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.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Unforgotten Laughter: The Way It Was, 17 March

It only begins with the Town Hall News pondering how deeply hay fever sufferers are suffering, now that native vegetation is replaced in some places by alien vegetation.

It continues with Portland (Hoffa) revealing her papa wants the host to make up his mind what night he wants to be on radio, following his infamous Pierre Hotel skirmish with Jack Benny the prior Sunday. ("I saw the man upstairs brushing his teeth with Jell-O this morning," says Portland. "Just as long as they don't try to buy Ipana in six delicious flavours," rejoins the master.)

The Mighty Allen Art Players perform a hillbilly drama.

And, guests include Irish tenor Adrian O'Brien, the Doherty Sisters, Martin Byrnes and his Irish Band, and the Boston Amateurs, not to mention a return engagement by the previous week's holdover, Professor Quigley, an escape artist who didn't get the full three minutes he needed to escape from a packing case because he dropped his glasses---and wants to repeat the stunt tonight.

The Mighty Allen Art Players: John Brown, Charles Cantor, Minerva Pious, Walter Tetley, Harry Von Zell (announcer). Music: Peter van Steeden Orchestra. Writers: Fred Allen, Harry Tugend.


NOTE:---I ran the following piece for the first time two years ago, in slightly different configuration, noting then the sorrow the holiday provides old-time radio fans because of the death of one of its absolute masters of caustic laughter. If it seems as though I threaten to make it an annual tradition, that's only because it is so. No less is deserved by perhaps the finest satirist old-time radio knew and American comedy may yet prove to have known.---JK.

1956---Taking one of his regular midnight walks outside his New York City home, perhaps the most pungent satirist of old-time radio and any time, following years of hypertension that actually forced him off the air twice during his singular radio career, collapses and dies of a heart attack at 61.

Whether or not he knows it, the successful comedian is on a treadmill to oblivion. 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.

---Fred Allen, from Treadmill to Oblivion. (Boston: Atlantic Little, Brown, 1954.)

How little Fred Allen truly knew. And it only began with the telegraph yielded by his longtime friend and one-time staff writer, eulogising him warmly enough in a letter to The New York Times the day after the master fell.

The death of Fred Allen, America's greatest satiric wit in our time, brings to mind Hazlitt's elegaic paragraph on the Restoration actors:

"Authors after their deaths live in their works; players only in their epitaphs and the breath of common traditions. They die and leave the world no copy . . . In a few years, nothing is known of them but that they were.

Fred Allen was an eminent comic actor. But without a doubt his great contribution to life in America came in the marvellous eighteen-year run of weekly satiric inventino which was the Fred Allen show on radio. His was the glory of being an original personality creating new forms of intelligent entertainment. He was without peer and without a successful imitator.

His knife-like comment on the passing show of the thirties and the forties came from sources no other comedian had access to. He was a self-educated man of wide reading; he was a tremendously talented writer; and he had the deep reticent love of life and of people which is the source of every true satirist's energy. Fred's wit lashed and stung. He could not suffer fools. In this he was like Swift and like Twain. But his generosity to the needy, his extraordinary loyalty to his associates (in a field not noted for long loyalties) showed the warmth of heart that made his satire sound and important.

Because his work was a unique kind of comic journalism, the written residue might have suffered the usual fate of journalism. Fred fortunately preserved a fraction of it in that fine volume of Americana, his recent book Treadmill to Oblivion. When he died, he was working on his autobiography; the portion he completed will be published.

But the few writings he left will give future generations a slim notion at best of what sort of man he was. In Fred Allen, the voice of sanity spoke out for all Americans to hear, during a trying period of our history, in the classic and penetrating tones of comic satire. Because he lived and wrote and acted here, this land will always be a saner place to live in. That fact is his true monument.

---Herman Wouk, prize-winning and best-selling novelist, 18 March 1956.

