Fred Allen’s best-known radio routine was one that had a comparatively short life on his show—Allen’s Alley. It was Fred’s chance to satirise stories of the day and toss in a bit of regional humour by taking a mock straw opinion poll of four residents of a stretch of back road. The Alley debuted on December 2, 1942, 10 years after Allen began regular broadcasts. It morphed into “Main Street” in the early part of the 1948-49 season, Allen’s last. And the characters everyone associates with the Alley weren’t the original denizens. Three of them were played by Alan Reed, John Brown and Charlie Cantor, all of whom left the show before the Alley achieved its fame.
The best known today of the four who settled in the Alley is Senator Claghorn, played by Allen’s announcer, Kenny Delmar. He’s known no doubt because of the repeated television showings of that blowhard cartoon rooster, Foghorn Leghorn. The two shared many of the same traits and if you’re wondering which came first, you can do no better than read Keith Scott’s research on the question.
Claghorn was a modification of Counsellor Cartenbranch, a character Delmar played on ‘The Alan Young Show’ during the 1945-46 season. In Allen’s hands, the Senator became instantly popular (the Alley had an earlier Senator Bloat, played by Scott Smart). The nascent Eagle-Lion ‘B’ film factory quickly jumped on Claghorn, and spun a whole 63-minute movie starring Delmar as the Senator, with a plot separate and apart from anything on the Allen show. Shooting on “It’s a Joke, Son!” began in Hollywood in July 1946.
The movie wasn’t really a success. It was almost an impossible task taking a two-minute routine and trying to turn it into a feature film (something many stars of “Saturday Night Live” would learn about their characters years later). The Senator may have been from, I say, he may have been from the South, but fans were used to his natural setting in the Alley. The fast pace of the verbal radio gags gave way to the languid pace of an hour-long piece. And Delmar had the distinct disadvantage of trying to be a visual version of a character people had already pictured in their own minds. He may have sounded like Senator Claghorn but he didn’t look like him to many viewers; I pictured the Senator to be an older, grey-haired wheeler-dealer.
Unlike some actors who embellished their stories over the years on the talk show circuit, Delmar was consistent about how he came up with the Senator. Let’s read two articles from 1946. The first is from the National Enterprise Association. The second is by the International News Service’s maven of show biz gossip, Louella Parsons. You’ll notice how Lolly loved to insert herself (and, in this instance, her news service) in the story of what she’s covering.
By ERSKINE JOHNSON
NEA Staff Correspondent
Hollywood, Aug. 11 — Senator Claghorn was sitting at the north end of the bar, sipping a Manhattan. He saw us coming and switched to the south end, but he couldn’t do anything about the Manhattan.
“Why Senator,” we said, “how come you’re not drinking a mint julep?”
The Senator put a finger to his lips and whispered: “Shhh! Nobody knows me out here in Hollywood. I’m having fun.”
But, he assured us, he wasn’t living in North Hollywood.
As you’ve probably read, Senator Claghorn — Kenny Delmar — is a movie-star. You’ll soon be seeing “It’s a Joke, Son,” starring Kenny, which Bryan Foy is producing for the new Eagle-Lion Film Company.
No Beautiful Girls
But the Senator was unhappy.
“There are no beautiful girls in Hollywood,” he said. “Where are all your beautiful girls? I saw beautiful girls in Texas, but none here.”
We assured him a couple might show up after lunch, and that seemed to make him happy. (They didn’t show up.)
Kenny was a surprise to us. He didn’t look at all as we had imagined he would. He’s a stocky little man with bushy hair that stands up in different directions, and he wears big, black, horn-rimmed glasses.
In fact, he looks something like a fat Harold Lloyd. We told him so.
“That’s what they said at the studio, too,” he told us. “They won’t let me wear my horn-rimmed glasses because with them on I look too much like Lloyd. In fact, they gave me a flock of makeup tests, and I looked like too many actors — like Jean Hersholt, Edward G. Robinson, J. Carroll Naish, and Ed Wynn.”
But after 36 makeup tests, he assured us, he finally wound up looking the way people think Senator Claghorn should look. He’ll just wear his own face plus big, bushy, prop eyebrows. He’ll have no beard and no mustache, and his glasses will be the pince-nez type.
The South Can’t Lose
There will be plenty of gags about the South, of course, in “It’s a Joke, Son.” This is one of them.
Una Merkel, Claghorn’s wife, tells him to come into the house — “a north wind is blowing, and you’ll catch cold.”
Replies the Senator: “There is no such thing as a north wind. That’s just the south wind coming back home.'”
Kenny came to Hollywood, free, in the president’s private car on the Southern Pacific railroad. (Everybody wants to get in the act.)
“But it was pretty rugged,” Kenny groaned. “I had to do 38 broadcasts and make about 48 speeches all' through the South. Anytime there were four people at the station they dragged me out of bed to make a speech.
