17 March: Requiem for a satirist

Fred Allen at his height in the mid-1940s. (Photo: NBC.)

Fred Allen at his height in the mid-1940s. (Photo: NBC.)

This essay has been published the previous two St. Patrick’s Days in the life of this journal. I am pleased to answer a request to re-publish it again.

Fred Allen didn’t deserve to die on St. Patrick’s Day. This hardy satirist of Irish stock and hardscrabble New England youth—forced twice off the air thanks to the hypertension that would eventually sign his death warrant, provoking the heart attack that kills him at 61—also proved wrong in his eulogy for those who practised his singular art, in the closing passages of Treadmill to Oblivion (Boston: Atlantic Little, Brown, 1954):

We are living in the machine age. For the first time in history the comedian has been compelled to supply himself with jokes and comedy material to compete with the machine. Whether he knows it or not, the comedian is on a treadmill to oblivion. When a radio comedian’s program is finally finished, he slinks down memory lane into the limbo of yesterday’s happy hours. All that the comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughter, and some receipts from the Treasury Department.

Not according to his longtime friend and one-time staff writer, Herman Wouk, eulogising him warmly enough in a letter to The New York Times, the day after the master fell.


Advertisement for Town Hall Tonight. (Photo: NBC.)

Advertisement for Town Hall Tonight. (Photo: NBC.)

The death of Fred Allen, America’s greatest satiric wit in our time, brings to mind Hazlitt’s elegaic paragraph on the Restoration actors:

Authors after their deaths live in their works; players only in their epitaphs and the breath of common traditions. They die and leave the world no copy . . . In a few years, nothing is known of them but that they were.”

Fred Allen was an eminent comic actor. But without a doubt his great contribution to life in Americacame in the marvellous eighteen-year run of weekly satiric invention which was the Fred Allen show on radio. His was the glory of being an original personality creating new forms of intelligent entertainment. He was without peer and without a successful imitator.

His knife-like comment on the passing show of the thirties and the forties came from sources no other comedian had access to. He was a self-educated man of wide reading; he was a tremendously talented writer; and he had the deep reticent love of life and of people which is the source of every true satirist’s energy. Fred’s wit lashed and stung. He could not suffer fools. In this he was like Swift and like Twain. But his generosity to the needy, his extraordinary loyalty to his associates (in a field not noted for long loyalties) showed the warmth of heart that made his satire sound and important.

Because his work was a unique kind of comic journalism, the written residue might have suffered the usual fate of journalism. Fred fortunately preserved a fraction of it in that fine volume of Americana, his recent book Treadmill to Oblivion. When he died, he was working on his autobiography; the portion he completed will be published.

But the few writings he left will give future generations a slim notion at best of what sort of man he was. 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.

And that monument will survive to the 21st Century, in the form of several hundred surviving recordings of his singular radio programs. The laughter, and the art, will never be forgotten.


Town Hall Tonight: St. Patrick’s Day Show (NBC, 1937)

It only begins with the Town Hall News pondering how deeply hay fever sufferers are suffering, now that native vegetation is replaced in some places by alien vegetation. It continues with Portland (Hoffa) revealing her papa wants the host to make up his mind what night he wants to be on radio, following his infamous Pierre Hotel skirmish with Jack Benny the prior Sunday. (“I saw the man upstairs brushing his teeth with Jell-O this morning,” says Portland. “Just as long as they don’t try to buy Ipana in six delicious flavours,” rejoins the master.)

The Mighty Allen Art Players (John Brown, Charles Cantor, Minerva Pious, Walter Tetley, Harry Von Zell [also the show’s announcer]) perform a hillbilly drama. And, guests include Irish tenor Adrian O’Brien, the Doherty Sisters, Martin Byrnes and his Irish Band, and the Boston Amateurs, not to mention a return engagement by the previous week’s holdover, Professor Quigley, an escape artist who didn’t get the full three minutes he needed to escape from a packing case because he dropped his glasses—and wants to repeat the stunt tonight.

Music: Peter van Steeden Orchestra. Writers: Fred Allen, Harry Tugend, Arnold Auerback, Herman Wouk.

More of the Best of Mr. Allen . . .
The Linit Bath Club Revue: The Mammoth Department Store (CBS, 25 December 1932)

The oldest-known surviving program to feature the master as its host is a small jewel, even if you notice frequently enough that he’s still trying to feel his proper radio bearings: Allen plays a man with a sometimes unenviable profession—a department store manager on, and the day after, Christmas.

Cast: Portland Hoffa, Sheila Barrett, Roy Atwell, Charles Carlile. Announcer: Ken Roberts. Music: Lou Katzman Orchestra, Mary Leaf at the organ. Writer: Fred Allen.


Ad for Allen's Texaco Star Theater. (Photo: Texas Oil Company.)

Ad for Allen’s Texaco Star Theater. (Photo: Texas Oil Company.)

Texaco Star Theater Starring Fred Allen: Mountain Justice (CBS, 5 February 1941)

Or, the Judge Made a Pass at the Plaintiff’s Wife and Later Denied the Motion,” the latest edition of Hillbilly Court—preceding which singer June Brady, amateur of the month from Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour, highlights an hour that also includes Fred (Allen) interviewing poets thrown out of the Poetry Society Annual Dinner trying to crash the affair; and, Portland (Hoffa) recounting her hunt for the ground hog.

