Before Groucho Marx, before Johnny Carson and before Saturday Night Live, there was Fred Allen. A wildly popular radio comedian, he created a fictional backstreet called Allen’s Alley on his show. In it, commentary on the news of the day came from his ensemble of actors, like Senator Beauregard Claghorn, so Southern he wouldn’t drink water unless it came in a Dixie cup.
There is a real Allens Alley in Boston. It’s across from Lagrange Street on Tremont between Boylston and Stuart in the heart of the theater district. It was there that Fred Allen began his career as a wisecracking juggler on the vaudeville stage. He moved onto radio, and from 1932 to 1949 The Fred Allen Show made him a star. It also put him in the pantheon of great American humorists like Mark Twain, S.J. Perelman and Robert Benchley.
The vivid characters that populated Allen’s Alley were a big part of his appeal. So was his wordplay. He delivered lines like “What’s on your mind, if you will allow the overstatement?” He honed his humor through years of study, a habit he picked up as a teenaged employee of the Boston Public Library. And he developed his observational humor from the people he knew in a city we might know today as Dirty Old Boston. A city that teemed with corner saloons, flophouses, triple deckers, stockyards, Odd Fellows Halls and dim alleys.
Years after he made it big in New York and Hollywood, he said,
I have just returned from Boston. It is the only thing to do if you find yourself up there.
He was born John Florence Sullivan on May 31, 1894, or, as he put it, his tiny cry soiled the acoustics of Cambridge, Mass. His birth certificate put his birthplace in Boston, but Allen speculated his father, Henry, made the mistake after celebrating the occasion a little too much. A year later came a brother Bob, and then their mother, Cecilia Herlihy Sullivan, died.
His Aunt Lizzie took in the three Sullivan males. She already had a houseful that included her brother Joe, her two sisters, Mary and Jane, and her husband, Mike, a plumber who couldn’t work because lead poisoning had paralyzed him. Her tenants paid her $5 a week for room and board, and sometimes her sisters would quarrel and move out. Lizzie would then have to make do until they returned. She could make a leg of lamb last a week and sifted ashes from the furnace to salvage coal, her nephew wrote.
Henry Sullivan never earned his eldest son’s respect. “My father never raised his hand to any one of his children, except in self-defense,” Allen said.
Henry worked as a bookbinder by day, and when he returned home late at night ‘he seemed to have an impediment in his tread.’
“When my brother and I ran out to greet him we noticed that his breath was dominated by a potent element with which we were not familiar,” Allen wrote.
Perhaps because of his early poverty and family difficulties, or perhaps, simply, because of his Irish heritage, Fred Allen had a persistent sense of tragedy. Once, after rescuing a small boy from getting hit by a car, he shouted, “What’s the matter? Don’t you want to grow up and have troubles?”
Dirty Old Boston
They lived in a duplex on Bayard Street in the Allston section of Boston, where the local characters ranged from an overoptimistic candy salesman to a mountainous schoolmarm he tried to forget without success. Mr. Harrington, the pungent soap-grease man, visited Aunt Lizzie in a great and rancid weekly event. Allen’s super-religious Aunt Mame left the bedroom window open at night to let in the Blessed Virgin. A neighbor, a retired gentleman named Tom Carpenter, burst into wakes and took over whenever he saw a funeral wreath on a door, whether he knew the departed or not.
As a boy Fred Allen attended North Harvard School and St. Anthony’s Church, where he got drafted as a choirboy. “The first Sunday I sang in the choir two hundred people changed their religion,” he wrote.
After 12 years at Aunt Lizzie’s, Henry shocked them by announcing he would remarry. He told his sons they could come with him and his new wife, who they had never met. Or they could stay with Aunt Lizzie. Fred chose Aunt Lizzie, his brother chose his father.
On his 14th birthday, his Aunt Lizzie told him to put on his best suit and meet his father at a saloon, Con Keefe’s on Dartmouth Street in Boston. The characters and the setting could have populated Allen’s Alley. In his autobiography, Much Ado About Me, he wrote:
“Con Keefe’s was a popular alcoholic shrine, a cheer chapel with all the routine accouterments: the swinging doors, the five-cent beer, the free lunch, the starched bartenders, and the inevitable quota of frowzy thinkers draped along the bar.”
As his father lubricated his throat, he told him he had to get a job. Then he introduced his son to a Mr. Hempstead. “If I had been old enough to attempt character reading, I would have judged Mr. Hempstead to be the custodian of a thirst and, as acting custodian, to be fulfilling his every obligation to his charge,” wrote Allen.
Mr. Hempstead did indeed get him a job as a runner at the library. He eventually got promoted into a job that gave him spare time to peruse the stacks. There he found a book on juggling and a book on the history of comedy. He began to collect jokes:
“The professor’s mouth was an adjective hutch.”
“Wind of my prowess spread through the grammar school like bad news at a pessimists’ convention.”
“The last time I saw him he was walking down Lover’s Lane holding his own hand.”
He entered the Boston High School of Commerce, which he called a pet project of Mayor John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald.
“There was a rumor that Mayor Fitzgerald had sung “Sweet Adeline” in office for so many years that the City Hall acoustics had diabetes,” wrote Allen.
The family moved to the Savin Hill section of Dorchester and later to a bigger place on Columbia Road in Dorchester. He was so busy working his way through high school he had little time and formed few friendships. So in his spare hours he learned to juggle or he squandered his money on vaudeville shows.
