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.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Another Week, Another Overdue Word From Our Sponsor

That'll teach us to accept delays in the programme. Now we have to give you another overdue word from our sponsor.

ANNOUNCER: Ablutomania.

Sponsor, heal thyself.

Friday, September 22, 2006

An Unfinished Product

So you thought Beat the Clock was a peripatetic television stunt game? You thought it was just genial Bud Collyer (radio's former Superman) bobbing and weaving between hapless guests who were as likely to get a faceful of cream as a brand new television set before they finished their cartoonish stunts?

Meet the original Beat the Clock, birthed on radio about a year or two before its television matriculation and alteration.

Attention all uninitiated listeners. Here on stage, there’s five big clocks. They can pay fifty dollars, a hundred dollars, a hundred and fifty dollars, two hundred, two hundred and fifty dollars, three hundred, three---nooo, two hundred and fifty dollars, all in terrific prizes. The faster you answer, the more you make on each one. If you can beat all five clocks, you get seven hundred and fifty dollars in Beat the Clock prizes, and a chance to solve our Time Rhyme, and open the Time Capsule, and here’s Hal Sims to tell you what our Time Capsule contains.

So said Bill Cullen, the original version’s host, after a little banter with his evening’s first contestant. As it happened on this particular night, the Time Capsule contained a round trip from Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Seattle to two weeks in Honolulu, aboard a Pan American Boeing Stratocruiser. (That, ladies and gentlemen, was the long-range airliner that looked as though someone decided to just plop a wider-tubed upper fuselage atop a B-29 bomber.)

“You will stay for two thrill-packed weeks in your own suite in the beautiful Hali-Kolani Hotel,” crooned announcer Sims. “During your stay, you will be the guest of Don the Beachcomber, for a real Hawaiian feast, with authentic hula-hula dancers.”

“We-elll, now we’re getting somewhere,” hollered Cullen. It was probably the best laugh on the night for him. He wasn't exactly a finished product in 1949. With writers such as provided his copy that night, his awkward enough ad-libs had to allow for considering the sources. He might have been left lucky he wasn't pronounced finished, period.

“Thank you, Hal. I’m glad—I was on a show the other night, just when they announced my name, the orchestra starts blaring out real loud, the people thought it was John Reid King,” he rapid-fired, following the show’s introduction. “We have Mrs. William Blanks, of Meridian, Mississippi, who came all the way back again, uh, after last time. Mrs. Blanks, did you have a delightful trip?”

“I’ve been through torture the last few minutes,” the lady warbled, in a deep Southern tongue.

“Oh, through torture from . . . last few minutes?” Cullen replied. “These planes are getting faster all the time.”

The lady’s first question of the night went against the hundred dollar clock. Presumably, she’d begun the game late in the previous show and was asked to come back the following week, where she learned the hard way how fast those planes really were getting all the time. Except for the rude interruption of the big-money quiz shows of a decade later, a week’s been no longer than half an hour, for many years, when it comes to transcribing two or even three installments worth of your average game show.

“When I say ‘go,’ Mrs. Blanks,” Cullen began, with the clock poised to knock ten dollars per second off her prize value the longer she needed to answer correctly, “you name any two countries which are partly north of the Arctic Circle.” The lady named Alaska, Labrador, Newfoundland, and Iceland. By the game’s standard she had Alaska right. The show’s fact checkers also assumed Greenland and Siberia independent countries. With time and dollars lost it was worth a five dollar cooker, worth ninety five dollars today. Thanks for playing.

Next contestant? A Larchmont lady on the threshold of marrying a Harvard graduate employed gainfully enough by Pitney-Bowes. “I got my fingers caught in one of those Pitney-Bowes machines, once,” Cullen warbled, “and I woke up in a mail sack in San Francisco.” Those Pitney-Bowes postage meters were getting faster all the time, too.

He managed to introduce her as Mary Jane Buxton, somehow, somewhere between her first words and his fingernails waking him up in San Francisco. Then, she named the Atlantic and the Pacific as the two major bodies of water on either side of Central America. Cullen let her slide on forgetting the Carribbean was an arm from the Atlantic. Thus she won the fifty dollar clock, with two five dollar penalties per second spent before answering.

