Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Toreador, That Allen's Not a Bore

Fred Allen was known for his clever observations on various things, especially those he saw as inane, such as the bulk of show business. But he joined with writer Nat Hiken to come up with parodies of all sorts, from the musical Oklahoma to the operetta HMCS Pinafore to husband-and-wife morning radio shows. Several were re-used with some modifications; writing this kind of material would be impossible for 39 episodes a season.

Allen took aim at the radio advertising industry when he found the chance, but he didn’t leave it at doing a phoney commercial. On one show, he worked his puncturing of cigarette ads on the air into a version of the opera Carmen. His guest star that evening was Shirley Booth, whom we don’t exactly think of as a singer.

The broadcast was reviewed in the New York World-Telegram by Harriet Van Horne. We’re transcribed some of her reviews before. She seemed very sour on radio and television. In this review, though, she lauds Allen and Booth for their work.

Unfortunately, this story from the Allen scrapbook in the Boston Library has no date other than “1945” on the picture taken of it. After poring through old newspapers, it would appear the show was from February 9, 1947. Booth also guest-appeared with Allen on October 12, 1947 but the Daily Worker reported they starred in a parody of “Brigadoon” called “Broken Doon.” Allen brought her back on January 11, 1948 for a send-up of “Finian’s Rainbow.”

Allen Hits Top Form When Spoofing Radio

When Fred Allen sets his mind to parody, satire or burlesque, he is touched by moonbeams from a distinctly superior lunacy. At no time is his cutting edge keener than when he takes for a target the radio business itself.
Last night Fred took careful aim at the cigaret commercials. It was, in the opinion of many in the trade, the best score of the season. The oratory and balderdash of radio’s most objectionable tobacco plugs were lampooned in an operetta that made use of the melodies from “Carmen,” with lyrics from a pen dipped in vitriol, blended with Allen’s special brand of spoofing powder.
Singing the role of Carmen was Shirley Booth, whose razor-edged soprano will take anything—and frequently did in the early days of Duffy’s Tavern, when she played Miss Duffy. Her version of Carmen had a Brooklyn accent and a brazen way of sliding over and under the key.
Fred was Dr. Allen, the eminent cigaret authority, commissioned by the makers of Puffos to improve their product. Only thing wrong, he discovered, was that the cigaret contained nothing but tobacco. No treat, no treatment, no vapor-rub, no formaldehyde. “Gentlemen, you’re 50 years behind the times,” he told them. To the strains of the Habanera, Fred noted that “Raleigh cigarets were up a tree, ‘till I invented ‘whoosh,’ nine-o-three.”
“American Tobacco paid me a pretty penny,” he carolled, “for a Lucky that would sell in spite of Benny.”
To give the operetta some semblance of plot, Dr. Allen had a secret formula, which Carmen (last name Houlahan) is suspected of stealing. She denies this, and protests her love for Dr. Allen. “I fell in love with your pitcher . . . it was in the Medical Journal. You was doin’ somethin’ to a guinea pig.”
Somewhere along here, Carmen sings the Gypsy Song. In this case the words proclaim her the Queen of Nicotine. As a special fillip at the end, she quavers, “I don’t mean drene, or kerosene, just nicotine!”
To Dr. Allen’s accusations that she has designs on his new formula, Shirley confesses, “I came here, sent by my father dear, to snoop and pry and peer.” Her father, it turns out, is Mr. F.E. Boone of Lexington, Ky., the auctioneer on Jack Benny’s program.
But love for Dr. Allen is greater than duty, Carmen decides. She returns the formula (pronounced formerla) to Dr. Allen. Then a second complication arises with the appearance of Dick Riggs. He (Allen) would have you believe he is the father of Speed Riggs, Benny’s other tobacco auctioneer. He seizes the formerla and flees to the latakia drying room. He bars the door, a natural song cue. But this time the music is the Toreador Song. Fred brought the house down by bellowing, “Richard, I implore! Open the door!”
But there is no need for Richard to open the door. Carmen has given him the wrong paper. The Allen formula is safe; the new Puffo is saved. It is a miracle of blends—dried seaweed wrapped in oil-skin with a sponge tip. To this one of Dr. Allen’s colleagues asks meaningfully, as if he hardly dared hope, “You mean—?” “Yes,” said Fred. “It’s the only cigarette you can smoke under water.”
* * *
There aren’t many occasions when radio rises to the hopes its pioneers had for it. But Mr. Allen, when is good, comes closer to the ideal in radio entertainment than any other performer. His operatic satires are witty, sharp and wonderfully contrived. Wisely, he uses melodies familiar to all and keeps his lyrics simple. In the field of radio humor, and its [sic] an uneven field with foolish, dilapidated scarecrows marking the ruts—Mr. Allen is, it seems to me, our finest artist. I hope he never retires.
* * *
A special accolade is in order for Shirley Booth. She should be on the Fred Allen show every week, and if there’s ever a good-sized vacancy in Allen’s Alley, I hope Fred sees fit to give her a lease. If you listen to Shirley with a script in hand, you realize the fine creative artistry of her humor. She can make the most prosaic, pass-me-the-salt kind of line outrageously funny.
The dialog leading up to “Carmen” last night had some deft Allen touches. Shirley gave Fred a brief sketch of her operatic background. Besides being chanteuse on the Weehawken Ferry, she told of spending two seasons with Phil Spitalny.
Fred: You sang with Spitalny?
Shirley: No, I was in charge of the girls who played the ‘cellos.
Fred: You coached the ‘cello players?
Shirley: No, after each program, I helped pull their legs back into shape.
When Phil began calling his show The Hour of Charm, Shirley quit. “I didn’t wanna make a liar outa Phil,” she explained.

CBS signed Booth in early 1948 and hoped to develop a sitcom for her. It did. The show was about a Brooklynese school teacher. It was called Our Miss Brooks. As Variety put it in its April 21st edition: “CBS and the comedienne couldn’t see eye to eye and board chairman William S. Paley...was unhappy over the original audition record that was cut, and troubles and temperaments apparently piled up at the second auditioning last week.”

Booth went back to Broadway and collected three Tonys, as well as an Oscar before knocking on the Baxter’s door in 1961 and getting hired as Hazel and winning two Emmys in the process. Allen continued to be praised in the press even after his death in 1956.

1 comment:

  1. It WAS the February 9, 1947 broadcast. A transcription of it exists,