variety show (1932 - 49)
Fred Allen worked his way to radio fame from a New England upbringing that seemed to predestine his eloquent wit. His father was a amusing storyteller who worked at the craft of bookbinding. Intelligent sharp witted humor seemed to run in the family. Fred wanted to be on the stage from an early age. Getting started as a juggler, by the early 1920's Fred was on the road, and began performing in New York City.
His big break came when he appeared on Broadway in The Passing Show in 1922. In this show, he met the lovely Miss Portland Hoffa, who he asked to become his wife and radio partner (ala Burns and Allen). Together they developed a wonderful give and take rapport, with Portland serving up the bubbly straight lines for Fred's witty rejoinders. They got on the radio in 1932 with a show called, improbably, "The Lintit Bath Club Revue." Other shows followed quickly, including The Salad Bowl Revue (1933), The Sal Hepatica Revue (1933-34) and The Hour of Smiles (1934-35). One of the featured segments in the early years was a segment where amateurs came up to do their bit, harkening back to the days of regional vaudeville itself when Amateur Night was a staple of the local theatre.
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Fred Allen with dummy circa 1916Allen's comedy was almost always topical and satiric, and throughout his career he was famed for being as sharp with the quip as any live radio comedian. He wrote most of his own stuff, loved to comment on the daily foibles of the day, his sponsors, and the world of entertainment. In the New England spirit, he saw his show as something of a town hall gathering, and hit upon the name "Town Hall Tonight" as the show from 1934-39.
In 1939, Texaco sponsorship began, and the show was renamed in truly modern fashion, "The Fred Allen Show - Texaco Star Theater." One of his funniest and most popular regular segments, Allen's Alley, premiered on Sunday, December 6th, 1942. Allen strolled along in an imaginary neighborhood, knocking on the "doors" of various neighbors, including average-American John Doe (played by John Brown), Mrs. Nussbaum (Minerva Pious) pompous poet Falstaff Openshaw (Allan Reed), Parker Fennelly as Titus Moody("Howdy, bub"), and boisterous southern senator Beuregard Claghorn (announcer Kenny Delmar.)
Among Fred Allen's greatest admirers was Jack Benny, with whom a feud (ala Edgar Bergen and McCarthy's with W.C. Fields) was created in 1936. It lasted on the air for years, to the amusement of all concerned. Sadly, a feud with his network brought the network censor into another feud, but other radio stars such as Red Skelton and Benny's pal Dennis Day, who got his own show too, took up for Allen by cracking jokes about the whole thing.
Jack Benny and Fred Allen's infamous on-air feud began with Fred's ad-libbed comment that a visiting child violinist should put Jack's violin playing to shame. Writers from both programs met to plot out the feud much to the amusement of radio audiences and fans of both programs.
Allen's prime seasons of 1945-48 are great satirical radio, loaded with topical laughs, musical parodies and great characters that are timeless in their inventiveness and audience appeal. Allen was famous for ad-lib bing and cracking up the audience with running comments on the jokes and the show itself, as he had come up from Vaudeville and Broadway. After WWII, the Fred Allen show seemed somewhat dated, as the temper of the nation was ready for a new thing. In 1948 Allen's Alley (an urban concept, really) was heard no more on network radio. An era had passed, as America moved to the suburban 1950s.
Despite radio and TV appearances, Fred slowly stepped aside for younger, brasher comedy, and the continued success of family-driven situations on radio and TV. Fred and Portland lived a long and happy life together, and we both known as sincerely appreciative and thoughtful to all their friends and show-biz buddies. This great collection also includes a treasure trove of interview material, excerpts from guest-spots and Fred Allen highlights and sidelights. This set is a fine overview of the singular wit and wisdom of one of the most intelligent of America's topical humorists, Mr. Fred Allen.
See also: Down Allen's Alley (with Fred Allen)