Sunday 26 August 2012

A Phoney Trip Down Allen's Alley

Fred Allen’s full-time career on radio ended on June 26, 1949 but his most famous segment ended before that.

Allen’s Alley was Allen speaking through the characters of an elected Dixiecrat, a Jewish New York housewife, a rural New Englander and a happy Irishman on issues of the day. The premise of interviewer Allen knocking on doors of homes along an alliterative lane was changed in his final season to a man-on-the-street format called “Main Street” with most of the same characters. It doesn’t work as well. You can picture the front porches when you hear the door-knocking sound effect in the Alley; the Main Streeters just show up and it’s less visually evoking.

Though the Alley was gone, it was not forgotten. Jack Benny spoofed it on his show on February 12, 1950. About the same time, syndicated columnist Erskine Johnson did the same thing. In Johnson’s case, he lobbed softball questions about Fred’s pet peeves to Allen, then set up the responses in an Allen’s Alley interview format.

The column appeared in papers beginning February 21, 1950.

Johnson Goes to Fred Allen For Some Sprightly Comments
NEA Staff Correspondent

HOLLYWOOD—(NEA)—And now let’s peek in on Allen’s Alley.
Just because Fred Allen doesn’t have a radio show this season, there’s no reason the Johnson Network can’t bring him to you.
ANNOUNCER: “The Fred Allen Show!”
ANNOUNCER: “Fred is packing his suitcase in his room at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for the trip back to New York after a month of California sunshine and several radio guest appearances, including one with his old pal Jack Benny.
JOHNSON: “Tell me, Mr. Allen, why did you come to Hollywood?”
ALLEN: “I was sick for two months this winter and I worried about owing Jack Benny a guest appearance. In case I die, I don’t want any trouble at the grave with Jack's attorney about owing them a guest shot.”
JOHNSON: “Thank you, Mr. Allen. Now let me get your opinion on several subjects. For instance, Milton Berle.”
ALLEN: “I’m mad at him. He didn’t steal any of my jokes—he stole one of my people (writer Nat Hiken). I guess you’d call it ‘artistic kidnaping.’”
Milton’s television show:
ALLEN: “A formula that won’t last. You hire six vaudeville acts and get a guy with five fingers—like Berle—to point at ‘em.”
California sunshine:
ALLEN: “The sun is all right if you are a tropical plant. The sun doesn’t do anything for a microphone.”
ALLEN: “I look great on kinecope. It straightens me out. Portland thinks I should remain on kinescope and never come home. I look better than I do alive.”
Television viewers:
ALLEN: “I know a fellow who hasn’t even got a set, but his neighbors have, and he’s sick of television already."
Television’s pioneers:
ALLEN: “Pioneers never make any money. Take Daniel Boone. He went through all those forests and didn’t make a dime. Then the lumber companies came in and cleaned up.”
His radio version of “It’s in the Bag” on the Screen Directors Playhouse on NBC:
ALLEN: “I broke a chair over the head of a radio M. C. The fact that he was the M. C. of a giveaway show is not coincidental.”
Giveaway programs:
ALLEN: “They're tough on actors. All a sponsor has to do is hire an M. C. and eight ice boxes.”
ALLEN: “Ninety per cent of the people are living off 10 per cent of the people.”
NBC executives:
ALLEN: “They’re all shaking so that if there’s ever an earthquake in New York the NBC men will be the only ones standing still.”
ALLEN: “There has to be unemployment. If everyone who is unemployed suddenly went to work, all the people working in the unemployment bureaus would be unemployed.”
California smog:
ALLEN: “It’s the reason no one ever leaves California. They can’t find the railroad station.”
The growth of Los Angeles:
ALLEN: “Everyone who gets off the train here is carrying a hammer and a piece of board and builds something.”
Wrestling on television:
ALLEN: “If you can't afford a set, I know a couple of guys who will come to your home and wrestle in the living room.”
His motion picture plans:
ALLEN: “I auditioned for the Paramount commissary but I couldn’t make it.”
Hollywood dinner parties:
ALLEN: “There’s a regular circuit you have to play when you come out to Hollywood. You go to certain people's homes for dinner and then you never see ‘em again.”
Jack Haley’s ranch, where he spent several days:
ALLEN: “Jack raises cows. Cows are easier to get along with than people and besides, they give milk.”
His own future in television:
ALLEN: “I’ll probably go back on the radio next fall. Then when there are 15 or 20 million TV sets, I’ll try television. Out of all this confusion will come a technique.”

Allen’s radio career ended for a variety of reasons. His health wasn’t good. His ratings were even worse, thanks to the giveaway craze on “Stop the Music” on ABC opposite him (“Radio is the Marshall Plan with music,” Allen tartly observed). And radio itself was sputtering and coughing to a death and rebirth as a home for popular music, friendly patter and top-of-the-hour news. He was a semi-regular on “The Big Show” for the two seasons it was on the NBC, starting in fall 1950, before a brief career on television that never really tapped his talents. Death claimed him in 1956 before his TV technique could come out of the confusion.


  1. Allen was the narrator on a Huck Hound cartoon. I realize his career was not at his high point there, but I've often wondered why he did that. Or was it even him? Did Daws do a good Fred Allen impersonation?

  2. Yes, it was Daws. The cartoon was made two years after Fred's death. From what I can tell, it was the only time Daws ever used the voice outside of his pre-war nightclub act.

  3. And that, of course, would be "Skeeter Trouble", one of several times that Huck had to deal with peaky insects.SC