Sunday, 10 January 2021

Fred, Jack and the Feud

The Jack Benny-Fred Allen Feud was supposed to end after about 2½ months with a broadcast in New York in March 1937, but audiences liked it, Allen liked it, and Benny liked it, so it carried along, off-and-on into Jack’s television years in the 1950s.

NBC liked it, too. The Boston Post devoted pages to it, as the network tried to coax a columnist to write about it. The first story appeared March 28, 1937 and the second a week later. There was a third another week later.

In the first story, the “John” is John Brown (“Petrie” is the character’s name). “Charles” in the second story is the delightful Charlie Cantor.

My thanks to Kathy Fuller-Seeley, who went through Allen’s scrapbooks at the Boston Public Library. The cell phone pictures of the newspaper photos are poor, but better than nothing. Several are, unfortunately, unprintable, including several with Benny and his writers.

When Fred Allen Got the Hook on “Boston Stage”
Feudist Admits He Obtained Inspiration for Career as Book Boy in Public Library
How Benny Lad Reached Top


“Here’s one that’s right down the alley for you,” enthused the NBC publicity man—press relations representative to you.”
“Sure! Boston setting. Boston celebrities! What more do you want?”
Well, this story of the famous Jack Benny-Fred Allen feud wouldn’t be much of anything if we didn’t have a publicity man in it, would it, or would it? Anyway, the anecdote shows one of our feudin’ wildcats making a start in life, so let’s go!
“You know Fred Allen isn’t Fred Allen’s name at all, if you get what I mean. He was born right across the Charles River from Boston, in Cambridge, in 1894. That makes him home folks, eh? And he was christened John F. Sullivan, Sullivan being the correct family name. Pretty good stuff for you, eh?
“But it isn’t exactly news,” I objected.
“No, sure not. But the story’s a woe, for you, just the same. You see the first job he had was working in the Boston Public Library, for 20 cents an hour. His name was Sullivan, remember that and one day John L. Sullivan, the prize fighter, himself, came in to get a book.”
“For what?” I demanded. “Did he have some flowers to press or did he want to throw it at a cat?”
“Ha, Ha, That’s Good!”
“Huh! I get you. Ha, ha! That’s good,” the publicity man hit around as his mind groped for the way out; but, he was quick on the trigger, all right, this public relations guy.
“You see, it wasn’t exactly a book, the champ prize fighter was after,” he went on. “He’d heard about Charles Dana Gibson drawing a picture about him in “Life.” Took a long time for the news to get around to John L. Ha, ha! And he wanted to look up the magazine and this young John F. Sullivan was given the job of helping him find it.
“Well, the kid was pretty awe-struck, but finally got up his courage and ventured, ‘My name is John Sullivan, too.’
“ ‘Lots of kids have been named after me,” boomed John L. . . . .”
That’s enough of that story, but anyway it sets one of the principles on the way toward staging the world’s funniest feud. Besides, Fred Allen himself told me that is was in the Boston Public Library that he decided to become a stage celebrity. During one of his leisure moments he picked up a book about juggling and before he had read two chapters of it made up his mind to become a professional juggler.
His first appearance was on amateur night at a theatre in the South End. He hadn’t juggled more than one juggle, when the hook got him. He was back next week for more—and got it! In fact, young Johnny Sullivan got hooked off that stage so often that folks and the manager sort of got to know him. So one night the manager decided to have a bit of fun with his most persistent amateur.
Correspondence Course in Juggling
“Where did you learn to juggle?” he demanded, striding out upon the stage.
The kid was a little bit scared and as embarrassed as anyone who has been hooked off a stage 18 times actual count can be, but he didn’t forget to wise-crack. “I took a correspondence school course in baggage smashing,” was the best he could do on the spur of the moment.
It was good enough; came darn near to laying that audience in the aisles. The place rocked with laughter.
“Maybe the laugh was on me,” Allen remarked to me. “That make me believe I was a comedian.”
Anyway, the lad got up a string of patter to go with his juggling, got onto the vaudeville stage, quit juggling for monologue, played all over this country and filled an engagement on the Australian circuit. Back home, just in time to slip into khaki for the World war, he went to France and came back all right.
After the war, he teamed up with another Boston boy who became a top-notcher, Jack Donahue. For a time, Fred did the writing and Jack did the acting, but eventually the kid from Cambridge hit Broadway. Hammerstein’s “Polly,” the first “Little Show,” “Three’s a Crowd”; Allen wise-cracked his way through all of them.