How little either Fred Allen or his longtime friend and former writer know of just how much of Mr. Allen's radio work will survive and endure, for listeners not even alive before Fred Allen was stricken mortally.


THE LINIT BATH CLUB REVUE: THE MAMMOTH DEPARTMENT STORE (CBS, 25 DECEMBER 1932)---The oldest-known surviving program to feature the master as its host is a small jewel, even if you notice frequently enough that he's still trying to feel his proper radio bearings: Allen plays a man with a sometimes unenviable profession---a department store manager on and the day after Christmas. Cast: Portland Hoffa, Sheila Barrett, Roy Atwell, Charles Carlile. Announcer: Ken Roberts. Music: Lou Katzman Orchestra, Mary Leaf at the organ. Writer: Fred Allen.

THE FRED ALLEN SHOW: SUING TO RETURN FRED'S CUCKOO CLOCK (NBC, 28 DECEMBER 1947)---The final Allen show sponsored by Blue Bonnet Margarine and Tender Leaf Tea as his sponsors, ending a four-year relationship (Ford Motor Company would sponsor him for his final two years as a radio host), it launches with a smart "Allen's Alley" sketch in which the demimonde offer their takes on 1947's outstanding events, continues with the master ruminating on Christmas gifts from radio friends such as Mary Margaret McBride and Jack Eigen, and climaxes with his bid to return a flawed cuckoo clock---the bird comes out backward---which goes from bad to worse when he bumps into Monty Woolley doing his own Christmas shopping after Christmas . . . and bragging about listening to A Christmas Carol so he, Woolley, could hiss at Lionel Barrymore. With Portland Hoffa. Claghorn: Kenny Delmar (announcer). Titus: Parker Fennelly. Mrs. Nussbaum: Minerva Pious. Falstaff: Alan Reed. Music: Al Goodman Orchestra, the Five DeMarco Sisters. Writer: Fred Allen.

THE FRED ALLEN SHOW: KING FOR A DAY (NBC, 26 MAY 1946)---Leave it to the master to blend a vintage excuse to take a vintage poke at the radio quiz and game shows he held in such contempt with a chance to climax the infamous Benny-Allen mock feud by getting, shall we say, to the seat of the problem---at guest Jack Benny's own expense, if you'll pardon the expression. Claghorn: Kenny Delmar. Titus: Parker Fennelly. Mrs. Nussbaum: Minerva Pious. Falstaff: Alan Reed. Music: Al Goodman Orchestra, the Five DeMarco Sisters. Writers: Fred Allen, possibly Robert Weiskopf, Nat Hiken.

THE BIG SHOW: "IT AIN'T WALLY PARKER, KIDDIES" (NBC, 5 NOVEMBER 1950)---With that crack from the orchestra's clarinet section does the master introduce his spotlight appearance in the final third of this series premiere, a last-ditch bid by NBC to keep classic radio variety alive, and he makes the most of his turn, firing off a few classic cracks about television before reprising one of his vintage satires---of a certain "rival" comedian's radio program---in a slightly more streamlined and often more deadly reinterpretation. Other highlights: a classic musical patter routine from the Old Schnozzolla; a show-stopping stage musical condensation from Ethel Merman, Paul Lukas, and Russell Nype (including "The Hostess With The Mostest" from Call Me Madam); a classic slip fight between Merman and host Tallulah Bankhead, then Durante and Danny Thomas (You stay outta this, No-Nose!---Durante to Bankhead); music from Mindy Carson and Frankie Laine; drama from Jose Ferrer; and, a rousing show-closing tribute to George M. Cohan (whose death occurred eight years to the day before the show premieres). Announcer: Ed Herlihy. Music: Meredith Willson, the Big Show Orchestra and Chorus. Writers: Goodman Ace, Fred Allen (who often served as an uncredited contributor on the installments in which he appeared during the show's two-season run), Mort Greene, Frank Wilson.

The laughter would echo unforgotten, because the treadmill was really a treadmill to immortality.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home