That was what Cullen called a Harvard question. Asked what he called a Princeton question, the sum of two, four, and six bits in dollars, Miss Buxton scrambled her way to spending forty dollars (four seconds spent on the clock) to win sixty dollars for a buck fifty answer. The federal budget made only slightly more sense. Converting Beat the Clock from quiz to stunt made even more sense than that.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Honest, Harold

Thinking of performers who walked off hit or threshold-of-hit television shows within their first couple of years isn’t as hard as thinking of why we bothered making some of them hit or threshold-of-hit shows in the first place.

It’s even easier to remember if you thought they were fools to do it, no matter what you thought of the shows. But maybe you didn’t blame half of them. As for the other half, maybe you thought they were about to get what was coming to them. Maybe you thought they were going to prove Jane Ace right. Well, forget taking the bitter with the better. Some of these folks had to take the bitter with the basement.

And a couple of them became punch lines at least the equal of the ones they once delivered. Thirty years after he walked away, thinking he’d punched a ticket to bigger and better after season one, Saturday Night Live’s original, pratfalling Mr. Weekend Update still has millions thanking God that he’s Chevy Chase and they’re not.

McLean Stevenson was sadder. First, after he went AWOL from M*A*S*H, they killed his character over the Sea of Japan on his way home, so he couldn’t even think of coming back. Then, he suffered four series bombs before any one of them lasted a year and a half. Finally, he had to hear a nationally-televised, half-kidding wisecrack from Gene Rayburn about what a series killer he was—right to his face, sitting on a Match Game guest panel. And a year later Match Game itself was dead, as if to prove it.

If you want to nominate theirs and others’ patron saint, one and all, maybe you’d like to consider The Great Gildersleeve himself. Harold Peary, radio’s first great spinoff star. He’d moved from a happy life bedeviling next-door neighbour Fibber McGee to an even happier life balancing between the ladies and raising his orphaned niece and nephew. The man with the booming voice and half-leering, half-sheepish laugh became almost as much of a radio institution as the show that birthed him in the first place.

Asking for and being denied an ownership stake in the show (in 1945) by sponsor Kraft Foods was one thing. By 1950, Peary’s agent, MCA, convinced him he was indispensable enough to keep the show from surviving without him. He probably paid close attention, too, when another MCA client was wooed away from NBC by CBS, after CBS offered better capital-gains terms that allowed him (and the other NBC stars he talked into moving with him) to keep more of his money in the high-tax postwar years. A client by the name of Jack Benny.

Thus did Peary and CBS reach out to each other; thus did Peary sign up, believing The Great Gildersleeve would follow its indispensable star. Kraft, however, shared at least one belief with NBC: the belief that nobody was replaceable and the property (or the network), not the performer, was the thing. And Peary learned the hard way just how replaceable he really was. Kraft merely brought aboard his old buddy Willard Waterman—who sounded exactly like Peary, who’d once before replaced Peary (in the earlier Tom Mix, Ralston Sheriff, during their Chicago days), and who even looked as though he were a blood relation to Peary.


Peary and CBS had to dream up something quick enough. Somewhere (Peary has received credit for helping conceive it) they came up with The Harold Peary Show. It situated Peary as small-town bachelor and radio host Harold Hemp, who had a calm but stubborn integrity and a knack for getting himself into and out of trouble because of it, especially with the obsequiously officious nephew of the radio station’s owner.

Harold Hemp hosted Honest Harold, the Homemaker and simply refused to plug any product he thought lived down to its ballyhoo. He didn’t mind fencing with nephew Peabody over it. Not even after he fielded listener complaints about a prominent shampoo that co-sponsored his show, tested them himself and found them valid, and announced he wouldn’t mention them on the air again.

