Fred Allen's Life

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Fred Allen's Life

Postby Yhtapmys » Tue Mar 06, 2007 2:03 am

Fred Allen Combined
Leisure With His Work

(The sudden death in New York City Saturday night of Fred Allen took from life's stage one of America's best known humorists, possessor not only of the most famous "bagged eyes" in the world but also of a sure and ready wit that carried him to fame and fortune. Here is the story of Fred Allen, as the world knew him — and as only his closest intimates knew him. This is the first of three articles by the well-known International News Service columnist-writer, Phyllis Battelle.)

By PHYLLIS BATTELLE
By International News Service.

Fred Allen had a one-word philosophy of life, which he often expounded on with adenoidal ardor.
If ye would live fully, he advised — "loaf."
Last Saturday, on a New York night too blustery for his wife Portland to join him on their habitual pre-midnight stroll, the philosopher and cantankerous comic collapsed. The trouble was he never had time to follow his own sincere advice.
“It wasn’t that he didn’t want to take it easy,” said “Uncle Jim” Harkins, Allen’s friend and business companion for 22 years. “Fred worried plenty about his health. You should have seen him eat the little slices of chicken and fruit while the rest of us were being pigs, just to keep his blood pressure down.
HARD WORKER
"But when he was young, Fred was the hardest working man you've ever seen. And later," Jim sighed, "well, there were always people who depended on him."
And Fred, who wrote as many as 300 letters a week to old friends throughout the world, had never been known to let a so-called "little guy" down.
When he died, dozens of these little guys — learning swiftly of the death of “the great deadpan” — swarmed the lobby of Allen’s apartment house on West 58th street, wanting to do something. Not knowing what.
Blonde Portland Hoffa, Allen's inseparable wife and co-star in his two decades of radio fame could not speak intelligibly even to the closest of these old friends. She could only cry "I can't believe it, I can't believe it!"
Harkins, who remained with her for four hours after the sudden tragedy, said, "She is lost. That couple was so lovely, so close they made the rest of us married people look like enemies. They were Romeo and Juliet, and the Siamese twins.
WENT FOR STROLL
Portland and Fred had been watching the presentation of the TV Emmy awards in their apartment, and afterward the comic went for his stroll without his wife, urging her to stay, in from the ice-slick streets.
"It must have been the first time in months she didn't go with him," Harkins said, "and she can’t believe it – that’s the night it had to happen.”
The professional grouch from Boston was apparently headed into the easy street he so long recommended when he suffered his second, and final, heart attack.
Under orders to slow down for the past 10 years, he recently finished a book “Treadmill to Oblivion,” where he took free and funny potshots at what he considered the bane of good entertainment:
He had given up regular appearances, except on the weekly Sunday night TV show, "What's My Line?", where for two years he was a droll, popular panelist.
"I think — I really think that Fred was just getting to enjoy the game ('What's My Line?') after many years of somewhat bitterly resenting the television industry," said John Daly, panel moderator. "Lately, you could see it. He was relaxing, actually having fun."
HEALTH REPORT
Only last Friday, Allen had a cardiogram which revealed, ironically that his heart was behaving healthily. He must have felt then that he could not refer to himself — as he had in a whimsically wry mood — "fugitive from rigor mortis.”
In his 45 years of trying to make the world laugh, about 20 of which he spent succeeding, the writer-comedian with the bellhop eyes ("they carry up to four bags”) covered the country but never really settled down. He never owned a car or a house because “they make me nervous,” but he “dwelt” in many places.
He was born in Cambridge, Mass., but when Massachusetts internal revenuers tried to collect tax from his income, he put his feelings this way: “The way you talk, if you were born in jail, you’d be a convict all your life.”
He spent three years in Hollywood making pictures, but he spoke of California thus: “The climate is fine. If you’re an orange, it’s ideal.”
New York, where he died, was the only city he didn’t puncture with his inimitable barbs.

(Tomorrow: How Fred Allen “educated” the public to his brand of humor.)

Reason People Laugh
Was Mystery to Allen

(This is in the second of three articles telling the story of Fred Allen, whose sudden death Saturday night took from the world of entertainment a man regarded by his contemporaries as one of the most intelligent wits of his time.)

