Dorchester Illustration of the Day no. 1707
Fred Allen, 1894-1956
From: Fred Allen’s Letters edited by Joe McCarthy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965
A Boston Irishman, born in 1894 and christened John Florence Sullivan, Allen was the son of a bookbinder who earned $19.23 a week. His mother died when he was three years old and he was raised by his Aunt Lizzie (“a wonderful name”) in the Allston and Dorchester sections of the city, working as a youngster in the Boston Public Library and as an errand boy for a piano company. Allen was still in his teens when he broke into vaudeville as a comic juggler who cracked jokes as he juggled, first using the stage name Fred St. James and later Freddy James. His routine soon began to feature more jokes than juggling, including such sure-fire howlers as, “Condensed milk is wonderful but how can they get a cow to sit down on those little cans?” and “She was so old when they lit the candles on her birthday cake six people were overcome by the heat.”
Freddy James became Fred Allen when he was breaking into big-time vaudeville as a comedy monologuist; with a new name and new jokes he could ask for a higher salary than the $75 a week that Freddy James had been getting in small-time theaters. In 1919, Fred Allen made a smashingly successful debut at B.F. Keith’s Palace on Broadway, the highest pinnacle of vaudeville. Any performer who had played the Palace in those days could be assured of being booked by the manager of any important theater in the country, sight unseen. By 1922, after touring as a headliner on the Keith circuit, Allen was playing in Shubert vaudeville on the same bills with such big stars as Lew Fields and Nora Bayes and earning the then astronomical salary of $400 a week. Writing his own highly original comedy lines—which were often borrowed by Al Jolson and other greats—he was already identified in show business as a performer with a classy following. Three times in one season he was brought back for return engagements at the Shubert Theater in New Haven by demands from admiring Yale undergraduates.
Fred took a job, which he thought would be only temporary, as the writer and star of a weekly radio comedy program, sponsored by Linit Starch. He remained in radio for the next seventeen years and never appeared on the stage again.
Although he was one of the big show business celebrities of his time—a top radio star in that golden age of radio was as important as a top movie star—Allen never behaved like a celebrity and never thought of himself as anybody particularly special. When television replaced radio as the dominating entertainment medium, Allen made a few tentative tries at it but he never felt at ease in television and the network executives at NBC wanted no part of the comedy show that he wanted to do, a sort of Allen’s Alley with the visual format of Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town.
In the last few years of his life, Allen appeared Sunday nights on television as a panelist on What’s My Line? An easy chore approved by his physicians because it required no rehearsing or script preparation. He spent the rest of the week writing two autobiographical books, Treadmill to Oblivion, an account of his years in radio, and Much Ado About Me, memoirs of vaudeville and musical comedy days. Allen had always wanted to be a full-time writer; one reason why he devoted so much time to turning out so many letters was the satisfaction that he found at his typewriter. He often said that he enjoyed the preparation of his radio scripts more than the performance of his shows. When he left radio, he seriously considered writing skits and monologues for other comedians like his good friend, Goodman Ace. In his earlier years, he had written comedy material for a fellow Irish Bostonian, Jack Donahue, the famous Ziegfeld comedian-dancer of the 1920s. Allen was greatly encouraged when Treadmill to Oblivion won praise from critics and became a best seller in 1954. He plunged into Much Ado About Me with relish, working daily in an office without a telephone a few blocks from his Manhattan apartment.
On the night of Saint Patrick’s Day, 1956, when Much Ado About Me was not quite finished, Allen was stricken with a fatal heart attack while walking his dog on West 57th Street.
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