His best-remembered gag was his long-running mock feud with friend and fellow comedian Jack Benny, but it was only part of his appeal; radio historian John Dunning (in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio) wrote that Allen was radio's most admired comedian and most frequently censored. A master ad libber, Allen often tangled with his network's executives (and often barbed them on the air over the battles), while developing routines the style and substance of which influenced contemporaries and futures among comic talents, including Groucho Marx, Stan Freberg, Henry Morgan and Johnny Carson, but his fans also included President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and novelists William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Herman Wouk (who began his career writing for Allen).
Fred Allen was honored with stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for contributions to television and radio.
Born John Florence Sullivan in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Irish Catholic parents, Allen barely knew his mother, Cecilia Herlihy Sullivan, who died of pneumonia when he was not quite three years old. His father, James Henry Sullivan, and his infant brother, Robert, were taken in by one of his mother's sisters, "my Aunt Lizzie", around whom he focused the first chapter of his second memoir, Much Ado About Me. The father was so shattered by the mother's death that, according to his son, he drank more heavily. His aunt suffered as well: her husband Michael was partially paralyzed by lead poisoning shortly after they married, leaving him mostly unable to work, something Allen remembered as causing contention among Lizzie's sisters. Eventually, Allen's father remarried and offered his sons the choice between coming with him and his new wife or staying with Aunt Lizzie. Allen's younger brother chose to go with their father, but Allen decided to stay with his aunt. "I never regretted it", he wrote.
Allen took piano lessons as a boy, his father having brought an Emerson upright along when they moved in with his aunt. He learned exactly two songs – "Hiawatha" and "Pitter, Patter, Little Raindrops" – and would be asked to play "half or all my repertoire" when visitors came to the house. He also worked at the Boston Public Library, where he discovered a book about the origin and development of comedy. Enduring various upheavals at home (other aunts came and went, prompting several moves), Allen also took up juggling while learning as much as possible about comedy.
Some library co-workers planned to put on a show and asked him to do a bit of juggling and some of his comedy. When a girl in the crowd told him, "You're crazy to keep working here at the library; you ought to go on stage," Allen decided his career path was set.
He took a later job in 1914 at the age of 20 with a local piano company, added to his library work, and appeared at a number of amateur night competitions, soon taking the stage name Fred St. James and booking with the local vaudeville circuit at $30 a week, enough at that time to allow him to quit his jobs with the library and the piano company. Often billing himself as the world's worst juggler, Allen refined and advanced the mix of his clumsy juggling and the comic routines such as standard jokes and one- liners with humor directed at his own poor juggling abilities. He toured the world in a decade worth of vaudeville work during which a billing mixup provided the stage name change that stayed with him the rest of his life. His agent was named Edgar Allen, from whom he eventually borrowed the last name to become Fred Allen.
While performing in vaudeville, Allen commissioned comic-strip artist Martin Branner to cover a theater curtain with an elaborate mural painting depicting a cemetery with a punchline on each gravestone. This was the cemetery where old jokes go to die. In Allen's act, the audiences would see the curtain (and have at least a minute to read its punchlines) before Allen made his entrance. Audiences often would be laughing at the curtain before Allen even appeared. Robert Taylor's biography of Allen includes an impressive full-length photo of Branner's curtain painting, and many of the punchlines are clearly legible in the photo.
Allen's wit was at times not intended for the vaudeville audience but rather for other professionals in show business. After one of his appearances failed one day, Allen made the best of it by circulating an obituary of his act on black-bordered funeral stationery.
In 1921 Fred Allen and Nora Bayes toured with the company of Lew Fields. Their musical director was a nineteen-year-old Richard Rodgers. Many years later, when he and Oscar Hammerstein II appeared as mystery guests on What's My Line?, Rodgers recalled Allen's act, sitting on the edge of the stage, his legs dangling down, playing a banjo while telling jokes.
Allen gave vaudeville itself a timeline of 1875–1925 in Much Ado About Me, but he actually left vaudeville a few years earlier, moving to work in such Shubert Brothers stage productions as The Passing Show in 1922. The show played well in its runup to Broadway but lasted only ten weeks at the Winter Garden Theatre. Allen did, however, take something far more lasting from the show: one of the show's chorus girls, Portland Hoffa, who became his wife in 1927.
