February 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 1
The dour radio comedian regarded his work as totally ephemeral, but a new generation of comics has built upon his foundations
Satire, according to the playwright George S. Kaufman, “is what closes Saturday night,” but for seventeen years Fred Allen used his satiric brand of humor to create some of the nation’s most popular radio comedy.
“The other comedians … swoon at Allen,” said a onetime editor of Variety , the show business newspaper. In part the admiration of his colleagues was due to their knowledge that Allen, unlike many of his competitors, did not rely on a steady supply of gags from a stable of writers. Allen was his own chief writer, laboring twelve to fourteen hours a day in longhand, six days a week, to produce his scripts. He had only a few assistants, among them the future novelist Herman Wouk, the author of The Came Mutiny . By contrast, Bob Hope once employed thirteen gag writers, while Johnny Carson now has eight people regularly working on his material. “I am probably the only writer in the world who has written more than he can lift,” Allen told a friend in 1944. He had the scripts for his weekly show—thirty-nine of them a year—bound in black and stacked on more than ten feet of bookshelves, right next to a one-volume copy of the collected works of William Shakespeare, which took up just three and a half inches. He did so as “a corrective,” he said, “just in case I start thinking a ton of cobblestones is worth as much as a few diamonds.”
In vaudeville, the nation’s first popular mass entertainment, performers could hone their material for months and use it for years. But for radio they needed something new every time they went on the air. Allen was the hardest-working of radio’s funnymen, the only star of the new medium who tried to feed its voracious maw almost single-handedly, week after week, year after year.
Ultimately, perhaps inevitably, Allen suffered creative burnout, but his influence on other comics, by either virtue of his remarkably generous assistance or direct example, remains pervasive. Red Skelton has said that Allen wrote the famous “Guzzler’s Gin” routine that has been a mainstay of his act for decades. Younger performers, consciously or unconsciously, mimic Allen’s creations. In his “Town Hall Tonight” program of the mid-1930s, Allen featured “news bulletins” about the goings-on in his small, mythical community—a direct ancestor of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. The Allen program also had skits performed by the Mighty Allen Art Players, a feature later adopted by Johnny Carson, and interviews with “People You Didn’t Expect to Meet,” such as a goldfish doctor or a female blacksmith, an idea that now works well for David Letterman.
Only once during Allen’s long radio career did his program top the ratings, but his audience was considered the most heterogeneous and the most intelligent. “Of course, he has listeners at all levels,” an advertising executive said in 1945, “but you would be surprised how many professors, publishers, surgeons, bishops, mathematicians are Fred Allen fans.”
Although he wrote two delightful volumes of autobiography in his last years, Allen died a disappointed and bitter man on St. Patrick’s Day 1956. “Whether he knows it or not, the comedian is on a treadmill to oblivion,” he wrote toward the end of his life. “When a radio comedian’s program is finally finished it slinks down Memory Lane into the limbo of yesteryear’s happy hours. All that the comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughter.”
Allen was born on May 31, 1894, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and christened John Florence Sullivan. He was the son of James Henry Sullivan, a poorly paid bookbinder with a fondness for strong drink, and Cecilia Herlihy Sullivan. (Although he retained the name Sullivan legally, he adopted Fred Allen as his stage name.)
Allen’s mother died when he was not quite three years old, a year after giving birth to his younger brother, Robert. Allen’s disconsolate father took his small sons to live with his spinster sister-in-law, Elizabeth Herlihy, Allen’s “Aunt Lizzie.” She became his de facto parent when his father remarried and moved out twelve years later. Aunt Lizzie enrolled Allen in the Boston High School of Commerce, a trade school for poor children that was a pet project of Mayor John F. Fitzgerald, the future grandfather of John F. Kennedy.
His father got Allen a job in the Boston Public Library as a stockboy, responsible for fetching and returning books. In his spare time Allen, then fourteen, became an omnivorous reader. He stumbled upon a book about comedy and in time was to read everything he could find on the subject. As an adult he amassed a collection of four thousand humor books and a huge file of jokes and witty sayings. It was a stockpile that proved invaluable when he came to write his radio shows.
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.”
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.
On Wednesday, December 30,1936, Allen fired the first shot in what would become one of the classic battles of comedy: his feud with Jack Benny. That evening Allen’s program featured a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” played on the violin by a ten-year-old prodigy named Stewart Canin. Allen knew that Benny, whose violin playing was often the subject of gags, frequently listened to his prógram, so as he later remembered, “I said that if Mr. Benny had heard this tyke’s rendition of The Bee,’ he should hang his head in symphonic shame and pluck the horsehairs out of his bow and return them to the tail of the stallion from which they had been taken.”