SFX (telephone buzzing).
GLORIA: Good morning, station KHJP . . . what’s that, madame? After listening to Honest Harold, you’re pouring your Grandma Louellen’s Liquid Shampoo down the drain? . . . I-I’ll tell him . . . No, I don’t think it’ll hurt the drain . . . (laughter) . . . Thanks for draining—I mean, for calling.
SFX: (telephone buzzing).
GLORIA*: Hello, station KH—oh, hello, Rosemary. Little ol’ Gloria was just about to call you . . . Did you hear Honest Harold’s program this morning? . . . Well, he just went off the air. And between you and me, it’s liable to be for the last time . . . Boss Carruthers called his nephew, Mr. Peabody, and Mr. Peabody is going to call Harold, and—ooph. Here comes Harold out of the studio. I’ll call you back.
SFX: (approaching footsteps).
HAROLD: We-ellll, good morning, Glori. Did you hear my program this morning?
GLORIA: Yes I did, Mr. Hemp. Mr. Peabody heard it, too. He was eating his breakfast at the time.
HAROLD: Ohhhhh?
GLORIA: He choked on his yogurt.
HAROLD: He did, eh? Oh, my goodness—well, you know my policy, Gloria: I test all my products before I—(softly) hmmm, by the way, did you test that new product for me over the weekend?
GLORIA: Oh, yes. I spent the entire weekend sunbathing.
HAROLD: Good. How did that freckle cream work out?
GLORIA: Oh, just wonderful. I got a whole new crop of freckles.
HAROLD (a slight sliding chuckle in his voice): Gloria, you’re a fi-ine guinea pig!
GLORIA: Thank you, kind sir.
HAROLD: Well, see you tomorrow, same time, same station.
SFX: (departing footsteps begin).
GLORIA: I hope so.
HAROLD (away slightly): What?
GLORIA: Mr. Peabody wants to see you in his office right away.
HAROLD: Is he in there now?
GLORIA: I’m afraid so. I can hear him tapping his fingers.
HAROLD: I know what you mean. Well, that’s radio. Give and take. Only so far I haven’t found many who’ll take what I have to give . . . (laughter) . . . Eeeh-well, hold the phone and keep your lines crossed.
GLORIA: Don’t I always? Good luck.
HAROLD: Yeah, thanks.
SFX (footsteps—Harold walks the hall to Peabody’s office).
HAROLD (walking): Yes, she’s a nice kid . . . Eh-heh . . . (softly, to himself) . . . here goes nothing . . . maybe I was a little hasty canceling that shampoo account right on the air like that . . . I don’t know, though, my listeners objected to the stuff. Besides, I tried it yesterday and took all the wave right out of my hair . . . No sir, I did the right thing. And I’m gonna walk right in and tell Mr. Peabody to—(clears his throat)—(speaks quietly again) well, maybe I’d better peek through the keyhole first . . . but if big shot Stanley Peabody so much as raises his voice to me, I’ll—
SFX: (door opening, Harold stumbling).
HAROLD: Wwwwwoooh-hoooo . . . thank you for opening the door.
PEABODY: Well, drop in.
HAROLD: I almost did.
PEABODY: I’m glad you’re in such a jovial mood. It may help you digest what I’ve been discussing with my uncle, Mr. Carruthers. Sit down. Sit down.
HAROLD: Thank you. New furniture, eh? Niiiiice.
PEABODY: Yes. Look about you. This fine radio station. Thousands upon thousands of dollars were spent erecting these handsome studios.
HAROLD (to himself): Cheap cement.
PEABODY: The finest electrical engineers designed our transmitters. Mr. Carruthers even hired me at great expense to run the organization.
HAROLD (to himself): Rrrrelative.
PEABODY: And, you--you come along and nullify it all!
HAROLD (astonished): Nullify? Now hold on, Peabody.
PEABODY: You’re the one that had better try to hold on—to your job. You’re on probation.
HAROLD: Probation?
PEABODY: Yes! (Pause.) You’ve gone about as far as you can making the decisions around here. It’s got to stop. Stop! Do you year?
HAROLD: The only way I could hear it any better, chum, is if you were sitting in my lap.
PEABODY: This idea of canceling an advertiser without consulting the management of this station has got—to—stop!
HAROLD: I’m sorry, Stanley, but I must uphold my principles.
PEABODY: Your principles?! What about this radio station—what’s going to hold us up?
HAROLD: Not this cheap cement, brother.
PEABODY: You’ve done a lot of unconventional things in your time, but what possible justification did you have to cancel that shampoo account?
HAROLD: Well, my listeners complained about it.
PEABODY: And just what great fault did your listeners find with the shampoo?
HAROLD (beginning sheepishly): Well—as one little woman put it, there’s too much sham and not enough poo.
PEABODY: But if the product’s no good, why did you accept it in the first place?
HAROLD (sheepish again): Welllll—
PEABODY: We wouldn’t have accepted it . . . (tone as if talking to a misbehaving child) Honest Harold, you’ve made Mr. Carruthers very angry. You’ve made me very angry, too. You ruined my breakfast this morning.
HAROLD: I’m sorry you choked on your yogurt.
PEABODY (back to normal indignation): Please! Now, listen to me—Harold Hemp, if you must crusade, why don’t you go after something worthwhile? Such as lowering taxes?
HAROLD (sarcastic): Are taxes too high?
PEABODY: Or try to do something to better Melrose Springs.
PEABODY: I’ll give you an example—Mrs. Carruthers, my aunt, who you know is the political leader of the women of this town, is planning to run me for mayor. Now why don’t you convince your listeners that I should be their next mayor?
HAROLD: I thought you wanted me to do something to better Melrose Springs?

