Mr. Allen’s opus: Old-time radio listening, 24 October

The Fred Allen Show: A Prize for Listeners Missing Any Contest (NBC, 1948)

Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa, who couldn’t quite stop the music . . .(Photo: NBC)

The planned sketch for the evening—Fred (Allen) accepting a psychiatrist’s suggestion to read Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living for insomnia relief—is damn near superceded by the infamous offer. Opening the show even prior to its customary music fanfare and announcements, Kenny Delmar intones:

Ladies and gentlemen, stay tuned to The Fred Allen Show. If within the next thirty minutes you or any listener in the continental United States answer a telephone call from any giveaway radio program, and, because you are listening to this show, you miss an opportunity to win any gift then being offered, Fred Allen guarantees to make good by furnishing an equivalent gift; or, its value, up to five thousand dollars.

National Surety Corporation guarantees that Fred Allen will perform this agreement up to a total of fifty thousand dollars. Notice of any claim under these guarantees must be mailed to Mr. Fred Allen, by registered mail, care of the National Broadcasting Company, Radio City, New York; and, postmarked not later than midnight, October 25, 1948.

Relax. Enjoy The Fred Allen Show.

Allen makes little secret of his contempt for the giveaway programs, particularly Stop the Music. As he will write in a 1948 monograph:

Give-away programs are the buzzards of radio.

As buzzards swoop down on carrion so have give-away shows descended on the carcass of radio.

Like buzzards the give-away shows, if left to pursue their scavenging devices, will leave nothing but the picked bones of the last listener lying before his radio set.

Radio started as a medium of entertainment.

The give-away programs have reduced radio to a shoddy gambling device.

The networks that once vied with each other to present the nation’s outstanding acting and musical talent are now infested with swarms of hustlers who are only concerned with the gimmick and a fast buck . . .

The millions of listeners who seek entertainment will eventually flee the give-away programs and radio and turn to television, the theater, and leapfrog. Radio City, instead of being a house of joy for the masses, will become a Monte Carlo for morons.

Allen’s biographer, Robert Taylor, in Fred Allen: His Life and Wit, will call the tongue-in-cheek reward gambit “a tactical misstep.”

The announcement, a latter-day restatement of the ingenious ploys Allen practised in vaudeville, received massive publicity, but the scheme backfired. Obviously, the audience had to hear Stop the Music in order to know what it was losing; and radio critics quickly pointed out that fighting giveaways with giveaway offers undermined the aims of protest. The insurance offer spawned fraudulent claims and Allen cancelled the bond after a few weeks.

In 1947-48, Allen was the number six radio show in the country for the season (enjoying a 22.3 Nielsen rating) and the number two show on Sunday nights, behind Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy’s 22.7. In 1948-49, Allen’s Nielsen for the season will be 12.5, placing him in a dead heat with the show that appears on NBC an hour after his, Manhattan Merry-Go-Round.

What is happening to the venerable satirist in actuality?

 

Bert Parks, hosting Stop the Music . . . (Photo: ABC)

In one way, Allen will have Bergen to thank. Hosted by future Miss America pageant host Bert Parks, the hour-long Stop the Music on ABC has enjoyed a ratings steroid shot over the summer, because it has the 8 p.m. Eastern time half-hour to itself with Bergen on hiatus and his summer replacement, a half hour of music by the Robert Shaw Chorale, proves too bland to build any kind of substantial following. In Allen’s 8:30 p.m. slot, NBC offered a simplistic quiz show, RFD America (its contestants were farmers, customarily, but they weren’t the guilty parties), created—ironically—by Stop the Music mastermind Louis Cowan. CBS, in turn, hoisted a spy drama starring Herbert Marshall, The Man Called X.

Perhaps needless to say, Stop the Music holds its own and then some, at least until Bergen and Allen return. But at the end of calendar 1948, the CBS “talent raid” that will convince Jack Benny to leave his longtime NBC perch will not stop at Benny: Impressed with CBS’s treatment of him, Benny will also convince several of his NBC friends to make new deals with CBS . . . including Bergen, who will make his deal in January 1949 and take a well-deserved long vacation before returning in fall 1949.

 

Bergen taking Benny’s suggestion inadvertently wounded Allen . . .