He also took good notices for his comic work in several of the productions, particularly Vogues and Greenwich Village Follies, and continued to develop his comic writing, even writing a column for Variety called "Near Fun." A salary dispute ended the column: Allen wanted only $60 a week to give up his theater work to become a full-time columnist, but his editor tried a sleight-of-hand based on the paper's ad rates to deny him. He spent his summer in Boston, honed his comic and writing skills even further, worked in a respectfully received duo that billed themselves as Fink and Smith, and played a few of the dying vaudeville houses.
He returned to New York to the pleasant surprise that Portland Hoffa was taking instruction to convert to Roman Catholicism. After the couple married, Allen began writing material for them to use together ("With a vaudeville act, Portland and I could be together, even if we couldn't find any work"), and the couple divided their time between the show business circuit, Allen's New England family home and Old Orchard Beach, Maine, in summers.
Fred Allen's first taste of radio came while he and Portland Hoffa waited for a promised slot in a new Arthur Hammerstein musical. In the interim, they appeared on a Chicago station's program, WLS Showboat, into which, Allen recalled, "Portland and I were presented... to inject a little class into it." Their success in these appearances helped their theater reception; live audiences in the Midwest liked to see their radio favorites in person, even if Allen and Hoffa would be replaced by Bob Hope when the radio show moved to New York several months afterward.
The couple eventually got their Hammerstein show, Polly, which opened in Delaware and made the usual tour before hitting Broadway. Also in that cast was a young Englishman named Archie Leach, who received as many good notices for his romantic appeal as Allen got for his comic work. Hammerstein retooled the show before bringing it to New York, replacing everyone but two women and Allen. Leach decided to buy an old car and drive to Hollywood. "What Archie Leach didn't tell me," Allen remembered, "was that he was going to change his name to Cary Grant."
Polly never succeeded in spite of several retoolings, but Allen did go on to successful shows like The Little Show (1929–30) and Three's a Crowd (1930–31), which eventually led to his full-time entry to radio in 1932.
Town Hall Tonight
Allen first hosted The Linit Bath Club Revue on CBS, moving the show to NBC and becoming The Salad Bowl Revue (in a nod to new sponsor Hellmann's Mayonnaise, which was marketed by the parent company of Linit) later in the year. The show became The Sal Hepatica Revue (1933–34), The Hour of Smiles (1934–35), and finally Town Hall Tonight (1935–39). In 1939–40, however, sponsorBristol-Myers, which advertised Ipana toothpaste as well as Sal Hepatica during the program, altered the title to The Fred Allen Show, over his objections. Allen's perfectionism (odd to some, considering his deft ad-libs) caused him to leap from sponsor to sponsor untilTown Hall Tonight allowed him to set his chosen small-town milieu and establish himself as a bona fide radio star.
The hour-long show featured segments that would influence radio and, much later, television; news satires such as Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In's "Laugh-In Looks at the News" and Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" were influenced by Town Hall Tonight's "The News Reel", later renamed "Town Hall News" (and in 1939–40, as a sop to his sponsor, "Ipana News"). The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson's "Mighty Carson Art Players" routines referenced Allen's Mighty Allen Art Players, in name and sometimes in routines. Allen and company also satirized popular musical comedies and films of the day, including and especially Oklahoma!. Allen also did semi-satirical interpretations of well-known lives – including his own.
The show that became Town Hall Tonight was the longest-running hour-long comedy-based show in classic radio history. In 1940, Allen moved back to CBS Radio with a new sponsor and show name, Texaco Star Theater airing every Wednesday at 9:00 pm ET on CBS, then Sundays at 9:00 pm in the fall of 1941. By 1942, he shortened the show to half an hour, at 9:30 pm ET – under network and sponsor edict, not his own. He also chafed under being forced to give up a Town Hall Tonight signature, using barely known and amateur guests effectively, in favor of booking more recognizable guests, though he liked many of those. Guests included singers from Kingston, New York, the original woman behind the "Aunt Jemima" on syrup bottles, and more guests up the road - from Saugerties, like the singer, Donald Gardner.
