BAXTER'S BREAKDOWNS
February 14, 2018 posted by Devon Baxter

RADIO ROUND-UP: Fred Allen

Today, we bring you a gallery of references to radio comedian Fred Allen (1894-1956) and his radio programs in classic short cartoons from the Golden Age.

Born as John Florence Sullivan, Fred Allen’s show business career began in the teens when he appeared in vaudeville. He burlesqued a juggling act and billed himself as the “world’s worst juggler.” As he continued his act, he used verbal humor, delivering jokes and one-liners while he juggled. He traveled on a fourteen-month tour to Australia, New Zealand and Honolulu. Upon his return to America in 1915, he changed his name Fred Allen and dropped juggling in favor of comic monologues. By the 1920s, he performed on Broadway revues, and met chorus girl Portland Hoffa during a production of The Passing Show of 1922. As they continued to appear together in Broadway revues, they were married in 1927.

Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa soon toured vaudeville theaters and circuits in their own act, and made early radio appearances, including the WLS Showboat program in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1928. As radio attracted many vaudevillians, such as Eddie Cantor and Ed Wynn, Allen became interested in the medium. While other performers decided to translate their vaudeville acts to radio listeners, Allen planned to use situational and satirical humor for his program to generate a lasting appeal. With her high-pitched voice, Hoffa performed alongside her husband, acting as a foil, similar to the dynamic of their stage act.

Allen’s first few programs were short-lived; first, The Linit Bath Club Revue (1932-33) on CBS, then he moved the show to NBC as The Salad Bowl Revue), and finally, The Sal Helpatica Revue, which was renamed The Hour of Smiles (1934). The Hour of Smiles changed its program title to Town Hall Tonight on July 11, 1934, sponsored by Ipana Toothpaste and Sal Helpatica laxative.

Toy Town Hall

With Town Hall Tonight, Allen’s reputation as a radio comedian flourished, as he built his comic persona around his puzzled reactions and observations over the outlandish characters who appeared on the program. By the mid-1930s, animated cartoons caricatured and referenced Allen as a host, and on occasion, spoofed the interactions with Portland Hoffa — two examples from Warner Bros. are 1936’s Toy Town Hall (voiced by Lind Hayes, later changed to Peter Lind Hayes) and 1937’s The Woods are Full of Cuckoos. One of the enduring running gags that started on the program was an ongoing feud between Allen and Jack Benny, which lasted several years, although the two comedians were good friends. Two cartoons distributed by Columbia Pictures made references to their on-air rivalry—The Big Birdcast, released in 1938 by Charles Mintz’s studio, and a later film by Screen Gems, It Happened to Crusoe (1941).

Radio mimic Dave Weber, also known as Danny Webb, provided a Fred Allen impression in several animated films. For the commercial film, Boy Meets Dog (1938), produced by Walter Lantz (and sponsored by Ipana), Webb voices many of the gnome characters during the trial based around various radio personalities, including an Allen-esque voice for the prosecutor. Tex Avery used Allen as a hindrance from the plot in Thugs with Dirty Mugs (1939), where “Killer Diller,” resembling featured actor Edward G. Robinson (also voiced by Webb), shows off his imitation of the nasally voiced host of Town Hall Tonight to the audience, much to the annoyance of one of his henchmen.

Allen (right) “feuding” with Benny (left)

For its final season in 1939, Town Hall Tonight was later renamed The Fred Allen Show. The following year, he moved back to CBS and the program changed its name and sponsor to Texaco Star Theater with Fred Allen. In early October 1942, the program changed from an hour-long format to a half-hour, and by December, a new segment was added to the show, where Allen stroll down to “Allen’s Alley” where he knocked on the doors of neighborhood residents to ask them various questions appropriate to the show’s weekly topic. These segments helped strengthened the popularity of the program, as they displayed an eccentric gallery of regional characters.

Throughout the 1940s, the outlandish nature of “Allen’s Alley” characters lent their recognizable traits in several Warner Bros. cartoons, particularly with their signature catchphrases. In the earliest installments of the segment, Alan Reed (later well-known as the original Fred Flintstone) portrayed the pompous Falstaff Openshaw. Whenever Allen would explain the topic of the program at hand, Falstaff would announce, “Precisely why I am here!” before he proceeded with reading his latest poem, which always rhymed. At least one Warners-produced film used this line in the Private Snafu film The Goldbrick (1943), when Goldie the Goldbrick first appears on-screen and introduces himself in rhyme.