The problem is that Bergen’s departure will prove Stop the Music‘s biggest break. When CBS breaks up the Bergen-Allen 8 p.m. powerhouse, NBC inexplicably moves Allen ahead half an hour. Starting in January 1949, Allen will go on at 8, directly opposite Stop the Music‘s opening. From an 11.7 rating in January, Allen will tumble to single-digits by March and a rueful 5.8 in June. At which time his hypertension will put him into ill health once again, and he will leave network radio as a host forever.

The sad irony: Allen might yet have produced a comeback, had his health not intervened, and had he still the spiritual heart for it. For Stop the Music itself will experience a ratings slide of its own. After peaking at 17.6 in March 1949, the show will slip to 14.6 in April, tumble to 9.8 in May, and slip further to 8.8 in June. For the full season, Stop the Music will be fortunate to show a cumulative 15.2—good for a mere sixth place finish on Sunday nights, an eighteenth-place tie among the season’s cumulative top twenty programs, and only three full points ahead of Allen and CBS’s 8 p.m. entry, The Adventues of Sam Spade.

Even if Allen’s health does not compromise him yet again, he might not survive despite his very respectable Sunday night showing. His dramatic tumble from number six across the board in 1947-48 to number 42 in 1948-49 might make him a liability NBC wouldn’t care to risk any longer, despite his long, distinguished, and popular radio career.

After another recuperative period, with a very few appearances in between, Allen will begin the rest of his life in fall 1950, making recurring guest turns on The Big Show, while serving, informally, as a writing consultant to its head writer, Goodman Ace. He will stab a few times at television, in spite of himself. He will write a memoir of his distinguished radio career, Treadmill to Oblivion, and land one of the panel slots on television’s What’s My Line.

A second memoir will be Much Ado About Me, addressing Allen’s hardscrabble New England youth and his vaudeville career. The book will be just shy of completion when he dies of a heart attack, on a late-night walk in New York City, in 1956.

Otherwise tonight: The Main Street regulars (formerly Allen’s Alley: Delmar, Minerva Pious, Parker Fennelly, Alan Reed) answer Fred and Portland’s (Hoffa) questions about the giveaway shows. Even with the acidic bitterness slipping through, this is still Fred Allen, and still trenchant satire. It may prove less than a grand idea to fight fire by starting another one on the next block, in the end, but even through his growing bitterness Allen will have solid innings yet to play.

Music: Al Goodman Orchestra, the Five DeMarco Sisters. Writers: Fred Allen, possibly Nat Hiken, Bob Weiskopf, Bob Schiller, and Larry Marks.

 

FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .

Comedy

The Great Gildersleeve: The Water Works Breaks Down (NBC, 1943)Commissioner Gildersleeve (Harold Peary) learns about horrible timing the hard way, after offering to show Marjorie (Lurene Tuttle) and Leroy (Walter Tetley)—whose homework involves writing about what Uncle Mort does for a living—exactly how the water works works. Birdie: Lillian Randolph. Hooker: Earle Ross. Announcer: Ken Carpenter. Music: Claude Sweetin. Director: Possibly Cecil Underwood. Writers: Sam Moore, John Whedon.

The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: The Live Steer (NBC, 1948)—There’s no such thing as a sacred cow when Alice (Faye) frets over rising food costs, at least until Phil (Harris) lets Remley (Elliott Lewis) talk him into a way to supply steak on the cheap without running up the butcher bills any higher. It sounds like a lot of bull until you get a good listen to these pros giving it a grilling. Willie: Robert North. Julius: Walter Tetley. Butcher: Gale Gordon. Announcer: Bill Forman. Music: Walter Scharf, Phil Harris Orchestra. Director: Paul Phillips. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.

 

Fantasy

Quiet, Please: The Good Ghost (ABC, 1948)—The ghost of a murder victim (Ernest Chappell, who narrates) wants not revenge but motive, when returning to the city and trying to speak to the man who killed him. Schuster: Murray Fogg. Ada: Ruth Latt. Rollo: Arthur Cole. Writer/director: Wyllis Cooper.

 

World War II

Elmer Davis with the News: The City of Flint is Still Missing (CBS, 1939)It isn’t the Michigan town but the American ship, The City of Flint, that collides with an Italian ship not long after the U.S. Senate repeals an arms embargo. Davis will also discuss the early weeks of what was to become World War II; rumoured activity by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Soviet Union; and, the annexing of three more territories as Soviet Socialist Republics.

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