By PHYLLIS BATTELLE
(Copyright, 1956, by INS)
Nobody ever had the gall to link the name, Fred Allen, to such adjectives as "lovable old ..." or "scintillating new..." Fred would have scorched them with a snort.
Behind his funeral countenance and bone-dry humor, Allen had a deep, probing mind, so he didn't care for adulation.
SINCERITY WANTED
All he asked of people was intelligent sincerity, and if his quips were sometimes more cynical than funny, it's because he wasn’t getting it.
His mind, which could dig right to the heart of matters and usually bring out the humor in them, caused him confusion and headaches. For instance, though he left a legacy of 4,000 books on humor in his library, he could never figure of why people laughed.
“It’s mysterious,” he once said, “I know how to make people laugh – and I know approximately when they will laugh – but I haven’t the vaguest idea why they laugh.”
REALLY FUNNY
This uncertainty worried Allen. But with the “hows” and “whens” of comedy in his pocket, he would work an average of 18 hours a day during the nearly 20 years when his name was as close to the U. S. household as its family doctor. He would lock himself up in a room each day and drew his laughs the hard way, compiling a 50-page script every week.
"He's the only man I ever knew in all of literature—and that includes Mark Twain—who wrote so much genuinely thoughtful stuff.
"And he didn't have to either. He could have just growled, and the audience would've collapsed," recalls his long associate, Jim Harkins. "But Fred was a perfectionist."
Allen hired writers, of course, but usually they just, in their own words, "sat around and consumed the gravy." Sometimes he hired young, talented writers would have "credits" from the Allen show to get them another job.
One of the Allen show script boys from 1936 to '41 was Herman Wouk, best-selling author of "The Caine Mutiny" and "Marjorie Morningstar." After Fred's death Saturday, Wouk described his one-time boss as "the model man.
"He was the greatest satirical wit in America in our time, and a superb writer," Wouk said reverently. “He only needed us because of the tremendous volume of material on his show. All any of us did was to imitate him – but he was the best writer in the lot.
HARD WORK
“And he was fantastic, worked harder than any man I ever knew, with all his time scheduled seven days a week,” Wouk added softly, “but that took its toll.”
Like most self-educated men, Fred was more widely read than most of his associates—his first job was a stack boy in a Boston library — and more observant. The more he read and observed, the more he worried. The result was his Scrooge-like demeanor, once a theatrical technique, reflected much of his outlook on certain phases of life.
He would speak dourly but cleverly of one thing and another and people would think it was funny, (e.g. he complained of radio, “On radio, if you blow your nose often people will say ‘nobody can blow a.nose like that guy.’ In six months you have a permanent audience for nose blowing. Isn’t that great?”). Allen was not “spoofing” as the “loveable” comedian does, he was spearing.
He sometimes drew blood.
As a man who was smarter than most of his conferees, Allen was in almost constant clashes with the “business side” of the radio industry which made him a great name in the 1920’s and ’30’s. He took a particular lance to vice-presidents of radio networks, labeling them V.P’s “in charge of program ends.”
So sharp were his digs that his show, for 17 years one of the highest-rated on radio, was temporarily cut off the air. This caused him to suggest that “within the hierarchy of little men there is no man who can outlittle the executive in a large corporation who treats his employees as he treats a tight suit.”
CLOSE PARALLEL
"In a tight suit he is afraid to make a move. With his authority the minor executives takes the same precaution. We have men of his ilk on radio."
Read it fast and it sounds funny. Like so many other things in Fred Allen's life—his career, his 28-year devotion to Mrs. Portland Hoffa Allen, his waning health, even his humor—it was serious business to him.
Also serious to Fred was his fellow man who needed help or companionship.
Born in Cambridge, Mass., with little more than a sense of humor and an available diaper, in late May of 1894, John Florence Sullivan made hundreds of down-at-the-heel friends before he became known as Fred Allen, star. It is safe to say that he lost few of them, and certainly never lost the interest to write, encourage or finance them. Any hard-up friend who was not a proven parasite, first class, could depend on help.
From Broadway to Vine Street, it was legendary: Fred Allen was “the hard-headed soft touch.”
(Tomorrow: Fred Allen’s start—and struggle.)

