Wednesday 29 April 2015

Fred Allen on the Ills of Radio

You might wonder if Fred Allen hated radio so much, hated its commercialism (for that matter, he disliked the non-commercial BBC), hated its management, even hated the very people who came to see him in the studio, why he bothered to stay in the business. Someone asked him that question and got an answer.

One could cynically suggest it was the hefty salary that Allen received, but material things never seemed to mean much to Allen. He lived quite modestly and regularly gave handouts to total strangers on the street. No, Allen gives the same answer I’ve heard from veteran radio people even today.

The Chicago Tribune syndicated this feature story on November 7, 1948. Allen was into his final radio season and the story focuses on Allen’s peeves about the radio industry, sans any of his bile aimed at game shows (though he refers to the ratings, where he was getting kicked by “Stop the Music”). So don’t expect any withering commentary on Hollywood in this go around.

The drawing accompanied the article.


BREAKFAST Is just a little bit more trying to Portland Hoffa than to the average housewife. Fred Allen, her husband, instead of reading one paper while grappling with the grapefruit, tussles with nine. Moreover, he flourishes a razor blade attached to a long handle at frequent intervals. These slashings, with luck, may later yield an idea for a question.
Meanwhile, Allen's writers—he maintains from three to five—are snipping papers elsewhere around Manhattan, In due time they meet Allen and everyone fishes these scraps of paper out of his pockets. Shortly, the place looks like a confetti factory. Sometimes these sessions, long arduous, may result on a subsequent Sunday in a bit of topical satire or some wry comment on the manners and morals of the times.
If so, Allen will have to do a lot of work before the finished product reaches the air. The best his writers do is to spark-plug him. He writes volumniously between lines of any copy turned out by his writers.
After sweating out his script, Allen regularly throws much of it away during rehearsal, as he thinks up better lines or substitutes comment still more acrid when he gets on the air.
* * *
He has been on the air fifteen years now (he took one year off) and he's still at the top. John Steinbeck proclaimed him "the best humorist of our time."
Edgar Bergen, no minor comic himself, says "Allen is the greatest living comedian." Whatever else he may be, he's the best ad libber of our time.
In his asides Allen maintains that the outlook for radio, particularly for a radio comedian (and for that matter the whole human race) is dark. If Allen derives any comfort or cheer from leading the radio parade he gives no glimmer of it in private conversation.
"Why do you continue in radio?" I asked him when we last met.
"Because I'm 63 years old and don't know what else to do," he replied. "I couldn't stand traipsing around the country any more, sleeping in bad hotels. I can earn a living in radio, so I stick with it."
Reminiscing about his days in vaudeville And on the legitimate stage, Allen got around to a credible explanation of why he avoids capital letters on his typewriter. Fred doesn't like suggestions that he copied from e. e. cummings.
"It happened in Chicago back in 1927," Fred recalled. "A bellhop dropped my Corona—and thereafter it worked only in lower case. I never bothered to have it fixed."
* * *
Progress in radio?
"I've survived three presidents and countless sets of vice presidents," says Allen, "and the only improvement I've noticed around Radio City is that the lights have been dimmed in the elevators so that the operators can't read Racing Form while working." And even that might not have been necessary."
"A good many of them already had astigmatism," Allen explained.
"The greatest trouble with entertainment as it exists today," says Allen, "is the fact that no one involved in it is really interested in the creative side of it. The network wants to sell the time, the advertising agency wants to keep the client pacified, and the client wants to sell the soap. So, in and around the unholy three the writers and the actors run in bewildered circles. Their fates are hinged on the Hooper, a mythical decimal record that comes out once a month (God knows where)."
Allen can be optimistic about American radio only when he thinks of the BBC.
"If you heard some of the English radio programs you'd be very happy to take our programs as they are. . . . They start off in the morning when a taxidermist goes on telling you how to stuff a field mouse or something, for three hours. That goes on, more or less, all during the day."
* * *
Allen's acidosis has been considerably aggravated by censorship, which in his view frequently has been tied up with vice presidents and to a lesser degree with sponsors and their agencies.
"A vice president," according to a considered Allen definition, "is a man who doesn't know precisely what his job is and by the time he finds out he no longer is with the organization."
Allen was cut off the air at the instance of a vice president who didn't like something the comedian said about the V. P. in charge of programs. That vice president subsequently did find himself out of a job after various comedians had rallied to the defense of Allen and made the network look pretty silly. "The performer and the agency producing a show should be the arbiters of taste," Allen holds. "In the long run it simply doesn't pay a comedian to offend the public. I wouldn't offend a single person, I don't think, If let alone and yet I've been pictured as a sort of ogre—the Dean of Bad Taste."