And there you are. What could be more natural with his peculiar gifts that the step-off into radio? So that puts one of our feudists behind his tree, fully ammunitioned with quips, sallies and retorts, ready to shoot at the first wiggle in the underbrush. Seeing he’s there on the job, let’s allow Fred Allen to introduce the other half of the famous Benny-Allen embroglio.
Little Jackie Benny
“Town Hall News! Sees nothing, knows all! Waukegan, Ill., March 28, 1902. Town boys get orchestra craze. Nick dads for instruments. Town Hall News shows little Jack Benny getting violin from his father.
“ ‘Papa, did you bring me my violin?’
“ ‘Yes, Jackie, but that my son should want to be a fiddler!’
“ ‘Oh, daddy, I want to start practising right away.’
“ ‘Okeyedokey, my boy, here’s your fiddle. And Jackie . . .’
“ ‘Yes, papa.’
“ ‘Here’s a monkey wrench to go with it. Don’t forget that plumbing is a good business, too.’”
Skip the years; it’s just as well to leave out the noises that assailed residents’ ears in the vincinity [sic] of the Benny home from then on. It’s Saturday night in Waukegan. The youth and beauty of the town have gathered for a dance. Proudly, the young maestro of the youthful orchestra swings his outfit into action.
“How did we do?” Jack Benny asks the first of the dancers he meets the next day, eager to hear praise of his fiddling and direction.
“Well, your trap drummer wasn’t too bad,” the acquaintance replies and that’s that.
More years pass. Jack Benny and his violin are in the navy. Now, just let those gobs try to escape his playing. There’s to be an entertainment at the training station. The first volunteer is Jack—he plays his fiddle.
He does and gets hardly a police scattering of applause; several of the listeners make rude gestures, clasping their fingers over their noses. Jack gets mad; starts in to tell his audience what he thinks of them. Yah! This is good. First a titter, then loud laughter runs through the place. He slays them; they think his tirade is part of the act. Huh! Then as now—a comedian, not a violinist.
The war is over. Jack and his violin are in vaudeville. His patter goes over big; his fiddling makes no hit, save with the one small town critic who asks for more violin and less chatter.
Up and Coming
“Yeah, I often ran across another fellow about my same age, going by the name of Fred James, playing the same circuits, Jack Benny told me. “Sure, same guy who is Fred Allen, now. No, we never played the same show. We were both monologists so could hardly be billed together.”
With the advent of the talkies, Hollywood needs comedians and it gets Jack Benny. Small bits at first; then good parts. He’s not a star but he’s coming. Give him a break and he’ll be on top. And he gets the break. It’s Ed Sullivan, the Broadway columnist, who gives it to him in 1932. Sullivan is broadcasting a programme from New York. He runs across Jack Benny, who is visiting the big town, and asks him to appear as a guest artist at the next show.
Tucked away in his wallet, right beside that clipping of the small town critic who asked more fiddling, Jack Benny treasures a crumpled, dog-eared, faded single sheet of paper, covered with double-spaced typewriting. It’s the script of the minute talk he made on Ed Sullivan’s programme that night, only five years ago; his radio debut.
Here it is, just as I copied it from that old script. Look it over. Yeah. Here is the same self-kidding comedian, who in such a short space of time has climbed to the top, become radio’s highest-priced humorist.
“Ladies and gentlemen—This is Jack Benny talking. There will be a slight pause while you say, ‘Who cares.’ I am here tonight as a scenario writer. There is a quite a lot of money writing scenarios for the pictures. Well, there would be if I could sell one.
“I am going back to pictures in about 10 weeks. I’m going to have a big part in a new film with Greta Garbo. They sent me the story last week. When the picture opens, I’m found dead in the bathroom. It’s sort of a mystery picture; I’m found in the bathtub on a Wednesday night.
“I should have been in Miss Garbo’s last picture, but they gave the part to Robert Montgomery. You know, studio politics. The funny part of it is that I’m really much younger than Montgomery. That is, I’m younger than Montgomery and Ward.
“You’d really like Garbo. She and I are great friends in Hollywood. She used to let me drive her car all over town. Of course, she paid me for it.
The Rest Is History
That was the start of it. Five short years ago and last week Jack Benny signed a three-year contract that makes him the highest-paid comedy star in the country. Fan mail poured in after that first brief broadcast. The public wanted more of Benny; radio moguls became interested.
The rest of it is too recent history to need recounting. There’s one interesting angle, though. Jack might have labored on indefinitely in Hollywood without attaining stardom, but goes out, makes a hit in radio and in almost the wink of an eye, he’s back in Hollywood a full-blown star.
Last week we sketched the beginning of the famous Jack Benny-Fred Allen feud; told about 10-year-old Stuart Kanin [sic] playing “The Bee,” on the Town Hall programme, of Fred Allen’s comment that Jack Benny ought to be ashamed of himself, and Benny’s comeback.