* * *
Fred Allen 'Juggled'
His Way to Success

(This concludes a series of articles telling the story of one of America's great humorists, Fred Allen, who died Saturday night at the age of 51).

By PHYLLIS BATTELLE
Fred Allen started his professional life as a juggler in a vaudeville troupe, pulling down orange and ping pong balls and $25 a week.
Before that, he made his first buck (in 20-cent hourly payment) working as a stack boy in the Boston public library. Since his mother had died when he was four and his father passed away 11 years later, Fred shared his negligible wealth with an aunt who had brought him up. He always seemed to feel an urge for sharing with somebody.
SECRET TOLD
One night, as he finished flipping his oranges, a theatre manager asked Fred how he learned to juggle.
Dead of pan because he was shy of nature, Fred replied, “I took a correspondence course in baggage smashing."
The audience laughed and it sounded odd to him. So Fred Allen decided to be a comedian.
His real name was John Florence Sullivan; his juggling names were "Paul Huckle, European entertainer," or “Freddie James, world's worst juggler." When he became a comic, he named himself Fred Allen, after his agent whose name was Allen.
For awhile, it was hard getting started in the business because after his first embarrassed and successful gag, Fred couldn't seem to get a guffaw. His agent tried to talk him into telling some old jokes that were established sure-fire, but Allen replied grimly: "No- There must be some intelligent people somewhere.”
VOICE CARRIED
He found them in the audiences at his Broadway debut, in "The Passing Show of 1922." They loved the sing-song voice that issued from what appeared to be a monumental nasal obstruction.
They giggled insanely at this new look: funny lines from a stern face.
One person loved him more than the others in that show. She was Miss Portland Hoffa, a shapely chorus girl.
He went on to other Broadway shows, "The Greenwich Village Follies," "Vogues," "The First Little Show" and George White's "Three's A Crowd." In this, last production, there was one person who began to love him more than the entire audience combined. She was the chorus girl named Portland Hoffa who became not only Fred's wife but his sub-star when he finally found his true forte, radio.
Close friends describe Portland as "the greatest influence in Fred's life."
WIFE KNITTED
Always, apparently quiet and serene, she would sit knitting during the long hours the comic spent in writing and conferences with the dozens of agents, performers, script personnel, producers and hangers-on he had to deal with. Just as he was getting hyper-tense, Portland would put down her knitting and get up.
“Fred,” she would say, “Let’s take a walk.”
And daily, just then, that is what the Allens did.
Fred’s first audition in radio in 1928 was a flop mainly because his nasal twang was thought to be unpleasant. Some called it an eastern accent. Some called it simply unholy.
By 1932, however, with his extremely sharp writing facility, Fred had come up with a show format — bitingly funny —that couldn't be resisted. He went on the air and was an immediate hit with national audiences.
His best ideas — the zany "Allen's Alley” and "Town Hall Tonight" sections of his program —were the delight of families coast to coast. An. when he started an imaginary fued with Jack Benny, joy was boundless.
MANY FRIENDS
Throughout the depression, everyone felt he was a personal friend of Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa.
Fred once told a friend about an experience when, after a broadcast, an old lady came, up
on stage to shake his hand. "Johnny is getting along fine," she told him:
"And who," asked Fred warmly, "is Johnny?"
The woman was crestfallen. Her whole family knew Fred so well, from listening to his shows, and he didn't seem to know them at all!!
During the height of his popularity, Allen lugged the bags under his eyes to Hollywood and made movies "Thanks A Million” and “Sally, Irene and Mary."
He soon came back to New York, despite, big salary and success, saying that "there's nothing in California but optimism, and oranges. Destroy one or the other, you destroy the whole system."
Yet radio, his bread and jam, frequently depressed him even more than movies. He loved to write, but he complained, "radio comedy is the hardest type of material to prepare. For a one hour show I had to turn out the equivalent of one act of a three act play every week. When George Kaufman writes a play, he gets three or four months for an act."
TEETH CONCEALED
Television was worse. After Fred Allen made his debut on TV on a "Comedy Hour" sponsored by a toothpaste concern, he was scarcely a good ad for the product.
Severely ripped into by critics, he didn't show his teeth for days, except to bare them in private. Nevertheless, he decided to try it seriously in 1952 and accepted a weekly half-hour TV show called "Two For the Money." Before he could begin it, however, he suffered his first heart attack and was forced to go into semi-retirement. Herb Shriner took over the program.
For a dozen years Fred threatened, and doctors ordered him to give up working. ("It's not worth it,” he said, “people get 10 per cent of everything my blinding headaches.")
In December, 1944, he did go into semi-retirement announcing that the doctors said he must slow down "so I may get a few more years out of life, this great adventure."
Fred Allen's cynical brand of humor was a new storm. He made people look at life sharply and humorously. His sometimes-scathing wit will be long remembered; like the stifled, laugh, which Fred once described this way: "My friends, a stifled laugh does not die when you push it back in your throat. It live in your lower colon to laugh at the food as it passes through."