Back to NBC
He took over a year off due to hypertension and returned in 1945 with The Fred Allen Show on NBC, Sunday nights at 8:30 p.m. EST.Standard Brands' Blue Bonnet Margarine & Tenderleaf Tea, and later, Ford Motor Company, were the sponsors for the rest of the show's life. (Texaco revived Texaco Star Theater in 1948 on radio, and more successfully on television, making an American icon out of star Milton Berle).
Allen again made a few changes, including the singing DeMarco Sisters, to whom he'd been tipped by arranger-composer Gordon Jenkins. "We did four years with Mr. Allen and got one thousand dollars a week," Gloria DeMarco remembered. "Sunday night was the best night on radio." Sunday night with Fred Allen seemed incomplete on any night listeners didn't hear the DeMarco Sisters – whose breezy, harmonious style became as familiar as their cheerfully sung "Mr. Al-len, Mr. Alll-llennnn" in the show's opening theme. During the theme's brief pause, Allen would say something like, "It isn't the mayor of Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga, kiddies." That device became a signature for three of the four years.
The other change, born in the Texaco days and evolving from his earlier news spoofs, proved his most enduring, premiering December 6, 1942. The inspiration for the mythical Main Street of "Allen's Alley" came from the small-town heartland folks who were often profiled in the newspaper columns written by O. O. McIntyre (1884–1938), one of the most popular columnists of the 1930s with some seven million readers.
"Allen's Alley" followed a brief Allen monologue and comic segment with Portland Hoffa ("Misssss-ter Allll-llennnn!"), usually involving gags about her family which she instigated. Then a brief music interlude would symbolize the two making their way to the fictitious Alley.
The segment was always launched by a quick exchange that began with Hoffa asking Allen what he would ask the Alley denizens that week. After she implored him, "Shall we go?" Allen would reply with cracks like, "As the two drumsticks said when they spotted the tympani, 'let's beat it!'"; or "As one strapless gown said to the other strapless gown, 'What's holding us up?'"
A small host of stereotypical characters greeted Allen and Hoffa down the Alley, discussing Allen's question of the week, usually drawing on news items or popular happenings around town, whether gas rationing, traffic congestion, the Pulitzer Prizes, postwar holiday travel, or the annual Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus visit.
The Alley went through a few changes in the first installments. Early denizens included sarcastic John Doe (John Brown), self-possessed Senator Bloat and town drunk Sampson Souse (Jack Smart), dimwitted Socrates Mulligan (Charlie Cantor), pompous poet Falstaff Openshaw (Alan Reed), and wry Jewish housewife Pansy Nussbaum (Minerva Pious). By 1945, Pious and Reed were joined by two new Alley denizens: Parker Fennelly as stoic New England farmer Titus Moody, and Kenny Delmar, the new show's announcer, as bellowing Southern senator Beauregard Claghorn. Pious is credited with tipping Allen to Delmar, who based the character on a real-life person he had encountered while hitchhiking in 1928. Within weeks, Claghorn became one of the leading comedy characters of radio as listeners across the country began quoting hiscatchphrases: "Somebody, Ah say, somebody knocked"; "I'm from the South, Suh"; "That's a joke, son"; and "Pay attention, boy!" Claghorn served as the model for the Warner Bros. cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn, who first appeared the following August in the Oscar-nominated Walky Talky Hawky.
Other characters had catchphrases that were almost as famous as Claghorn's, such as Titus Moody's "Howdy, Bub", and Falstaff Openshaw's "That is precisely why I am here." Mrs. Nussbaum always greeted Allen by saying, "You were expecting maybe...", and then she would mispronounce the name of a glamorous film star, such as "...Tulalulalula Bankhead?". The Alley sketches made only one further cast change, when Peter Donald's chipper Irishman Ajax Cassidy succeeded Reed's Falstaff.