But even then the boys didn’t realize that they had something. It wasn’t until the fan mail started piling in that they found that, from that meagre start, they had what radio listeners thought was a major controversy. Jack Benny got on the long distance phone in Hollywood; called Fred Allen in New York.
“Fred,” he said, “we’d better bear down on ‘The Bee’ stuff. I think we’ve got something there.”
“You’re telling me,” Allen shot back. “Listen, guy, I was just reaching for the phone to call you when the bell rang. The old Allen luck, eh? This sticks you for the call. You’ll be hearing from me Wednesday night if you put your ear to the loudspeaker.”
“I suppose you had to keep in pretty close touch with each other all through the feud,” I remarked to Jack Benny.
Had a Lot of Fun
“Thunder, no! That would have taken all the fun out of it,” the top comedian answered. “That and one more call was all we made during the whole thing.”
That’s a fact. These two grown men had more fun than a couple of kids, each trying to put something over on the other; to spring an angle that would be hard to answer. Fun! Yes, and work, too. Usually Fred Allen has his script all but finished by Sunday night, ready for whipping into a broadcast.
Now he had to wait until after Sunday night before he could finish it. I have before me the script of the so-called “Benny Bit” from the Town Hall programme of Jan. 13. That’s quite a “bit.” Six pages of typewriting that had to be good. No, not even Fred Allen, with all of his love of writing humor and all his ability for hard concentrated work, could turn that out without many hours of hard labor.
But he had Jack Benny and his writers in the same boat; they couldn’t even start writing script until Thursday for the Sunday Show. There’s enough background for the present. Let’s listen to the bullets whining across the continent as the funniest feud gets to raging in earnest.
The scene is that same Studio 8-H, in the NBC edifice in New York. Fred Allen has just started to introduce the talent for the “Town Hall Varities,” when Portland Hoffa butts in with her well-known “Mister Allen!” Fred reminds her that she has already had her part; she must be getting absent minded.
“There’s a man here to see you; he says it’s important,” Portland insists.
He Was the One
“I’m busy, Portland,” Allen drawls. “If it’s somebody who wants a dime for a cup of coffee, tell him I’ve done away with the middleman. There’s a percolator in my overcoat pocket, he can help himself.”
But this is no panhandler; it’s the General Delivery man from the Waukegan postoffice, a part played by a fellow named John, John Petrie, a member of the Allen cast. Remember that episode? Funny, eh? Well, we might as well have a few of the laughs over again.
John—I heard Benny’s programme last Sunday night.
Allen—So-o-o, you’re the one.
John—No. There was another man with me. He heard it, too . . .
Allen—Now, Mr. Petrie, as man to man. . . . I’m giving it the best of it, perhaps. . . . But did you ever hear Jack Benny play “The Bee” on his violin? John—Well, I heard him play somethin’ in a theatre in Waukegan, one time.
Allen—Was it “The Bee?”
John—Couldn’t a been. When he finished playin’ his violin was covered with somethin’ but it wasn’t honey. Looked more like tomatoes to me.
Allen—I see. With all those tomatoes hanging on it, his E string must have looked like a vine.
John—I ain’t here to stool pigeon, Allen.
Allen—Well. . . .
John—You fellers ought to quit this arguin’, Allen. All Waukegan is agog.
Allen—Oh, are you from Waukegan, Mr. Petrie?
John—Yes. I’m in the postoffice there. At the general delivery window. Right across from the second spittoon as you come in the door. . . .
Allen—Well, you ought to be able to settle the whole thing in two seconds. Could Jack play the Bee on his violin when he was 10 years old?
Allen—Can you prove it?
John—Prove it? I been runnin’ the general delivery window in the Waukegan postoffice for 40 years. Jack Benny started takin’ violin lessons though the mail.
Allen—You mean he had his lesson come general delivery?
John—He had to. His family wouldn’t let him practise in the house.
I can see Jack now. He’s toddle into the postoffice draggin’ his violin. I’d give him his lesson and he’d practise right there in front of my general delivery window.
Too bad there isn’t enough space to reproduce all that side-splitting scene and the ones from that followed it on both programmes, too; they ought to be preserved for posterity, being, as they are acknowledged, the lead-up to the funniest joint broadcast that has ever ridden the air waves.
Fred asks the man from Waukegan to play the tune that he heard youthful Jack Benny wrest from the innards of his fiddle. The visitor takes a violin and played beginners’ exercises. Then. . . .
John—Well, I got to be goin’. Which way is Waukegan from here?
Allen—Just go out the first door . . . and keep left. Ladies and gentlemen, there is nothing we can add to Mr. Petrie’s story. The Bee was played by a 10-year-old boy on this programme, but his name was not . . . Jack Benny.

