Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Fixing Radio the Fred Allen Way

Two things about Fred Allen—he read a number of newspapers every day, and he constantly complained about the state of radio programming and executives.

He managed to combine the two in 1937.

Allen wrote a guest column for the Long Island Daily Press, which had a radio critic simply named “The Radio Reporter.” He ticks off some annoyances from his own listening and gets in a shot at Jack Benny as this column was published not too many weeks after the climax of the Benny-Allen “Fight of the Century.” Fred was occasionally hypocritical with these “bad practices” lists as he indulged in some of the things he was criticising. As for comedians laughing at their own jokes, Allen would break himself up, especially at the beginning of the show when he did some schtick with Portland Hoffa.

He nicely fits in some credit for his supporting cast. An odd situation on some radio comedy shows existed where supporting players never got on-air credit for their work, even if they appeared weekly. That’s even though newspaper radio listings might mention that, say, Elvia Allman was appearing on a show, and might even list her role in the highlights section. In Allen’s case, he didn’t give his regulars on-air credit for years. I suspect you could count on one hand the number of times the name “Charlie Cantor” was spoken on the Allen show.

This story was in the edition of March 28, 1937.

I HAVE always envied the Radio Reporter.
I have a mental picture of him sitting back in his dimly lighted corner of the bustling newspaper office, his radio going full blast, wallowing in Power. What a swell way to spend the time.
Just the same, you must admit that sponsors spend untold—maybe they are told, only not to me—sums of money hording their talent to the microphones. Although they do it for the expressed purpose of pleasing some 20,000,000 people, you can't convince me that every soprano who splits the stratosphere and every comedian that releases a bewhiskered joke to totter around the studio and slink under a chair, ashamed of its age, isn't thinking of the Reporter, who is busy stalking material for his column.
Yep, the radio artists quake in their boots—or, if you surprise them later in the day at dinner, in their stocking feet—at the thought of what the newspaper man is going to write as he crouches in his rodent-infested nook.
CREDIT PLACING—There are four and one-half people on my program who deserve an awful lot of credit, I'm afraid. Although I call them things like "The backwash of the American theater" and "Those hunks of driftwood on the sands of time" the Mighty Allen Art Players, who are really Minerva Pious, Charles Cantor, Eileen Douglas and Walter Tetley, are unusually capable. John Brown is the person who always interrupts my sessions with Portland Hoffa; Walter Tetley is the fourteen-year-old actor who accompanies him. Cantor does all those fine dialects.
Which brings us rather neatly to the matter of burlesques on the air; since the Art Players have a great deal to do with those on Town Hall Tonight. The burlesque, whether it be of a current movie or of a book or of another radio program, is one of the most important phases of radio humor, it seems. At least, the Mighty Allen Art Players are about the important single spot on my show.
It's an important little business—and by that I mean the true burlesque and not the strip-teasing they are selling under that name these days. I want to take this opportunity to take my hat off to it, too.
Getting back to the Radio Reporter for a minute, I do envy his power. And since I am him for today, I think I will haul out my Aladdin's Lamp, rub it vigorously, and hope that the following things will happen in radio, immediately:
All Lone Cowboys to be forced to bring a friend to the mike with them. This would necessarily stop cowboys from being lonesome and with an acquaintance in the studio he would be assured of one listener.
All bridge experts who explain plays over the air to be made dummy for the duration of the program.
All hill-billies to be forced to stop singing through their nostrils. I know a hill-billy 60 years old whose throat is practically as good as new.
Jack Benny to be on the air every evening from 9 until 12.
All studio audiences to be equipped with woolen mittens. Their applause would then be seen and not heard and those who listen at home would not be disturbed.
All known jokes to be printed on slips of paper bearing 10 little squares. As each comedian uses a gag, he punches one of the 10 squares with a little hand punch I would supply gratis. After the 10 squares had been cancelled, the joke would then be retired to pasture.
All cooking experts who skip over a line of the recipe in their scripts to be forced to go from house to house and collect the burnt offerings that repose in housewives' ovens.
All band leaders who feature their brass sections to have their heads thrust into the French horn as far as the Adam's apple while their horn players render "Christopher Columbus" al a swingo.
All comedians to be prohibited by law from laughing at their own jokes, thus insuring a 100 percent lull.
All guest stars to have their right legs broken above the ankle on their way to the studios. If that is too cruel, let the traffic delay them.
All news commentators to be immersed in a pan of faulty-diction eradicator. Half the time, you can't tell whether the League of Nations is at odds with a dictator or whether you are listening to the finals of a pie-eating contest.
All announcers who spell out one-syllable words over the air, like This is the Eureka Cat Nip program—spelled C-A-T," to have their tongues tied to the top buttons of their vests.
All this to happen—-if I had Aladdin's Lamp.
However, I haven't, so it won't.
The reporter might do something about it though by massaging typewriters heavily and at length.
PONDERING—The question most often asked of me by reporters is: What will be the next trend in air humor?
The way I most often answer it is: "I wish I knew."
Radio humor has so far followed a rather well marked path. From the crude vaudeville sketches of the early days, it progressed into a crude situation comedy of its own. From there it went on to more sophisticated situations until it has at last reached the plane of brilliant satire, in many cases, brilliant burleque in others.
The ultimate will be a type of humor as exclusively radio's as the humor of Josh Billings and Mark Twain was America's. I hope I get there among the first.

Unfortunately, some of the things Fred Allen complained about were later saddled on him, and not willingly. He griped in his book Treadmill to Oblivion that one of his sponsors in the 1940s wanted a Jack Benny-type show with guest stars. So Allen was stuck using them and, in the process, unable to come up with a “type of humor as exclusively radio’s.” In many cases, he used his guests well. Allen’s “early morning radio” spoof with Tallulah Bankhead is brilliant and the “Queen For a Day” satire with Benny is beloved by fans who can (thanks to the studio audience’s laughter) picture what’s happening on stage.
One thing about the “Mighty Allen Art Players” listed in the story. Fans of old radio are probably familiar with all of them save Eileen Douglas. There’s a pretty good reason. She died before Allen’s biggest fame on radio in the “Allen’s Alley” days of the mid-to-late 1940s. Her real name was Alina McMahon. Her father was John R. McMahon, an author and magazine writer. She was on the stage on by the 1920s and appearing on Broadway (it seems she used both her real name and her alias while performing, like Teddy Bergmann also used the name “Alan Reed”). By September 1929, she was singing on a half-hour programme on WMCA New York and the following year, she appeared two mornings a week on CBS. She co-starred in “Eileen and Bill,” a 15-minuter in the afternoon on NBC Blue in 1932. She joined Allen earlier in his run. Douglas died on October 16, 1939 in New York. She was only 35. I have yet to find a news report which stated how she died.

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