Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Don't Raze Allen's Allen

“People You Didn’t Expect to Meet.” “The Average Man’s Round Table.” “Town Hall News.” No, those aren’t the things you remember if you remember Fred Allen. You remember Allen’s Alley.

The Alley didn’t take up an awful lot of Allen’s half-hour broadcast—and even less time on Armed Forces Radio when it had to be chopped up to remove dated or topical gags—but it’s the one thing that seems to have stuck in people’s minds about Allen’s show.

The Alley was first broadcast December 6, 1942 but I suspect the residents of the imaginary street didn’t become hugely popular until Kenny Delmar joined the cast as the blustery Senator Claghorn at the start of the fall season in 1945.

One critic thought the Allen had outlived its usefulness and, more importantly, Allen’s clever observations could be put to better use on the air. Another critic disagreed. Let’s bring you both sides of the argument. John Crosby’s column is from the October 28, 1947 edition of the New York Herald Tribune. Harriet Van Horne’s response was published November 3rd in the New York World Telegram.
Prisoner Of ‘Alley’

This is probably heresy, but nevertheless I’d like to suggest that Fred Allen change the format of his program. Allen, who possesses the most nimble mind in radio, possibly the only one, has become imprisoned by Allen’s Alley. The Alley, it must be admitted, is a wonderfully elastic formula; in no other alley could you find the farmyard smells and backwoods wisdom of Titus Moody, the lower East Side shrewdness of Pansy Nussbaum, the southern pretensions of Senator Claghorn and the Irish chauvinism of Ajax Cassidy. Yet, over the years, the charm of the Alley has perceptibly dimmed and the original plan of testing a single idea against a cross-section of the country has been almost lost.
CLAGHORN WORE thin the first year. The Irishman never really got started. Mrs. Nussbaum is a little different; she was acquiring a sort of worms-eye view of metropolitan life, a downtrodden but sprightly wisdom which could be preserved. Titus Moody, of course, is in a class by himself. He is a genuine American comic character not a tintype like Claghorn or Cassidy; his grotesque misfortunes (he can’t sleep because he’s got short eyelids) could go on forever. About Mrs. Nussbaum I’m not so sure, but I’m all for keeping Mr. Moody. Nevertheless, I think the Alley could be dispensed with, opening up the first part of the show to something quite new. I’d like to see Allen devote that first fifteen minutes to comment in his acid style on American life, comment that would avoid all but the more comic aspects of politics or world problems, and yet reach somewhat deeper than two-line gags about high prices and the ladies’ new hemline. At its best, it would be a commentary on those things which lie under our noses and which we would never notice until some one called our attention to them.
The new inventions, the newer expressions (How distinguished can you get?), the nation’s songs, and now and then, dipping into the fringes of more important things, the ideas which grip the country like suddenly illuminated truths and then are quickly forgotten. (Whatever became of "the more abundant life," by the way?)
IN A SENSE, Allen has been doing just this for years but he has been wrapping it up in two- line gags. The object has been belly laughs from the studio audience, which automatically limits the range pretty severely. (The two-line joke is going to ruin us eventually for everything except the comic strips.) The sort of comment I had in mind would not be aimed at the belly laughs (although it would probably get some); it would be an extended discussion aimed at giving Allen more scope than he has.
Today the air is full of commentators, all quite justifiably preoccupied with the more serious aspects of world problems. There isn’t any one looking into the minutiae which in many respects are just as important as the doings of Congress. Since the serious commentators get listeners and a lot of listeners, there is every reason to suppose that a witty commentator would get even more of them.
Allen is the only man in or out radio who could manage it. He more widely read and considerably more profound than most of the commentators now pontificating on the air; his wit never really has a chance to get started on the self-imposed limits of his present format; he is so thoroughly established in radio that he could get away with almost anything.
I haven’t the faintest hope that this suggestion will be adopted or even considered. I just thought I’d get it off my chest.
Fred Allen All Aglow Over High Rating