The first photo from the Post below is missing the caption. The people depicted, left to right, are writers Al Boasberg, Ed Beloin, Bill Morrow, star Jack Benny and Jack's personal manager, Harry Baldwin.

Jack Benny Fiddlin' in the Bide-A-Wee Pawn Shops
That Was Gag Scene That Made Millions Laugh—Over in a Few Minutes It Took Hours to Write—Producing Funny Script Is Serious Business Until It Comes Roaring Out of Your Radio Set.

We were sitting in the hotel coffee shoppe. Jack Benny had promised to meet us there at 11:30, for breakfast, his, not ours.
Precisely at 11:30, he whirled in through the revolving door from the street. If you don’t know that that punctuality sets him aside from most of the people of the stage, you haven’t had much to do with actors—or actresses.
Jack ordered orange juice, cornflakes and milk, black coffee and didn’t eat all of the cornflakes.
“Got to watch the old waist-line, eh?” I remarked.
“And how!” he agreed. “But, man, I saw times in the old vaudeville days, when I didn’t have to hang back on the food. Sometimes we ate and sometimes we didn’t. Often, I lay abed hungry and told myself that if I ever got in the money, I was going to have everything in the world I wanted to eat.
“Well, I’m in the money, all right, but I’m getting just about the same things to eat that I did then, out on the circuits. Sure, I get in better places and pay more money for it, but I’m hungry just as often.”
Anyone, who has to watch his diet to keep from getting overweight, can understand how my remarks and his reply got him to thinking along lines that were anything but humorous. He had a few kicks in his system and he worked them off with intense enthusiasm. Suddenly, just when he was going good, he subsided. A sheepish grin spread over his face.
He’s No Kicker
“I’m a fine guy to be kicking about anything, eh?” he went on. “You boys will be thinking that I’m a grouch, getting too big for my clothes, too. But I can tell you honestly that I appreciate all that life is handing me.
“This is the truth. Every morning, when I get out of bed, I stand there and thank God for the break I’m getting. I don’t mean that I get down on my knees and put it into words, but I’m thanking Him, just the same, with every bit of my soul and body.”
It’s a fact that it doesn’t seem to be in the man, to play Benny the Great; he’s walking softly and keeping his fingers crossed. He doesn’t kid himself that he’ll be the darling of the entertainment-seeking ages.
“Some day,” he told me, “the public will say, ‘We’re sick of Jack Benny,’ and that will be that. But tell ‘em I’m enjoying myself now and thank them for me.”
Fred Allen is much of the same sort of fellow, underneath. True, I didn’t get so much of a chance to study Fred; Benny was busy but Fred was busier. But neither of them have any great amount of “side,” both of them speak as kindly to the lowliest stage hand as they do to their sponsors, and that’s speaking very, very nicely. Both of them wear the same size hats that they did in their vaudeville days.
They’re close friends; have been for years. Portland Hoffa and Mary Livingstone both told me that every time the boys get together, they, the wives, might just as well go out shopping. Allen and Benny always have a lot of things to talk over.
With His Iron Hat
We noticed that, the night we got them together in the little room behind the stage in Studio 8-H, for taking the pictures that accompany these stories. Jack and Mary came back stage just before Town Hall closed its doors for the night. Fred Allen, overcoat was over his arm, iron hat on his head, came in. He was tired; it showed in the droop of his body, the fatigue lines in his face. But he was game.
