Wednesday 17 May 2023

Knock, Knock. Who Are You?

Allen’s Alley made a huge impression on radio listeners, even though it was only part of Fred Allen’s show for a small percentage of the time he was on the air (1932 to 1949, with a couple of years off for health reasons). And only one version of the Alley made a huge impression—the one that developed in the 1945-46 season when Kenny Delmar’s Senator Claghorn and Parker Fennelly’s Titus Moody were added to Minerva Pious’ Mrs. Nussbaum (Peter Donald’s Ajax Cassidy arrived the following season).

The original Alley in 1942 was anchored around Alan Reed as Falstaff Openshaw, who was the only character Allen had developed at that point. Besides Mrs. Nussbaum, there were veteran Allen cast members Charlie Cantor as Socrates Mulligan and John Brown as John Doe, both of whom employed voices they had used periodically on the show over the years.

For anyone who likes Allen’s work, it’s fascinating hearing other characters in the Alley. Some didn’t last very long. There have been times where I’ve listened and wondered “Who’s that?”

One instance is on the December 19, 1943 broadcast, the second one of the season. Two voices were completely unfamiliar. Fortunately, the Orlando Sentinel gave a preview on that date and revealed the identity of the actors:
Orson Welles, who of recent days has established quite a reputation for throwing ad libs into his radio appearances, walks right into the one place where he is bound to meet some rough weather . . . Fred Allen’s “Star Theatre,” tonight at 9:30 over WDBO. Welles will tangle with the acknowledged quick-quip-like-a-whip, and he won’t get any help from Portland Hoffa, Al Goodman’s Orchestra, Alan (Falstaff Openshaw) Reed, Jack Smart, Everett Sloane, Betty Walker and Jimmy Wallington.
Yes, for several weeks, Everett Sloane was part of Allen’s Alley. Allen’s show came from New York. Both John Brown and Min Pious were in Hollywood and slumming on the Jack Benny show. Replacements had to be found. Sloane was in New York starring on CBS’ Crime Doctor, which signed off 35 minutes before Allen’s show started on the same network. He was a 15-year radio veteran and had been one of the members of Welles’ Mercury Players, so he seems to have been an unusual choice for a comedy programme, though he shot two movies in the 1960s with Jerry Lewis. On the December 19th broadcast, he opened the Alley routine as a new character—Mr. Hollister. Perhaps Allen sensed Sloane’s angry character bombed. “Well, Mr. Hollister won’t be with us long, I don’t imagine,” Allen said after the door slam. (An Earl Wilson column around this time said the character was to be named Runford Rant, an Allen-esque name if ever there was one).

Next he introduced Mrs. Nussbaum. Instead, a woman with a higher-pitched Jewish dialect answered the door. She didn’t even have a name. This was apparently Betty Walker. Her identity is a bit of a mystery, but she is likely an actress championed by Dorothy Kilgallen. Kilgallen’s column of Aug. 12, 1943 reported she was an 18-year-old secretary at United Artists signed to a Paramount contract. The following March 29 she had not appeared in any Paramount films. April 3 has Kilgallen reporting that Xavier Cugat wanted to marry Walker. She vanishes from the columns after that.

Jack Smart played drunk Samson Souse and Reed anchored the sketch as Falstaff.

Allen must have figured some changes were needed. The December 26 broadcast isn’t available on-line and papers don’t say who was in the Alley that night, but the following week Elsie Mae Gordon shows up for the first time as Edna May Oliver-soundalike Mrs. Prawn. Scott debuts his Senator Bloat character and Cantor returns as Socrates Mulligan, to the audience’s applause, but a week later begins a short run as Mr. Nussbaum. Starting in April, Cantor is gone, with Pat C. Flick as Digby Rappaport (Allen loved the name “Rappaport”; it show up continually on his show). Pious returned on April 30 to handle the Jewish shtick, so Flick turned to a Greek dialect on May 7 and played restaurateur Pablo Itthepeaches (Flick also had his own half-hour show on Sunday afternoon on WMCA). They lasted out the season, then Allen was off the air for over a year, returning with the aforementioned revised Alley with Kenny Delmar.

One other unusual thing about the December 19, 1943 show: Orson Welles did not appear as advertised. He came down with the flu. Allen was forced to make a very last-minute substitution and brought in singer Jimmy Melton. I was quite stunned that Allen could come up with a completely-new script so fast until I realised he simply reused a show from November 22, 1942, with almost the same dialogue with Melton—and even the same song. Unfortunately, the version available has bad skipping (a quarter on the tone arm might have fixed that, though it’s not recommended) so a comparison isn’t easy.

