| Fred Allen, 1894-1956
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From: Fred Allen?s Letters edited by Joe McCarthy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965.
A Boston Irishman, born in 1894 and christened John Florence Sullivan, Allen was the son of a bookbinder who earned $19.23 a week. His mother died when he was three years old and he was raised by his Aunt Lizzie (?a wonderful name?) in the Allston and Dorchester sections of the city, working as a youngster in the Boston Public Library and as an errand boy for a piano company. Allen was still in his teens when he broke into vaudeville as a comic juggler who cracked jokes as he juggled, first using the stage name Fred St. James and later Freddy James. His routine soon began to feature more jokes than juggling, including such sure-fire howlers as, ?Condensed milk is wonderful but how can they get a cow to sit down on those little cans?? and ?She was so old when they lit the candles on her birthday cake six people were overcome by the heat.?
Freddy James became Fred Allen when he was breaking into big-time vaudeville as a comedy monologuist; with a new name and new jokes he could ask for a higher salary than the $75 a week that Freddy James had been getting in small-time theaters. In 1919, Fred Allen made a smashingly successful debut at B.F. Keith?s Palace on Broadway, the highest pinnacle of vaudeville. Any performer who had played the Palace in those days could be assured of being booked by the manager of any important theater in the country, sight unseen. By 1922, after touring as a headliner on the Keith circuit, Allen was playing in Shubert vaudeville on the same bills with such big stars as Lew Fields and Nora Bayes and earning the then astronomical salary of $400 a week. Writing his own highly original comedy lines?which were often borrowed by Al Jolson and other greats?he was already identified in show business as a performer with a classy following. Three times in one season he was brought back for return engagements at the Shubert Theater in New Haven by demands from admiring Yale undergraduates.
From vaudeville Allen moved to musical comedy legitimate theater in the Shuberts? Winter Garden attraction, The Passing Show of 1922, where he became acquainted with Portland Hoffa, one of the girls in the chorus. They were married in 1927 after Allen had made a vaudeville tour in partnership with a comedian named Bert Yorke. It was while he was appearing with Yorke in Toledo on a dreary Christmas Day that Allen ad-libbed his most famous, and most widely plagiarized, wisecrack. The orchestra leader was a gloomy little man who never laughed as he listened to Allen?s witticisms during three shows a day. Finally Allen could stand the musician?s unsmiling acidity no longer. Leaning across the footlights, he asked, ?What would you charge to haunt a house??
Beginning in the early 1930s he played on the stage in the depression-stricken Three?s a Crowd. When that show closed in 1932, Fred and Portland rented a cottage for the summer at their favorite vacation resort, Old Orchard Beach in Maine, expecting to go into another Broadway musical in the fall. The promised venture never materialized because of lack of money. Fred took a job instead, which he thought would be only temporary, as the writer and star of a weekly radio comedy program, sponsored by Linit Starch. He remained in radio for the next seventeen years and never appeared on the stage again.
Linit gave him up in 1933 but Hellman?s mayonnaise pounced upon him a few months later and, to his surprise, renewed his contract after the summer salad season was over. Then he was established on the air as a popular comedian with a following and there was never a lack of sponsors from then on?Sal Hepatica and Ipana, Texaco and Ford. The grind of turning out a weekly show often annoyed him, as his letters show, but he stayed on the radio treadmill, begrudgingly, until 1949 when television became popular with Milton Berle as its king, using gags that Allen had used in The Passing Show of 1922.
Once, during the war, Allen gave up his show for a year on the advice of his doctor and found himself working almost as steadily making guest appearances on other radio shows. Now and then he went to Hollywood to play in a movie but movie acting, as a regular line of occupation, never appealed to him. ?The only role they want to give me is the part of the publicity agent in a backstage story about a musical comedy,? he once said. Allen could see himself doomed in Hollywood to become a Ned Sparks type of comedian.
Although he was one of the big show business celebrities of his time?a top radio star in that golden age of radio was as important as a top movie star?Allen never behaved like a celebrity and never thought of himself as anybody particularly special. He stood out conspicuously in his self-centered profession as a modest and unpretentious man who lived simply and quietly. He and Portland rented an apartment in a non-fashionable neighborhood of Manhattan, between Radio City and Central Park, never owned an automobile, and walked to their rehearsals and shows. On their movie-making visits to Hollywood, they stayed in an inexpensive apartment hotel. Before one of their trips to the Coast, Allen?s agent in Hollywood tried to persuade him to lease an elaborate twelve-room house in Beverly Hills. ?Don?t be afraid,? Allen wired the agent in reply, ?You don?t have to let on that you know us.? The Allens were reluctantly forced to leave Old Orchard Beach, the decidedly unexclusive seaside resort in Maine where they summered for many years, because their cottage there as too exposed to autograph seekers and other gawkers. Their vacations after World War II were spent at such staid and quiet saltwater hotels as the old Guerney?s Inn at Montauk, where, as Fred claims in one of the letters that follow, the tide came in only at a signal from the lady proprietoress and the guests belched after meals into little clusters of pussywillows that were served with dessert. Allen could have belonged to the swanky athletic clubs in New York but he much preferred to play handball and punch a bag twice a week with cops, firemen, and postal clerks at the West Side YMCA. His friends from the Y often accompanied him to the Friday night fights at Madison Square Garden. He and Portland never went to night clubs. Fred?s idea of a pleasant social outing was an evening at the theater or a trip on the subway to Alton Cook?s home at Jackson Heights, where he would exchange funny stories and reminiscences with Cook, the radio-television and later the movie, critic of the New York World-Telegram, and H. Allen Smith. Their three wives would sit apart in a separate conversational group.
