Wednesday, 13 October 2021

The Satire That Blooms in the Fall, Tra-La

Fred Allen added an air of culture as he sliced and diced stupidity and banality. He’d set it to music.

Allen must have had a great love for Gilbert and Sullivan. He employed the melodies of “The H.M.S. Pinafore” in one of his parodies (starring that noted singing artist Leo Durocher). And in taking aim at a favourite target—radio and advertising executives—he confiscated the score of “The Mikado.”

Another favourite target was NBC censors, and they must have sputtered in self-important indignation when they saw the script for the Radio Mikado. Allen was forced to make changes. Nothing was obscene. It was all about profits. Suppose sponsors heard this ridicule and took their business away from the National Broadcasting Company.

The show aired October 13, 1946. The next morning, Ben Gross of the Daily News said “It just didn’t come off because the lyrics were corny and fell flatter than Lou Costello doing a prattfall [sic].” But the Herald Tribune’s John Crosby championed the show in his syndicated column of the 18th. And because NBC’s script deleters couldn’t do anything about him, he published what Allen would have said if he had been allowed to say it (on the programme, “hucksters” became “brains”).

Crosby didn’t transcribe the jingle parody by the DeMarco Sisters which managed to include Chiquita Bananas, Pepsi-Cola, Adler Elevator Shoes and LS/MFT, but stuck with the meat of the parody.

For those of you who are not aware, Petrillo was the eventually-disgraced head of the American Federation of Musicians who constantly intefered in radio (and then television), threatening and initiating strikes and bans if he didn’t get his way for his orchestra members.

Fred Allen's Mikado

Although radio pays him $20,000 week, Fred Allen has never conquered the suspicion that the world would be a better place if the audion tube had never been invented. In his 14 years on the air, Allen has lampooned just about everything in radio from the executives to soap opera. On his last broadcast, radio's wittiest comedian went to work on the whole industry at once in an uproarious parody of "The Mikado."
It took some doing to get it on the air. The censors at the National Broadcasting Company at first insisted that Allen drop the whole idea and come up with something else. After strenuous arguments, Allen got the parody on the air with some revisions. The opening song, "If You Want to Know Who We Are", for instance, originally went like this:
"If you want to know who we are,
"We're the hucksters of radio,
"We create every radio star,
"We're all yes men who never say no!
"We know how radio works,
"We're vice-presidents and clerks,
"Confidentially, we're all jerks.
"Yo ho! Yo ho! We're the hucksters of radio."
● ● ●
Calling a radio vice-president "jerk" on the air is an even more grievous sin than taking the Lord's name in vain. The word "babbits" was substituted, which necessitated a good deal of rewriting. The other word that went out of the original in a hurry was "huckster", an epithet which makes radio executives very nervous. It's bad enough to have Frederic Wakeman's novel of that name on the very top of the bestseller list without calling any further attention to it on the air.
Outside of that, the Allen parody went on pretty much as written except, that the comedian first had to clear his singing commercial with 13 sponsors who were either mentioned or whose singing jingles were used in part. Though it went on the air unchanged, the network executives took a long agonized look at another song, in which Allen poked fun at radio's best customer—the soap industry.
ALLEN: (Singing to the tune, "A Wandering Minstrel I")
"A wandering sponsor I.
"My product’s four-way soap.
"With the dirtiest dirt it will cope.
"It's a hundred and ten percent, lye
"On washday you should try it
"It bubbles and cleans and rinses.
"And it doesn't taste bad on blintzes.
"Housewives cannot deny it.
"It does everything—but no one will buy it."
● ● ●
By a wonderful coincidence, James Caesar Petrillo's name worked in very handily with one of the best known of Sir Arthur Sullivan's "Mikado" melodies, "Tit Willow."
"In all the excitement, there's one thing we forgot.
"Petrillo. Petrillo. Petrillo.
"First we must learn if we can or cannot, from
"Petrillo. Petrillo, Petrillo.
"If you want a musician to beat on a drum,
"Or a trumpet to toot, or a banjo to strum,
"You can't do a single thing till you hear from
"Petrillo. Petrillo. Petrillo. "
The parody came to a climax, of course, with "As Some Day It May Happen", which contains W. S. Gilbert's famous list of things that will never be missed, a list which, has grown since Gilbert's death, to include virtually every dislike known to man. Here is the Allen version:
"The day that I take over, I'll clean up radio,
"I've got a little list. I've got a little list
"Of things that upset listeners. They never will be missed.
"There's those mournful serial programs with their tragedy and strife.
“Where someone’s always dropping dead or always facing life.
"And those early morning comics who will surely drive you bats.
"Who pin orchids on old ladies and put on women's hats.
"And those weddings on the radio where the bride is always kissed.
"They never will be missed. They never will be missed.
He's got 'em on his list! He's got 'em on his list!
"And they never will be missed! They never will be missed!
"And those round table discussions with their boring, dull debaters.
"And the housewives who are morons but who yet win refrigerators.
"And those gruesome mystery programs with their terrifying plots.
"You hear three words of dialogue—the rest is shrieks and shots.
"And those hillbilly ensembles who insist on playing Liszt.
"They never will be missed. They never will be missed.
"He's got 'em on his list. He's got 'em on his list.
"And they never will be missed."
● ● ●
You can readily see why NBC was opposed to that song. If the network threw out all the programs that wouldn't be missed, there would be little left on the air but the faintly querulous voice of Harry S. Truman explaining the meat shortage.

Allen was not above rejigging his musical parodies and reviving them later in the same season. He and Bing Crosby starred in “The Hollywood Mikado” on May 11, 1947 (Tony Martin was in the “Radio Mikado”).

Many of the versions of the Allen show available on-line are in deplorable shape. There’s a muffled partial version of the programme above that is somehow spliced together with the previous week’s season debut. And the “Hollywood Mikado” has dropouts and digital burps due to poor re-recording. Fred deserves better. Lousy audio of old radio shows never will be missed.


  1. "Lousy audio of old radio shows never will be missed" unless that's all you have preserved