Revisiting the radio works of Fred Allen

By Elizabeth McLeod


"All that the comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughter" -- Fred Allen, 1954

His programs are an acquired taste. Lacking the mass appeal of a Jack Benny or the down-home style of a Fibber McGee, Fred Allen has always been something of a dilemma for the old-time-radio newcomer. Some are put off by his reputation as a "topical" comedian -- others find his shows just a bit too astringent, lacking the warmth of more mainstream radio comedy.

But Fred Allen was an entirely different kind of comedian. He was a wordsmith, not a jokester; an observer, not an actor. His humor didn't grow out of the standard set-up/punchline progression -- it was strung thruout his sentences.  And far from being a "topical" comic whose material was as perishable as yesterday's newspaper, the heart of his comedy flowed from a distinctly absurdist view of the human condition  In many ways Fred Allen doesn't at all fit the image of what a radio comedian was supposed to have been.

Fred's earliest radio shows grew out of his work on the Broadway revue stage -- the Linit Bath Club Revue, the Hellmann's Salad Bowl Revue, and the Sal Hepatica Revue were all essentially the same series. Each week, Fred and his supporting cast would present a sketch set against some occupational background -- a hotel, a department store, a courtroom, a prison. This was a unique concept for the era -- most of the stage comics who descended on radio en masse around 1932 stuck to the vaudevillian comic/straight man pattern. Allen's early broadcasts were among the first to adapt the revue sketch format for the air.

A typical example is the "Linit" show for December 25, 1932 -- in which Fred is cast as the harried president of the Mammoth Department Store. Like the Broadway sketches of the era, the show has a hard, cynical edge -- the Depression was not a "gentle" time.  Fred is abused by his incompetent staff, harassed by surly customers, persecuted by an efficiency expert, and wraps up the show by watching his store Santa commit suicide. The final comment on this bizarre Christmas Night scene comes from a smart-mouthed kid -- who sums up all the bitterness of Herbert Hoover's America in a single sentence: "There ain't no Santy Claus!"

It took a while for the Broadway cynicism to wear off Fred's shows -- and it never disappeared entirely. The only known recordings of his 1934 "Sal Hepatica Revue" series, fragmentary airchecks found in the Rudy Vallee Collection, confirm that Fred's early style was consistently hard-boiled, sophisticated, and primarily "urban" in its appeal. It wasn't until the advent of the "Town Hall Tonight" format in 1934 that a trace of warmth began to creep into Fred's programs.

The "Town Hall" years were Fred Allen's happiest in broadcasting, and marked a considerable shift in his style, as he tried to broaden his appeal into the small towns. Each week, Fred led a parade of rural zanies to a show "at the Old Town Hall," and in the earliest shows, the setting was specified as the town of "Bedlamville." Local characters emerged -- Hodge White the Grocer, Pop Mullen the Lunch Wagon Man, and others, all described by Fred in his weekly "Town Hall Bulletins," but never given voice.

It was also during this era that Fred first gained his reputation for "topical" humor, introducing the "Bedlam News" in May 1934. This feature quickly developed into the "Town Hall News," a parody newsreel which "Sees Nothing - Shows All!" Fred seldom commented on the Big News Of The Era in these newsreel sketches -- instead, he focused on the silly happenings which might get a paragraph or two in the back pages of the newspaper, stories which highlighted the inane side of life in the thirties. The sketches were brought to life by the most outstanding comedy cast ever assembled on a single show -- Jack (aka J. Scott) Smart, already a radio veteran, and Minerva Pious, a former understudy to Fannie Brice, were the cornerstone of the original "Mighty Allen Art Players," and between them could master any known dialect or characterization. In years to come they'd be joined by other equally flexible performers: Alan Reed, Charlie Cantor, John Brown, Eileen Douglas, and Walter Tetley -- and this talented cast brought to the "Town Hall" stage a versatility unmatched on any other program. The newsreels may be "topical" humor, but they're surprisingly fresh and alive today. The headlines may have changed in sixty-five years, but the human foibles behind them haven't.

The newsreels and the weekly Art Players sketch -- a carryover of Allen's original "revue" format -- were consistently amusing. But the best moments on the Town Hall shows are those features which allowed Fred to do what he did best: to be extemporaneous. Beginning in early 1935, the second half hour was devoted to an amateur-show format. For Fred, this was a flashback to his earliest days on the stage, as an MC for "Sam Cohen's Amateur Shows" in Boston. Allen enjoyed promoting new talent, and looked forward to interacting with the performers in these unscripted segments. The sour-apple Broadway comedian here gives way to the real Fred Allen - a gentle, decent man with an expansive sense of humor.