INS series reprinted from March 19-20-21, 1956

Yhtapmys
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Re: Fred Allen's Life

Postby Jhammes » Tue Mar 06, 2007 4:09 pm

Fred Allen would have been perfect with a "Tonight Show" TV
format: a monologue, acerbic banter with celebrities / average
people, a Swing or Big Band "house band". Actually, "Town
Hall Tonight" really is a forerunner of the late night talk shows!
Unfortunately, the network "suits" would not give Fred a talk show,
instead putting him in good if sometimes silly mainstream variety
shows ("Chesterfield Time", "Colgate Comedy Hour").
Good shows, but not Fred Allen's personality... he looked and wanted
to be anywhere but THERE!
Thankfully, FINALLY, Fred Allen found prime time success the last two
years of his life with the intelligent "What's My Line?". No sketches or
musical numbers to put up with, he could just ad lib and be himself.
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Re: Fred Allen's Life

Postby Yhtapmys » Wed Mar 07, 2007 11:31 am

Jhammes wrote:Fred Allen would have been perfect with a "Tonight Show" TV format:


I've thought the same thing many times (avoiding the phrase "right up his alley") but wondered if Fred would have burned out. He would have insisted on writing his own monologues, and doing one DAILY would have been a strain.

He complained about the grind of radio, but TV would have been worse. On top of the daily writing aspect, there's the endless blocking, staging, etc. that you never have to worry about in radio.

Then again, Fred seems to have been a complainer by nature.

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Postby Roman » Wed Mar 07, 2007 3:29 pm

I'm not sure how well Fred Allen would have done as a late night talk show host. Most of the late night hosts seem to have pleasant, happy personas, which is not exactly the Allen style. But I can see him working quite well in the mold of a Jon Stewart, Letterman or Jack Paar. I think his best fit though would be talk radio. If Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, for better or worse, have revolutionized and revitalized the format, think what Fred Allen would have accomplished.
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Postby Gerry O. » Wed Mar 07, 2007 6:30 pm

[quote="Roman"]I'm not sure how well Fred Allen would have done as a late night talk show host. Most of the late night hosts seem to have pleasant, happy personas, which is not exactly the Allen style. But I can see him working quite well in the mold of a Jon Stewart, Letterman or Jack Paar. /quote]

I know that some people may get bent out of shape at this, but David Letterman's on-air personality reminds me a lot of Fred Allen's....and more so as Letterman gets older. Dave now comes across as kind of an old and cranky sourpuss, but he's still funny.....so I do think that Fred could have made it as a late-night talk show host.

The gig that I could never quite buy was Fred Allen as a game show host.....as Jack Benny would say, "Well, THAT I don't understand at ALL!".
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Fred Allen...Talk Show Host?