One day the library held a talent show for its employees. Fred Allen did his juggling act, and afterward a girl told him he was crazy to stay at the library. He should go on stage, she said.
If it hadn’t been for her, he wrote, he might have ended up the Boston Public Library librarian.
After graduation he worked for the Colonial Piano Company as a piano mover on Piano Row. He performed mini-dramas with two husky piano movers, a horse-and-wagon, a rope and a block-and-tackle. When a reluctant household failed to make installment payments on their piano, Fred Allen and his crew showed up at the door. They would go through the motions of repossessing the piano. The usual result was a housewife taking an oath on the graves of a number of departed relatives that she would pay up. On the rare occasion when that didn’t happen, they would give the person one more chance and leave with as much dignity as they could muster.
When he wasn’t pretending to repossess pianos, he took his juggling act to Amateur Night shows, then all the rage.
Fred Allen took a two-week vacation from the piano store and toured amusement parks and resorts in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. Later he bought a vacation getaway in Old Orchard Beach. There he developed an affection for rural New Englanders, who inspired the Allen’s Alley denizen Titus Moody. Moody, played by Parker Fennelly, was a dour Yankee who didn’t hold with furniture that talked—meaning radio, then television. Moody parlayed the character into the Pepperidge Farm spokesman well into his 80s.
Aunt Lizzie didn’t approve of her nephew’s theatrical ambitions, and routinely told him about an actor she knew who ended up in a drunkard’s grave. But he couldn’t resist the dollar, the fun and the excitement.
He did well enough to turn professional. That meant Scollay Square, Boston’s Tenderloin, which he called the hot foot to Boston’s conservative high-button shoe.
There he found plenty of colorful, cheerful Dickensian characters to inspire his imagination: chorus girls, freaks, acrobats, song-and-dance teams, sailors returning home from long cruises. The sailors, he wrote, ‘invariably rushed to the Old Howard [Theatre] to check on the current models of female pulchitrude and to see if any improvements had been made during their absence.’
Years later, he remembered his vaudeville days with fondness.
Vaudeville is dead. The acrobats, the animal acts, the dancers, the singers, and the old-time comedians have taken their final bows and disappeared into the wings of obscurity. For fifty years–from 1875 to 1925–vaudeville was the popular entertainment of the masses. Nomadic tribes of nondescript players roamed the land. The vaudeville actor was part gypsy and part suitcase. With his brash manner, flashy clothes, capes and cane, and accompanied by his gaudy womenfolk, the vaudevillian brought happiness and excitement to the communities he visited.
Becoming Fred Allen
Finally his act was good enough for New York. His arrival in New York was met with as much excitement as another flounder arriving at Fulton Fish Market, he wrote.
Eventually an Australian booking agent saw his juggling act and booked him for a year on the Fuller circuit in Australia. He started in Brisbane, where he did one show a night and had not much else to do. So he picked up a hobby he’d abandoned when he left the Boston Public Library: reading. For the next 11 months, he used his spare time to read the American humorists, including Mark Twain, Josh Billings, Charles Dickens, Bill Nye, Artemus Ward and Eli Perkins.
He wanted to write, but he claimed his High School of Commerce education hadn’t taught him to weld nouns and verbs together into an acceptable literary pattern. In Brisbane, he resolved to improve his act, his jokes and his writing.
His Australian tour lasted so long he returned to the same cities, where the audience knew his jokes. So he took from his trunk a ventriloquist’s dummy that he bought on impulse – “I was lonely” – and adapted a routine with it. Later he added a banjo, then a guitar.
When he returned from Australia, he no longer performed as a juggler. He was Fred Allen, a monologist.
At Last, Success
In 1932, he went on the radio. For the next 17 years, The Fred Allen Show appeared in various guises and with various sponsors. It became Town Hall Tonight and finally the Texaco Star Theater.
He wrote his own jokes, featured guests and satirized the news and musical comedies. In 1942 he introduced Allen’s Alley with characters like Moody, Senator Claghorn, the malaprop-prone Mrs. Nussbaum and the comic Irishman Ajax Cassidy. He had married Portland Hoffa in 1927, and she introduced the show with a high voice that sounded like ‘two slate pencils mating or a clarinet reed calling for help.’
He also appeared on television and in film. Allen had little good to say about either. “Imitation is the sincerest form of television,” he wrote. And, “Television is a device that permits people who haven’t anything to do to watch people who can’t do anything.”
He had even less use for Hollywood. “You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood, place it in the navel of a fruit fly and still have room enough for three caraway seeds and a producer’s heart,” he wrote.
John Steinbeck advised him on how to write an autobiography. Fred Allen wrote Treadmill to Oblivion, published in 1954, and had almost finished Much Ado About Me in 1956 when he died. On the night of St. Patrick’s Day he had a massive heart attack while taking a late night stroll down West 57th Street in New York.
“The droll humorist’s death plunged his fellow entertainers into mourning,” read his New York Times obituary.
Fifty years after his death, the introduction to the reissue of Treadmill to Oblivion called him ‘one of the great radio comedians – not to mention one of the great wits – of the 20th century.
You can hear one of Fred Allen’s radio shows here.
Images: Piano Row District By Swampyank at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18003597. This story was updated in 2023.