The best-remembered feature of Fred Allen’s radio show was “Allen’s Alley,” where Allen would ask a question-of-the-day of four people which would veer off into some type of comic story. And if you did your own little survey of radio fans about which character in the Alley they think of first, it would likely be the blustery Southern-loving Senator Claghorn.
But the Senator was a relatively late addition to the Alley. He arrived in fall 1945. The Alley first appeared on the air on December 6, 1942 with only one of the four characters whom most fans associate with radio’s most famous lane. It was popular from the start and prompted a newspaper feature story that appeared in the Niagara Falls Gazette on January 30, 1943. The story isn’t bylined, so I can only presume it originated from Allen’s ad agency (or perhaps the network, which warrants one mention). Supporting players weren’t credited on Allen’s show for many years, so the story was one of the rare occasions radio listeners got to learn who played the first characters in the Alley and a little about them.
Allen's Art Players May Sound "Wacky" on the Air, But They're the Best
Two Russians, one Englishman, a Yank and a star who impersonates Chinese detectives. That's radio's own United Nations, waging a weekly war on gloom—and it happens to be Fred Allen and his famed "Art Players."
Allen needs little introduction to Columbia network audiences, but his acknowledged versatile cast of "stooges" or supporting comedians, is more or less cloaked in anonymity.
This is due not to a matter of lesser billing in the program but their command of characterizations prevents a listening audience from spotting them.
Take Charlie Cantor
Take Charlie Cantor, for instance. Charlie was born in Russia on September 4, 1898. He was such a tiny tot when his parents brought him to America that he never knew the name of his birthplace. His parents never mentioned it to him.
Fred Allen fans currently know Cantor's voice as either Socrates Mulligan or Rensaleer Nussbaum, two residents of that mythical slum section called Allen's Alley. Charlie doesn't even have to clear his throat to change to a high-voiced dope, rasp-throated taxi driver or a mincing vice-president.
When he appears with Ed Gardner in the "Duffy's" program he is Finnegan, a half-witted habitué who never is quite taken in by the sharpest of sharp practitioners in the story plot.
His voice agility makes him quite a favorite with directors of many programs . . . which should provide listeners with a lot of fun trying to see if they can identify him on as many as three shows in one night.
Cantor, whose radio career began about 20 years ago, is five feet five inches tall, weighs 158 pounds, has brown eyes and is the constant butt of Allen gags about bald heads. He attended P. S. 134, De Witt Clinton high school, CCNY and N.Y.U., all in New York.
His first job was shoe salesman. While attending school he took vacation jobs in vaudeville. Then he decided he wasn't going to be an actor and starve to death. Charlie was going to be a businessman.
Twelve years ago, business, as far Cantor was concerned, was a fine place to starve to death. Today acting is feeding him well despite the fact that few directors in radio know he is an excellent musician.
Here's John Brown
A native of Hull, England, is John Brown, educated in England, Australia and New York.
John was born April 4, 1904, and came to America when his father traveled from Australia to New York for a phonograph recording company.
To Allen fans, Brown is John Doe, of Allen's Alley. The character is one of Fred's favorite tongue-in-cheek representations of a man who knows all the answers of the popularity poll conductors, before they even ask them
When Brown isn't being John Doe, he may be a race track tout, a haughty vice president, a pompous college professor, the typical Dodger fan, a sleazy-voiced gold brick salesman or just a wise guy.
Like Cantor, Brown is in much demand on other programs and listeners can find him by listening for strident lawyers, sniveling gangsters or kind fathers giving their children homely advice.
That again, is a limited description of the versatility of the Allen Art Players' vocal skill.
Brown, too, started in a non-professional job, that of jewelry salesman. In 1934, David Freedman and Harry Tugend first used him in Eddie Cantor and Fred Allen programs after an uneventful career of amateur dramatics, little theater work and stock company appearances in Haverstraw and Rockville Center, New York.
He is five feet nine inches tall, has blue eyes, blond hair, is married and has two children.
Meet Alan Reed
The next character wizard is Alan Reed, native New Yorker, who was born on August 20, 1907, attended P.S. 52, George Washington high school and Columbia university without ever suspecting that he one day would rise to "anonymous fame" as Falstaff Openshaw.
Even after a career which started when he took a job in the American Legion state headquarters as office boy, took him through a theatrical stock company in Oklahoma and finally landed him in radio in 1926.
Reed still cannot understand why straight, poetic reading in a cultured voice, makes him a comedian.
A great deal of this is planted in Fred Allen's early introductions of Falstaff as the rhyming tramp who composed roadside sign poems. The public never has forgotten this and delights in the misanthropic conception of culture and squalor embodied in Falstaff.
Reed, in addition to his excellent Ghetto characterizations, often is heard as an over-stuffed vice president, an English butler, a lisping lackey of some guest star from Hollywood . . . and adds to his laurels by stellar performances in other programs. Among these, perhaps his finest is the portrayal of Poppa Levy in "Abie's Irish Rose."
Broadway, in two consecutive seasons has seen him win honors as featured player in "Hope For A Harvest" and The Pirate."
He is married, has three sons, stands five feet 11 inches tall, and weighs 225 pounds (practically no waistline, but shoulders like a weight lifter). His eyes are blue and his hair is brown.
Enter Minerva Pious
Last, but far from least is the veteran of the Mighty Allen Art Players—a tiny, gracious good sport who has been with Fred Allen for nearly all of his ten years in radio. She is Minerva Pious, native of Odessa, Russia, and graduate of Bridgeport, Conn., high school.
Min, as she is known to everyone in radio, played a week in stock while attending high school: two weeks with the Theater Guild at West port. Conn., and once worked as secretary to a Connecticut judge.
Harry Tugend, Allen's earliest radio director discovered her unparalleled gift of voice characterization and she since has delighted millions with her portrayals.
Miss Pious is the only feminine member of the Sunday evening Texaco Star Theater cast, with the exception of Portland Hoffa.
To the 5-foot, 108-pound voice mimic comes every type of characterization in the feminine category.
She plays dumb stenos, dowagers, debutantes, gangster molls, secretaries, housewives, burlesque queens, gum-chewing dames . . . and at present is known to the listeners as Mrs. Pansy Rensaleer Nussbaum or Mrs. Socrates Mulligan of Allen’s Alley.
She has appeared many times in Columbia Workshop, Philip Morris Playhouse, Duffy's Tavern and dozens of other programs.
Miss Pious and Charlie Cantor will be remembered as Min and Charlie two plain citizens who were a feature of Kate Smith’s Hour several seasons back.
This same team often appears in Allen’s programs as Mr. and Mrs. Average Listener, the couple who interrupt the broadcast and want radio changed around to suit them.
It is an interesting fact that all four of Fred Allen’s Art Players—separately or ensemble— are acknowledged to have no equal in radio. The nation's editors have voiced their praise time and again.
The listening audience follows their antics on the air with the same enthusiasm as they trace the doings of their daily comic strip characters.
Without question, in the profession, they are actors without equal. Yet not one of them ever attended a dramatic school.
And when you ask them their favorite movie stars or stage stars, they range all the way from Helen Hayes to Dinah Shore.
But ask them their favorite radio star.
These players, who have worked with them all, unanimously pick Fred Allen.