Monday, 17 March 2014

A Portrait of Fred Allen

When Fred Allen died on March 17, 1956, there was a great outpouring of respect for his work—and a few attempts to tell the story of the “real” Fred Allen.

Allen didn’t have the reputation as a warm man. He wasn’t someone audiences could really identify with like Jack Benny, or, rather, the character on radio Benny played. People tuned in to Allen to hear him turn a phrase or stick it to deserving targets, like politicians and radio management.

Radio columnist John Crosby was a great admirer of Allen’s, perhaps they both hated the triteness, phoniness and incompetence of the radio industry, both on and off the air. Both were based in New York. Crosby interviewed Allen a number of times and got to know him pretty well. Here’s his tribute to Fred Allen, the person, in his column of March 21, 1956.

Tribute Paid To Kindness of Fred Allen

NEW YORK, March 21-- Under a dour exterior, Fred Allen was the kindliest man imaginable. Swarms of out-of-work actors descended on him regularly for handouts which were never refused. There was one actor who put the bite on him every Sunday after church. One Sunday the guy didn't show up and Fred got so worried he went looking for him.
The radio feud between Jack Benny and Fred Allen was legendary, but actually the two men were close friends and their admiration for each other was boundless. But this didn't prevent them from heckling each other unmercifully on stage. Once Benny was appearing on the Paramount stage and Allen sat in the front row and hurled one witty insult after Another at his old friend. After one quip, Benny, non-plussed, waved a $20 bill at the audience and offered it to anyone who could top Allen's last gag. Instantly Allen was on his feet, topped his own gag with a better one, and walked up and claimed the $20.
Fred was a wit's wit. There is not a humorist alive who did not admire him extravagantly, but none imitated him because they couldn't. His was a wonderfully original and well-stocked mind and he had the gift of bringing two frightfully irrelevant things into the same sentence. It was the humor of the ludicrous and a very penetrating wit it was but it does not reproduce well.
His humor was very much of the moment. I remember having lunch with Fred once just after the first atom bomb had gone off at Bikini and had proved to be a bit of a dud. I asked him if he'd heard the broadcast and he said, "Yes, nothing disappeared but the OPA." Well, the OPA had gone out of existence that weekend and it was a very funny remark then, but it doesn't make much sense today. I bring it up only as an example of the way Fred could take two totally unrelated subjects and combine them into one fast quip.
Even his prose style defied imitation. He had a horror of cliche and every sentence that came from his lips hid a newly minted freshness that was unique, even among very literate men. To him, even "hello" or any other ordinary salutation was a cliche and he avoided any form of routine greeting. He'd greet you, on say, a hot day with: "It's so hot out I could take my skin off and sit around in my bones."
In his early days he billed himself as the world's worst juggler and he just about was. He'd keep dropping the Indian clubs and to cover his confusion he'd make wisecracks that would convulse the audience. Actually, Fred was the last of three great American humorists who started the same way. The other two were W. C. Fields, who was a little better juggler than Fred but still no world beater, and Will Rogers, whose rope act was pretty fair, but not much better than that. All used wisecracks to cover their inadequacies with the props and grew into national institutions.
Fred's death came as a particularly terrible shock to me because he took such very good care of his health. He didn't drink or smoke and his diet was of such austerity that rabbit would find it dull. In fact I always thought he'd live to be 103. He had high blood pressure and he had consulted so many doctors and read so many books on the subject he knew more about it than they did.
Any sort of new medical fad would receive his most earnest attention. Once in Florida he stumbled on a cult that believed in fasting as a cure-all for everything. People subsisted on nothing but distilled water for weeks. Fred was fascinated by the project and its effect on the patients.
He was a very simple liver. For decades, although he was a millionaire, he lived in a little apartment on West 38th St. He used to eat lunch every day at the corner drugstore. He never owned a car and never learned to drive. It wasn't parsimony; it simply that luxury didn't mean anything to him. He never got away from the common people and he had a wide acquaintanceship in his little neighborhood with delicatessen store proprietors and local cops.
His kindliness was fabulous. Once a delicatessen store proprietor, a friend of his, lost his liquor license because gamblers had been hanging out there. Fred bought the place, got a liquor license in his own name and turned it over to his friend to run. At the time of his death he was working on his autobiography and he kept looking up old friends of his vaudeville days for material. Every time he found one of these old chums, most of them down on their luck, it cost him the price of a new suit. He loathed sham of any sort and he considered the broadcasting industry, which made him famous, full of it. He always regarded network executives as overgrown office-boys and he was incessantly battling them.
"If the United States can get along with one vice-president, I don't know why NBC needs 26," he once said. Among his other pet dislikes were Hollywood and Southern California. "It's a nice climate," he remarked of California, "if you're on orange."
He also took a dim view of agents and he once remarked of his agent: "he gets 10 per cent of everything I get except my blinding headaches." Years ago Fred was a pretty good drinker, averaging a bottle a day. The day prohibition was repealed he stopped drinking entirely, claiming that he'd drunk so much poison that the good stuff would probably kill him.
The end was sudden. As John Huston remarked after the death of his death: "He was too good a man to be sick. When the time came, he just died."

NBC took a bit of time for their own tribute to Allen. It came on the hour-long sustaining programme “Biography in Sound.” It was first broadcast on May 29th then rebroadcast on December 18th. You can hear the later broadcast by clicking on the arrow. It was written by Earl Hamner, who later created “The Waltons.” I believe the staff announcer giving the ID at the end is Mel Brandt.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a blind tribute. Allen was clearly a heavy drinker well into the 1940's if not the '50's, as judged by the huge bags under his eyes and the lines and creases on his face. Some of that may have come from smoking, but Crosby even denies that as well. Allen looked to be at least 10-15 years older than his young age of 61 when he died...