Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Understanding Fred Allen

Fred Allen made his debut as a star on radio on October 23, 1932. The Linit Bathtub Revue is pretty hokey by today’s standards, and perhaps by the standards of 1932. However, Allen (assisted at the start by Harry Tugend) honed his show where it soon began attracting extremely good reviews. Long before he signed off in 1949, he was praised everywhere (except, perhaps, in some vice-presidents’ offices at NBC) for his intellect and insight.

Here’s a feature story in the Radio Mirror with a cover date of May 1934. The photos accompanied the article, presumably courtesy of the network. The one to the right shows one of his early cast members, Irwin Delmore, who was later a judge and a member of the New York State Assembly under his full name of Irwin Delmore Davidson (Portland Hoffa is to Allen’s right).

THE popular air comedian was born with a gift for laughter and the necessity for making it buy him coffee and cakes. This is the real Allen behind all the comedy
by R. H. ROWAN

IF you could happen along one of the streets of New York right now and should encounter a tall, serious-faced fellow, with bland blue eyes, a set mouth and a serious demeanor you might at first think him a country product in from the sticks to find out for himself if the blades of grass do sprout up along Madison avenue in the springtime to give you that certain April nostalgia.
That is, at first you might think him a homemade product from the rural spaces. But then if you got a good look at him, caught that crinkly twitch of flesh below his eyes, a sudden upward twist of lips as though he were having a laugh ail by himself, you'd know you were facing a philosophical man. And if you'd happen to see a photograph of Fred Allen you'd realize after a hesitation that you were gazing at the famous comedian who came to the airwaves last year to repeat the sensational success he had on the stage.
Fred Allen, the trouper and Fred Allen, the private citizen are the same. There is so little of the actor and so seldom the attitude of posing about this fun-maker that it is difficult to differentiate between his leisure hours and his microphone moments.
The first thing that strikes you about him is his understanding kindliness. Or perhaps that should come second for he is fundamentally the humorist who brings out the fun in an amusing situation rather than the brief laugh in a smart gag. He has unjustly been accused of being a sophisticated type of comedian and, rightfully, he resents that. The fact that he doesn't descend to lowbrow cracks, to obvious jokes; that he is an astute student of human nature, born to brighten life for people of more sombre mien and that there is a keen philosophy in all his funny business has caused an erroneous impression to get round about his work.
He gets his material from an analytical appreciation of the ordinary happenings but admits quite frankly he is an ardent reader of his own extensive — and expensive — library of old joke books.
Recent polls, localized and national, have proven the popularity of the Fred Allen broadcasts. The air comedian and his material, are familiar to millions. He writes all his own stuff and every week turns out a skit that might be the bright spot in any Broadway hit. A famous producer, listening in to one of Fred's programs recently said, "It's a tragedy that this sparkling dialogue should go on the air for fifteen minutes and then go right into the ash-can when it might be repeated for months in a theatrical show."
In spite of his repetitious weekly successes, Allen approaches each new script with fear and doubt. Even after his broadcast he is uncertain of its reception and will humbly turn to a bystander with the anxious remark, "Do you think it was any good?" That isn't an act, either. He means it. Sometimes he's amazed when a chance comment of his, a typical Allen retort, will bring loud laughter in an informal conversation.
Not that it is such an effort for Allen to be funny. Humor flows with his most casual speeches, spontaneous and sparkling — not in a glib conceited fashion, but as a natural, unpremeditated utterance of the unique turn his thoughts are always taking. That doesn't mean his broadcasts are extemporaneous because, most of the time, he is so unaware of how funny he is that he works as hard over his material as the comedian whose humor is his job and not his own personality. He will struggle along for a week over a program and then tear it up because he thinks it's dull — start over again and in a few hours turn out a script he thinks will be all right.