“All right, fellow, tell us what you want,” he invited as he tossed coat and hat on a table.
Yeah, that was a fine idea, but it took a little while to get going. Almost immediately, Benny had Fred backed into a corner of the room. Allen sagged against the wall, while Jack stood leaning toward him supported with one fist against the plaster.
Well, folks, we’ll have to admit that Benny and Allen are chummy enough now, but when they were feudin’, they feuded to a faretheewell. So let’s go ahead and get some re-laughs out of the script. Frankly, over the air, the quips came too fast for me; I’ve enjoyed reading them over in manuscript and very likely you will, too.
Those Famous Air Gags
Remember, at the end of last week’s article, Fred Allen had just finished interviewing the general delivery man from the Waukegan postoffice. That gave Jack Benny plenty to work on in his next broadcast; notice that he runs true to his usual style making himself the butt of the whole thing. Well, that’s the technique that has put him where he is.
DON WILSON—And now ladies and gentlemen, we bring you that violinist with the accent on vile . . . Jack Benny!
JACK—Hm! That was very funny, Don . . . very humorous. Evidently you’ve been listening to Fred Allen again.
WILSON—Yes, I have, Jack. Did you hear him last Wednesday?
JACK—Yes, Don, but only with my ears, my heart wasn’t in it. Any man that can stand before a microphone and say that I can’t play a violin, just isn’t normal . . . that’s all.
WILSON—But Jack, he didn’t say you couldn’t play the violin, all he said was you shouldn’t play it.
JACK—Yes, Mary.
MARY—All I heard him say was, you couldn’t play the violin at the age of 10.
JACK—I’m glad you brought that up, Mary, because I’ve got a photograph of myself right here, taken when I was 10 years old, playing “The Bee” on my violin . . . a very difficult number. . . . Here, Mary, look.
JACK—What do you think of that.
MARY—I’m glad it’s not a sound picture.
JACK—They didn’t have ‘em in those days.
WILSON—But Jack, how can we tell what number you’re playing?
JACK—If you were a musician you’d know . . . Say, who are you working for anyway . . . Fred Allen or me?
JACK—Oh! . . . Well, let me tell you something: I played a violin in concert halls log before I knew anything about Strawberry, Cherry, Orange, Lemon and Lime. WILSON—You left out Raspberry.
MARY—I’ll bet the audience didn’t.
JACK—Hm! That’s right, give Allen more ammunition to work with.
PHIL HARRIS (orchestra leader)—Let’s see that picture a minute, will you, Mary?
JACK—Yeah, look at it Phil, you’re a musician . . . That proves conclusively that I’m an artist.
PHIL—Well Jack, anybody can have a picture taken with a violin.
JACK—Yes Phil, but can’t you tell from the way I’m holding it that I can play?
PHIL—You’re holding it upside down.
JACK—Well, it’s much harder that way . . . Anyway, I had a small chin and I couldn’t put the violin under it.
MARY—Now you can put a ‘CELLO under it.
JACK—Is that so.
KENNY BAKER—Can I see the picture too, Jack?
Calling it a Fiddle
KENNY—Well everybody else is getting laughs out of it.
JACK—Don’t get cute, Kenny . . . And another thing: Fred Allen said I only had TWO strings on my fiddle . . . Imagine . . . that’s what he called my Stradivarius, a fiddle.
KENNY—Is it a Stradivarius?
JACK—That’s not the point . . . Anyway, Mary, you count ‘em. How many strings to do see in this picture?
MARY—Three on the violin and one around your waist.
JACK—Well, that was to hold my pants up. I was poor in those days. Hm, that’s what burns me up: Allen picking on a poor little kid.
JACK—What are you laughing at, Mary?
MARY—Burns and Allen.