Postby Clyde » Wed Mar 07, 2007 8:13 pm

I most certainly can see Fred Allen as a late-night TV host. His sharp wit and stable of characters (ie: Minerva Pious, et al) would have been excellent in that type of show.
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Fred Allen Tribute

Postby Jhammes » Fri Mar 09, 2007 8:29 am

Fred Allen's "Anniversary", 03/7/56, is approaching. This video seemed
appropriate.


www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHvYzKFV1vg


Ironic that Irish Catholic Fred Allen should leave us on St. Patrick's
Day. Somewhere, even he must be wryly amused.
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Postby Gerry O. » Fri Mar 09, 2007 9:03 am

John Daly mentioned that Fred had become comfortable with playing the game of "What's My Line?" and was enjoying himself.

I'm not so sure if Fred's enjoyment had that much to do with the game itself, or if it had more to do with Mr. Daly and Fred's fellow panelists.

These were highly intelligent people who Fred could freely and effictively banter back and forth with, and he was certainly in his element on this program. There seemed to be a mutual respect between all involved, and Bennett Cerf had mentioned the special friendship that he developed with Fred.

I think that it was probably more that Fred was comfortable and happy with the people who he was working with....and it shows in kinescopes of Fred's "What's My Line?" appearances.
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Re: Fred Allen Tribute

Postby Maxwell » Fri Mar 09, 2007 8:46 pm

Jhammes wrote:Fred Allen's "Anniversary", 03/7/56, is approaching. This video seemed
appropriate.


www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHvYzKFV1vg


Ironic that Irish Catholic Fred Allen should leave us on St. Patrick's
Day. Somewhere, even he must be wryly amused.


And what was the first tape that came up after playing the Fred Allen tribute?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1fScPVKndI&NR
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Re: Fred Allen Tribute

Postby Yhtapmys » Sat Mar 10, 2007 3:43 pm

Maxwell wrote:
Jhammes wrote:Fred Allen's "Anniversary", 03/7/56, is approaching. This video seemed
appropriate.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHvYzKFV1vg



And what was the first tape that came up after playing the Fred Allen tribute?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1fScPVKndI&NR


The Allen piece was interesting in that Steve Allen chose to write down his thoughts and read them. Steve Allen was more than capable of ad-libbing. I gather he chose not to because he wanted to pick just the right words.

The Benny segment couldn't have been better put together by his own writers. Jack's character is so well known, people can fill in not only what his reaction should be to questions about glamour, movie star, etc. .. they'd be able to fill in what his cast would say in response were they there. Everyone's in on the laugh and that's why it's so funny.

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Re: Re: Fred Allen's Life

Postby Jhammes » Thu Mar 17, 2011 5:29 am

This St. Patrick's Day marks 55 years since these live broadcasts:
the "What's My Line?" Fred Allen Last Episode, and Tribute Episode, airing only one week
apart, are available online. YouTube (can't get these darn links to work) still has the kinescopes up and running.
Remembering John Florence Sullivan (Fred) this St. Patrick's Day.
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Re: Re: Re: Fred Allen's Life

Postby Jhammes » Wed Mar 23, 2011 7:34 am

Here is a question: how many times DID Jack appear on "What's My Line?"... was it only in 1953, and again in 1959? That seems a long stretch: JB and WML? shared the same night and network well over a decade. Would have been fun to see Benny and Fred Allen sharing that same stage, and the audience reaction would have been great. Granted, the "feud" schtick was pretty much a thing of radio days, but given the nature of the game, this still could have been hilarious. Who knows, maybe that would have happened, had Fred still been around for that 1959 episode?
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Re: Re: Re: Fred Allen's Life

Postby scottp » Thu Mar 24, 2011 11:23 pm

Jhammes wrote: had Fred still been around for that 1959 episode?

They could have played it up as a "six-year boycott." Or they could have opened with an announcement that Fred was unable to appear... and in his place, would be Jack Benny. And quickly Fred would show up to try to prevent Jack from taking his spot.
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Re: Re: Re: Fred Allen's Life

Postby Yhtapmys » Sat Mar 26, 2011 6:06 pm

scottp wrote:
Jhammes wrote: had Fred still been around for that 1959 episode?

They could have played it up as a "six-year boycott." Or they could have opened with an announcement that Fred was unable to appear... and in his place, would be Jack Benny. And quickly Fred would show up to try to prevent Jack from taking his spot.


In 1959, that would have been quite an accomplishment.

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