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.
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.
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.
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.)