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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
By 1945 Allen was employing four writers, and the postmidnight conference in a delicatessen had been converted into a Wednesday-afternoon session in a large room in the RCA Building in Radio City. There Allen’s staff, which included Nat Hiken, later the creator of Phil Silvers’s Sergeant Bilko character on television, would scour newspapers looking for promising topics: a meat shortage, a coal strike, the average family’s annual income—any subject that might interest or annoy the listeners. Allen, often having carried a brown-bag lunch, sat at the head of the conference table and the clippings would be passed up to him for inspection, or jokes suggested. The only person actually writing at these conferences was Allen. He kept a single sheet of paper in front of him and would cryptically put down one mysterious word to represent an entire line of dialogue, writing in an “infuriatingly fine print,” one observer said, that “looked as if a microbe with ink on its feet had briefly rumbaed on the paper.”
Following a typical four-hour brainstorming session, Allen would have a lone piece of paper, half-filled with his tiny hieroglyphics. That evening at home, following dinner, he would refer to it as he wrote and polished the Alley script, sometimes using his wife as a trial audience. On Thursdays he finished writing the rest of the show. Fridays the show was rehearsed twice for purposes of timing and cutting; on Sundays it was rehearsed once more in the afternoon. The orchestra rehearsed separately so the reaction of its members to the show’s jokes would be fresh and spontaneous. The program went on the air at eight-thirty Sunday night.
The streamlined Allen show also had segments involving celebrity guests. Allen enjoyed casting them in unlikely situations. He had songwriters Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II perform in a courtroom sketch; Charles Laughton blubber as a lachrymose soap opera character; opera diva Helen Traubel sing a commercial jingle; Wagnerian tenor Lauritz Melchior appear as a hillbilly and warble “Open Up Them Pearly Gates"; and Alfred Hitchcock act in a mystery he couldn’t solve. In a spoof of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore that featured the baseball manager Leo Durocher in a leading role, Allen sang an appropriately Americanized version of Sir Joseph Porter’s “When I Was a Lad”:
The immediate postwar years brought both the peak of Allen’s radio career and its stunningly swift decline. During the 1946–47 radio season Allen’s show twice topped the Hooper telephone-poll ratings survey, the first and only time he reached that height in midseason against his chief competitors. Within five months, however, his show had slumped to number thirty-eight in the poll, the victim of the ABC network giveaway program “Stop the Music.”
In the next few years, however, television proved to be a far more serious competitor, threatening not just Allen’s show but the careers of every radio entertainer. Ratings fell industry-wide as more Americans bought television sets and lost interest in the radio shows that had been their favorites. In 1948 there were only 172,000 television sets in the country, many of them in taverns. By 1952 approximately 72 million TVs were in use, mostly in homes. Television became the nation’s and the advertisers’ new passion.
Allen felt that television was simply recycled vaudeville.
In January 1949 Allen’s rating had fallen dismally, and his health, frequently precarious, was shaky. “The program might have enjoyed a few more years on borrowed time but my blood pressure was getting higher than the show’s rating and it was a question of which one of us would survive,” he wrote later. He signed off the air for good on June 26, 1949, one of the first of the big radio stars to succumb to television. (Jack Benny and Bob Hope continued working on radio into the mid-1950s, often doing both radio and TV simultaneously. Edgar Bergen’s program lasted until 1956.)