Despite the ethnic diversity, the Alley characters seemed less citified and more akin with O. O. McIntyre's small-town America. Allen's topical humor is sometimes thought an acquired taste for audiences curious about his generation of radio stars; Dunning has written that when he "went into topical humor, he may have forfeited his only opportunity to be the Mark Twain of his century. He had flashes of undeniable brilliance. But the main body of his work deals with the day-to-day fodder of another time, and sons have seldom been amused by the embarrassments or tragedies of their fathers."
But others find many parallels to today's world and its absurdities. The "Allen's Alley" stereotypes make some cringe, as Allen biographer Robert Taylor noted (in Fred Allen: His Life and Wit), but others find them lancing more than lauding stereotypes, letting listeners make up their own minds about how foolish they could be. "Interestingly enough," wrote Frank Buxton and Bill Owen in The Big Broadcast 1920-1950, "[Claghorn, Nussbaum, Moody, and Cassidy] were never criticized as being anti-Southern, anti-Semitic, anti-New England or anti-Irish. The warmth and good humor with which they were presented made them acceptable even to the most sensitive listeners."
Allen employed a writing staff but they served as his sounding boards and early draft consultants as much as actual writers; it was Allen who had the final edit and rewrite of each week's script, working as long as twelve hours a day in his own right on ideas or sketches. His ad-libbing ability caused many a show to fade away behind the ending network identification, because Allen often ate up air time. It was not as unusual for him as for others to sign off with "We're a little late, so good night, folks." Buxton and Owen believed the Allen show needed it more than anyone else of his era. Allen also "died" more eloquently than other radio comics, particularly in the later years. When a joke was greeted with an awkward silence, Allen would comment on the lack of response, with his ad-libbed "explanation" almost always funnier than the original joke.
Closing the Alley
Allen's Alley was radio's top-rated show of the 1946-47 season. Allen was able to negotiate a lucrative new contract as a result not only of the show's success, but thanks in large measure to NBC's anxiety to keep more of its stars from joining Jack Benny in a wholesale defection to CBS. The CBS talent raids broke up NBC's hit Sunday night, and Benny also convinced George Burns and Gracie Allen and Bing Crosby to join his move.
But a year later, he was knocked off his perch, not by a talent raid but by a show on a third rival network, ABC (the former NBC Blue network). The quiz show, Stop the Music, hosted by Bert Parks, required listeners to participate live, by telephone. The show became a big enough hit to break into Allen's grip on that Sunday night time slot. At first, Allen fought fire with his own kind of fire: he offered $5,000 to any listener getting a call from Stop the Music or any similar game show while listening to The Fred Allen Show. He never had to pay up, nor was he shy about lampooning the game show phenomenon (especially a riotous parody of another quiz show Parks hosted, lancing Break the Bank in a routine called "Break the Contestant" in which players didn't receive a thing but were compelled to give up possessions when they blew a question.)
Unfortunately, Allen fell to number 38 in the ratings, as television began its rise as well. By this time, he had changed the show again somewhat, changing the famed "Allen's Alley" skits to take place on "Main Street," and rotating a new character or two in and out of the lineup. He stepped down from radio again in 1949, at the end of his show's regular season, as much under his doctor's orders as because of his slipping ratings. He decided to take a year off, but it did more for his health (he suffered from hypertension) than his career; after the June 26, 1949 show, on which Henry Morgan and Jack Benny guested, Fred Allen never hosted another radio show full-time again.
Good friends in real life, Fred Allen and Jack Benny inadvertently hatched a running gag in 1937, when a child prodigy, violinist Stuart Canin, gave a very credible performance on the Allen show, inspiring an Allen wisecrack about "a certain alleged violinist," who should hide in shame over his poor playing. Allen often mentioned his show-business friends on the air ("Mr. Jacob Haley of Newton Highlands, Massachusetts" was Allen's way of saying hello to his pal Jack Haley), and on the Canin broadcast Allen knew Benny would be listening. Benny, according to Allen biographer Taylor, burst out laughing, then responded in kind on his own program. And they were off and running, going at it for over a decade and doing it well enough to convince some if not many fans of both shows that the two comedians really were blood enemies.
