s Alley to the medium wasn’t successful and he stayed with the Comedy Hour for only half its first season.
Fred’s radio career wasn’t entirely over, however, and he appeared (on a semi-regular basis) on N.B.C.’s 2-hour Sunday night extravaganza The Big Show, hosted by Tallulah Bankhead. Though boasting almost every star name in show business, the audience had switched to television, and the venture was abandoned after two seasons.
Allen tried several other television formats in the early 1950s (Sound Off Time in late 1951, Judge For Yourself in the 1953/4 season, and finally appeared as a panellist on What’s My Line) but his health wouldn’t allow him to endure the pressure of another full-scale variety show.
In 1954 he turned his attention to writing, and compiled a volume of reminiscences about his radio years called Treadmill To Oblivion which soon became a best seller. He had almost completed a follow-up Much Ado About Me (detailing his earlier career) when he suffered a fatal heart attack while out for a stroll in his beloved New York on March 17 1956.
Radio performers over the years have found fame to be a fickle thing and, though the name Fred Allen may not have endured as well as it deserves, he is still revered as one of the major talents in an era when millions of Americans found fun and enjoyment in the glow of a bakelite box.
Here are a few of the lines Fred penned …
I like long walks — especially when they’re taken by people who annoy me.
When you smoke cigarettes you’re likely to burn yourself to death. With chewing tobacco the worst thing you can do is drown a midget.
To a newspaperman, a human being is an item with the skin wrapped around it.
She was prettier than a peacock backing into a sunset.
Milk hasn’t been so high since the cow jumped over the moon.
His arm looked like a buggy whip with fingers.
I’ve seen better looking legs on a bridge table.
It was as quiet as a small boy banging two pussy willows together in a vacuum.
(Discussing a geometry problem) Let X be the signature of my father.
(On New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia) He’s the only man I know who can milk a cow standing up.
(To a strange-looking cello player in the orchestra pit) How much would you charge to haunt a house?
California is a wonderful place to live – if you’re an orange.
An associate producer is the only guy in Hollywood who will associate with a producer.
I’m always afraid I’ll wake up at twelve o’clock and find the place turned back into a pumpkin.
The Brown Derby is a popular cafe where people from Iowa mistake each other for movie stars.
Some movie stars wear their sunglasses even in Church – they’re afraid God might recognize them and ask for autographs.
A radio censor is a man who comes into his office every morning and finds a molehill on his desk. His job is to build that molehill into a mountain before he goes home.
Radio executives are a group of men who, singly, can do nothing, but together can agree that nothing can be done.
A vice-president is a bit of executive fungus that forms on a desk that has been exposed to conference.
On a boat this growth would be called a barnacle.
If the United States can get along with one vice-president, I don’t know why N.B C. needs twenty-six.
An advertising agency is eighty-five per cent confusion and fifteen per cent commission.
Jack Benny is the only fiddler who makes you feel that the strings would sound better back in the cat.
There is a saying you can’t take it with you. But if you see a funeral procession with a Brink’s armoured car behind the hearse, you’ll know Jack is having a try at it.