Benny, a friend of Allen’s since their vaudeville days, knew a good cue when he heard one and also knew that a “battle” helped boost ratings. So week after week the two comedians exchanged insults on their respective programs, although it was six to eight months before they bothered to telephone each other to discuss the feud. Benny denounced Allen as “that certain New England boiled comedian,” and Allen made sport of the exaggerated vanity that was part of Benny’s comic persona. When the comedians’ first face-to-face encounter took place on Benny’s program of March 14, 1937, it drew what was then one of the largest listening audiences in radio history, second only to one of President Roosevelt’s fireside chats.
The feud remained a fixture of the Benny and Allen comic routines for the next decade, much to the public’s delight. In March 1942 Allen’s program was shifted to Sunday night, giving him an opportunity to ad-lib his response to Benny’s insults almost immediately after Benny’s program had ended—the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy show ran in between—and giving many Americans a Sunday-night ritual to observe: Benny to Bergen to Allen. Benny was an adept adlibber, but he tacitly conceded Allen’s superiority in the art during one of their joint appearances by shouting, “If I had my writers here, you wouldn’t talk to me like that and get away with it!”
The exchange of insults with Benny gave Allen opportunities for “verbal slapstick,” as the radio historian Arthur Frank Wertheim put it. “Allen threw words around like custard pies. …” The comedian and author Steve Allen (who is not related) felt that Allen “had a poet’s regard for the peculiarities of sound and expression and he seemed never so happy as when he could roll off his tongue some glittering allegory, metaphor or simile. He was actually more intrigued by this sort of thing than he was by the plain and simple joke.”
He also enjoyed making up names, and as a student of Dickens he tried to outdo the master in inventing bizarre ones. Once, however, while on vacation, Allen was approached by a mild-looking man who wanted to know why his name had been used on Allen’s show. His name: Sinbad Brittle. “After Sinbad Brittle accosted me in Biddeford, Maine,” Allen wrote later, “you can tell me your name is Ossip Knothole. I will believe you.”
Allen’s programs were produced by a process he called “a recipe for a nervous breakdown. … Our weekly schedule was a treadmill made up of seven revolving days.” Every day he read nine newspapers and scanned magazines and books in search of subjects for topical humor. Even when he was out of town, he had the periodicals sent to him by specialdelivery airmail. He tore out or clipped promising items and stuffed the bits of paper in his pockets. “As the day wore on my pockets seemed to be herringbone goiters and I looked as though I was a walking wastebasket.”
Since the radio networks forbade the use of recorded programs until the late 1940s, and Allen refused to move his show to Hollywood, during the thirties he had to give two performances of his Wednesday night program, one at 9:00 P.M. for the East Coast and Midwest audience and another at midnight for his West Coast listeners. Within minutes of the end of the second broadcast at 1:00 A.M. , Allen, the director, and his two chief writers, Herman Wouk and Arnold Auerbach (later the author of successful Broadway revues), would meet in a “runt-sized delicatessen” on Sixth Avenue to begin planning the next show. Allen’s staff, later expanded to four, worked up ideas with him. One might provide the plot for a comic sketch; another might supply the factual information on which to base an interview with a celebrity or one of the “People You Didn’t Expect to Meet"; together they might suggest outlines for colloquies with Portland Hoffa or Kenny Baker, a tenor who was the show’s regular singer and a performer in the sketches. Once Allen had these basic ingredients, he took the rest of the week to prepare the show, writing much of the script himself.
When the delicatessen conference adjourned around 3:00 A.M. , Allen usually walked to his apartment on West Fiftyeighth Street and got to bed by 4:00 A.M. He slept late on Thursdays, but in the afternoon he would visit with the next show’s guest star, discuss their proposed banter, then return home and begin writing the first draft of that segment of the program, working as far into the night as necessary to finish it. Friday he worked on his correspondence, and that evening he and his wife would go to dinner at a favorite Italian or Chinese restaurant or see a Broadway show, a movie, or a prizefight. It was their only night for recreation.
