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Forgotten Laughter: The Fred Allen Story
The dour radio comedian regarded his work as totally ephemeral, but a new generation of comics has built upon his foundations
February 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 1
After a successful appearance as a juggler in an amateur show put on by the library’s employees, Allen made his public debut in an amateur contest held in Boston’s Hub Theatre in 1912. The audience response to the patter he delivered during his routine encouraged him to concentrate on humor rather than juggling. “It seemed to me that if I could be … funny, I could save a lot of time practicing juggling tricks. …” He subsequently billed himself as “The World’s Worst Juggler.”
By late 1914 Allen had decided to try to break into the big time in New York. “My arrival in New York created as much commotion as the advent of another flounder at the Fulton Fish Market,” he later wrote. But he was enough of a success on the minor New York-based vaudeville circuits that in 1916 he was offered bookings in Australia and New Zealand, where he toured for eleven months. It was a grueling but worthwhile apprenticeship. On the long train and boat trips between engagements, Allen read Dickens and Twain, Shakespeare, and the American humorists Artemus Ward, Bill Nye, and Josh Billings. “I learned that any joke or story can be told in many forms,” he wrote forty years later. “I came to Australia a juggler, and was to return to America a monolosist.”
A sponsor said, “Get me that man with the flat voice.”
By 1919 he had reached vaudeville’s mecca, New York’s Palace Theater. Thereafter he was able to obtain bookings on the best vaudeville circuits, including the one operated by the imperious J. J. ("Jake") Shubert. Shubert liked Allen’s act and signed him to appear in The Passing Show of 1922 , a musical revue in which Allen met a chorus girl named Portland Hoffa, who became his wife five years later.
Following his appearance in the Shubert revue, Allen was never without a Broadway engagement or major vaudeville booking for the next ten years. His wife joined his act, dancing and delivering “dumb dame” jokes. Although childless, their marriage was so congenial that they were rarely apart for more than a few hours during the next twenty-nine years. Their final stage appearance was in the musical revue Three’s a Crowd , starring Clifton Webb and Libby Holman. When it closed in 1932, and another show in which Allen was scheduled to appear never opened because of the deepening Depression, he began to consider trying radio.
After methodically studying the medium in general, Allen spent three weeks writing a sample script, selecting a cast and orchestra, and rehearsing the trial program, which featured the torch singer Helen Morgan. He had a phonograph record made of the show and submitted it to the president of Corn Products, the maker of Linit Bath Oil, who was looking for a radio program to sponsor. After listening to only a few minutes of the recording on a bad phonograph, the executive, intrigued by Allen’s dry, nasal delivery, said: “That’s enough. Never mind the show. Get me that man with the flat voice!” “The Linit Bath Club Revue” made its debut on October 23, 1932, on CBS.
From the beginning Allen had problems with sponsors, advertising people, censors, and network vice-presidents, whom he called “a bit of executive fungus that forms on a desk that has been exposed to a conference.” One advertising agency executive, concerned about Allen’s dour appearance, wanted him to dress up as a Keystone Kop and brandish a stuffed nightstick at the studio door so the audience going in would know “you’re the comedian.” (Allen refused.) A sponsor’s wife liked organ music, so it was decided that an organ solo would be played in the middle of the program. “Playing an organ solo midway through a comedy show is like planting a pickle in the center of a charlotte russe,” Allen later wrote.
Despite such interference Allen and a lone assistant were able to turn out half-hour programs featuring comedy sketches in which Allen played many parts, gave commentaries on society and politics, and performed musical numbers. A regular on the show—and all subsequent Allen programs—was his wife, Portland, whose radio voice, partly because of nervousness, “sounded like two slate pencils mating or a clarinet reed calling for help,” Allen wrote. In later years her high-pitched cry of “Mr. A-a-allen, Mr. A-aallen” began their comic dialogues and became one of the Allen show’s trademarks.
As Allen’s sponsors changed, so did the title of his program. In 1935 Allen decided to call the show “Town Hall Tonight” to give it broader appeal. Its hour-long format began with news bulletins, often featuring interviews with townspeople or newsmakers, a precursor to Allen’s later program feature “Allen’s Alley.” The format clicked. By 1936 as many as 250 newspaper editors throughout the country ranked Allen’s program as second only to Jack Benny’s in popularity. For the rest of the decade and much of the 1940s, Allen’s was always among the top ten shows on the air. Sylvester (“Pat”) Weaver, then Allen’s producer and later the head of programming for NBC, once claimed that at the height of Allen’s popularity, three out of four homes in the country listened to him.