Small-town radio can be, and often is, at least as full of ego and fancy as big city radio. Small-town radio has just as many full-of-themselves operators. Small-town radio is still just as capable of making a damned fool out of itself as big city radio. Even if you may never know of a big city radio station sanctioning the deli around the corner trying to pass off the world’s longest end-to-end row of footlong hero sandwiches as the world’s longest single sandwich, in a bid to prove the home town should have placed higher than three hundred on a magazine list of the three hundred best places to live.

The show should have been a very effective satire of such small-town/small-city radio hubris. It was effective enough in its modest array and gently witty writing. If only they could have convinced Peary to leave Gildersleeve behind. It might have built more than a year's worth of indifferent audience. That sliding, leeringly sheepish laugh, that stentorian singsong speaking style, even the cantankerous insulting elder (known now as Doc Yak-Yak**, as opposed to Judge Hooker), just didn’t belong anymore. Honest, Harold.

*--Played by Gloria Holiday, who was also Harold Peary's real-life wife.

**--Played by Joseph Kearns, a veteran radio actor and later familiar on television as Dennis the Menace's Mr. Wilson.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Not Bad, For the World's Worst Juggler

Listening to much of Fred Allen’s vintage, even today, yields the sense that calling him a mere comedian would equal insulting him. Today he may be remembered best as a peerless ad-libber (it's thrown in with practically any mention of him), and for his half of one of radio's most memorable running gags (his mock on-the-air feud with Jack Benny). But Allen was actually one of the medium's great conceptualists and writers. Time-and-place specifics notwithstanding, his topicality remains strangely relevant today. His absurdism seeded many of comedy's subsequent innovations, though he might not always applaud some of his progeny. And, he seems now to have been lancing more than upholding the in-his-time stereotypes that peppered his and many radio comics' repertoires.

Those are exemplary achievements for a man whose first comic notices addressed his clever enough ability to gag his way through vaudeville as a nothing-special juggler who used the routine as a source of swift puns and almost cerebral punch lines. He billed himself as "The World's Worst Juggler," but his real path from the smalltime to the bigger notices was his swiftness with a punning punch monologue. Allen wasn't the only vaudevillian who came to make a bigger name for himself in radio, but he wasn't quite as big in vaudeville as some of the others who took to the air. Which is why the second of his two memoirs, Much Ado About Me (Boston: Atlantic/Little, Brown, 1956), must have been somewhat stunning when it appeared soon after his death. The former smalltimer who made his name bigger in radio than it ever was on stage (his radio story consumes his first memoir/anthology, 1954's Treadmill to Oblivion) turned out to be one of vaudeville's most faithful memoirists and analysts.

Some have romanticised it over the years, but vaudeville wasn't exactly a romantic entertainment. The circuits were often punishing, three-shows-a-day grinders that pushed the performers into an insulated co-existence. Applying contemporary sensibilities, many others have villified vaudeville as exploitative entertainment, not always without reason. Allen did not judge the milieu so much as he described it with a sober matter-of-factness. He didn't exactly applaud several of the acts or facts he described, but he was sensible enough to leave his reader to make up his own mind without encumbrance. If it might leave some dissatisfied for knowing a part of his true heart it might leave others grateful to be left alone to think for themselves.

