It is impossible to chronicle the birth of the Fred Allen-Jack Benny feud without going into the life and background of Fred Allen. At the age of fourteen, Fred Allen opened a book that would forever change the course of his life. Working as a stock clerk at the Boston Public Library, he picked up a book on the subject of humor. Not only did this literary work put him on the path of comedy, it also sparked a passion that culminated in a book collection. By the time of his death, Fred Allen’s personal library contained thousands of volumes written on the subject of comedy.
Beginning his career in vaudeville, Allen soon learned that his comedic skills greatly outweighed his juggling ability and he decided to use the juggling act as an anchor for his comedy. He also appeared in a few short films, before getting his break on radio. At the age of thirty-eight, Fred Allen landed a job, as host of The Linit Bath Club Revue. The show premiered on October 23, 1932 on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) network. By 1933, the program was moved to the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) network and renamed, The Salad Bowl Revue, to plug its new sponsor, Hellmann’s Mayonnaise. The show went through two additional name changes, before becoming the famous, Town Hall Tonight show in 1935.
Allen was convinced that the new radio medium should dispense with the old, weary, worn-out gags and skits common to vaudeville. Instead, he worked tirelessly to bring fresh comedy into the homes of his listeners. Town Hall was a success and Allen used this platform to launch one of the longest running gag feuds in history.
On December 30, 1936, Fred Allen fired his first volley at fellow comedian Jack Benny. A ten-year old violinist appeared on Allen’s show to play, Flight of the Bumblebee. Allen took this opportunity to poke fun at Benny’s violin playing skills. Benny often listened to Allen’s show and after hearing the joke, the game was afoot.
Fred Allen and Jack Benny had been close friends since their days in vaudeville. Benny knew the attack was a great way to increase ratings on both shows. Shortly thereafter, Benny launched his own assault on Fred Allen. Thus, it was the beginning of a radio feud that would outlast sponsors and persist for nearly a decade.
The audience loved the feuding comedians and soon, the number of listeners increased exponentially. In 1937, Allen appeared on Benny’s show for a face-to-face confrontation. The feud took its place in history, drawing in more listeners than another program, with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt’s Fireside chats.
In 1940, Fred Allen returned to CBS with a new sponsor and Town Hall Tonight became the Texaco Star Theater. By 1942, the network demanded that Allen cut the hour-long program down to thirty-minutes. The shortened format and the network’s preference for amateur guests took a toll on Allen. While other comedians were known to work with teams of writers, Allen insisted on creating his own material with the help of a few occasional assistants. Diagnosed with high blood pressure, Allen took time off to recuperate. He returned with the Fred Allen Show on NBC, in 1944.
Further success incurred when Allen added “Allen’s Alley” as a skit on the new show. The alley had been a creation of his, during his early radio days. Allen’s Alley was a fictional location occupied by several eccentric residents. Residents included Senator Beauregard Cleghorn, Ajax Cassidy, Titus Moody and Minerva Pious. Each represented a slice of American society and ethnicity. However, Allen was often at odds with censors, who deemed some of his material might cause emotional injury. At one point, Allen was not allowed to make fun of cemeteries, because he might upset cemetery owners or morticians.
The move to the Fred Allen Show did not detract from the long running feud. Jack Benny even had his own version of Allen’s Alley, called “Clown Hall Tonight.” Over the years, each would occasionally appear on the other’s show. On May 26, 1946, Benny appeared in Allen’s skit, “King for a Day,” poking fun at the rising popularity of radio game shows. Behind the scenes, it was protocol to give the guest comedian the best lines.
Unaware of their personal friendship, many listeners truly believed that the two were bitter rivals. Benny later revealed in his memoirs that while the feud began in an instant, both comedians later met to plan strategy of the imaginary ongoing feud. In addition, Allen and Benny occasionally appeared together in Hollywood films.
By the late 1940’s, CBS talent raids directly affected Fred Allen’s show. CBS was constantly on the prowl for recognizable talent, who could be tempted into joining the CBS Sunday night line-up. The combination of talent raids, big money game shows and television signaled the end of Fred Allen’s radio career. Allen’s last radio show aired on June 26, 1949.
Allen went on to become a regular on The Big Show, which aired for two seasons. Although Allen thought little of television, he did make guest appearances on several popular programs. Before his death, Allen wrote “Treadmill to Oblivion” a chronicle of his radio years and a regular newspaper column. Fred Allen died on March 17, 1956, but he will forever be remembered for the laughter he wrought out of an imaginary feud.
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