Jeff Kallman's excellent The Easy Ace: A Journal of Classic Radio
is a wonderful place to spend hours on end, rediscovering the Golden Age of Radio
as it's meant to be discovered and celebrated. Article after article
is filled with a wonderful new vignette about Golden Age Radio History.
---The Digital Deli Online.

[I]n his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,”
he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine,
which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


“Whether or not he knows it, the successful comedian is on a treadmill to oblivion,” wrote Fred Allen, toward the finish, giving his first memoir its rhythmic and arresting title. “When a radio comedian’s program is finally finished, he slinks down memory lane into the limbo of yesterday’s happy hours. All that the comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughter, and some receipts from the Treasury Department.”

To see it in printed words is harrowing enough, even with the punch line. To hear Allen say it, as he did to Tex McCrary (columnist) and Jinx Falkenburg (his model-actress wife) on a dank 24 November 1954 midday, is to feel the damp chill under his umbrella as he slipped toward the Waldorf-Astoria for that day’s New York Closeup broadcast, the chill of a man refusing illusion but wishing in one recess of his soul that his words could be proven a lie.

“Everything that’s true is sad in a way,” said the man who turned pretenses into laughs and extracted laughs from truths for eighteen years as a radio star. That and two more years as a guest so frequent he could have been the unofficial guest host of Tallulah Bankhead’s The Big Show.

“Echoes of forgotten laughter,” Falkenburg repeated, from the book, apparently as then-U.N. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge strolled by with a wave. This stroll Jinx couldn’t resist giving a low-keyed plug. The timing would have been exquisite if there had been a verifiable record of laughter coming out of the U.N. in the first place, echored or otherwise.

Better left unsurmised is the timing of a promotional spot Jinx delivered for a contest the winners of which would receive three months’ free worth of the Cascade Diaper Service, on condition that either parent predicted their child’s iminent birth correctly while only one in these pre-sonogram days could predict the iminent child’s gender.

“You know, my book looks well in a diaper,” Allen purred at the finish of the Cascade contest spot. “I’ve never seen it but I imagine it would if you have no children.” Good thing Jack Benny was in Hollywood and weaning himself from radio to television.

The day’s news was enough to make a reading of Allen’s valedictory resemble a revivalist sermon. Thirteen Americans sent behind bars for four-to-life on spy charges by Mao Tse-tung’s China, whose public security ministry announced 124 quote American spies captured and 106 killed since 1951, a paltry per decapita even granting the Communist style of veracity. A former U.S. Commerce Department worker in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary killed by fellow inmates just days before Alger Hiss was to be released, with the prison saying the one had nothing to do with the other.

Thomas E. Dewey’s widowed mother died in Michigan. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s namesake son, a Congressman who had just lost his bid to become New York’s attorney general, spurned an offer to join Governor-elect Averill Harriman’s quote team, a quote offer Harriman’s quote team denied making. Malek arrived in New York to pinch-hit as the Soviet ambassador to the U.N., a day or two after the body of Vyshinski, who died far more gently than his government compelled of millions of his empiremen, began its journey home for a state funeral. New York’s planning commission actually said no to Robert Moses for a change, spurning a seven million dollar plus outlay for six new recreation centers.

“There are probably going to be some fireworks before the sun goes down tonight,” McCrary drolled. Then he crooned the bad news of continued dreary rain and Falkenburg swiveled back to their guest. And there were almost going to be fireworks before the next topic of conversation arose in bloom.

“I’d like to ask you, Fred Allen, author of Treadmill to Oblivion, if anything—” Falkenburg began. Pop! “Oops!” she squeaked, before a blushing laugh. “Ooooh . . .”

“Can you describe what happened?” McCrary asked Allen, in an attempted deadpan.

“Why, I thought it was a burlesque show starting here, it looked like a striptease,” Allen deadpanned back. “You can’t depend on these . . . what is it, a zipper, a snap?”

“Usually, I can’t depend on zippers," Falkenburg replied, "but this is just a snap.”

“You’d better get a stronger zipper,” Allen said, “or go on a diet.”

“As I started to talk to you, you see, I put my hands on my, uh, hips, and I was sort of pushing my, um, flexing, pushing my shoulders back,” Falkenburg continued, “and with that the top of my dress just popped, just snapped open.”

“Fortunately, this is still radio,” Allen drawled. “Saved the day.”

“And, fortunately,” Falkenburg purred, “I’m very well equipped below.” You could hear Allen arching his wry New England brow before referring Falkenburg to her husband for confirmation. “In the way of clothes,” Falkenburg recovered with a saucily emphatic laugh.

“The choice of adjectives could be better here,” Allen rejoined.

It had to have been better than those McCrary cited at the show’s beginning. “I’m afraid I’m about to libel our guest today,” he said. “He’s been described as, quote, a sour-faced man with saddlebag eyes, and a voice that sounds like he’s filing his teeth.”

“That’s not true, Tex,” replied Allen, the becalmed Waldorf atmosphere a considerable distance from the swollen reverb of his Sunday night barbs. “I never file my teeth, I keep them in my mouth at all times, morning, noon, and night. And if I did file them, I’d file them under ‘T’.”

Treadmill to Oblivion bound up a memoir of Allen’s radio life with a particularly choice selection of his vintage radio scripts. “I called it that because any successful person, especially a comedian who gets involved in the mechanised version of the entertainment world, has to compete with the machine,” he told McCrary and Falkenburg. “And, of course, he has to lose the battle, because the machine is gonna survive.”

He said subsequently that his editor, Ed O’Connor, at the time a Boston Post journalist, had enjoyed the Allen shows as a collegian, “so he thought it was a shame to have them all disappear or have no records of them,” and suggested the book to the Atlantic Monthly’s publishing arm at Little, Brown. O’Connor chose the scripts and Allen wrote the memoir.

Oops. Neither comprehended that the machines through which Fred Allen thought himself sentenced to oblivion might turn out to sentence him, instead, to immortality. Above and beyond the dreary midday on which he oversaw Jinx Falkenburg’s wardrobe malfunction, and nobody thought to sic the Federal Communications Commission on them.


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