The exploitation was not limited strictly to what those times called, as politely as possible, freaks of nature. Those who think comedians today have a grind of it making their bones should read Allen (who billed himself in vaudeville as Freddy St. James, until one theater owner scrambled his name and fellow entertainer Edgar Allen on a night's billing) on their vaudeville exploitation, which wasn't always by their bookers or managers:

Comedy acts were always the targets of pirates. If a comedian was original and wrote his own material, or if he frequently bought new routines and songs to keep his act up to date, he soon found that other comedians were stealing parts of his act. For many years, performers had no way to protect their gags, parodies, or bits of business. Copyright laws were ignored, and good gags spread like bad news. One blackface comedian on the big time stole so much material that he couldn't use it all in his act; he hired another blackface act and paid him a salary to play the smalltime using the stolen material he had left over. There was a young comedian whose father regularly attended the opening show at the Palace. If any of the acts had new lines, jokes, or song titles, the father copied them down and wired them to his son. The act continued convulsing the Palace audience in New York, little dreaming that its best jokes were being told in Omaha, San Francisco, or wherever the son happened to be playing.

There were those vaudeville comedians who built routines around "how crazy comedians were to buy jokes." One was the monologuist Johnny Neff. "Johnny would relate how Frank Tinney had paid a hundred dollars for a certain joke," Allen wrote. "Johnny would then tell the joke to prove that Tinney was insane. When Johnny had finished explaining how much money Raymond Hitchcock, Ed Wynn, Jack Donahue, Leon Errol, and Richard Carle had paid for their jokes, and after he had told all these jokes himself, Johnny had a hilarious monologue that hadn't cost him a penny. And Milton Berle for years has been bragging to audiences that he has stolen jokes from other comedians. There has been no reason to doubt his word."

It took Edward Albee to bring the earliest known protection to comic material, Allen noted, founding the National Vaudeville Artists, Inc. and luring members by creating a Protected Material Department. Members sent copies of their material in sealed envelopes to the NVA offices, where they were put into files marked for protected material, and NVA officials "dispensed justice" if any plagiarist was accused by any such protected act. The organisation lasted only as long as Edward Albee, alas. "After Mr. Albee's death," Allen wrote, "vaudeville started over the hill and took the NVA club with it. Before the members vacated the clubhouse on Forty-sixth Street, some official, by whose authority nobody will ever know, sold the entire contents of the NVA Protected Material Department files to Olsen and Johnson."

Working first with the Paul Keith vaudeville circuit and then the rival formed by the J.J. Schubert circuit (prompting Keith to blacklist anyone working a Schubert circuit), Allen knew the inbred absurdities and cruelties of vaudeville well enough. He discussed both with a sobriety that makes both somewhat harrowing without having to emote. (Not only animal radicals may recoil at some of just how vaudeville's animal acts did their acts.) About the absurdities Allen's wryness is deadly, as in his recollection of a man who danced to his own music by attaching xylophone mallets to his shoe toes and dancing on the instrument. "If Will had spent the same amount of effort thinking that he did on his xylophone, he might have discovered penicillin. I am sure that if all the hours vaudeville performers spent trying to improve their acts had been donated to science, automation would have been here fifty years sooner."

Like most live entertainment vaudeville audiences were not exactly all inspirational, all the time, and once in awhile they, too, proved desperation the mother of invention. Allen remembered a Sandusky, Ohio theater manager whose regular audience was so terrible he pitied the acts he booked. "He invented an applause machine and installed it in the back of the theater. The machine manufactured applause by slapping a series of wooden paddles together. When an act finished and the audience sat there in its customary silence, the manager turned on his applause machine. To the sound of the wooden clatter, the act returned, took one or two bows, and withdrew."

On the other hand, the freakish vaudeville act could use his or her talent to escape trouble, as did a contortionist when a Connecticut theater owner drove him and Allen back to New York after closing night. The theater owner broke a speed limit or three and was stopped by police. The owner pleaded a need to rush the contortionist to New York to catch a train. "What's a contortionist?" asked the officer. He got his answer right there on the pavement: the contortionist got out of the car, ran in front of the headlights, took off his coat, and went into part of his routine - -a handstand, wrapping his legs around his neck, and running in circles on his hands. The gendarme let the motorists pass unmolested.