By all accounts, Welles guested the following Sunday. In between, Allen appeared on a special programme for the Bakers of America.

I don’t like side-tracking posts, but I’m going to do it here. We mentioned Charlie Cantor, whose Socrates Mulligan became Clifton Finnegan on Duffy’s Tavern and whose voice was borrowed by Sid Raymond for cartoondom’s Baby Huey.

Here’s a story about Cantor from the Miami Daily News of June 13, 1943.

Rave Notice Given To Charlie Cantor For Unique Comedy
Take a slug of exploding bubble-gum plus a pinch of etaoin-shrdlu, throw it on a hot griddle and you have:
It's hydra-voiced Charlie Cantor, nine comedians in one, of CBS-WQAM's Fred Allen show Sundays at 9:30 to 10:00 p.m., who wins a multi-paged rave-critique from Author Jerome Beatty. Beatty attended the Allen show, saw Cantor (no relation to Edward) and came away with jigsaws in his thinkbox:
"The first time I ever saw Charlie in action I was as dumbfounded as if Herbert Hoover had risen at a banquet, manuscript in hand, cleared his throat, and begun talking in the outlandish jargon of Donald Duck. "It was at a Fred Allen show at a Columbia Broadcasting System radio theater on Sunday night in New York. Allen is one of my favorite comedians and I wanted to see him in action, but I also wanted to see ‘Socrates Mulligan,’ who is my favorite stooge."
Dignified Character
Beatty relates that when he saw the crowd of actors come on the radio stage before the show, he looked for Socrates Mulligan (Cantor) but couldn't decide which was he. "One of them was an immaculatelv tailored, middle-aged gentleman who was particularly conspicuous because he was the only man on the stage who was gravely sublime in a white stiff collar, plain dark tie, and a white shirt. I guessed that he was the chairman of the board of the sponsoring company.
Beatty had expected a character who would look the part of Socrates Mulligan, "the dumb, gabby, opinionated resident of Allen's Alley," but to his surprise, the man in the immaculate garb was Cantor.
"Charlie Cantor's comedy makes millions of radio listeners laugh every week. He's the Great Mr Anonymous of radio, the champion utility man who can play any part in any dialect except Swedish, and imitate lions, chickens, birds, dogs babies, railroad trains, police whistles, three kinds of good airplanes—one with engine trouble."
Per-Taters a la Mode
Cantor practiced for an hour and was able to play Yankee Doodle with his nose. For the Allen's Alley one Sunday evening he gave the public a brand new food delicacy. Author Beatty tells about it:
“Allen began asking about food, and called on Socrates Mulligan. Suddenly the dignified gentleman (Cantor) relaxed, screwed up his face and as I gasped at the transformation, out came water-front dialect saying, 'I'm nuts about per-taters. I eat 'em all day. I invented per-tater a la mode.’
“‘What,’ asked Allen, 'is potato a la mode?’”
'Dat's a baked per-tater,’ explaned Socrates Mulligan, ‘wid a cold per-tater on top.’”
Cantor has used one or more his voices on more shows than he can remember. On CBS he is a regular on the Allen show, and does parts for Kate Smith, Easy Aces. He prefers anonymity, so the fact that his name is seldom mentioned on the shows doesn't irk him.
Cantor, former shoe merchant, went broke in 1929, made use of his natural multi-voice talent to crash radio.

We mentioned the arrival of Claghorn and Moody when Allen returned to radio in 1945. There were two other newcomers in the Alley—songwriters McGee and McGee. Allen loved parody songs and jingles, and brought in the McGees to replace the rhyming poetry of Falstaff Openshaw. One was played by veteran novelty singer Irving Kaufman. Why he left is unknown, but the McGees were replaced by Falstaff at the start of 1946. The Alley itself was replaced for the 1948-49 season with the same concept called “Main Street.” Allen came up with a few new characters, perhaps feeling the old ones were getting worn out, but they never caught on.

No one remembers “Main Street” today. But old radio fans still know about Allen’s Alley.


  1. I love the top Fred Allen poster. The Big WRVA. 50 KW smoke blower out of Richmond, Virginia. Used to listen to it all the time.

    1. Texaco took out these Sunday paper ads all over the US. This one was the clearest.
      Later ads mention Falstaff. It's funny how Alan Reed is better known today than Fred Allen thanks to Fred Flintstone.