Well, it is time to light the candles, open that bottle of champagne, and count the ways in which we love . . . Mrs. Living- stone’s husband? Comedian Jack Benny, I mean, who would have turned thirty-nine all over again on this Valentine’s Day. Americans may declare their love for the man by signing the Jack Benny Stamp petition. A licked backside! Now, that is more respect than the pompous miser got on his own show.
So, in keeping with this lack of reverence—and my commemoration of the dames, gals, and ladies of radio—I will give Benny the brush and stroll down Allen’s Alley, the imaginary neighborhood whose denizens were quizzed each week by Benny’s archrival, the partner of Mrs. Portland Hoffa. “Shall we go?” Portland used to ask, cheerfully, to which Fred Allen would reply something like “As the bathtub said to the open faucet: I think I shall run over.”
One of the people you’ll find on Allen’s Alley is Pansy Nussbaum, a Jewish housewife played with great zest by Russian-born actress Minerva Pious (shown above, with Allen, in a picture taken from Mary Jane Higby’s Tune in Tomorrow). Mrs. Nussbaum, whom Pious also impersonated on the big screen (in the 1945 comedy It’s in the Bag), was the “heroine of millions who listen to Fred Allen’s programs,” radio dramatist Norman Corwin remarked. Having cast her as a hard-boiled Brooklyn crime-solver in his comedy-mystery “Murder in Studio One,” Corwin was appreciative of Pious’s vocal versatility, adding that she could also be a “fire-spitting cowgirl, a “swooning Southern belle with six telescoped names,” or a “femme fatale from the Paris salons of Pierre Ginsburgh.”
In other “woids,” Pious was a first-rate dialect comedienne. And even though her heavy-accented caricature of a linguistically challenged, half-assimilated Jew was resented by some proto-politically correct critics, Pious brought so much heart and spirit to her weekly chats with Allen that her verbal stereotyping seemed good-natured, inoffensive, and indeed endearing to those who heard themselves in her laments and grievances.
As old-time radio aficionado Jim Harmon once put it, “Mrs. Nussbaum had less of the schmaltz and charm of Gertrude Berg’s Molly Goldberg” (discussed in the previous entry), and “more of Allen’s own sometimes acid wit.” Mrs. Nussbaum was no “Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog,” mind you; but, well past hearts, flowers, and Valentine’s cards, she did find considerable relief in complaining about whatever she was forced to put up with: wartime food rationings, the post-war housing shortage, or long-time husband, Pierre. Mainly, “mine husband, Pierre.”
When Allen knocked on her door exclaiming “Ahh, Mrs. Nussbaum,” the exasperated wife often had a smart answer revealing her Jewish state of mind: “You’re expecting maybe Weinstein Churchill” or “Turaluralura Bankhead,” or “Cecil B. Schlemil,” or “Mrs. Ronald Goldman?” A former beauty contest winner (“At Rockaway Beach, for 1925, I am Miss Undertow”), she claimed to have had her share of admirers who showered her with presents (“costume jewelry and coldcuts”). For a while, Pansy was torn between two playboys. What a “dilemmel”; but, long story short, after a weekend of deliberation at Lake Rest-a-Bissel she ended up with a “woim” by the name of Pierre.
Eventually, Pierre wormed himself into Pansy’s heart. Her marriage was by no means a loveless affair, even though it all began rather unconventionally, as a fluke. “Thanks to the telephone, today I am Mrs. Pierre Nussbaum,” she gushed during another one of Allen’s visits to the Alley. According to this account of her youth, she had been no catch: “On Halloween I am sitting home alone bobbing for red beets. Suddenly the phone is ringing. I am saying hello.” A “voice is saying, ‘Cookie, I am loving you. Will you marry me?'” And what did she reply? “Foist I am saying, ‘Positively!’ Later, I am blushing.” So, a confused Allen inquires, “why be so grateful to the telephone company?” “They are giving Pierre a wrong number.”
A telecommunications screw-up and a clueless suitor. Now, that’s as close to romance as Pansy Nussbaum—nee Pom Pom Schwartz—was destined to get. So, Valentine’s, Schmellentine’s! Minerva Pious was the one who lamented on behalf of all of us who have a Pierre of our own snoring on the sofa. We were expecting maybe Russell Kraut?