“Fred Allen died in 1896. What you hear on Sunday nights are transcriptions.”
This was the zenith of Mr. Jack Benny’s humor last night. And it was not without its irony. For the past week end saw Mr. Allen zoom to the top place among the Hooper elite. He came up from 11th, sprinting nimbly past the aforementioned Mr. Benny.
In fact, Allen’s Alley is now tied with Bob Hope at 23.2.
This announcement comes on the heels of a suggestion by one of my most esteemed colleagues that Fred dispense with the Alley and its dearly familiar denizens and devote himself to a witty by profound commentary on the American scene.
It also comes on the heels of an offer by CBS to build an entire show around the cheerful oddities of Allen’s Alley. A show minus Mr. Allen but starring Mrs. Nussbaum, Sen. Claghorn, Titus Moody and Ajex Cassidy.
Just what would happen to these wonderful characters if anyone save Fred wrote for them is too terrible to contemplate. Needless to state, Fred spurned the offer. And I rather think he’d spurn any suggestion—no matter if it came from the sponsor AFRA, Portland Hoffa or George Bernard Shaw—that he toss out a format that has served him so well.
As for the commentary on the American scene—it’s all there, every week. Beautifully contained in the homely mutterings of Titus Moody and the blustering nonsense of Sen. Claghorn.
Fred is the only comedian whose devotion to a set pattern has been unswerving. By now everybody is aware that the first few minutes of the show will feature Fred and Portland, discussing recent events in the news.
The news commentary is always followed by the saunter down Allen’s Alley. It’s a ritual so rigid that Fred even visits his characters in the same order each Sunday night, starting with Claghorn and ending with “the little shanty at the far end of the Alley” where Ajax Cassidy—his most recent creation—lives alone with his aches and his brogue.
Because of this constancy to format, listeners enjoy a fine sense of anticipation with each knock. It’s the pleasure of the initiated who know what is going to happen but not precisely how. But, inevitably, the first knock brings the blustering. “I say, somebody knocked” and the second a tightlipped, “Howdy, Bub.” Even the inflections are the same each week, including the querious note struck by Pansy Nussbaum when she inquries, “Nu?”
You wait for all of it, exactly as you wait for the next line of an old song, humming the melody to yourself. Mr. Allen would be a fool to change one syllable of this routine. Artist that he is, he has provided himself with the framework best calculated to set off his particular talents. The droll observations of Mrs. Nussbaum wouldn’t sound quite Kosher emanating from Fred’s lips. And while he may write the salty sayings of Mr. Moody, he’d be out of order saying them. I am inclined to feel that the Alley will stay as it is, with Mr. Allen happily knocking on the same old doors every Sunday night. It’s a glowing jewel that finds the perfect setting. And Mr. Allen, possibly because he’d just seen the new Hooper ratings (he even had Portland give a subtle nod) seemed to be in quite glow last night.
● ● ●
Besides being in a glow, Fred was also in a rush last night. For he appeared on Edgar Bergen’s show directly preceding his own—which, incidentally, went off the air in the middle of Maurice Chevalier’s “Mimi.” This was as rude a gesture as I’ve ever encountered in radio. This awful tyranny of time made one wish, momentarily, for the easy ways of the BBC. They’d have let Mr. Chevalier finish his song, even if he did run into the next half hour.
Chevalier’s comments on French radio were touched with the Allen satire. He mentioned “Breakfast in Bordeaux” in which a funny fellow pinned dandelions on old ladies. And he got a good-sized laugh with “Gaston Spitalny and his all-mademoiselle orchestra...featuring Fifi and her magic flute.”
By my favorite line came when Fred was describing a Western film he wanted Chevalier to translate into French. A deranged cattle man was the leading character. A psychiatrist was called in.
“The old cattle man is still lying on the couch but he isn’t talking,” explained Fred. “The couch is talking to the psychiatrist. The psychiatrist thinks the couch is an old patient of his who used to think he was a couch.”
Now how could Fred have worked in that line if he changed himself into a commentator?
A detour was put up around the Alley at the start of the 1948-49 season, but not for any of the reasons mentioned above. Ford had taken over sponsorship of the show and decided Allen should stroll along Main Street, where you were more likely to find Ford cars. Allen tried replacing the Senator and Ajax Cassidy with other characters, but something just didn’t seem right. Main Street didn’t last long; a combination of poor ratings and poor health ended Allen’s show in spring of 1949. He tried bringing back the Alley on one of his failed TV attempts before his death in 1956. Titus Moody and a Texan version of Claghorn appeared on CBS radio’s Funny Side Up at the end of the 1950s. Van Horne was right. It just wasn’t the same without Allen.

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