The Milwaukee Journal – May 18, 1941
Fred Allen—Pickle Puss With Nerves
By Gladwin Hill
NEW YORK, N. Y.—(AP)—If, walking down Broadway, you chanced to encounter a haggard, dejected man who looked as though he had lost his last friend, funds and scratch sheet pencil, the probabilities are the individual would be a happy, prosperous professional comedian.
If, in addition to being haggard and dejected, the man looked as though he had recently been sentenced to the electric chair, but planned to beat the rap by hanging himself with his necktie, the chances are his brief case would disclose a partly consumed package of chewing tobacco and the tell tale gold lettering “F. Allen.”
Fred Allen, who has been arousing mirth from coast to coast for 25 years in vaudeville, movies and radio, is probably the most morose looking person at large today.
This is not a pose. Allen is just one of those people born to worry, fret, stew and suffer about their work, and the fact that he deals in humor and makes a steady $5,000 a week at it does not exempt him from mental anguish any more than if he were an insolvent small town druggist overstocked with water wings on Christmas eve.
Many vendors of cheer worry about their work, but feel obliged to maintain an appropriate mask of joviality in public. Allen probably is unique among show people in that, except for his moments on the stage, he keeps up no public front. He is habitually candid in his sentiments, most of which are pessimistic, and straight from the shoulder in expressing his likes and dislikes, many of which are dislikes.
HE FREQUENTLY cast acidulous aspersions at such sacrosanct institutions as sponsors, advertising agencies and studio audiences. He has called other comedians “intellectual midgets living on borrowed minds.” He has declared that newspapermen, who few performers have the temerity to insult, have the same provincial egocentric outlook on worldly doings as a ham vaudevillian. While working in Hollywood, Allen defined a movie producer as “a dynamic ulcer.”
Allen is able to do this, first, because he is a Boston Irishman, and they are hard to intimidate; second, because if anybody doesn’t like what he does, he is in a position to quit any time—and seemingly would welcome an excuse to; and, finally, wry personality unfailingly conveys the accurate impression that his bleak façade covers a warm, sympathetic soul.
Allen snarls about sponsors and agencies, but works himself to a frazzle for them; pans other comics, but is their very loyal supporter when occasion arises; and mutters about the spongers who harass him, but when one of 25 indigents he privately supports fails to show up for his dole. Allen worries himself sick lest something has happened to the man.
BUT Allen’s main worry is the one hour a week when he entertains the nation. For this hour he spends literally about 18 hours a day, seven days a week, nine months of the year, in preparation.
When he finishes his repeat broadcast at 1 o’clock every Thursday morning, he totters home, to his four room apartment near Central park, so tense that he has to sit up and sip warm milk and read newspapers until 5 a. m. before he is relaxed enough to go to sleep.
He gets up Thursday at 1 p. m., has a routine succession of appointments until about 6, when he goes out to dinner with his wife, Portland Hoffa, and immediately afterward starts work on his next week’s script.
For the next six days he is almost completely absorbed in writing, rewriting, rehearsing, cutting and rewriting all day and half the night. Then the routine starts all over again.
The only times he gets away from it are an occasional visit to the theater with Portland, his Sunday trip to church, and a couple of gymnasium workouts a week.
<Fred Allen is famous and “filthy” with money, but his radio jitters are so far advanced that he says he’s constantly auditioning for a nervous breakdown.
He seldom gets more than five or six hours sleep a night, and this is frequently wrecked by insomnia. “How,” he asks in anguished perplexity, “can you sleep when there’s 15 minutes of script that has to be in shape the next day or so and you know it just isn’t right?”
Allen can get up after four hours’ sleep and go to the gym for a workout, steam bath and rubdown and feel O. K. again, a stamina he ascribes mainly to not drinking or smoking. His tobacco chewing is a hangover from youthful days in a dusty piano factory.
Even with his physical condition, his regimen is, he comments dourly, an audition for a nervous breakdown. When you ask why he keeps it up, when he could retire comfortably, he explains after some hesitation that it’s so tough to get to the top in show business that you don’t feel like chucking it when you’ve arrived; and, in his case, there are around 30 people writers, actors, production men—when have been making their living out of the program for nine years, and he would have qualms about jolting them out of their jobs.
ALLENS work routine, the most arduous pursued by any comedian, results from the unique nature of his program. The Allen show is essentially Allen. Every word and thought in it he has appraised and polished in the light of 25 years’ experience.
Many classify Allen not as a comedian, retailing this week’s version of hoary gags, but as a real professional humorist, innately witty and amusing. Very little of Allen’s humor analyzes as production line stuff. He has a gag library of hundreds of volumes his letterhead is a caricature of him crawling out of a volume of Joe Miller- but hasn’t referred to it for years.
“When you use a gag file, you start twisting your script to fit a lot of jokes people got off a thousand years ago, instead of having stuff that logically fits in,” he says.
WHEN Allen first started on the radio, he and his manager Walter Batchelor would spend all night after a show over a Broadway delicatessen table working out the next week’s script. Now Allen has several regular writers, but says that revising their work into his inimitable material takes more time and labor than when he did it alone.
Allen reads nine New York papers every day in quest of topical ideas, and although he buys an armful of the least books every week or so, never gets to look at them until the annual Allen summer vacation at Old Orchard, Me.
Portland, Fred’s addle pated foil on the air and his former vaudeville partner, in private life is a charming intelligent girl whose father, itinerant doctor, had a passion for naming his children geographically all except the last one, which he named Lastone.
Fred’s father was a Boston bookbinder, and Fred started out as a stack boy in the Boston public library. There he stumbled on some books on juggling and presently landed in vaudeville tossing Indian clubs, tennis balls and plates. The patter he contrived to accompany his manipulations was his initial venture in comedy.
Allen’s real name is John Florence Sullivan which is why he doesn’t waste any cordiality when people named Allen come around with their hands out claiming relationship—and he started out in show business under the name Paul Huckle. When the English touch came into vogue, he changed his name to Fred, to get rival bookings from which he was banned under that identity, took the incognito of Fred Allen.
Names fascinate him, and he enjoys thinking up cockeyed improbable ones for character on the show, to outwit the pests who vainly seek “damages” because they heard their name on the air. His self-confidence was shaken, however, when he concocted the nifty “Sinbad Brittle” and the next summer in Maine a grizzled native tottered in, twanged “Hear’d ye hed me on yore program,” and revealed that his name actually was Sinbad Brittle.
Working before audiences, notwithstanding his cordiality, bother him. He is dubious about the mental caliber of people who come to see his program.
“I don’t know who’s getting the worst of it,” he remarks, “the people looking at the show or the show looking at the people.”
A lot of the spectators are repeaters so many that in response to a suggestion that studio audiences be abolished, Allen cracked in mock horror. “What and leave thousands of people homeless?”
His objection to spectators is that they inadvertently disrupt carefully contrived pace by their laughter at things radio listeners can’t get, and their presence often necessitates antichmaxing a gag or a routine, from the auditory standpoint, for visual purposes.
He also complains that programs now are judged too much by studio reaction, which may be entirely different to the general audiences.
“Why, I can remember the day,” Allen says with characteristic bitterness, “when they said with a show was a good show or a bad show. Now all you hear is what ‘they’ thought of it they say. ‘They sure laughed at Benny last night,’ or ‘Boy, did Allen leave them cold’…”