Occasionally the theater owners themselves were freakish. "(T)here was the butcher in the small Ohio town who converted his shop into a theater at night and showed pictures and Gus Sun smalltime vaudeville acts. In the window of the butcher shop hung a sign:



VEAL-25 ¢ LB.


For their part, the comedians at least had to be ready for anything that could happen and often enough did. At the Jefferson on Fourteenth Street in New York, there was "a mongrel audience: the theater was going to the dogs." It sat at a Skid Row kind of area. "At some performances the Jefferson took on the appearance of a flophouse that had put in vaudeville." One night, Allen heard a series of clunks during a monologue. In a third row aisle seat, there sat "a simian-faced specimen" who kept a wood bucket between his feet and a bag next to him. "As I was struggling through my monologue, this combination bivalve addict and theater patron was shucking his oysters and dropping the shells into the bucket." Allen once played a Bayonne, New Jersey theater when a cat came down the aisle during his routine, "emitted a series of blood-curdling cries, and delivered a littler on the carpet." As an usher took care of mother and brood the audience went slightly nuts. Cracked Allen, "I thought my act was a monologue, not a catalogue."

Maybe a sense of the absurd joined to an unusual intellectual will built Allen's survival kit. The latter rooted in his teenage days working at the Boston Public Library, which employed his much-bruised father, and where he first discovered comedy by finding a book which recorded and analysed its origin and history. He irked a high school teacher by giving a required five-minute talk on what he had learned from this reading. Because this teacher liked to lecture with jokes to punctuate his points, the teenage Allen thought there could be no inherent problem in him doing likewise while discussing comic history.

Oh, yes there could, and was. "The class received the story of the kings and their deformed jesters very well, but the teacher lit into me in no uncertain terms the minute I sat down. He said that there was a time and a place for everything; he added that the schoolroom was no place to discuss comedy, and so forth. I didn't mind his criticising my comedy, but I could have made a few snide remarks myself, for this teacher was the same one who was forever telling the joke about the gold watch, the silver watch, and 'Circumstances alter cases'." He could have asked for no better early preparation for his later battle with censors vaudeville or NBC. (The latter once objected to an Allen script with a reference to a girl who could have found a better husband in a cemetery. The censor, noted the New York Herald-Tribune critic John Crosby, "thought this might hurt the feelings of people who own and operate cemeteries. Allen got the line cleared only after pointing out that cemeteries have been topics for comedy since the time of Aristophanes.")

Allen's Massachussetts boyhood (he was born John Florence Sullivan) was a case of what a far later fictional character would call great misfortune leading to unforeseen reward. (For the record, the character was the protagonist of The Godfather.) His mother died before he was three; with his shattered bookbinder father and infant brother, he was taken in by one of their mother's aunts, herself stricken with a kind of spousal bereavement, her husband partially paralysed and left unable to work thanks to lead poisoning. The lady was compelled to support them by taking in two other sisters and their husbands for five dollars a week per person. (This, of course, was 1897.) "This princely sum," Allen wrote, "entitled them to a breakfast, a lunch to be packed and taken to work, and a big supper at night. Washing, ironing, and housework were included, and Aunt Lizzie paid the rent. The money she had left was hers to keep. Aunt Lizzie had her hands full, and not with money."

But she had at least one devoted nephew trying to make sense of her crowded house and his father's divided personality. His mother's death had left the old man prone to heavy drinking and unable to be anything but serious at home, in spite of being the life of the party elsewhere. "When he was even mildly under the influence, if he heard the song 'Love Me, and the World Is Mine,' my father would start to cry. My aunts used to say that the song reminded him of Cecilia." In due course, however, Allen's father remarried and offered his sons the choice between coming to live with him and his new wife or staying with Aunt Lizzie. Fourteen years old by then, Allen chose the latter. "Young as I was, I felt that I owed something to a wonderful woman who had been a mother to me for some twelve years. I said that I would stay with my Aunt Lizzie. I never regretted it."