JACK—Hm! Well, I don’t want to discuss it any further. Let’s forget all the Allens, especially Fred. I should stoop to argue with a toothpaste salesman. MARY—Well, you could use one.
JACK—I said toothpaste, not toupee.
Takes Lots of Writing
The probabilities are that the average radio fan has no idea of how much writing there is to even a short bit. Allen and a male member of his caste [sic], named Charlie, answered that sally of Benny’s in a very few minutes, but it took five full pages of script for the job. Script full of wit and punch; it must have taken hours to turn out.
Fred opened the “Benny bit” by styling Jack’s fiddling picture, “a new low in composite photographic skulduggery,” and what’s more said he could prove it. As a witness, he produces one, DeWitt Levee of Waukegan, Ill., impersonated by Charles.
“What do you do in Waukegan?” Allen asked the witness.
“I am running—strictly by appointment—the Bide-A-Wee combination pawnshop and photograph gallery,” asserts the man from the West.
Then Fred Allen goes after laughs, and gets them, by allowing himself to be kidded by the visitor. The script runs:
ALLEN—I’ve never heard of a combination pawnshop and photograph gallery.
CHARLES—Why not? It’s my own idea. So many people are hocking valuables and never coming back.
ALLEN—I know. But where does the photograph gallery come in?
CHARLES—By me, let us say for no reason, you are hocking something. I am taking your picture with the article. You are keeping the picture for a souvenir.
ALLEN—I see. Do you ever listen to Jack Benny on the radio?
CHARLES—Who else?
ALLEN—Don’t get personal, Mr. Levee. Just answer my questions.
CHARLES—Jack Benny! There’s a comedian. You should live to see the day you could hold a candle to Jack Benny.
ALLEN—Wait a minute! Don’t turn this into an arson case, Mr. Levee.
CHARLES—Last Sunday, Jack is slaying me. He is calling you a toothpaste salesman.
ALLEN—That’s only the half of it.
CHARLES—A toothpaste salesman. Hi! Yi!
ALLEN—Well. At least my samples don’t wobble around.
CHARLES—What’s the matter you couldn’t say Jello.
ALLEN—Did he say Ipana last Sunday.
Not to Eulogize
ALLEN—Now. . . . Listen . . . Mr. Levee. At long last you and I are not gathered here to eulogize Jack Benny.
CHARLES—Look! I’m giving Jack Benny a little plug. And he can’t take it.
ALLEN—You know what happens if you give Jack a little plug, don’t you?
CHARLES—So what happens?
Buck Benny Rides Again
ALLEN—Buck Benny rides again!
CHARLES—Oy! Buck Benny. What a cowboy!
ALLEN—Now . . . Look, Mr. Levee. You were brought here tonight to tell our radio audience about a certain picture.
CHARLES—Could I get a word in endwise . . . Up to now?
ALLEN—Quiet please! Did you . . . or did you not . . . on the afternoon of July 7, 1904, take a picture of Jack Benny holding his violin?
ALLEN—And where was the picture taken?
CHARLES—In the Bide-A-Wee Paw Shop at Waukegan, Illinois, with a Brownie Number Two.
ALLEN—Fine. What was Jack Benny doing in the Bide-A-Wee Pawn Shop at the time?
CHARLES—He was practicing on the violin.
ALLEN—He practised his violin in your pawnshop?
CHARLES—Where else? You think I am letting the violin out of mine sight?
ALLEN—I see.
CHARLES—The violin was in hock, a technical term, but I was letting Jackie come into the pawnshop to practise.
ALLEN—Now, one vital question, Mr. Levee. Was Jack playing The Bee on this violin when you took the picture?
CHARLES—Is the right arm blurred?
ALLEN—No, the right arm isn’t blurred.
CHARLES—Then he wasn’t even playing.
Then the man from Waukegan borrows a violin from the orchestra leader and plays the music that little Jackie Benny played in the Bide-A-Wee pawn shop. Beginners’ exercises, nothing else.

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