* * *
Allen asserts that radio dominated by business men instead of by people who know the show and entertainment business. This is a matter of exceeding regret to him.
"I think if I went in to Mr. Charles Luckman," Allen said recently (he's not Allen's sponsor), "and showed him how to make soap, he'd resent it. He knows what goes on in the vat there, I don't knew anything about that. By that same token I don't think he should come and tell me how to write jokes."
Allen's estimate of the advertising agency account man is not high either, when it comes to his function with reference to radio.
"An account executive," he once explained, "is a man with a crew cut who lives in Connecticut. He gets to the office at 10 a. m. and finds a mole hill on his desk. He has until 4 p.m. to make, a mountain out of it."
One of the greatest obstacles confronting a radio comedian, says Allen, is that "negative flotsam," the studio audience.
"Where they come from; where they go, nobody-knows," Allen lamented. "You can work in front of a studio audience and learn precisely nothing. The same people show up week after week, year after year, nobody cares."
On another occasion Allen observed: "The radio program should be, written to appeal to people in their homes. You go into a studio, you have two or three hundred people in your audience, and their reaction decides how your program is being received. A great many people at home say: 'How was the program? Well, the studio audience didn't laugh.' They enjoy it by remote control or something. It's the old Greek drama—a fellow runs in and tells you something exciting has happened in the street, and all you see is a winded man.
"The radio, as an instrument, is in your home the same as a phonograf. And, consequently, I think your entertainment should come out of it, geared to the size of your room, not with three or four hundred people whistling and hollering and yelling and throwing pies at each other."
* * *
On the question of an editorial policy for broadcasters Allen is on record; 'Mr. Niles Trammell, the president of NBC, made a speech before the Federal Communications commission (on the Mayflower decision banning radio editorials) and he was so impressed by what he heard as he was speaking, he published his talk in a little brochure, which I read, and it's very interesting. Mr. Trammell feels that stations should have the right to an editorial policy. Personally, I don't agree with him on this issue, among other things.
"Radio City is to me a big phone booth. You go in there and you pay and you say what you have to say and you hang up and come out. And I think that thru the various discussions and round tables that both sides of almost every question are heard by the people who are interested in hearing them."
On the matter of platter chatter, now flooding the air, Allen has been mercifully brief: "All you need to be a disk jockey is to be able to stay awake, have a needle and a record."
And with the whole broadcasting industry whooping it up for video, Allen cautions: "There are millions of people in New York who don't even know what television is. They are not old enough to go into saloons.
"Today television is just like when radio started with crystal sets. People used to stay up all night and brag that they heard Pittsburgh, and look what's happened to radio. Or don't look what's happened to radio!"
* * *
Such is Allen's attitude toward the medium he works in. He is amiable enough personally. His friends are ordinary folks, mostly, in lowly walks of life. He's the easiest touch in Manhattan. He used to answer all letters personally. Nowadays he gets hundreds, but he still pecks out replies to many every week. He's had to have an unlisted phone number for years, so he can get some work done.
When last in New York I called his old phone, but found that it had been changed. (The guy who had been assigned his former number wanted to talk about all the experiences he had had with people trying to call Allen.) Allen's associates wouldn't give out his new number. I wired him and asked whether we could meet for a brief chat.
He phoned several times, I learned on returning to my hotel, but wouldn't leave a number. Finally came one more call: "Where have you been?" he growled. "I've been sitting in this phone booth all afternoon calling you every five minutes."
Well, he came over and we talked for a half hour. Then he suggested going out for a bite. We sought out what we thought would be a secluded place. No sooner were we seated when a hefty chap rushed up and grabbed Allen's hand: "Why, Fred, I haven't seen you since the Chicago fair." Allen, thinking the fellow was perhaps an acquaintance of mine, listened to his story of the 14 intervening years. Finally the fellow finished.
After he had gone Fred scanned the menu, ordered the vegetable plate and said: 'I wasn't at the Chicago fair!"

1 comment:

  1. One factor as may have explained Mr. Allen's decline in the ratings during the late 1940's was the almost-immediate success of ABC's quiz show Stop The Music, which aired right opposite Allen's show from its debut in 1947 ... and quickly gained popularity to such an extent that Allen felt compelled to offer $5,000 to any of his listeners who got called by Stop The Music.

    As it happened, there were no takers.