Soon enough Allen went to work at his father's library, as a summer book runner (in those days, you presented your choice on a slip, it was sent by pneumatic tube to the appropriate book floor, and the runner retrieved and sent the book down by wire basket), while the family unit over which his aunt presided moved from Cambridge to Allston to Dorchester.

Allen didn't become anything close to an official entertainer until after his promotion to head of the Boston Public Library's children's reading room. He began learning and practising juggling and melded it with a few wry jokes which went well enough at a library employees' show. One girl in the audience suggested he forsake the library for the stage. "If she had only kept her mouth shut that night, today I might be the librarian of the Boston Public Library." Instead, he made his way to piano moving, amateur nights, and vaudeville, where his inability to let his barely passable juggling interfere with his better than passable wit made him eminently employable on various vaudeville circuits at home and abroad.

After wrestling with conscience and resolving it practically, Allen decided to work Boston until saving a hundred dollars, pledging sixty to go to New York and saving his remaining forty to start over, perhaps in another line of work, should he fail. He boarded in one of those houses deep in ambient gloom and character study alike, worked as hard as his constitution allowed, and crossed the country gaining picaresque impressions of new cities in hand with invaluable stage experience. ("I had thought that every city west of Chicago was a Hackensack. San Francisco . . . looked to me like New York with a hill in the middle of it") He also sailed by rocky steamship and made himself a comic hit Down Under. "All the time he is revealing the art of how not to do juggling tricks," Allen quoted one review, "he keeps up a flow of lively patter, embracing pointed and humourous remarks which never fail to catch on. Freddy is evidently in a class of his own."

He spent his time in Brisbane, then a city with little enough to do, resurrecting a habit from his Boston Public Library days: reading whatever he could get his hands upon, usually to do with comedy, specifically to do with Dickens and Mark Twain, not to mention every British humour magazine he could carry. He also learned the hard way that American vaudevillians held no patent on plagiarism. He once received the gift of a splendid enough stage cane from an Australian duo known as Ship and Gaffney. "It's a present. We like you. When you go back to we're going to pinch your patter."

Allen began teaching himself to write comedy during his Australian tour, first by adapting established jokes to his own manner but soon developing his own creations from that learning point. He continued and refined what he started with his boyhood library self-education, teaching himself the depths of humour, refining himself as a monologuist and pun runner. By the time he transitioned from vaudeville to Broadway---earning shining notices in the middle of flop productions, meeting his wife and future second banana, Portland Hoffa---Allen was almost overqualified for radio, which he entered when he was almost forty years old, making himself an incandescent seventeen-year run.

Vaudeville was more a matter of style than material. It was not so much what the two- and three-a-day favourites said and did, as how they said and did it. For fifty years vaudeville's minstrels found their way into all lands, preaching their gospel of merriment and song, and rousing the rest of the world to laughter and to tears. A few diehards who knew and enjoyed vaudeville hover over their television sets, hoping for a miracle. They believe that this electronic device is a modern oxygen tent that in some mysterious way can revive vaudeville and return its colourful performers of yesteryear to the current scene. The optimism of these day and night dreamers is wasted. Their vigils are futile. Vaudeville is dead. Period.

Only until you exhume and read this fascinating memoir, a huge and pleasant distance from the inane lacerations—playing a grotesque game of "Whose Life Has Been More Decadent, and Who Came Up With The Least Powerful Eau de Polechat"—with which entertainers' memoirs since have toxified the book business.

Friday, September 08, 2006

We Interrupted Your Regularly Scheduled Program

. . . to bring you this special news bulletin. We are returning to regularly-scheduled programming on a sustained basis. And we're brought to you by Sustained. It gets the deep sustains without scrubbing, drubbing, or clubbing. In ten delicious flavours, for all your motoring needs. See your doctor about new Sustained, the pain reliever that feels your pain. That's S-U-S-T-A-I-N-E-D. The world's most experienced hairline.

Friday, September 01, 2006

An Overdue Word From Our Sponsor

Well, enough of this lazing around with our codswallop croquets. We're overdue for another word from our sponsor.

ANNOUNCER: Trichotillomania.

After an attack of that, you might try visiting your friendly neighbourhood hair transplanter. Or, your favourite hatmaker.