Wednesday, 5 November 2014

How Hodge White Helped Fred Allen (and Vice Versa)

Anyone familiar with Allen’s Alley of the mid to late 1940s might not recognise Fred Allen’s earlier radio programmes. By the time Allen gave up his radio show in 1949, he had been locked into a formula—a chat with dumb-bell Portland, the man-on-the-street interview (the Alley) and a routine with a guest star.

Some ten years earlier, Allen had an hour-long programme filled with non-professionals (either performing in a contest or giving an opinion on a topic of the day) set around a “town hall” motif. After a brief opening of a parade of characters, Allen joked it up in the form of community announcements. For a while, one of the weekly announcements involved Hodge White. While Allen went to great pains to invent names and avoid lawsuits, White was a real person, born on November 16, 1880. He ran a general store ten minutes from Boston and was lame due to a spinal injury.

Some enterprising reporters discovered there really was a Hodge White and there were several stories about him. We’ll pick one from the Syracuse American of March 21, 1937.

By J. L. (Dinty) Doyle

BOSTON, March 20.—Radio listeners from coast to coast every Wednesday night hear Fred Allen talk about one Hodge White, grocer.
Hodge White is no myth, ladies and gentlemen.
He's in business at 891 Dorchester ave., in Dorchester, about ten minutes out of Boston.
He has been there for 25 years and knows everybody in the neighborhood and everybody knows him and calls him "Hodge."
A new neon sign is going up on the front of the store.
Hodge is going to capitalize on the fame Allen has given him.
And how he loves to talk about Allen.
He knew the top radio comedian as "Johnny Sullivan," when Johnny was a kid playing around Grafton street and the Strandway Pack. Fred Allen was born Sullivan and christened John Florence.
Hodge White recalls that Allen was born in Somerville, went to grammar school in Alston, got his diploma at Boston's High School of Commerce and then went on the stage.
Hodge insists that he helped Allen along in his theatrical career. You see Allen was a juggler and he practiced with White's vegetables and eggs.
White has a little establishment, maybe 22 feet wide, flanked on one side by an empty store which was formerly occupied by a chain grocery and the other by an establishment which boasts "Flats Fixed, 35 cents."
There are a funeral parlor and a barber shop directly opposite, and a liquor store on the corner.
But it seems that the boys who hang around Hodge White's store dont drink. They are what is known as good, clean young fellers and they all remember Allen as one of that type, "a good boy," those neighbors say.
Incidentally that empty store next to White's is eloquent tribute to the loyalty of the neighborhood to the White institution. His trade doubled when the chain store opened. They haven't anything against the chains, but they like Hodge.
Sure, He Charges
It is one of those old-fashioned places, with an ancient stove around which the boys sit these cool evenings. The customers help themselves, if Hodge or his assistant, "Mame" Carr, are busy, and Hodge marks the purchases down on the "slip." Sure, he charges.
Half a dozen pictures of Allen and Portland Hoffa are on the walls. There is one of which Hodge is particularly proud. It shows Primo Camera holding up Allen, and the inscription reads: "To Hodge—See What I Did to Primo—Fred." He has another which he is having done in oils.
Mr. Allen refers in his broadcasts to "Mame." She's an institution, too, and has been tending store for White these 16 years.
Allen now and then speaks of Bill McDonough and Eddie Sheehan over the radio. In other days he used to play with those fellows. McDonough, incidentally, is extremely proud of three store teeth, right out in front.
When Allen was Johnny Sullivan he was a pretty fair pitcher. McDonough forgot to duck a fast one and the ball caught him flush on the mouth, knocking out three teeth.
Mr. Allen paid the dentist. McDonough recalls with pride that the bill was $85, "and Allen never complained."
Sheehan is now a fireman, and he's another of those neighbors who swears by Allen.
They All Love Allen
It really is heart-warming to hear them speak of the nationally-famous comedian who regales with his merry quips every Wednesday night.
Let's call White as a witness again:
"Why Allen always saw the funny side of life—if things weren't merry, he'd start something. He was always putting on a show in his yard. He'd get the kids together, and he'd make the announcements, and the high point of the show always was his own juggling act."
"Why I can see him light now placing three tomatoes in McDonough's hands, turning him around three times and yelling, 'Bet you can't hit me,' and McDonough would let fly—the tomatoes would land everywhere except on Allen.
"And you ought to see this place when Fred comes up here to visit his aunts around the corner—he always did go for their cooking. Why, the kids just hang around, and Fred sits in here with them and autographs all day.
"Of course, he's famous now, and he can't do the things he wants to. I'll bet if he had his way he wouldn't go to Maine for a vacation. He'd come right here and go swimming with his old gang. But he can't do that any more. The traffic cops would object to the crowds he'd draw.
"But he'll never change. He'll still be the same regular guy he always was—yes, sir—Johnny Sullivan was a GOOD boy!"
New Sign Up Soon
This Hodge White is a moonfaced, affable fellow, always grinning, who believes in being nice to people. They'll tell you around that Dorchester comer that in depression times Hodge saw to it that all his old customers got their groceries regularly whether they could pay or not.
"They'll pay." said Hodge.
They did.
For Hodge is in one of those old-time "solid" neighborhoods. where all the houses and flats are let and people don't move often. "Why, there are families who have lived in this neighborhood for 60 years," says Hodge. "All fine people, too."
Hodge has never seen an Allen broadcast, but he never missed one by ear, and he virtually shuts up shop from 9 to 10 of a Wednesday night. People just wait for their milk or cigars or eggs—and Hodge is particularly proud of those eggs.
They are strictly fresh, right from the farm—and they're from the same place he got the eggs Fred Allen used to juggle.
About that new Neon sign Hodge is planning. For a long time he ducked newsmen, never talked about his friendship for Allen, believed that he might embarrass Fred by capitalizing upon the fame his old pal has given him.
Allen was in Dorchester last Summer and told Hodge to climb on the prosperity van and get some value out of the radio advertising. So if you're driving along Dorchester ave. in another week you'll see the big sign: "Hodge White, Delicatessen."

Charles Hodge White was still alive when World War Two broke out but, by then, Allen’s show had changed and references to him had vanished. Whether Hodge himself vanished is unclear. We’ve been unable to discover when he passed away.


  1. Eric O. Costello5 November 2014 at 16:17

    I'm still doing some more digging, but I've found Charles Hodge White's 1942 draft card, which lists his place of business at 891 Dorchester Avenue, and actually lists Mary Carr as living with him at 769 Columbia Road, Dorchester.

  2. Eric O. Costello5 November 2014 at 16:38

    His World War I draft card (which lists him as lame from a spine injury) has him working at the same location, and a slightly different birth year and date (11/16/1880, versus 11/15/1881)

  3. Hi, E.O. Hodge is in the 1880 Census, so I think I'll go with that as his birth year.