On Saturdays Allen emptied his pocket files of clippings and sorted them, deciding which five or six to convert into items for the show’s “newsreel,” which later was dubbed “The March of Trivia,” a parody of Time magazine’s “March of Time” broadcast. On Sundays he went to early morning mass at St Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church, the “Actors’ Chapel,” on West Forty-ninth Street, where he was married (and from which he was buried). Then he walked home and settled down in his small office—he called it his “cell”—to write the rest of the show, including his opening monologue and his chat with Portland. Auerbach recalled watching him sit in a “straigh-backed chair at the rickety card table, bespectacled, frowning, intent, wearing an old-fashioned green eyeshade, elastic bands around his sleeves, a bulge of tobacco wadded into his cheek, toiling hour after silent hour, scrawling tiny, almost illegible hen tracks with a stubby pencil across neat piles of paper.”
Usually Allen worked until 4:00 or 5:00 A.M. on Monday, then left a copy of the script with the night doorman of his apartment house so a Western Union messenger could pick it up around 8:00 A.M. and take it to be mimeographed and readied for a rehearsal with the show’s cast, which assembled at the studio at 1:00 P.M. on Monday. After rehearsal, timing, cutting, and a thorough rewriting by Allen, the final script was sent to the NBC Continuity Acceptance Department on Tuesday to be pruned of potentially slanderous or lascivious material. Copies were also sent to the sponsor and the sponsor’s advertising agency, which also took a whack at it. Allen had to be available all day Tuesday to argue about changes- he would “climb up the wall and scream and yell” over them, Pat Weaver recalled—and to make alterations in the script when he lost the battles.
On Wednesdays rehearsals for that night’s broadcast began at 10:00 A.M. Often the script was seven or eight minutes too long, and cuts had to be made. Allen would readily cut his own lines in order to give the other performers more of the laughs. “I don’t care whether people say, ‘Fred Allen was good last night.’ All I want them to say is, ‘The Fred Allen hour was good last night,’” he told one interviewer. The final script was trimmed to fifty-three minutes in order to allow for seven minutes of accumulated laughter and applause and commercials. The minute the second broadcast was over, Allen and his associates set off for the delicatessen, and the whole process began again. The spectacular bags under Allen’s eyes—once described by his friend S. J. Perelman as “pouches rivaling that of a kangaroo”—were well earned.
Like most professional humorists, Allen dismissed academic studies of humor. “All I know about humor is that I don’t know anything. Sure, you’re always reading that ‘there are only seven or eleven basic jokes,’ but I’ve never found anybody who could tell me what they are. At a guess, two of them probably deal with comparison and exaggeration, because these are at the bottom of a lot of our humor. Another one is probably incongruity,” he told an interviewer. But what makes things funny? “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a guesswork business.”
By the 1940s Allen was earning $20,000 a week, but he had to pay the salaries of all the other performers on his program, the assistant writers, the sound technicians, secretaries, and other support personnel. He still netted about $160,000 annually, but in contrast with his public image as a misanthrope, Allen was an incredibly soft touch and gave away some fifty thousand dollars a year to a roster of relatives, old acquaintances, and ex-vaudevillians who were on his “payroll,” as well as an army of panhandlers who sought weekly handouts from him. He tended to shrug off inquiries about his generosity. “I’ve been poor myself,” he’d say, or, “Why, I can remember, when I was a baby … if I wanted something to eat, I had to creep out and fight a bird for it.”
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.
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 ex- ceptionally 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 Clashorn the compliment of imitation by giving their char- acter 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?
CLAGHORN: Me! So long, Son! So long, that is!
The next door on which Allen knocked was that of Titus Moody, a taciturn New England rube whose invariable greeting was “Howdy, bub.” Moody was played by Parker Fennelly, a pioneer character actor on radio whom Allen considered its “finest simulator of New England types.” Until the mid-1970s Fennelly was still playing such a part as the corporate symbol of Pepperidge Farm bakeries, looking over his halfglasses and advising television viewers that “Pepperidge Farm remembers” how to make old-fashioned cookies and cakes.
Titus Moody was designed to appeal to Allen’s fellow New Englanders and all his rural listeners. Moody’s comments were full of references to farm life, and his jokes were laced with Bunyanesque exaggerations. His farm, for instance, was so poor that grasshoppers wouldn’t stop there. Moody talked of feeding his sheep “ironized” yeast so they would grow steel wool. Through Moody, Allen voiced a classic reservation about the electronic media. Asked if he liked radio, Moody replied, “I don’t hold with furniture that talks.”
Next Allen came to the residence of Mrs. Pansy Nussbaum, played with a rich Yiddish accent by Minerva Pious, a member of Allen’s company for more than fifteen years. Allen invented wild malapropisms for Mrs. Nussbaum. After he greeted her with a friendly “Ah, Mrs. Nussbaum,” she might reply, “You are expecting maybe Ingrown Bergman?” or “You are expecting maybe Emperor Shapirohito?” Allen was proud that Pious’s performance never became the “routine, offensive burlesque” but instead conveyed a character who “was a human being, warm, honest, understanding and—‘you should pardon the expression’—very funny.”