Fred Allen’s Prize Playlets (1929 Warner Bros./Vitaphone short)
The Still Alarm (1930 Warner Bros./Vitaphone short)
The Instalment Collector (1930 Paramount short)
Thanks A Million (1933 Twentieth Century Fox feature)
Sally, Irene and Mary (1938 Twentieth Century Fox feature)
Love Thy Neighbor (1940 Paramount feature)
It’s In The Bag (aka The Fifth Chair) (1945 United Artists feature)
We’re Not Married (1952 Twentieth Century Fox feature)
O Henry’s Full House (1952 Twentieth Century Fox feature)
The Linit Bath Club Revue
CBS Sundays 9pm October 23 1932 to April 16 1933 (30 min)
Recordings of Dec 25, Jan 8 to 22 are with collectors
The Salad Bowl Revue
NBC Fridays 9pm August 11 to December 1 1933 (30 min)
no known recordings
The Sal Hepatica Revue
NBC Wednesdays 9-30pm January 3 to March 14 1934 (30 min)
and Wednesdays 9pm March 21 1934 to June 26 1935 (60 min)
Mar 21 to Apr 28 1934 are with collectors
Town Hall Tonight
Series 1: NBC Wednesdays 9pm October 2 1935 to June 24 1936 (60 min)
Oct 2, Oct 9, Jan 15, Jan 22, Feb 26, Apr 1 and Jun 17 are with collectors
Series 2: NBC Wednesdays 9pm October 7 1936 to June 30 1937 (not on Oct 14) (60 min)
Sep 23 to Oct 7, Oct 28, Jan 27, Mar 10 and Mar 17 are with collectors
Series 3: NBC Wednesdays 9pm November 17 1937 to June 29 1938 (60 min)
Dec 22, Dec 29, Feb 23, May 18, May 25, Jun 8 and Jun 22 are with collectors
Series 4: NBC Wednesdays 9pm October 5 1938 to June 28 1939 (60 min)
Dec 21, Jan 25, Feb 8, Feb 22, Mar 1, Mar 22, Apr 5 and Jun 21 are with collectors
Series 5: NBC Wednesdays 9pm October 4 1939 to June 26 1940 (60 min)
Oct 4 to 25, Nov 8, Dec 27, Jan 31, Feb 7 to 28, Mar 20, Mar 27, Apr 3 to Jun 26 are with collectors
Texaco Star Theatre
Series 1: CBS Wednesdays 9pm October 2 1940 to June 25 1941 (60 min)
Oct 2 to 16, Nov 6 to Feb 19, Mar 5 to Apr 2, Apr 16 and Apr 23 are with collectors
Series 2: CBS Wednesdays 9pm October 1 1941 to February 251942,
Sundays 9pm, Mar 8 to Jun 28 1942 (60 min)
Dec 10, Mar 8, Apr 5, Apr 10, Apr 24, May 3, May 10, May 24, Jun 7, Jun 21 and Jun 28 are with collectors
Series 3: CBS Sundays 9-30pm October 4 1942 to June 27 1943 (30 min)
Oct 4 to Nov 1, Nov 15 to Dec 6, Dec 20, Jan 3, Jan 10, Jan 31, Feb 7, Feb 28, Mar 7, Mar 21, Apr 4, Apr 25, May 16 and May 23 are with collectors
Series 4: CBS Sundays 9-30pm December 12 1943 to June 25 1944 (30 min)
Dec 12, Jan 2, Jan 9, Jan 23, Mar 12 to Apr 23, May 7, May 28 and Jun 4 to 18 are with collectors
The Fred Allen Show
Series 1: NBC Sundays 8-30pm October 7 1945 to June 30 1946 (not Dec 23) (sponsored by Tenderleaf Tea) (30min)
Oct 7 to Nov 25, Dec 2, Dec 16, Dec 30, Jan 6 to 20, Feb 3 to Mar 24, Apr 14, Apr 28 to May 12, May 26, Jun 9, Jun 23 and Jun 30 are with collectors
Series 2: NBC Sundays 8-30pm October 6 1946 to June 29 1947 (sponsored by Tenderleaf Tea)(30min)
Oct 6, Oct 13, Oct 27, Jan 12, Jan 26, Feb 2, Mar 2, Mar 16, Mar 23, Apr 6, May 11, May 25, Jun 8 and Jun 15 are with collectors
Series 3: NBC Sundays 8-30pm October 51947 to June 27 1948 (sponsored by Tenderleaf Tea until Dec 28, Ford cars and trucks from Jan 4) (30min)
Oct 19, Oct 26, Dec 14 to 28, Jan 4, Jan 25, Mar 28, Apr 11 to May 9, May 23, Jun 6 and Jun 27 are with collectors
Series 4: NBC Sundays 8-30pm October 3 1948 to December 26 1948,
Sundays 8-00pm January 2 to June 26 1949 (sponsored by Ford cars and trucks) (30min)
Oct 24, Nov 7, Nov 14, Nov 28, Dec 5, Dec 26, Jan 9, Jan 23 to Feb 13, Feb 27, Mar 20, Apr 24, May 1, May 22, Jun 5, Jun 12 and Jun 26 are with collectors
* hundreds of additional broadcasts may be heard at the Boston Public Library
Fred also appeared in a number of AFRS wartime broadcasts …
Command Performance (30 min)
#4 (March 18 1942)
Christmas 1942 edition (late 1942) (60 min)
Christmas 1943 edition (November 6 1943) (60 min)
#98 (December 1943)
#135 (August 26 1944)
Christmas 1944 edition (October 1944) (135 min)
#148 (November 1 1944) (highlights compilation)
#218 (spring 1946) (highlights compilation)
5th Anniversary edition (May 29 1947) (60 minute highlights compilation)
Mail Call (30 min)
#63 (November 3 1943)
#104 (August 9 1944)
Fred Allen Looks At Life (2LPs)
Bagdad Records 2LP S 6969
Collection of 1930s and 1940s radio extracts, with narration.
