Tuesday 30 December 2014

The Champagne Lady on the Cider Gentleman

Some people are famous for being famous. I suppose Elsa Maxwell falls in that category. About all she was known for was throwing champagne parties and then writing about them in the New York Post (she was syndicated by Press Alliance).

One person who I cannot picture at an Elsa Maxwell party is Fred Allen. He and his wife Portland led a very quiet existence. Allen was so busy writing or re-writing his radio show, he didn’t have time for much else. But Maxwell wrote a nice tribute to Fred Allen in prose that was about as elegant as she ever got.

I haven’t checked to see how accurate her claims are about Minerva Pious and Charlie Cantor. It seems to me both were still on the show in the 1943-44 season and that Cantor was playing Mr. Nussbaum; Alan Reed (Falstaff Openshaw) and Jack Smart (Senator Bloat) were other players who made regular appearances in Allen’s Alley along with Elsie Mae Gordon (Mrs. Prawn) and Pat C. Flick (Digby Rappaport).

This appeared in the Post on March 9, 1944.

Elsa Maxwell's Party Line
Off Up for Allen's Alley

Although I have made guest appearances with him more than once, I don't think I had ever appreciated the real value, beauty, and extraordinary fantasy in the mind of this greatest of all radio stars—this Columbia Attic philosopher, this radio Erasmus, with his cadenced drawl and whimsical tones that might be measured by a metronome—who has charmed me every Sunday night this last month during my illness as a cobra charms a cornered rat.
Fred Allen has added a quality to radio without parallel . . . for there is only one Fred Allen, as there is only one Portland, and as there was only one Minerva Pious, who though stolen for a brief time by Jack Benny will shortly, I feel, return to the fold—the one and only Allen s Alley. Also missing—and I hope soon to join the glittering Allen Family circle—will be Charlie Cantor, the greatest character man of radio.
I don't know which special facet of the Fred Allen diamond makes him so irresistible. Perhaps it is the sheer sweetness, humanity and kindliness of the man. Or perhaps it is the hominess, and simplicity of Fred's humor, which is always founded on realism and life, and never taken from the well-known, and rather shop-worn-wits of the last decade: i. e., Joe Cook to "Dottie" Parker. In fact, Fred's caviar still remains just fish eggs, and his champagne still remains apple cider.
There is also the amazing suggestion of spontaneity in Fred's program that makes you believe he extemporizes when everyone familiar with radio realizes that few, except Fred, dare to tamper with the delicate art of improvisation when the relentless clock ticks away the minutes which divide sponsored radio shows. It has been said that unlike most comedians who try to make material sound spontaneous Fred's problem is to make his extemporing seem part of the show.
The first time I saw Fred Allen was when he was an actor. It was way back in the 1920's, when he appeared in "The Little Show," which starred. Clifton Webb and Libby Holman. No one could have possibly imagined that this rather small bit-player could become master of the air.
I once asked Fred "Why did you leave the stage?"
"Oh," he answered, "I didn't leave the stage. The stage left me. Radio came along, and I thought I'd fiddle with that."
"So you fiddled while the stage burned? Was that it?" I inquired.
"No—vice versa," said Fred.
But it's hard to realize the intensive work Fred puts into every show . . . Not only does he write most of the material himself, but, he spends his time "ungagging" the sometimes too goofy gags of his gag writers. Then there are three rehearsals to an Allen show. If you are a guest on it, you will be called for the first reading—say on Tuesday.
Then the script undergoes revision and even amputation. On Saturday there is another "going-through," and on Sunday a dress rehearsal before the evening show. And this is all under the psychological baton of the Maestro, who deeply respects his metier.
On "Information Please," Fred did not even attempt to match wits with John Kieran or F. P. A. when it came to knowledge of the classics. But neither Kieran nor F. P. A. is an Allen when it comes to wit. Fred ad-libbed constantly in a low tone, and rarely missed the bull's-eye, though you could barely hear him.
* * *
One of the questions Clifton Fadiman asked was, "What would Jack Benny, Midas, and Silas Marner be talking about if you met them on a street corner?" The answer, of course, was "money." When Fadiman pointed out that Midas was the king who could turn everything to gold, Allen murmured, "I don't think a fellow like that would have spoken to Benny."
* * *
Some have called Fred and Portland, who have been happily married for fourteen years, the Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne of the radio. It is very aptly put, for they are never apart and every anniversary they face each other over a glass of whatever is their favorite beverage and solemnly congratulate each other. If the art of humor lies in surprise, then Fred's voice is certainly his greatest asset. His incredible drawl as it gives utterance to his incredible wit and fun amazes as well as delights you.
But even at the most convulsive moments of Fred's buffooning one is always impressed, even through tears of laughter, by the innate dignity and decency of Mr. Allen—who, unlike many of his colleagues, never descends to the vice of either vulgarity of cheapness in the endeavor to catch a laugh. No higher compliment can I pay a man.

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