How Hitler Helped Create Allen’s Alley

fred allen 1949The title of this should not be interpreted with any insinuation that Fred Allen may have been a Nazi. Like most Americans of his generation, the more Fred and the rest of the entertainment industry learned about Hitler and his schemes, the more dedicated they became to pledging all of their professional and personal resources in defeating Hitler’s threat to humanity. Fred Allen was one of America’s great humorists and blessed with a marvelous sense of the absurd. There were plenty of absurdities to go around in Fred’s life. First of all, his name was John Florence Sullivan, not Fred Allen. The path to becoming Fred was often an exercise in absurdity. John Florence was born into aching poverty which was the lot of many Boston Irish at the end of the nineteenth century. His father was a bookbinder. Between the competitive trade and the heart crushing loss of his wife (to pneumonia, when the boy was only three), the senior Sullivan was often in his cups, and unable to adequately provide for two young sons. Raising the boy was left to his maternal Aunt Lizzie. In addition to the Sullivans, Lizzie was in the care of a husband who had been crippled by lead poisoning, a pair of spinster sisters, and a brother. Allen would later write “Aunt Lizzie had her hands full, and not with money”. Young John Florence loved her dearly. John F. Sullivan’s path to show business (and becoming Fred Allen) is a fascinating story in its own right. What is important to this discussion, is that Fred Allen’s eventual celebrity was simply a trade to him. Like many successful tradesmen who rose from poverty, Allen had an ingrained conservatism which prevented his taking risks that might endanger his status. By the mid-1930s, Fred Allen had achieved remarkable success, and was arguably at the top of his game. He was one of the comics who successfully made the transition from vaudeville to radio, and in 1934 , his sponsor increased his presence with an hour long format, the Fred Allen “Hour of Smiles”, which was retooled as “Town Hall Tonight” the following season. The Town Hall Tonight format was a great fit for Fred, both professionally and artistically. The program was largely built around amateur talent, which was a reminder of Allen’s early vaudeville experience. He also gathered a company of regular players, the Mighty Allen Art Players. In addition to the weekly play, a regular feature of Town Hall Tonight was the weekly “Newsreel”. The Newsreel showcased a series of absurd characters who would comment on important and obscure news items. The Newsreel feature outlived the sponsor, and in the fall of 1940, Town Hall Tonight became Texaco Star Theater. A new sponsor has a right to make changes, but this chafed against Allen’s “if it works don’t fix it” attitude. The Newsreel remained in place until the 1942 season, when War related hard times caught up with Texaco. Because of Wartime shortages, there was less gasoline to sell, and therefore less profit for Texaco to make. Rather than abandon its successful radio presence, the show was cut to a half hour. This left little time for the Newsreel. Fred, whose sense of satire was the driving force of the Newsreel, created Allen’s Alley to replace it. Fred Allen’s Alley is second in Fred Allen’s legacy, only to the Benny-Allen Feud. The recurring characters who populated the Alley became landmarks in the American consciousness. Allen’s Alley was created in large part because of Wartime accommodations, but it is a good bet that the Fascists would never appreciate the underlying American-ness of the Alley’s residents. The Yiddish mannerisms of Mrs. Nussbaum (created by Minerva Pious), the drunken slowness of Socrates Mulligan (Charles Cantor), and the overenthusiastic Southernness of Senator Beauregard Claghorn (Kenny Delmar) would raise politically-correct hackles today. However, the characters were never criticized as being anti Jewish, anti Irish, or anti Southern. One of the longest lasting residents of the Alley was Allen Reed‘s Falstaff Openshaw. Falstaff was an enthusiastic if less than appreciated poet, whose often painful-to-hear rhymes were the close to a visit to Allen’s Alley. A number of factors finally doomed the Alley, including competition for TV and the NBC Sunday Night radio lineup suffering from the CBS Talent raids and ABC’s suddenly popular quiz-shows, especially Bert Parks’ Stop The Music. The ultimate end was Fred’s health; after the 1949 season he took a year off for his hypertension, and would never host another old time radio program.

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