1939 marked the start of an unpleasant new era for Allen. A new advertising agency had taken over the show, and was much more prone to interference than the previous producers. The "Town Hall" format was abandoned over Allen's objection, and other unwanted innovations were thrust onto the program. Fred had never liked the idea of using "guest stars," preferring to feature ordinary people like the amateurs or his "People You Didn't Expect To Meet" discoveries. But the agency insisted on name guests, and so they came. Fred had no taste for the "Hollywood" approach to radio, and it shows -- the best guest segments by far are those which feature either offbeat personalities or Fred's old vaudeville cronies like Jack Haley and Doc Rockwell.

Fred's transition back to a half-hour format in 1942 had a further effect on the content of the show -- it was stripped down to two brief segments: the newsreel (soon replaced by "Allen's Alley") and the guest star. Never again would Fred have the chance to interact spontaneously with ordinary people, and never again would he be particularly happy as a radio performer. The agency and the changing tastes of the audience had taken away the one part of the program that had really given him joy, and while his half hour shows would certainly have their moments, the intangible feeling that comes from hearing a man who was happy in what he was doing was gone.

The stress of doing the show began to take its toll on Fred's health during these years, and it shows in many of the programs. Fred Allen was a very sick man in 1943-44, and while there are some brilliant programs during this period -- his Gilbert-and-Sullivan and Rogers-and-Hammerstien parodies are among the most memorable comedy ever done on radio -- there are also shows that come across as half-hearted.

Fred took the 1944-45 season off on doctor's orders, and the year off appears to have done him a lot of good. Some of the old spark returns in his 1945-47 programs -- the new series kicked off with a very funny running gag involving Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and there were some unusual guests on subsequent shows, ranging from Tallulah Bankhead to H. V. Kaltenborn.

The "Allen's Alley" segment assumed its best-known configuration in this era, with Senator Claghorn, Titus Moody, Mrs. Nussbaum, and Ajax Cassidy. The Moody segments are the highlight -- Parker Fennelly is wonderfully dry, and as a New Englander himself, Allen understood the Moody character better than that of the other "types" featured in the Alley. Although all the Alley denizens are funny, only Titus emerges as more than a comedy stereotype.

By 1947-48,  Fred's conflicts with the NBC censors were again getting out of control, and his blood pressure was rising. Adding to Fred's unhappiness, radio itself was changing for the worse -- jejune giveaway shows were beginning to flood the networks, and these, to Allen, represented the ultimate betrayal of radio's creative potential. Ironically, his show had for the first time achieved the number-one spot in the Hooperratings when this Quiz Show trend heralded its downfall.

The story of how ABC counterprogrammed against Fred with the venal "Stop The Music" is a familiar one -- but Fred's response to the attack is interesting. His shows during this period were perhaps the most aggressive of his entire career -- lashing out ferociously against the cheapening of the medium. His first show of the 1948-49 season featured fellow malcontent Henry Morgan as guest star, in an acid-throwing parody of "Stop The Music" itself -- and the rest of the season was just as corrosive.

The stress of this period took its toll -- Fred's chronic high blood pressure came surging back, and in early 1949, his doctor told him point blank that his life was in danger if he kept up the way he was going. Fred's sponsor, Ford Motors, was pressuring him to go into weekly television, but he was forbidden to do so by his doctor. Ford decided not to continue the radio show after the end of the season, and shortly after his final show of the season, Allen suffered a stroke - putting an end to any thought he might have had of returning in the fall.

Fred didn't disappear completely from view -- there would still be the short-lived "Big Show" appearances, sporadic and largely unsuccessful attempts at television, and an all-too-brief career as an author. The creative spark was still there -- but times had changed, and Fred's edgy approach was out of step with the ultra-conformity of the 1950s.  Even if he had been healthy, it's unlikely he would have been able to blend his brittle personality into this new era, as Jack Benny did so seamlessly, or that he would have been able to exploit the quirks of the new technology in the manner of Ernie Kovacs. He was, in the end, a man of words -- in a world that had come to care only for images.

Fred Allen was a paradox -- a man who hated the drudgery of radio and the tiny corporate minds which controlled it, and yet couldn't stay away from performing. He was a complex, introverted man who was physically incapable of being "warm and fuzzy" and yet had a reputation as the most compassionate person in show business. His shows are equally complex -- and they don't lend themselves to simple nostalgia. But to brush off Fred Allen as a mere "topical" comic, to pass over his shows because they aren't as "warm" or "nostalgic" as the old favorites is to miss out on a rich listening experience.

Text copyright by Elizabeth McLeod