The Allen-Benny feud was the longest-playing, best-remembered dialogic running gag in classic radio history. The gag even pushed toward a boxing match between the two comedians and the promised event was a sellout. It also never happened, really. The pair even appeared together in films, including Love Thy Neighbor (1940) and It's in the Bag!(1945), Allen's only starring vehicle, also featuring William Bendix, Robert Benchley, and Jerry Colonna. He also starred with Oscar Levant in O'Henry's Full House, starring in the story "The Ransom of Red Chief."
Some of the feud's highlights involved Al Boasberg, who is credited with helping Benny refine his character into (arguably) America's first stand-up comedian. Boasberg was well known behind the scenes as a top comedy writer, but he seldom received recognition in public. He worked, uncredited, on many films (including the Marx Brothers' hit A Night at the Opera). Steaming mad because of his long battles for recognition, Boasberg was said to have delivered a tirade that ended up (in slightly altered form) in an Allen-Benny feud routine:
Allen: Why you fugitive from a Ripley cartoon ... I'll knock you flatter than the first eight minutes of this program.
Benny: You ought to do well in pictures, Mr. Allen, now that Boris Karloff is back in England.
Allen: Why, if I was a horse, a pony even, and found out that any part of my tail was used in your violin bow, I'd hang my head in my oatbag from then on.
Benny's side of the feud included a tart interpretation of Allen's Town Hall Tonight show, which Benny and company called "Clown Hall Tonight." A signature element of the feud was that, whenever one guested on the other's shows, the host was liable to hand the guest the best lines of the night. (Both Benny and Allen revealed later that each man's writers consulted with each other on routines involving the feud.)
They toned the gag down after 1941, though they kept it going often enough as the years continued, climaxing on Allen's May 26, 1946 show, in which a sketch called "King for a Day," satirizing big-money game shows, featured Benny pretending to be a contestant named Myron Proudfoot on Allen's new quiz show.
Allen: Tomorrow night, in your ermine robe, you will be whisked by bicycle to Orange, New Jersey, where you will be the judge in a chicken-cleaning contest.
Benny (rapturously): I'm KING for a Day!
[Allen proceeds to have Benny's clothes pressed:]
Allen: And that's not all!
Benny: There's more?
Allen: Yes! On our stage we have a Hoffman pressing machine.
Benny: Now wait a minute! Wait a minute!
Allen: An expert operating the Hoffman pressing machine will press your trousers in seconds.
Benny: NOW WAIT A MINUTE!!! (total audience hysteria laughter, as Benny's pants are literally removed).
Allen: Quiet, King!
Benny: Come on, Allen, give me my pants!
Allen: Keep your shirt on, King.
Benny: You bet I'll keep my shirt on!
Allen: We're a little late, folks! Tune in next week---
Benny: Allen, this is a frame--- (starts laughing himself) Where are my pants!
Allen: Benny, for 15 years I've been waiting to catch you like this!
Benny: Allen, you haven't seen the end of me!
Allen: It won't be long now!
Benny: I want my pants!
Allen and Benny couldn't resist one more play on the feud on Allen's final show. Benny appeared as a skinflint bank manager and mortgage company owner bedeviling Henry Morgan. Typically, Allen handed Benny the show's best crack: "Listen, I was never thischeap on my own program!"
Benny even used the feud on his TV show, which depicted Benny and Allen as rivals for the sponsor's favors. When the sponsor pointed out that Benny was also a musician, Allen countered with a passage on his clarinet.
As Benny said in his co-memoir, Sunday Nights at Seven: The Jack Benny Story (1990; his daughter, Joan, added her own recollections and published the book after her father's death), [T]he sky was the limit. Or rather, the mud was the limit."
Life after the Alley
After his own show ended, Allen became a regular attraction on NBC's The Big Show (1950–1952), hosted by Tallulah Bankhead. He appeared on 24 of the show's 57 installments, including the landmark premiere, and showed he had not lost his trademark ad-lib skill or his rapier wit. (The show's head writer, Goodman Ace, later told radio host Richard Lamparski that Allen's lucrative NBC contract was a large factor in getting him on the show, though Allen also wrote the segments on which he appeared and consulted with the respected Ace and staff on other portions of the show.)
