- Historic Sites
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
Allen’s huge beneficences were possible, in part, because his own tastes were modest. He never owned a home in New York, preferring instead to rent an unpretentious four-room apartment in a convenient but unfashionable area between Radio City and Central Park. It was furnished with plain maple furniture and rag rugs. He had no servants, often ate breakfast in a drugstore, and helped his wife with the dinner dishes. He never owned an automobile, ate simply, rarely drank, and avoided nightlife. “why should i go to a nightclub?” he wrote the society columnist Louis Sobol in 1943 (typing, as usual, all in lower case), “i can get better air in a closet, i can cook better food myself, i can hear better music on a portable phonograph, and i can meet a better class of people in the subway.”
For recreation Allen played handball and boxed several times a week with the policemen, fire fighters, and postmen who frequented the Sixty-third Street YMCA in Manhattan, less convenient but more to his taste than the exclusive New York Athletic Club, which was only a block from his apartment. For vacations he and his wife spent the summers at Old Orchard Beach, a ramshackle coastal resort in Maine, where they rented a cottage he dubbed “Gulls’ Privy.” They later found that the Maine cottage was too exposed to autograph seekers, so they switched to quiet hotels on Montauk Point, far out on the then sparsely populated tip of Long Island.
“All I know about humor is that I don’t know anything.”
Once when Allen went to Hollywood, he and his wife insisted on living in an inexpensive hotel, but he reassured his agent by telling him, “Don’t be afraid. You don’t have to let on that you know us.” Allen’s antipathy for Hollywood and California was intense. “California is a great place to live—if you’re an orange” is perhaps his most quoted insult to the area, but he was even harsher on the film colony: “You can take all the sincerity there is in Hollywood, stuff it into a flea’s navel, and still have room for six caraway seeds and an agent’s heart.” He appeared in only a few movies, including Love Thy Neighbor, a 1940 feature, and It’s in the Bag, made in 1945, both of which costarred Jack Benny. Allen was not impressed with his films. “Every time I made a picture …,” he told S. J. Perelman, “it would turn up in one of the grind houses in Skid Row along with attractions called Daughters in Jeopardy or Marijuana, Weed With Roots in Hell. …”
In October 1940 the Texaco company took over sponsorship of Allen’s program, and at the end of the 1942 season it decided to cut the show to a half-hour, which “took a load off my mind,” Allen said in his memoirs. For the new, shorter format Allen invented “Allen’s Alley,” which made its debut as a regular feature on December 13, 1942. A series of dizzy spells in 1943, brought on by his chronic hypertension, forced Allen to give up his radio show entirely during 1944. When he returned to the air in the fall of 1945, the Alley blossomed into the “most famous of all airlanes,” as Time magazine put it. As usual, Allen wrote the scripts for the Alley, developing four characters who became its permanent residents in 1945. The characters were brought to life by an exceptionally talented quartet of performers who somehow managed to impress themselves indelibly upon the listeners during only five minutes in Allen’s Alley each week.
On each program Allen would come up with a topical “question for the evening” and stroll down the Alley to knock on the doors of its inhabitants and get their views on the subject. First he would encounter Sen. Beauregard Claghorn, a bombastic Southerner whose exclamations—“That’s a joke, Son!” and “Claghorn’s the name—Senator Claghorn, that is”—became national bywords after just four weeks of public exposure. Claghorn was played by Kenny Delmar, a dramatic actor who doubled as the show’s announcer. In subsequent years the creators of Warner Brothers’ cartoons paid Delmar’s Claghorn the compliment of imitation by giving their character Foghorn Leghorn, a pompous rooster, a Claghorn-like voice and delivery, down to the repeated use of “Son” and “that is” at the end of every sentence. Foghorn Leghorn is still seen today in Kentucky Fried Chicken commercials.
Allen used the Claghorn character, who spoke in a staccato bark, to score points against politicians, the bureaucracy, and boastful Southerners.
ALLEN: Well, Senator, about our question [for the evening]. Do you think advertising has any effect on our manners and customs?
CLAGHORN: Ah don’t trust advertisin’, Son. Especially them ads politicians put in the papers around election time.
CLAGHORN: Ah saw an ad last election, it said—Elect this honest, fearless, hardworkin’ enemy of graft and corruption. I busted out laughin’.
ALLEN: Who was the candidate?