Another character introduced during the 1942-43 season was Jewish housewife and neighborhood gossip Mrs. Pansy Nussbaum, played by Minerva Pious, a long-time member of Allen’s cast since the early 1930s. After Allen greeted her, she would misspeak a glamorous person’s name; in one example, she responded: “You were expecting maybe Hoagy Carbunkle [Hoagy Carmichael]?” The Warners cartoons didn’t use Nussbaum’s malapropisms, but they retained the distinct Yiddish inflection when the line is referenced.

In 1944, Allen was forced to step down due to high blood pressure, which led to a 16-month hiatus from the program. In the fall of 1945, Allen returned and the show’s title reverted back to The Fred Allen Show. One new character was added to “Allen’s Alley” during that season.

Senator Claghorn, the boastful ante-bellum Southerner portrayed by Kenny Delmar. Derived from his “Dynamite Gus” character, which he used as Councilman Cartenbranch on The Alan Young Show, Minerva Pious suggested that Allen use Delmar on the program. After his first appearance, Claghorn became an enormous sensation with audiences, and served as part of the inspiration for Foghorn Leghorn. (Read more about Foghorn’s vocal origins from Keith Scott’s written piece here.) In McKimson’s Rebel Rabbit (1949), a Congressman resembles Senator Claghorn, in likeness and voice, in a rare instance of another character referencing Allen’s program. Kenny Delmar was given his own feature film as Senator Claghorn, It’s a Joke, Son (1947) from Eagle-Lion, lifted from one of his catchphrases, immortalized by Foghorn.

Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa

A year later, an Irishman character named Ajax Cassidy joined “Allen’s Alley,” played by Peter Donald. Often, when Allen greeted Ajax, he complained of a different ailment or affliction. After Allen delivered a skeptical reply to Ajax’s irrational illnesses, he would respond with a loud, raspy cough and shout in an Irish brogue: “I’m not long for this world!” This line was referenced in only a small number of Warners cartoons—in McKimson’s Paying the Piper (1949), the Supreem Cat imitates Ajax Cassidy’s routine, disguised as a sick baby with a nasty cough to thwart Porky Pig. By 1948, Fred Allen’s ratings began to decline with the advent of television, and for the sake of his heath as a factor, the show was cancelled in the summer of 1949. While his influence on classic Hollywood animation wasn’t as ubiquitous as Red Skelton’s, as seen in last week’s column, Fred Allen’s radio programs gave savvy animated filmmakers a passel of appealing catchphrases—and a certain loud-mouthed barnyard rooster— that still amuse us in the 21st century.

However, one catchphrase continues to elude many classic animation buffs—in several Warner Bros. cartoons released in 1937, characters exclaim, “Why don’t somebody tell me these things?!” The line is attributed to Fred Allen’s Town Hall Tonight, with a few references in contemporary magazines from the mid-1930s, but a few sources have stated no such line on the program. There was also a hit song from 1937 entitled, “Why Doesn’t Somebody Tell Me These Things?” by Jimmy Eaton and Terry Shand. If any old-time radio aficionado knows the answer, feel free to comment below.

Here’s my video showcasing references to Fred Allen’s radio career in animated cartoons. Usual reminder: this might not contain every cartoon that references these radio programs or characters, so excuse any discrepancies. Enjoy!

(Thanks to Keith Scott, Andrew Gilmore and Frank Young for their help.)

20 Comments

  • “Precisely Why I am Here” would turn up in Reed’s The Flintstones..As for Delmar’s Claghorn persona, he also himself voiced the identical Hunter dog in TTV’s local NY stydio’s first cartoon show, King Leonardo and his short Subjects, in the “Hunter segment”. And of course he was on some other shows from the studio: Tennesse Tuxedo, as narrator, “Commander McBragg”-as the star, and the President Teddy Roosevelt – Kit Coyote in Go Go Gophers… I wasn’t aware “not long for this world” was yet another from that show.

