Fred Allen

Active - 1926 - 1952  |   Born - May 31, 1894   |   Died - Mar 17, 1956   |   Genres - Comedy, Musical

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Like W.C. Fields before him, American comedian Fred Allen hoped to headline in vaudeville as a comic juggler. It was in the early 1920s that Allen found his true forte as a monologist and master of ceremonies, and in this capacity he starred on Broadway with his partner/wife Portland Hoffa in such revues as The Passing Show. In 1932, he hosted his first weekly radio show, but by strictly adhering to the script he came across as stiff and stilted. Allen's true radio personality began coming across in his long-running Town Hall Tonight (1934-41), in which he enjoyed deviating from the script for a wry adlib or satiric barb. So often did Allen "wing it" that he frequently ran overtime, compelling the NBC network to cut him off in mid-sentence to make room for the next program. NBC also had a habit of pulling the plug whenever Allen's wit became too biting--usually at the expense of the sponsor, a special-interest group, or the network itself. It was during this period that Allen launched a desultory film career (he'd already appeared in a handful of short subjects in the early 1930s). In 1935's Thanks a Million, Allen was in his element as the cynical manager of a broken-down theatrical troupe; he was less well served in Sally, Irene and Mary (1938). As a film actor, Allen was rather limited: unlike fellow radio star Bob Hope, Allen's basset-hound face and baggy eyes precluded romantic leads, while his sing-song nasal voice undercut any possibility for serious roles. When Allen returned to films in 1941 it was as "himself" in Love Thy Neighbor, in which he costarred with Jack Benny. The film capitalized on the celebrated Benny-Allen "feud" of the 1936-37 season, which both comedians (actually longtime friends who admired each other's work) would occasionally revive into the 1950s as a means of getting quick laughs. After Love Thy Neighbor, Allen forsook films again to concentrate on his radio work. He left the air due to illness in 1944, then returned with the half-hour "Fred Allen Show" in 1945. One of this series' most popular features was "Allen's Alley," a weekly jokefest in which the star traded witticisms with such regulars as Senator Claghorn(Kenny Delmar), Mrs. Nussbaum (Minerva Pious), and Titus Moody (Parker Fennelly). In 1945, Fred Allen appeared in his fourth feature film It's in the Bag. While the film started out as a traditional comedy (its basic plot was reworked into Mel Brooks' The Twelve Chairs [1969]), the story was abandoned at midpoint for a series of nonsequitir sketches involving a large lineup of guest stars--including Jack Benny. Allen continued his radio program until it was knocked out of the ratings race by CBS' "Stop the Music" in 1949. During the 1950s, Allen worked primarily as a guest star on other comedians' radio and TV series, and from 1955 through 1956 he appeared as a regular "quizzer" on "What's My Line?" He also revitalized his sporadic movie career in 1952 with a brace of 20th Century-Fox all-star films, We're Not Married and O. Henry's Full House. A prolific writer (he penned most of his own radio material), Allen turned out two best-selling memoirs in his last decade, Much Ado About Me and Treadmill to Oblivion. On March 17, 1956, Fred Allen left the New York apartment of a friend, then suddenly collapsed on the sidewalk, the victim of a fatal stroke.

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