In some ways, The Big Show was an offspring of the old Allen show: his one-time Texaco Star Theater announcer, Jimmy Wallington, was one of The Big Show's announcers, and Portland Hoffa made several appearances with him as well. On the show's premiere, in fact, Allen – with a little prodding from head writer Goodman Ace – could not resist one more play on the old Allen-Benny "feud," a riotous parody of Benny's show called "The Pinch Penny Program."
It was also on The Big Show's premiere that Allen delivered perhaps his best-remembered crack about television: "You know, television is called a new medium, and I have discovered why they call it a Medium – because it is neither Rare nor Well Done." That did not stop the Museum of Broadcast Communications from considering Allen "the intellectual conscience of television." Aside from his famous crack about not liking furniture that talked, Allen observed that television allowed "people who haven't anything to do to watch people who can't do anything."
Allen tried three short-lived television projects of his own, including a bid to bring "Allen's Alley" to television in a visual setting similar to Our Town. NBC apparently rejected the idea out of hand. "Television is a triumph of equipment over people," Allen observed after that, "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 the heart of a network vice president." His other two TV tries were quiz shows. Judge for Yourself (subtitled "The Fred Allen Show) was a game show incorporating musical acts. The idea was to allow Allen to ad-lib with guests à la Groucho Marx, but the complicated format had to be revamped in the middle of the run. (The star was "lost in the confusion of a half hour filled with too many people and too much activity," wrote Alan Havig.)
A comedy series, Fred Allen's Sketchbook, did not catch on. He landed a two-year stint as a panelist on the CBS quiz show What's My Line? from 1954 until his death in 1956 (March 17, 1956). Allen actually appeared as a Mystery Guest on What's My Line? on July 17, 1955, when he was taking a week off from the show to have an emergency appendectomy. Afterwards he joked about the operation: "It was an emergency. The doctor needed some money hurriedly."
Allen also spent his final years as a newspaper columnist/humorist and as a memoirist, renting a small New York office to work six hours a day without distractions. He wroteTreadmill to Oblivion (1954, reviewing his radio and television years) and Much Ado About Me (1956, covering his childhood and his vaudeville and Broadway years, and detailing especially vaudeville at its height with surprising objectivity); the former – which included many of his vintage radio scripts – was the best-selling book on radio's classic period for many years.
Taking one of his regular late night strolls up New York's West 57th Street Saturday night March 17, 1956 he suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 61. A popular myth repeated for many years, first published in the New York Times story which appeared the next day reporting on his death, was that he had died while walking his dog. However, his biographer Robert Taylor later revealed that Allen had never owned a dog. Allen died before he could complete the final chapter of his memoirs, and as a result the book was published as he had left it. A tireless letter writer, his letters were edited by his wife into the publication of Fred Allen's Letters in 1965.
During the following night's regular Sunday broadcast of What's My Line? at 10:30PM, barely 24-hours following Allen's death, host John Daly preceded the program with a special message to the viewing audience. He stated that earlier in the day the producers had considered replacing the regular game play with a special memorial episode, but Allen's wife Portland Hoffa stated that she preferred the show be conducted as it always had been, indicating that this is what Allen would have wanted. The program then proceeded as normal, but with a noticeably subdued tone. Steve Allen took Fred's chair on the panel. During the final ninety seconds of the program he, along with Arlene Francis and Bennett Cerf (whose eyes began to water) gave brief but heartfelt tributes to Fred. A somber Dorothy Kilgallenthanked Steve Allen for stepping in and helping them to carry on at a difficult moment.
Fred Allen is buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York. Both his real and stage names are engraved on the headstone.
Allen has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: a radio star at 6713 Hollywood Blvd. and a TV star at 7001 Hollywood Blvd. His widow, Portland Hoffa, married bandleader Joe Rimes in 1959 and celebrated a second silver wedding anniversary well before her own death of natural causes in Los Angeles on Christmas Day, 1990. Allen was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1988. A pedestrian passageway in the Boston Theater District, designated "Allen's Alley", also honors his memory.