“I should have taken Fred Allen’s advice. He said I’d be a wreck. After walking around in 110 degrees in Tucson while they made me a member of the Sunshine Club, I was a wreck.”
But, said Kenny, he’s going to take Fred’s advice about not associating in Hollywood with people who are sun-tanned.
Before he left New York, Fred warned him: “Avoid the people with sun-tans. They’re the ones who are not working.”
Delmar Tells How He Met ‘Claghorn’ While Hitch-Hiking
By LOUELLA PARSONS
HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 14 (INS)—I grew to know Kenny Delmar (Senator Claghorn) as well as it he wore a close friend, nil the weeks I was in the hospital. He was a must on Fred Allen’s show and the old Southern Senator and his drawl that smacks of down yonder below the Mason and Dixon line was one person I wanted to meet.
Considered the find of 1946 in radio, I was curious to see him and to hear first hand all about the Senator’s n e w movie, “It’s a Joke, Son,” which he came to Hollywood to make.
The Senator—Kenny, that is—was one of my first visitors, and he is no joke, son. He is an affable, attractive young man, who is still wondering what good luck symbol hit him square on the head. His only complaint at the moment is a bad case of sinus trouble which has kept him from being as happy as .ho feels he should be with all the golden success poured into his lap.
“HOW DID you got your sinus trouble?” I naked, when he sadly informed me he was gradually feeling worse and that he was told he had an allergy.
“I stopped at every town on the way out here,” he replied. “I never worked so hard in my life. I had to write something different about each town, and it was so hot that when I returned to the air cooled train, I caught a terrible cold.”
“The penalty of fame,” I said, and for just a split moment the smile turned into a question mark. I think he had a feeling I was being sarcastic, and ribbing him which, heavens knows, I wasn’t, so I quickly said, “Tell me all about yourself—where did you find Senator Claghorn? Are you married? Do you return to Fred Allen’s show? And how do you like the movies?”
“ONE QUESTION at a time,” Senator Kenny laughed.
“This isn’t my first movie,” he replied. “I was Joseph Schildkraut as a little boy in D. W. Griffiths’ ‘Orphans on the Storm.’ I tried awfully hard to get back into movies after that picture, but no one wanted me. It was really while I was hitch-hiking to California that I got my idea of Senator Claghorn.
“The Senator is the evolution of Dynamite Gus. An old western rancher with a rattletrap broken down car picked me up. He had to yell so I could hear him over the noise of the wheezy motor. He would preface each sentence with ‘I say’ and finish it with something like this, ‘I planted wheat, that is.’ So I turned Dynamite Gus into Councilman Cartenbranch, and he eventually became Senator Claghorn. I wrote the first two shows for Fred, but all the others are written by him.”
WHEN KENNY goes back to New York City, he will have his own show three times a week, besides his stint on the Allen comedy half-hour.
He told me that he had once worked for the Hearst organization.
“The radio, that is,” he laughed. “I did a part in Jungle Jim,’ advertising the American weekly.”
Now for you who will read this before Kenny’s movie is shown, let me describe Kenny, He is 34. His mother was one of the Delmar sisters in vaudeville. He was on the stage at the age of seven, and from his maternal side he inherits the love of art, beauty and poetry. His mother is Greek and English. He married one of the Cochrane twins, those lovely ballet dancers who appeared at the Metropolitan. He has a son aged five, who, he says, he expects to let hitch-hike because that’s where you meet the real American people.
And here’s a laugh — Kenny says he can no longer use his own gag, “It’s a joke son,” which he made famous on the air, on account of too many other radio comedians have used it.
P.S.: I used it myself on my show, and did I feel guilty when he told me how often it had been swiped.
When television killed network radio, it pretty well killed Fred Allen’s career and wounded Delmar’s; he never enjoyed the stardom of his time in Allen’s Alley. He remained based in New York as TV moved to Hollywood, but worked steadily in guest roles through the ‘50s (the commuting to and from the West Coast killed his marriage), briefly formed a comedy partnership with fellow ex-American Tobacco pusher Del Sharbutt and even produced industrial and sales films, at least one featuring a certain Senator.
In the ‘60s, Delmar became one of a handful of voice actors in the New York animation community along with Allen Swift, employed by Total Television Productions. Florida beckoned, where Delmar enjoyed retirement in West Palm Beach. The native New Englander died in Stamford, Connecticut on July 14, 1984, age 73.
We don’t suppose too many of you will sit and watch the entire version of “It’s a Joke, Son!” But a few minutes of the Senator’s bluster will give you a bit of an idea of what audiences liked on Fred Allen’s show. The dialogue director (who helped Delmar with his accent) was vaudeville veteran Benny Rubin and you’ll see a young June Lockhart. And, yes, that’s Foghorn Leghorn’s “Camptown Races” in Irving Friedman’s medley over the opening credits. Credits, that is.