Mrs. Nussbaum had the dreams and suffered the woes of the country’s urban dwellers. Her ne’er-do-well husband, Pierre (who was never heard on the show), once swiped the money she was saving for a piano and bet it all on the horses. His luck wasn’t too hot.
MRS. NUSSBAUM: If it is raining borscht outside, Pierre will be standing with a fork. He will also be missing the potato. Last week at the race track he is losing everything. For three nights, every night, Pierre is having the same dream. On a plate he is seeing salami, baloney and liverwurst. By Pierre this is a hunch. He is betting everything. Coming last, a dead heat, is Salami, Baloney and Liverwurst.
ALLEN: What horse won?
MRS. NUSSBAUM: A longshot by name Cold Cuts.
Ironically, the one permanent resident of the Alley who did arouse the ire of an ethnic group came from Allen’s own—the Irish. It was Ajax Cassidy, played by Peter Donald and created, Allen later wrote, “for the Irish who had a sense of humor.” The Cassidy character became a “thorn in the pride of a small fulminating Celtic minority,” Allen said, but Ajax stayed in the Alley as long as Allen remained on the air.
Like the rural hick character embodied by Moody, a comic Irishman was a venerable part of the American humor tradition. Cassidy, as portrayed by Donald, always greeted Allen with a cheery “We-e-ell, how do ye do?” and spoke in a rapid Irish brogue.
ALLEN: Ajax, I heard you were sick.
CASSIDY: I was at death’s door. …
ALLEN: You were bad, eh?
CASSIDY: The doctor gave me a big bottle of … pills.
CASSIDY: After every meal the doctor said to swallow one pill and drink a small glass of whiskey. …
ALLEN: How is the treatment coming along?
CASSIDY: I’m a little behind with the pills.
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 Tr‰ubel 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.
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.)
Allen felt that radio comedy probably was doomed even without the advent of TV. “The audience and the medium were both getting tired. The same programs, the same comedians, the same commercials—even the sameness was starting to look the same,” he wrote. But he also was bitter about the rise of television, which he considered nothing more than recycled vaudeville. He was particularly scornful of the popularity of Milton Berle, whose show was so successful that he was called “Mr. Television.” Allen correctly predicted that Berle’s TV reign would be brief. “You can go only so long when you get your laughs by running in front of the audience wearing a pair of lady’s drawers,” he told a Life interviewer. He himself made a few tentative stabs at television, but he was uncomfortable with the medium. He was nervous about appearing without a script in his hand and he didn’t like “all those technicians wandering back and forth in front of me while I’m trying to tell a joke,” he said.
In 1952 Allen had first a heart attack and later a cerebral spasm, and his career as a performer was virtually over. His final appearances on television were as a panelist on “What’s My Line?,” where his talents were largely wasted.
With time on his hands Allen turned to writing books. Treadmill to Oblivion , which appeared in 1954, was a memoir of his radio career, and he was working on Much Ado About Me , about his vaudeville and Broadway days, when he died.
On the night of March 17, 1956, Allen, then sixty-one, was taking his dog on his customary stroll before bed when he was stricken with a heart attack a block from his apartment and collapsed on the street. Passersby carried him inside a nearby building, but he was dead within twenty minutes.
At the time of Allen’s death many critics and friends took issue with his belief that he and other radio comedians had toiled futilely on a “treadmill to oblivion.” Yet if the name of Fred Allen is mentioned today to anyone under forty who is neither a nostalgia buff nor an entertainment industry historian, the likely response is a blank stare. The movies in which Allen appeared are rarely seen; his early TV appearances were not filmed, as were those of Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, or Lucille Ball. And Allen was realistic about his radio career. At the end of one broadcast he had been heard to mutter, “Well, that one belongs to the sparrows.”
Certainly his radio programs were ephemeral, but for those who remember hearing them and for those who have built upon his comic inventions, the laughter they inspired is by no means forgotten. The day after Allen died, his friend and former employee Herman Wouk wrote to The New York Times : “In Fred Allen, the voice of sanity spoke out for all Americans to hear, during a trying period of our history, in the classic and penetrating tones of comic satire. Because he lived and wrote and acted here, this land will always be a saner place to live in. That fact is his true monument.”