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Old-time radio, 3 March: Allen's Alley days

Fred Allen (left) with three of the Alley demimonde: (l to r) Minerva Pious, Alan Reed, Kenny Delmar.
Fred Allen (left) with three of the Alley demimonde: (l to r) Minerva Pious, Alan Reed, Kenny Delmar.
NBC

Fred Allen has returned to full-time network radio in 1945-46, following a one-year sabbatical under his doctor’s orders; the satirist’s hypertension had hit height enough for alarm during his four-season run under the Texaco Star Theater banner for CBS.

That run has provided a series of refinements, not always to Allen’s liking at first, including the paring back to a half-hour show. But it also provided the beginnings of what would prove his best-remembered element: the transformation of his long-time, formerly groundbreaking newsreel satires into “Allen’s Alley,” which has now rounded into its most enduring shape:

Finally, after three years of experimentation, we found a set of tenants who were to bring Allen’s Alley the fame this insane cul-de-sac was to enjoy as long as the program was to endure . . . Who were these people? What had they done before? Well . . .

Kenny Delmar was a fine dramatic actor who appeared frequently in the Theatre Guild radio productions and in many serious plays. Kenny was also an accomplished dialectician. The Senator Claghorn character was only one of the vocal cartoons culled from his gallery of comedy creations.

Parker Fennelly was one of radio’s pioneer character actors. Shortly after Marconi had turned his invention loose Arthur Allen, another rustic delineator, and Parker were convulsing radio set owners as the Stebbin Boys. In later years they enjoyed a long run in Snow Village Sketches. Parker Fennelly, in my estimation, is the finest simulator of New England types we have in radio, the theater, Hollywood, or even in New York.

Minerva Pious was the most accomplished woman dialectician ever to appear in radio. She worked with us for more than fifteen years and I am an authority on Minerva Pious. There is no subtlety or inflection of speech associated with any nationality that Minerva cannot faithfully reproduce. Her Jewish housewife was never the routine, offensive burlesque caricature. Mrs. Nussbaum was a human being, warm, honest, understanding, and—“you should pardon the expression”—very funny.

Peter Donald was a well-known after-dinner speaker. For years Peter had been regaling radio audiences with his great variety of dialect stories, starring in Can You Top This?

In selecting these types we hoped that Allen’s Alley would have regional appeal. Claghorn to please the South; Moody the New England states; Mrs. Nussbaum for the metropolitan areas; Ajax for the Irish who had a sense of humour. It developed that there were a few Irish who didn’t. The South didn’t resent Claghorn; the Senator was invited to speak at many functions down South and a number of streets in abandoned sections were named after him. Nobody resented Titus Moody. Mrs. Nussbaum, too, appeared to be loved by everybody.

—Fred Allen, in Treadmill to Oblivion.

Ajax Cassidy, of course, will alternate residency for time enough with Alan Reed’s pompous doggerel walker Falstaff Openshaw, a holdover from the Alley’s Texaco Star Theater origin. That small detail aside, what the new Fred Allen Show has, with a new sponsor (Standard Brands, for Blue Bonnet margarine and Tender Leaf tea) and (especially) “Allen’s Alley” as finally refined, is a smash.

The show will finish this 1945-46 season as the number three entry on Sunday night, giving NBC both the top three shows on the evening and seven out of Sunday’s top ten. Allen’s Hooper rating (21.1) will be two slivers behind Jack Benny’s (21.3) and thirteen slivers behind The Charlie McCarthy Show (22.4).

NBC’s first two hours on Sunday prime time will prove a powerhouse: Benny at 7 p.m.; The Fitch Bandwagon (winding down its variety life, before being taken over little by little by a pair named Phil Harris and Alice Faye) at 7:30; Bergen & McCarthy at 8; and, Fred Allen at 8:30. Of any network program running opposite those four shows, only one—CBS’s Blondie—will show up in the Sunday night top ten, its 11.7 Hooper no match for even the about-to-expire Fitch Bandwagon.

On the season overall? Bergen & McCarthy will finish fourth; Benny, seventh; Allen, right behind him at eighth. It will prove the first of three straight top ten finishes for the man whose radio life had begun in 1932 controlling the taps of The Linit Bath Revue.

TUNE IN TONIGHT:

The Fred Allen Show: Les Miserables, Reprise (NBC, 1946)

Fred (Allen) and Orson Welles reprise a charming zap—at both the show in question and Welles’s reputed monumental ego, by way of exhuming Welles from a rest home—first exercised during the Texaco Star Theater years on CBS. Otherwise, Fred waxes a bit with Portland (Hoffa) on his new intellectual standing with Funk & Wagnall’s. And, the Alley demimonde ponders the chicken surplus. Any way you look at it, Allen is either at the top of his game or about to move beyond even that.

Claghorn: Kenny Delmar (Announcer). Titus: Parker Fennelly. Mrs. Nussbaum: Minerva Pious. Falstaff: Alan Reed. Music: Al Goodman Orchestra, the Five DeMarco Sisters. Writers: Fred Allen, possibly Al Lewis, possibly Robert Schiller, possibly Robert Weiskopf.

Further Channel Surfing . . .

Comedy

Fibber McGee & Molly: Boomer’s Suitcase (NBC, 1942)—Jim and Marian Jordan, Bill Thompson, Isabel Randolph, Gale Gordon, Harlow Wilcox. The McGees become accustomed to being a one-horse family; Boomer leaves a suitcase full of his aunt’s valuables in their care—and the sneaking suspicion they may be, ahem, hot stuff.

The Jimmy Durante Show: Durante and Victor Moore Take Flying Lessons (NBC, 1948)—Jimmy Durante, Victor Moore, Howard Petrie. An earthquake’s impact, a new voting system, and learning to fly—which might be less than uplifting. Dated in places but as a whole endearing.

My Favourite Husband: Women’s Rights (Part One; CBS, 1950)—Lucille Ball, Richard Denning, Bea Benaderet, Gale Gordon. The men only think they can keep their wives from beating drums on behalf of the looming 22nd Amendment. Test drive for a memorable I Love Lucy but not bad in its own write.

Fibber McGee & Molly: Breakfast in Bed for Molly (NBC, 1953)—Jim and Marian Jordan, Richard LeGrand, Gale Gordon, Bill Thompson, Arthur Q. Bryan. And who’s going to make it for her? The Scrambled Egghead of 79 Wistful Vista, of course. You take it from there.

Crime Drama

Boston Blackie: The Cobb Trucking Company (Syndicated, 1948)—Dick Kollmar, Maurice Tarplin, Jan Minor. A trucking executive’s personal quirk with ten dollar bills comes back to haunt him when it brings suspicions he’s involved in organised crime—and his partner becomes the suspect in his murder. Boilerplate, not unpleasant.

21st Precinct: The Door (CBS, 1954)—Everett Sloane, unidentified additional cast. Trying to help a patrolman with a delinquent loan, coordinating surveillance in garment district burglaries. Imagine Dragnet in New York minus its wryness and it’s a blueprint for future television entry The Felony Squad—which will prove even more dry.

Mystery/Thriller

Lights Out: Sakhalin (CBS, 1937)—Raymond Edward Johnson, possibly Betty Winkler, unidentified additional cast. The Siberian island to which the Russian Tsars sent political prisoners is the setting for this chilling yarn about a particularly cruel executioner whose fiancee joins him in making sport of his victims. Near-classic Arch Oboler writing.