Many Happy Reruns: Portland Hoffa and Les Crutchfield

“Mr. Aaaaallen!” I can hear her none too dulcet voice now. Portland Hoffa, born on this day, 25 January, in 1905. Hoffa, of course, was the partner of radio comedian Fred Allen, on whose show she appeared as his Gracie-Allenish sidekick. Here is how Allen remembered their partnership in his autobiographical Treadmill to Oblivion (1954):

Portland and I started doing a vaudeville act together shortly after we were married.  In vaudeville, when a comedian married he immediately put his wife in the act.  The wife didn’t have to have any talent.  It was economical strategy.  With a double act the comedian could get a salary increase from the booking office.  The additional money would pay for his wife’s wardrobe, her railroad fares and the extra hotel expenses.  In vaudeville, the actor roams the country and the upkeep on the nonworking wife was an important item.  Having his wife in his act enabled the comedian to know where she was all the time.  This made it possible for him to concentrate on his comedy [. . .].

When radio became a challenge [to vaudeville] we accepted it.  We were married until death do us part and radio sure wasn’t going to interfere with this arrangement.  Radio might hasten it but not otherwise thwart the overall deal.  Our first concern was to create a character that the listener at home would associate with Portland’s voice.  That was our problem.  Over the microphone, Portland’s voice sounded like two slate pencils mating or a clarinet reed calling for help.  I still don’t know whether it was the microphone that distorted Portland’s natural voice or whether an element of nervousness was involved [. . .].

[With the exception of Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, m]ost of the other radio couples [. . .]  used their marital status and their domestic experiences for comedy purposes. [ . . ].

Portland didn’t seem to fit into any of the accepted categories.  The more we heard her radio voice, the more we realized that a character, a small E-flat Frankenstein monster, would have to be custom-made for her.

And custom-made it they did, even though Frankenstein was more the métier of another important figure in radio drama, Les Crutchfield, born on the same day in 1916.  His work was frequently heard on the literary thriller anthology Escape, for which he adapted classics including Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe.

Crutchfield’s scripts were also featured on Suspense, as well as episodic thrillers like Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and the short-lived Christopher London, an adventure series conceived by Earl Stanley Gardner and starring Glenn Ford. Throughout the 1950s, Crutchfield contributed scripts to memorable radio westerns like Ford Laramie, Have Gun, Will Travel, The Six Shooter, and the highly successful Gunsmoke, with the long-running television version of which his name is most closely associated today.

As a radio playwright, Crutchfield made his auspicious debut on 25 August 1946, when his work—unlike the works of many anonymous broadcast writers—was not only featured on but heralded by the Columbia Workshop:

Since it first went on the air ten years ago last month, the Columbia Workshop has constantly sought to introduce new talent to radio broadcasting and to persuade established artists in other fields to lend their creative talents to radio. Today, in presenting “The Path and the Door,” a psychological experiment, the Columbia Workshop achieves both aims.  “The Path and the Door” is the first radio play by Les Crutchfield, a young man who before the war was an explosives engineer and who, feeling that the world has seen enough of explosives in the last few years, now devotes his entire time to writing.  The musical score, which is such an integral part of the play [. . .], was written by George Antheil, who has been one of the most controversial figures in modern music for the past twenty years. Mr. Antheil has many other interests besides music, however, one of them being psychology. One reading of Mr. Crutchfield’s script persuaded him to write this, his first radio score.

Besides being in the same business, these two share their birthdays not only with modern novelist Virginia Woolf, but with Romantic poet Robert Burns, whose famous admonition is entirely appropriate for this occasion: “Should old acquaintance be forgot / And never brought to mind?”

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