  • This is an excellent series–I thought I had a reasonable grasp of old-time radio and was able to pick up on many of the radio references in cartoons, but I always learn something here.

  • An absolute beautiful job, once again. I wisht u cooda shown some of ” the hunter” ( 60s), with mr delmar himSELF, lol

  • I’d recently fallen into watching bedtime reruns of What’s My Line. Though I don’t remember from the original broadcasts, Allen was apparently a regularly-appearing panelist for some time. Of course I instantly recognized him from the cartoons.

    He was genuinely funny on that show! Deep reservoir of one-liners.

    Thanks Devon.

    • Fred Allen became part of the “What’s My Line?” panel in 1953, replacing Steve Allen. He remained on that panel until his death in 1956. After his demise, the slot became a guest-star slot until the show left the CBS air in 1967.

      Allen had terrible trouble establishing himself in the new medium. “What’s My Line” was his steadiest video gig.

      He also hosted a talent-show game,”Judge For Yourself”, but it was not a success.

  • Amazing and informative column as always! Thanks for compiling all this valuable information for everyone to see.

  • I agree that the series is excellent. The videos are very well done.

  • Great stuff. Like a lot of boomer kids, grew up hearing and even using ancient catchphrases and gags without knowing where they came from.

    “It Happened to Crusoe” centered on an Eddie Anderson caricature; a vegetarian banished from his cannibal tribe. He takes a Man Friday job with the Bennyesque Crusoe. Because of the TV show I got the Anderson and Benny references; but the Fred Allen chief is news to me.

    Hoping “Duffy’s Tavern” is on your radar. It was a late-period radio show, with manager Archie (“Leave us not be hasty …”) and dense customer Finnigan (“Duuuuh, Gee, Archie …”) clearly the models for a lot of TV voices. Recently heard an episode were Reed’s Falstaff Openshaw appeared, complete with a poem.

    • Sid Raymond provided Finnegan’s voice for a brief period late in DUFFY’S run. Every time I hear him on the show I get a picture in my head of Katnip deciding he needs a break from those damned mice and that homicidal crow and going out for a couple of beers.

    • And Alan Reed played Finnegan in the TV version of “Duffy’s Tavern.”

    • Sid Raymond replaced Charlie Cantor, who had been doing the same voice on Fred Allen’s show as Socrates Mulligan. I don’t know whether Raymond did the voice as Finnigan or Katnip first, but it was borrowed from Cantor on the Allen show.
      Allen’s ratings took a nosedive not because of television, but because he was getting creamed by “Stop the Music” on ABC. Ford announced in Feb. 1949 it was dropping him (and a bunch of TV sports advertising) and then he followed through on a threat to retire. (Ford offered to sponsor him on TV but he turned it down).

  • Wasn’t the “Tell me these things” line from ads for Listerine?

    • I thought the same thing, but there’s no Listerine ad I’ve found that uses such a slogan from that period.

  • Listerine had something like this (concerning bad breath): “Even your best friends won’t tell you.”

  • In Chuck Jones’ CHOW HOUND, Mel Blanc does a distinctive “old man” voice where he repeats the last word of every sentence. I once heard Dennis Day do that voice on the Jack Benny program, and the audience reacted as if it were a reference. I thought it was an Allen’s Alley reference, but have not been able to find an example of the source. Anyone know?

    • Perhaps the Titus Moody character (“Howdy, bub”)?

    • Portland Hoffa was caricatured as the androgynous title character in the Little Audrey cartoon The Lost Dream, I think. Definitely sounds like her

    • I’ve read it’s based on master (heh! Master-hound) animator Ken Harris (from animator/historian Greg Duffell)

  • More Fred Allen references:

    “IT AIN’T VENDELL VILKIE!!” in Falling Hare

    Portland Hoffa’s “welll.. I’ve been siiick!” in King Sized Canary, Slap Happy Lion and one of the Tex Avery WB travelogue parodies. (I think that was one of her catchphrases along with “welll.. I got looost!”)

  • Possibly out of the “golden age” timeframe,an early Huckleberry Hound cartoon,”Skeeter Trouble”, featured a Fred Allen voice (by Daws Butler) as the off screen narrator.

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