May 31: Happy Birthday Fred Allen

Fred Allen had no idea when he was growing up that he would become one of the most popular entertainers of his time. In fact, as a poor Irish kid on the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, he would have been shocked to find out he was going to grow up to be Fred Allen!

Cecilia Herlihy Sullivan brought her first son, John Florence Sullivan, into the world on May 31, 1894, then sadly left the world herself three years later. A family council was convened, and it was decided that Cecilia’s sister, Lizzie, would take in little John, his infant brother and their father. John/Fred would say of his Aunt “another dilemma to Aunt Lizzie was like another raindrop to an umbrella”. The loss of Cecilia took a lot of the life out of the senior Sullivan, which he replaced with drink for many years. When he finally remarried several years later, the boys were given the choice to live with their father or stay with Aunt Lizzie. There was never any doubt that Johnny would stay with his Aunt.

Spending money was at a premium in Aunt Lizzie’s house, so Johnny got a job as a book runner at the Boston Public Library. In those days before Internet search engines, a patron would approach the librarian at the desk and request a book. The book runner was dispatched to find the volume required and bring it to the patron’s table. The rest of the time the boys pretty much had the run of the institution, and young Sullivan began studying books on the history of comedy. His library income gave him enough to see the occasional Vaudeville show. He became entranced with the jugglers and set out to learn their art. When the library staff held a talent show, he “wowed” the audience with his skills and patter, and one young lady told him that his talents were wasted in the library.

A few years later he took that advice and began appearing in local talent shows. These shows were amateur mostly in name, which is not to say they were not amateurish. Supposedly the contestants were competing to be chosen the “winner”, but the real challenge was to be entertaining, and each act was paid for their services. The Amateur’s were placed in the Vaudeville halls by semi-formal booking agents who also worked as Masters of Ceremonies. Johnny Sullivan’s agent soon had enough acts that he began using Johnny as an alternate M.C. Thanks to a booking error Johnny Sullivan became Freddy James, the Worlds Worst Juggler.

Performing was first and foremost a way to make a living, and young Sullivan realized that remaining a local performer would never take him to the big time. So armed with a new stage name and a modicum of confidence, Freddy James hit the vaudeville circuit. Not only did he follow the circuit around the northeast, he ranged out West and even spent 1916 and 1917 touring Australia.

He returned to America a seasoned professional performer. However, theater owners would only pay him the rate he given before leaving the country. The solution was another name change, and he became Fred Allen for the rest of his career. Headlining in Vaudeville led to an opportunity as a monologist in Broadway Reviews. The shows were less than successful, fortunately Fred’s relationship with chorus girl Portland Hoffa was more so.

After they were married in 1927, Fred followed the Vaudeville tradition of writing his wife into the act, and they enjoyed an extended honeymoon following the Western Circuit. They returned to New York to a Broadway engagement which was effectively dead before it opened. Fred used the period of unemployment to give radio work a try. Other vaudevillians were finding success on the air, notably Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor and Jack Pearl. The fact that they had brought their Vaudeville acts to radio never quite sat right with Fred. His idea was that a radio show should be designed for a radio audience and not depend upon slapstick. The show he developed had everything it needed, except a sponsor. The Corn Products Company was enthusiastic about using radio to promote its products, and felt that Fred’s show would be a good fit for their Linit Bath Powder. The Linit Bath Club Review premiered on Oct 23, 1932 and received good ratings. However, Fred continually butted heads with the ad company hired to oversee the show. After a single season Fred found himself unemployed again.

However, there was another advertising agency in town whose client, Hellman’s Mayonnaise, was in trouble. They prevailed upon Fred to create The Salad Bowl Review from the ashes of The Bath Club Review in August of 1933. Again, the ratings were good, but the show was still canceled in December. The sponsor realized that no one was interested in salads in the winter, but Bristol Myers was standing by to give a green light to the Sal Hepatica Review in January.

Bristol Myers owned an hour of airtime on Wednesday nights, half of which was the Sal Hepatica Review and the other pushing Ipana Toothpaste. In March of 1934, the decision was made to combine the two shows into The Hour of Smiles, better remembered as Town Hall Tonight. Fred used reports from his fictional small town to comment on larger issues. The other popular feature of Town Hall Tonight was “People You Don’t Expect To Meet”. This portion the program allowed Fred to introduce some very entertaining amateurs, which worked very well with his ability to ad-lib.

One of the most notorious ad-libs came when Fred featured a ten year old violinist Stuart Canin played Schubert’s “The Bee”. Although there are no surviving recordings of Fred’s actual comment, it is known that he disparaged the violin talents of another radio vaudevillian, Jack Benny. Jack did hear the comment, and thought it was very funny. However, his writing team saw it as great fodder for a supposed feud. The Jack Benny- Fred Allen Feud was the stuff of comedy legend, but the fact was that Benny and Allen were great fans of each other’s work and had been friends since their days together in Vaudeville. The feud went on for more than a decade, becoming a part of both comedian’s programs, several AFRS and War Bond Galas and the movies.

In 1940, Allen moved to CBS and The Texaco Star Theater for the promise of greater creative freedom (away from the NBC censors) and more money (Fred claimed that the oil giant was in financial trouble since people were not driving their cars on Sunday nights, and he was just the guy to push them away from their radios). The feature that Texaco Star Theater is best remembered for was “Allen’s Alley“. The Alley served the same function as the earlier Town Hall reports, a way for Fred the writer to poke fun at current events. The real fun of Allen’s Alley was its population of unique and well known characters. Each week, Fred and Portland would take a stroll down the Alley with a question in mind, knocking on the doors of Mrs Pansy Nussbaum, Senator Beauregard Claghorn, poet Falstaff Openshaw, and New England farmer Titus Moody. Although these characters were outrageously stereotyped, they were never criticized as being anti-Semitic, anti-Southern, anti-Intellectual or anti-New England.

In 1945, NBC managed to woo Fred back as part of a powerful Sunday night line-up featuring Fred, Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen. The line-up was broken when Benny became the first defector in the CBS talent raids. However, what really knocked Fred and NBC off the Sunday night throne was the upstart new network, ABC, and the give-away game show, Stop The Music hosted by Bert Parks. Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen bid a graceful retreat, withdrawing from radio until the Stop The Music craze ran its course. Fred chose to attack the upstart as directly as possible. In addition to parodying the game show, he offered a cash prize to any listener who was called by Stop The Music if they told them they were listening to Fred’s show. He may have actually been winning the war, but on his doctor’s advice he left radio for a year after the 1949 season due to hypertension. He never hosted a radio program again.

Fred was a regular guest on Tallulah Bankhead’s The Big Show from 1950 through 1952. Never a fan of television, Fred was a popular panelist on TV’s What’s My Line from 1954 until his death in 1956. Two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame honor Fred’s contributions to Television, at 7001 Hollywood Blvd, and Radio at 6713 Hollywood Blvd. There is a pedestrian walkway in the Boston theater district named Allen’s Alley.

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