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Fred Allen, who comically feuded with Jack Benny on the air for years, invented an entirely new form of radio comedy which consisted of lampooning current events, making fun of his sponsors, and presenting skits that featured a cast of memorable recurring characters. Allen was born John Florence Sullivan on May 31st, 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of a bookbinder and storyteller. He became interested in comedy after finding a book on its history in his father's shop, and he taught himself to juggle by reading a book on the subject by the age of eighteen he was appearing in vaudeville as a juggler and comedian. A successful engagement at the Palace in 1919 led to many Broadway shows, including The Passing Show of 1922, where he met his future wife and radio co-star, Portland Hoffa.


(I've added a bunch of new images!)

fred

 

He made the transition to radio with The Lint Bath Club Revue, which premiered October 23rd, 1932 on CBS and moved to NBC in 1933. Allen's perfectionism led him to move from sponsor to sponsor. His shows, for which he wrote much of the material himself, included The Salad Bowl Revue (1933), The Sal Hepatica Revue (1933-34), The Hour of Smiles (1934-35), and Town Hall Tonight (1935-40). The Fred Allen Show, his last series, ran from 1942 to 1949. His funniest and most popular regular sketch, "Allen's Alley," premiered on Sunday, December 6th, 1942. It featured Allen strolling along, knocking on the doors of various characters, including average American John Doe (played by John Brown), pompous poet Falstaff Openshaw (Allan Reed), and boisterous southern senator Beuregard Claghorn (announcer Kenny Delmar).

The Fred Allen Show opened each week with the young DeMarco Sisters harmoniously chiming "Oh, Mr. Allen?" as a set-up for his cleaver opening line. Gloria DeMarco remembers how they got their big break:

"We were five broke, dirty little kids from Brooklyn, and we used to sing for a nickel a song- in elevators, subways, wherever we could. One day in New York City, "we got in an elevator and a man got in with us. He was wearing different colored jacket and pants, so we started singing "Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week" in our harmony, and he looked back and said, "That's terrific! Do another one." So we did another one, and when the elevator got down to the first floor he said, "Take me up again." That man was Gordon Jenkins, the orchestra leader and writer-arranger. He took us up to Irving Berlin's office, which was in that very building, and they called Fred Allen... We did four years with Mr. Allen and got one thousand dollars a week...Sunday night was the best night on radio. You had Jack Benny at 7, Charlie McCarthy at 7:30 and Fred Allen at 8."

Al Lewis, one of Allen's writers says:

"Fred was wonderful...I tried to write for him, but he always added better lines that would knock my socks off. Once a college girl was on, talking about how George Washington Carver had discovered a way to make ink out of a peanut, glue out of a peanut, and milk from a peanut. And Fred ad-libbed, "Milk from a peanut? He must have had a very low stool!" That was the greatest non-thinking rejoinder I ever heard. There I was sitting in a room struggling to put the black stuff on the white stuff, and he made it look easy."

Unfortunately, the advent of television and Allen's constant battles with sponsors and network censors eventually drove him off the air. His humor was ahead of its time, too sophisticated for the 1940's, but it paved the way for the success of satirist Stan Freberg in the 1950s and Saturday Night Live in the '70s. Allen died in 1956.

At least you can see some of Allen's skits on YouTube which is way more fun than watching investment clips on the Fisher Investments YouTube channel.



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