Allen?s simplicity led some smart-aleck columnists to call him a tightwad. Actually, he was always supporting as many as six families of unlucky relatives and friends and sending money to unemployed actors and gag writers. He gave away more than $100 a week in small bills to alcoholic panhandlers. One ragged bum, known as The Whistler, used to put the touch on Allen every Sunday morning when he came out of St. Malachy?s, the actors? church on 49th Street, just west of Broadway. On Sundays when he could not make it to the theatrical district, The Whistler would arrange to have a large sign displayed in the window of Mike Jacobs? ticket office, on the same street as the church, which said ?Mr. Allen?The Whistler is out of Bellevue Hospital again and wants to get in touch with you.? Allen would go inside and leave two dollars at the counter for his faithful client. A beggar in Hollywood once read in a movie trade paper that Allen was due to arrive that morning from New York to begin work on a picture at Twentieth Century-Fox. Hastening from his boardinghouse to meet Allen?s train at the railroad station, he fell and broke his arm. He asked Allen to pay the forty-dollar doctor?s bill because he felt that the injury was Allen?s fault, and Fred paid it.
When television replaced radio as the dominating entertainment medium, Allen made a few tentative tries at it but he never felt at ease in television and the network executives at NBC wanted no part of the comedy show that he wanted to do, a sort of Allen?s Alley with the visual format of Thornton Wilder?s play, Our Town.
?They claim a comedy show in TV is no good unless it has a lot of singers and dancers,? Allen said in 1952. ?I haven?t been able to relax on a television stage with all those technicians with earphones wandering back and forth in front of me while I?m trying to tell a joke. They?ve been listening to me and the joke in rehearsals for two days and by the time the performance rolls around they?re leaning on their cameras and sound equipment and staring at me with the enthusiasm of a dead trout. Television is a triumph of equipment over people and the minds that control it are so small that you could put them in the navel of a flea and still have enough room beside them for a network vice-president?s heart.?
Allen was also frustrated during the television age by poor health. He suffered from hypertension and fretted over his strictly salt-free diet, which kept him away from Italian restaurants where he love to eat spaghetti with white clam sauce. At one point he made a deal to appear in a TV quiz show, designed along the same lines as Groucho Marx?s You Bet Your Life with the entertainment drawn from ribbing the contestants rather than from the quiz itself. Allen?s doctors forced him to give up the project. John Crosby, then a television critic, wondered sadly whey television could not provide such gifted comics as Groucho and Allen with something better than asking ladies from Kenosha how their husbands proposed to them. Being restrained by medical advice from playing the clown in such a spectacle in the twilight of his career was probably one of the most fortunate things that ever happened to Allen.
In the last few years of his life, Allen appeared Sunday nights on television as a panelist on What?s My Line? An easy chore approved by his physicians because it required no rehearsing or script preparation. He spent the rest of the week writing two autobiographical books, Treadmill to Oblivion, an account of his years in radio, and Much Ado About Me, memoirs of vaudeville and musical comedy days. Allen had always wanted to be a full-time writer; one reason why he devoted so much time to turning out so many letters was the satisfaction that he found at his typewriter. He often said that he enjoyed the preparation of his radio scripts more than the performance of his shows. When he left radio, he seriously considered writing skits and monologues for other comedians like his good friend, Goodman Ace. In his earlier years, he had written comedy material for a fellow Irish Bostonian, Jack Donahue, the famous Ziegfeld comedian-dancer of the 1920s. Allen was greatly encouraged when Treadmill to Oblivion won praise from critics and became a best seller in 1954. He plunged into Much Ado About Me with relish, working daily in an office without a telephone a few blocks from his Manhattan apartment.
On the night of Saint Patrick?s Day, 1956, when Much Ado About Me was not quite finished, Allen was stricken with a fatal heart attack while walking his dog on West 57th Street. The next day Herman Wouk wrote a tribute to Allen, hailing him as America?s greatest satiric wit of modern times. ?Fred?s wit lashed and stung,? Wouk said. ?He could not suffer fools. In this he was like Swift and 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.?
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Created: August 21, 2005 Modified: August 21, 2005