Fred Allen. To ninety-nine out of a hundred people under the age of sixty, that name means about as much as John Smith or Jane Doe. I recognize it because I was suckered into sending off for one of those old-time radio compilations they used to hawk at every other commercial break during the Saturday afternoon showing of old movies featuring W. C. Fields, Mae West and the Marx Brothers. One of the records included a routine from “Allen’s Alley,” Allen’s hit NBC radio comedy series from the 1940s, that was full of fine and horrible puns, barbed put-downs, and various other antics, all delivered at machine-gun speed.
Allen’s nervous energy seems not to have been just an act, and he burned himself out early, dropping dead of a heart attack on a New York street at the age of 61. He’d made the switch from radio to TV and was a regular on “What’s My Line?” but he’d also slipped from star to wise-cracking character on a show that, hit though it was, was still just a game show. Had he survived into the 1960s or 1970s, he might have been remembered as well as Jack Benny.
In 1965, Doubleday published a collection on Allen’s letters edited by Joe McCarthy (no relation to the Senator): Fred Allen’s Letters. I use the word “edited” because that’s what it says on the jacket. I suspect he just tossed a boxful of the letters down a staircase and let that determine his sequence. The book is divided into sections with titles such as “The Early Days,” “Old Friends,” and “Show Biz People,” but there’s no particular rhyme or reason to what goes where.
Not that it makes much of a difference. There’s a certain appropriateness in the randomness of the selections that fits with Allen’s sense of humor, and it guarantees you never know quite what’s coming next.
Allen composed at the typewriter and rarely bothered with the shift key, so these letters might remind some of Don Marquis’ The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel (which is a Penguin Classic now–wow). I’ve kept this book by the bedside, dipping into every few nights, and my wife is heartily sick of having me shake the bed with muffled chuckling.
Here are a couple of samples to whet your appetite:
To Mabel Dawson (a fan)
dear miss dawson …
thank you for your letter.
you will be glad to learn that the honey arrived in excellent condition. portland had some at breakfast yesterday and reported it was the best she had ever tasted.
we don’t get much honey here in new york. we have had one bee for some time. we have no flowers and have to let him out to sneak into the various floral shops in the neighborhood. i think our bee is nearsighted. it must spend a lot of time on artificial flowers, for the amount of honey it gives some months is negligible.
our bee has no comb. it carries the honey on its person. when we want honey we summon the bee, point to the biscuit, or whatever object we want honey on, the bee flies to the table, squats and buzzes a little and when it arises we have about enough honey to float a caraway seed.
we can imagine what a boon it is to us to have three large jars of honey. we are sending our bee down to florida for a good rest this winter. i am sure that when it returns, brown and healthy, it will be ready to pick up where it left off and keep us in honey for years to come.
we are having a difficult time finding guests to use on the program but i guess we will manage to keep going some way during the coming season. if not, some week, i may put our bee on the show and there will be a real b on n.b.c.
To Ed Simmons and Norman Lear (yes, that Norman Lear), two comedy writers who had sent Allen a joke letter asking his permission to start a polish fan club.
… for many years, i have been against fan clubs. i remember back in 1902 a group of girls got together in littleton, new hampshire, to form a guy kibbee fan club. mr. kibbee, even at that early age was as bald as a boy scout’s knee, and the girls all shaved their heads to look like their idol. all through the summer the little baldheaded girls had a jolly time. they had guy kibbee meetings, they talked like guy kibbee and when field days were held the fan club would rush out and spell guy kibbee in different formations and in different languages. with their little bald heads they were a shiny sight. when the cold weather arrived, however, it was another story. thirty of the baldheaded girls contracted penumonia and within three months the entire guy kibbee fan club was wiped out.
that is only one reason i hesitate to sponsor a fan club. if beri beri or scurvy breaks out in your group how is it going to look with little emaciated bodies lying around the streets of california wearing my fan club buttons.