By Edward T. O’Donnell
Sixty-eight years ago this week, on Oct. 23, 1932, Fred Allen made the transition. Vaudeville, the entertainment phenomenon he’d ridden to modest fame and fortune, was fading fast. The simultaneous onset of the Great Depression and rise of radio and film all but wiped out demand for the once hugely popular displays of song, dance, and comedy. Now in late 1932, he was one of the few vaudevillians given a shot at radio. It was an opportunity he had no intention of letting slip through his fingers.
Born in Cambridge, Mass., in 1894 as John Florence Sullivan, Fred Allen had a difficult childhood. His mother died when he was just 3 and when his alcoholic father proved unable to care for him, he went to live with an aunt. He attended Boston’s public schools and worked all manner of jobs to help support himself. One of these jobs – at a public library – brought him into contact with a book on comedy.
Soon he was hooked on the idea of a life in show biz. By his `8th birthday he was appearing with the B. F. Keith vaudeville circuit as "Freddie St. James: The World’s Worst Juggler." Over the next few years he took several other stage names before finally settling upon Fred Allen. Why he dropped his Irish surname is unknown. Most likely he was following the lead of most "ethnic" entertainers, who decided the road to success would be a little less bumpy if they appeared more "American."
By the early 1920s, Allen’s star was rising. In 1922, he began a successful engagement at one of New York’s most famous vaudeville houses, the Palace Theater. There he met his show biz partner Portland Hoffa, whom he married in 1927. They would form one of the most memorable husband-and-wife comedy teams of all time, second only to George Burns and Gracie Allen.
Allen’s opportunity to jump from stage to broadcast studio came in October 1932 when he was hired by CBS to host "The Linit Bath Club Revue." It was an immediate success and launched Allen on a 17-year career in radio. By 1939, the name of the popular Saturday night program was changed to "The Fred Allen Show."
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By far Allen’s funniest and most popular feature sketch was "Allen’s Alley," which debuted in late 1942. It featured Allen walking through his neighborhood encountering an incredible cast of characters, including the very average John Doe, a pompous poet by the name of Falstaff Openshaw, the loveable Jewish mama Mrs. Nussbaum, and a blustering Southern senator Beauregard Claghorn (the inspiration behind the Looney Tunes rooster Foghorn Leghorn).
Another well-known feature of Allen’s show was his famous "feud" with Jack Benny. It began one night in 1936 when Allen made a crack about Benny’s violin playing. The next week Benny retaliated in kind and the good-natured dispute was on. They played the roles to the hilt, but offstage they were very good friends.
One of Allen’s greatest talents was the lightening-quick ad lib. On one occasion, he interviewed a young woman who talked about how George Washington Carver had discovered a way to make a vast number of useful things from the peanut, including ink, glue, and milk. "Milk from a peanut?" quipped Allen. "He must have had a very low stool!"
But Allen was not merely a comedian, he was a sharp social critic and iconoclast, an anti-authoritarian in the great Irish American tradition of Edward Harrigan and Finley Peter Dunne. He delighted in puncturing the swelled egos of public figures, teasing his sponsors, and lampooning current events. "You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood," he once said, "place it in the navel of a fruit fly and still have room enough for three caraway seeds and a producer’s heart." Or when a prominent show biz star had grown a little too fond of himself: "The last time I saw him he was walking down Lover’s Lane holding his own hand."
The last Fred Allen show was broadcast on June 26, 1949. Fittingly, his "enemy" Jack Benny appeared as his guest. Allen’s retirement didn’t last long and in 1952 he prepared for a comeback on TV. Unfortunately, a severe heart attack ended any hope of reviving the "Fred Allen Show." He appeared regularly on "What’s My Line" before his death on St. Patrick’s Day 1956.
Fred Allen is barely known to most Americans born after World War II. Yet his impact on American comedy was – and is – immense. His pioneering form of wit and satire paved the way for countless comedians to follow, from Stan Freberg in the 1950s to David Letterman in the 1990s.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Oct. 18, 1881: Charles Stewart Parnell, imprisoned during Britain’s crackdown on the Land League, issues the No Rent Manifesto, calling upon Irish tenant farmers to withhold their rents.
Oct. 18, 1950: Cornelius "Connie Mack" McGillicuddy retires as manager of the Philadelphia Athletics after 50 years.
Oct. 19, 1989: A British court nullifies the guilty verdicts against the Guilford Four, jailed for 14 years for a bombing they did not commit.
Oct. 23, 1969: Playwright Samuel Beckett wins Nobel Prize for literature.
Oct. 20, 1674: Colonial Pennsylvania official James Logan born in Lurgan, Co. Armagh.
Oct. 22, 1920: Harvard psychologist and 1960’s LSD advocate Timothy Leary BORN in Springfield, Mass.
Oct. 24, 1911: FBI chief Clarence M. Kelley born in Kansas City, Mo.
Readers may reach Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@PastWise.com.