The World Of Fred Allen
Nostalgia Lane LP NLR 1023
Re-issue of record one of Fred Allen Looks At Life
Linit Bath Club Revue
Radio Archives LP 1002
Complete broadcasts of December 25 1932 and January ? 1933.
The Famous Fred Allen Show of the 1940s
Memorabilia LP MLP 712
Complete broadcast of October 21 1945
Fred Allen Vintage Radio Broadcasts
Mar-Bren LP MBR 741
Complete broadcasts of October 28 1945 and April 11 1948.
Down In Allen’s Alley
Radiola LP MR-1008
Allen’s Alley sketches of
January 25 1948
December 28 1947,
October 7 1945
June 6 1945 (misdated)
plus The State Of American Humor broadcast of January 30 1949
and Fred’s speech to a Jack Benny Friar’s Club Roast of November 9 1951.
TheTexaco Star Theatre With Fred Allen
Radiola LP MR4083
Complete broadcast of May 10 1942
The Fred Allen Show
Radiola LP MR-I 146
Complete broadcasts of April 11 1948 and April 25 1948.
The Great Radio Comedians
Murray Hill 5LP 931699
Includes the complete broadcast of December 14 1947.
Jack Benny vs Fred Allen
Radiola 2LP 2MR-2930
includes extracts from Fred Allen shows of
March 25 1938 (misdated)
May 26 1946
June 26 1949
Jack Benny shows of
March 27 1938
January 15 1950
April 26 1953 (misdated)
Command Performance broadcasts of
December 25 1942
December 25 1943
December 25 1944
May 9 1947
Camel Comedy Caravan of
June 11 1943
and The Big Show of
November 5 1950
plus several Benny reminiscences.
Jack Benny & Fred Allen (The Radio Feud Continues)
Radiola LP MR-1111
includes promotions for Buck Benny Rides Again and Love Thy Neighbor
plus a complete Benny broadcast of December 27 1942 (with Allen).
Jack Benny & Fred Allen – Radio’s Greatest Feud
Murray Hill 3LP 898039
Same sketches as Radiola 2LP 2MR 2930,
plus the complete December 25 1932 Linit show
and a 1944 Jack Benny broadcast.
The Fred Allen Show and The Phil Harris Alice Faye Show
Nostalgia Lane LP PBO221
Features the complete January 20 1946 show, with guest George Jessel
plus a 1950 Harris and Faye broadcast.
Magnificent Rogue — The Adventures of W.C. Fields
Radiola LP MR-1049
One-hour Biography In Sound radio tribute to Fields, narrated by Fred Allen
Best Of Radio Comedy – Fred Allen and Jack Benny
LaserLight CD 12 686
features the Fred Allen Show of October 19 1947
Radio’s Greatest Comedians – Fred Allen
MMP/Prime Time Nostalgia CD 8006
“King For A Day” Feud With Jack Benny
The Housing Shortage
Fred Returns To Radio
Should Housewives Be Paid?
Fred Writes A Play For James Mason
Have You Ever Been Swindled?
Peter Lorre Pays A Visit
Town Hall Tonight
Radio Spirits CD 2709
features the broadcast of April 5 1939
Treadmill To Oblivion
by Fred Allen (Atlantic/Little, Brown & Co., 1954)
Much Ado About Me
by Fred Allen (Atlantic/Little, Brown & Co., 1956)
Fred Allen’s Letters
edited by Joe McCarthy (Doubleday & Co., 1965)
Fred Allen – His Life And Wit
by Robert Taylor (Little, Brown & Co., 1989)
Fred Allen’s Radio Comedy
by Alan Tavig (Temple University Press, Philadelphia. 1990)
the following titles feature chapters about Fred Allen
No People Like Show People
by Maurice Zolotow (Random House, 1952)
Some Interesting People And Times
by Irving Wallace (Dale Books paperback, 1978)
by Arthur Frank Wertheim (Oxford University Press, 1979)
More Funny People
by Steve Allen (Stein And Day, 1982)