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:
PORK CHOPS-20 ¢ LB.
VEAL-25 ¢ LB.
THEATER TONIGHT-20 ¢.
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.