Allen was born to work and started in at it the earliest age when he could earn his livelihood. But he never knew until audiences started laughing at his lines how interesting and pleasant a job could be — and how lucrative as well. He's a product of New England and he was baptized John F. Sullivan thirty some years ago. He has a reticence about having his age known so we'll just say he's in his early thirties and you can form your own opinion as to whether we're giving him the break of a couple of years. The day he first opened his eyes, the ground hog went right back into his hole and it was cold Massachusetts winter for the young Sullivan many years until at last he hit Broadway and the Main Stem paid tribute to his talents.
He tried out many jobs while he was still mastering the elementary branches of an education and though his schooling has been limited he is an avid reader and has that mellow, rich learning which comes from varied and wide experience with all sorts of people and experiences.
As a small boy he worked in the public library in Boston and had a penchant for planning his future career from whatever book he happened to pick up. If it was a volume of travel he was going to far places, if it was a thesis on bridge building then that's what he wanted to do — for the moment. It was natural therefore when one day he came upon a book which minutely described the art of juggling he should immediately consider himself an embryonic juggler and so seriously did he dwell on this outlook that eventually he became a very bad throw-and-catch-'em artist in small time vaudeville. His manipulations of the various instruments were so inexpert and so coldly received that he interpolated funny lines to cover his fumblings, gradually developing into a comedian, and leaving the shiny balls to those who could catch them better.
He served in the A. E. F. during the World War and after the armistice returned to New York to hunt a job and marry Portland Hoffa, his present wife and professional stooge, and to struggle along for years until a chance in a big Broadway production brought his clever routines to the attention of those who make stars out of road-show strugglers. What Fred Allen did in the way of keeping the first "Little Show" audiences laughing is still theater history. And what Fred Allen did, in that era, by way of making brilliant successes out of after-theater parties and social soirees is still talked about, too. He was the stellar guest of all those gatherings that included Noel Coward, the Alfred Lunts and other lights.
He had a grand time himself, too, until he realized that staying up late at night and getting up early the next morning made him more amusing socially than he might be professionally. Then, as is typical of Fred Allen, he immediately did an about-face. He gave up the parties because his work was so much more important and now-adays if you hear of the Fred Allens being among those present at any of the big social events you may rest assured Fred's there because of an old friendship or because he's so inherently kind he couldn't find a "no."
The Allens' existence, away from the radio, is an uneventful one if judged by the activities of most other microphone celebrities. Fortunately for Fred, Portland likes the quiet ways. Though, I suppose, she's so much in love with her husband, even if she weren't the quiet, retiring sort of person she is, whatever Fred said would be right.
Allen lives by a routine of physical exercises and careful adherence to a sane diet so that he is in better condition this year than he has been for many theatrical seasons. He has all sorts of gymnastic equipment in his own home and if you see a picture of Fred in his living room, slouched in a comfortable chair with a glass in his hand, you may be sure it contains milk. He walks miles every day and visits a New York gym several times a week. He keeps regular hours, works all day and as a result not only writes his own material, scribbles off syndicated letters and humorous articles for any number of publications but concocts the stuff for other comedians whose names are as well known as his. Many a quip that has brought a coast-to-coast laugh has originated in the fertile mind of Fred Allen and we don't mean it finally reached the public by the pilfering route either, because a part of Allen's income is derived from contracts to provide the continuities for other stars. During months between theater engagements he once served as a production man in Paramount's Long Island studio where he brightened the dialogue of many a dull scenario. And if any of you vaudeville fans of other years recall a funny fellow named Fred James who long ago made you laugh, that was Fred Allen, too. Only he changed his name to Allen after he'd changed John Sullivan to Fred James.
HE'S an old married man now, judging by Broadway matrimonial seasons but he's still so crazy about Portland Hoffa he'd rather you complimented her than his own humor. His generous spirit extends to other members of his radio cast, too. He doesn't hog the catch lines. He'll often give the funniest speeches to somebody less important than he when he writes the script because to him it's the act that comes first — not Fred Allen. That, any executive or actor will tell you, is the height of professional generosity.

1 comment:

  1. I love Fred Allen. His shows can always make me laugh.