Fred Allen and his Friendly Feud with Jack Benny

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.

Sample a taste of this famous feud at:

December 12: Happy Birthday Frank Sinatra

Portrait Of Frank SinatraDecember 12 would be Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday. We would like to wish Ol’ Blue Eyes a happy one.

franksinatraaschildSinatra is a bit of an enigma. There is no getting around it: Frank was cool. Frank made sure that everyone knew he was cool. Frank got his first breaks in showbiz because of his mother’s influence, and he was still cool. When his career started to take a nose dive, he attempted suicide, and Frank still managed to be cool.

Frank Sinatra was an incredibly talented singer and showman, and that is what ultimately made him cool.

Frank was born in 1915, the only child of Italian immigrants. His father served as a Captain in the  Hoboken Fire Department, and his mother was active in Democratic Politics. Little Frank began singing “professionally” at the age of eight, standing on a bar top and singing for tips.

sinatraYoung Frank Sinatra was invited to leave high school after just 47 days because of his rowdy behavior. He supported himself as a newspaper delivery boy and later as a shipyard riveter, but music was his calling. He listened intently to swing jazz, but never learned to read music. In 1935, Mama Sinatra convinced a local group, the Three Flashes, to become the Hoboken Four. The group appeared on Major Bowes Amateur Hour and was voted first prize.

In 1939,  Frank signed a one year contract with the Harry James Band. Before the year was out, James allowed Sinatra to move on to Tommy Dorsey’s Band. Dorsey had Frank sign a contract that awarded the band leader one third of the singer’s earnings in show business. (It was later rumored that the contract was bought out for a few dollars by mob-boss Sam Giancana. The incident was fictionalized in The Godfather.)

The exposure from singing with the Tommy Dorsey Band put Sinatra on the top of the music industry polls, and suddenly his records were in demand by teenage “bobby soxers”. This was a major shift for the record industry, records had always been marketed to grown-ups before.

tumblr_mlkgll5dIs1qeg3g9o1_500The Musician’s Strike of 1942-44 helped to fuel Sinatramania, along with a few lucrative radio gigs. His first starring vehicle was on CBS’s 15 minute Songs By Sinatra, starting in late 1942. In Feb, 1943, he became the featured singer on Your Hit Parade. A budding movie career led to appearances on Lux Radio Theater and Screen Guild Theater. His growing popularity made him a popular guest for the radio comedians like Bob Hope, Fred Allen, Bergen and McCarthy and Jack Benny. He was also welcomed on the programs of other popular singers like Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters and Dinah Shore.

Frank appeared on a number of AFRS programs during the War, such as Command Performance, GI Journal and Mail Call. However, some who served have related that Frank himself was not well loved, even resented by the troops. Frank was seen by the troops making lots of money and surrounded by pretty girls back home. He was 4F because of a ruptured eardrum, but there were persistent rumors that Sinatra bought his way out of serving (rumors that are thought to have started in reaction to his Democratic Politics).

In 1950,  Frank’s vocal cords began hemorrhaging on stage, and he began to realize that the teenagers who used to swoon for him were moving on to younger idols. He made a couple of less than successful forays into television.

Frank-Sinatra-and-John-F-Kennedy sands las vegasHis career began to rebound with a supporting role in From Here to Eternity in 1953. The same year he returned to radio, this time in a dramatic role as Rocky Fortune. Fortune lasted for a single season. It was the story of a temp worker/ jack-of-all trades who weekly stumbled upon a situation that required his amateur crime-fighting prowess. The program benefited from great writing and the time slot immediately following Dragnet on Tuesday nights.

In the mid-fifties, Sinatra became part of the Holmbly Hills Rat Pack, a group centered around his drinking buddy, Humphrey Bogart. After Bogart’s death, the group began to orbit around Frank and his Las Vegas buddies, notably Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.

A lifelong Democrat, Sinatra changed his politics after being snubbed by President Kennedy. The President had been invited to stay at Sinatra’s estate during a West Coast visit; however, the Justice Department had reservations because of Frank’s supposed mob connections. Kennedy enjoyed the hospitality of Bing Crosby in Palm Springs, and Frank moved his loyalty to the GOP.

You can get away with that sort of thing when you are as cool as Frank Sinatra.

 

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.

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.

Happy Birthday Portland Hoffa!

Portland Hoffa, wife and radio co-star of comedian Fred Allen was born on this day, Jan 25, 1905, in Portland Oregon.

Portland HoffaHoffa and Fred Allen met while on the road with The Passing Show of 1922, and started going together while the show was under extended engagement in Chicago. After the show closed Fred went back on the road in Vaudeville. When he returned to New York in the winter of 1927 he found that Portland had been taking instruction to become a Roman Catholic. Says Fred, “The next thing I know I had bought the ring, and Father Leonard was marrying Mary Portland and me at the Actor’s Chapel.”

The first thing a Vaudevillian does after getting married is write his wife into the act. Not only does this allow them to be together on the road, but if he had been a solo performer, he could now demand more money as a Double Act.

However Vaudeville was dying when Portland and Fred Allen hit the road together. So they began to investigate a new form of entertainment; now known as old time radio. Fred was determined to perform with his wife, but on the air Portland sounded nothing like herself. A character had to be invented for her, which Fred described as “a small e-flat Frankenstein monster.” Through most of their radio shows Portland’s character would join Fred at the mic as a comic foil for Fred after his monologue. When the Allen’s Alley segment was introduced it would be Portland who would ask Mr. Allen what his question of the week would be.

Fred Allen passed away suddenly in 1956. Portland Hoffa remarried in 1959. She survived long enough to celebrate a second silver wedding anniversary with her second husband, Joe Rines.

Portland Hoffa is honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her work in Radio. Her star is at 1640 Vine St.

Enjoy this episodes of Texaco Star Theater from Jan 22, 1941 in which Portland Hoffa can’t stop laughing during an interview with Kenny Baker:

Jack Benny v Fred Allen Feud “Battle of the Century” 3-14-1937

Jack Benny and Fred AllenBilled as the “Battle of the Century”, comedians Jack Benny and Fred Allen began long running faux feud. This is the opening of the on-air brawl, the broadcast of the Jack Benny program from March 14, 1937:

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On the Red Network (KFI, Los Angeles) and sponsored by Jell-O, this program originates from The Grand Ballroom of The Hotel Pierre, New York City. “Bing” Shlepperman (Sam Hearn) offers to substitute for Kenny Baker, who’s back in California and Mary sings! Jack sings the Jell-O commercial, but is interrupted by guest Fred Allen. Jack and Fred start an argument and wind up reminiscing about their days in Vaudeville and then sing a duet.