The Texaco Workshop Players: John Brown, Charles Cantor, Minerva Pious, Alan Reed, Jack Smart. Announcer: Jimmy Wallington. Music: Al Goodman Orchestra, Kenny Baker, the Martins, Wynn Murray. Writers: Fred Allen, Harry Tugend, Arnold Auerbach, Herman Wouk.


Texaco Star Theater Starring Fred Allen: Fred’s Biography (CBS, 23 May 1943)

That’s what George Jessel would like to try filming, assuming they can avoid complications, which is never guaranteed whenever this pair knocks heads. But first they’ll have to wait for the Alley demimonde (John Brown [John Doe], Minerva Pious [Mrs. Nussbaum], Charles Cantor [Socrates Mulligan], Alan Reed [Falstaff Openshaw]) to mull National Poetry Week.

Additional cast: Portland Hoffa, Jimmy Wallington (announcer). Music: Al Goodman and His Orchestra, Hi, Lo, Jack and the Dame. Writers: Fred Allen, possibly Roland Kibbee, possibly Nat Hiken.


The Fred Allen Show: King for a Day (NBC, 26 May 1946)

Leave it to the master to blend a vintage excuse to take a vintage poke at the radio quiz and game shows he held in such contempt with a chance to climax the infamous Benny-Allen mock feud by getting, shall we say, to the seat of the problem—at guest Jack Benny’s own expense, if you’ll pardon the expression.

Claghorn: Kenny Delmar. Titus: Parker Fennelly. Mrs. Nussbaum: Minerva Pious. Falstaff: Alan Reed. Music: Al Goodman Orchestra, the Five DeMarco Sisters. Writers: Fred Allen, possibly Robert Weiskopf and Nat Hiken.


The Fred Allen Show: Mr. and Mrs. Breakfast Show, Revisited (NBC, 27 October 1946)

The master and Tallulah Bankhead make the second time the charm when they reprise their classic jab at gooey husband-and-wife breakfast-hour radio shows (Dorothy and Dick in particular) with even more smooth aplomb than the first time around.

Claghorn: Kenny Delmar. Titus: Parker Fennelly. Mrs. Nussbaum: Minerva Pious. Falstaff: Alan Reed. Music: Al Goodman Orchestra, the Five DeMarco Sisters. Writers: Fred Allen, possibly Robert Weiskopf and Nat Hiken.


The Fred Allen Show: Suing to Return Fred’s Cuckoo Clock (NBC, 28 December 1947)

The final Allen show sponsored by Blue Bonnet Margarine and Tender Leaf Tea as his sponsors, ending a four-year relationship (Ford Motor Company would sponsor him for his final two years as a radio host), it launches with a smart “Allen’s Alley” sketch in which the usual suspects (Kenny Delmar, Parker Fenelly, Minerva Pious, Alan Reed) offer their takes on 1947′s outstanding events, continues with the master ruminating on Christmas gifts from radio friends such as Mary Margaret McBride and Jack Eigen.

Then, it climaxes with his bid to return a flawed cuckoo clock—the bird comes out backward—which goes from bad to worse when he bumps into Monty Woolley doing his own Christmas shopping after Christmas . . . and bragging about listening to A Christmas Carol so he, Woolley, could hiss at Lionel Barrymore.

With Portland Hoffa. Announcer: Kenny Delmar. Music: Al Goodman Orchestra, the Five DeMarco Sisters. Writers: Fred Allen, possibly Robert Weiskopf and Nat Hiken.


The Big Show: “It Ain’t Wally Parker, Kiddies” (NBC, 5 November 1950)

With that crack from the orchestra’s clarinet section does the master introduce his spotlight appearance in the final third of this series premiere, a last-ditch bid by NBC to keep classic radio variety alive, and he makes the most of his turn, firing off a few classic cracks about television before reprising one of his vintage satires—of a certain “rival” comedian’s radio program—in a slightly more streamlined and often more deadly reinterpretation.

Other highlights: a classic musical patter routine from the Old Schnozzolla; a show-stopping stage musical condensation from Ethel Merman, Paul Lukas, and Russell Nype (including “The Hostess With The Mostest” from Call Me Madam); a classic slip fight between Merman and host Tallulah Bankhead, then Durante and Danny Thomas (You stay outta this, No-Nose!); music from Mindy Carson and Frankie Laine; drama from Jose Ferrer; and, a rousing show-closing tribute to George M. Cohan (whose death occurred eight years to the day before the show premieres).

Announcer: Ed Herlihy. Music: Meredith Willson, the Big Show Orchestra and Chorus. Writers: Goodman Ace, Fred Allen (who often served as an uncredited contributor on the installments in which he appeared during the show’s two-season run), Mort Greene, Frank Wilson.

The laughter echoes unforgotten. Fred Allen really walked a treadmill to immortality.


Further Channel Surfing; or, the Wearing of the Grins

The Whistler: Mavis Cameron Disappears (crime drama; CBS, 1947)
The Whistler: The Human Catalyst (crime drama; CBS, 1948)
The Halls of Ivy: Dirty Politics (comedy; NBC, 1950)
My Favourite Husband: The Wills (comedy; CBS, 1950)
Bold Venture: Diamond Fencing and Fisticuffs (adventure; Syndicated, 1952)
Gunsmoke: Spring Freshet (western; CBS, 1957)

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