On This Day in 1947: Fred Allen Drops a Name

Well, it has been over five months now since I launched broadcastellan and began to broadcast my assorted musings to a potentially vast if largely abstract public. I am still doing what I set out to do, which is to dig up discarded pieces of western popular culture and return what has been drowned in or washed away by the busy mainstream of commerce to the multitude that owns and defines the popular. The first principle of popularity, after all, is presence; and even though universal accessibility alone is no guarantor of prominence (a fact to which my humble efforts are mute testimony), there’s nothing like a blog to keep alive what might otherwise rot in some cranial nook or linger in the obscurity of a private library.

My awareness of the promotional opportunities within the web notwithstanding, I have had to learn—and am learning still—that a blog is not merely a medium but a mode of communicating, a way of writing and sharing that has qualities distinct from other forms of publishing and follows different sets of conventions. So, like radio comedian Fred Allen, I would like to acknowledge a few of the individuals who have influenced the evolution of broadcastellan.

Where does Fred Allen fit into all this? Not that I need any particular reason or pretext to drop his name. Namedropping! That’s it. On this day, October 26, in 1947, Allen mentioned one of his former writers, one of those nameless if rather well remunerated gagmen of radio. That man was novelist Herman Wouk, who had just given up writing for Allen. With his first novel in print (a Book-of-the-Month Club recommendation, no less), Wouk was ready to announce his retirement from broadcasting. He did just that in an article that appeared in the November issue of the magazine ’47, as Allen and partner Portland Hoffa told their audience in their joke routine at the beginning of the Fred Allen Show.

When I heard this remark, I went in search of the article, found it, and found it quite interesting, too. This is what bloggers do, I realized at last. They not only post and recycle material, but share and comment by linking and tagging, by renting their blogs and surfing for credits, thereby contributing to the dissemination of thought while all along promoting themselves and others. Like today’s blogger, the pioneers of radio had to learn that the medium is not just a distribution apparatus but a distributive art.

So, I am no longer posting a series of essays. I have begun to open up the discourse, to make my blog more interactive. I no longer hide behind “The Magnificent Montague,” and, having quietly dropped my nominal cloak now feel at ease writing and mingling in the forum without donning such disguises. I am more comfortable now leaving comments on other sites, always, I hope in the spirit of sharing rather than blatant self-promotion.

I have edited my writing after receiving comments from Jim Widner, the host of Radio Days, for instance. I have added a reader poll (an idea I got from Brent McKee’s site) and have made attempts to encourage participation (something I noticed being done with some success by Cavan Terrill). Like Gertrude Stein, “I am writing for myself and strangers.” I am also writing with strangers and am being rewritten by them.

So, the initial confusion about blogging is pretty much gone and I continue this interactivity with greater confidence and considerable joy. Say, how interactive are you?

On This Day in 1942: Orson Welles Lures Fred Allen into the Sewers

Last night, watching BBC 4, I was in for a cinematic treat: Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947). Cinematographically stunning and compellingly told, it is not unlike Reed’s best-known film, The Third Man, particularly in its investigation of that most dangerous game, the manhunt. Both films are 20th-century updates of novels like Caleb Williams or Les Miserables, stories of pursuit that challenge readers to distinguish between what is right and what is just, between law and ethics. The backdrops are often dark and seedy—the slums, dumps, the sewers. Contrasted with the dwellings of the elite, they serve as reminders that the dregs of society are not commoners but discarded ideals.

Welles found himself trapped in the sewers in both Les Miserables and The Third Man; and both stories were adapted for radio, starring Welles. On this day, 18 October, in 1942, Welles made another descent into the muck of humanity, this time to have his revenge on Fred Allen, the radio wit who had mocked him once too often.

The confrontation between Hugo’s Javert and Jean Valjean, the clash between ethics and law, was reduced to a mismatch of lowbrow and highbrow art as played out by two quintessential middlebrow artists, radio comedian Fred Allen and Shadow graduate-turned-thespian Wunderkind Orson Welles. Could radio and literature be reconciled? Could the airwaves be a purveyor of high culture?

Presumably, Welles had come to the realization that he was “getting along in years” and that he could “no longer carry on alone.” In search of a co-star “with a flair for the buskin,” he turned to Allen and offered him the role of Javert in Les Miserables.

As it turns out, however, Welles was not prepared to share the stage. He had to remain in charge of every aspect of the production and could not bring himself to letting Allen utter even a single line. Flattery soon turned into humiliation, and Allen began to protest:

ALLEN. Now look, Orson, I don’t want to hog the whole thing. But in two acts all I’ve done so far is knock on a door and blow a whistle. Now, after all, I’m an actor, not a soundman. When do I get to read some lines? 

WELLES. The next scene is all yours, Fred. Your speech is the climax of the entire play.

ALLEN. Well now we’re getting some place. What’s next?

WELLES. In this final scene you trail me through the sewers of Paris. 

ALLEN. Oh, the sewers. 

WELLES. You finally corner me single-handed. There we stand, face to face. I have just a few words and then you speak.

ALLEN. I speak. Well, that sounds good. Let’s go.

(Music: heavy, then fades.) 

WELLES. Mon Doo! Alone in this sewer! Trapped like a rat who nightly crawls through this hideous muck of the city. The gloomy darkness, this narrow archway above me head, these two slimy corridor walls. (Hysteric laugh.) Oh, but hark! That sloshing through the muck. Javert! At last you’ve cornered me, Javert! Don’t talk, Javert! Before you seal my doom, I would speak for the last time. You will never take Jean Valjean alive, Javert. (Laughs.) The water in this sewer is rising, Javert. I am six feet nine. You, Javert, are five feet two. The water rises, Javert. There is no turning back. The water! Higher, higher. Now, Javert, you have Jean Valjean at your mercy. Pronounce my doom. Speak, Javert. Speak. 

ALLEN. (Gargles.)

Thus, the wit of Fred Allen, radio’s smartest satirist, is drowned in a display of misguided aspirations. As I put it in Etherized Victorians, the promise of radio as a purveyor of great literature is “exposed as so much hogwash.” US radio artists were often reduced to ridiculing that which neither sponsors nor network executives were willing to touch: so-called high art (including popular literature of the past that, like Hugo’s novel, had just enough patina to appear precious).

It was easier for producers and audiences alike to deride and dismiss as affected anything that might effectively challenge the status quo or the intellect. In the best games of pursuit, the lines between wrong and right become blurred; in the radio game, at its commercial best, the distinctions between what is wrong and right for the greater American public were always made with comforting clarity.

“. . . and a small herd of morons”: Fred Allen on Jerrybuilt Entertainment

This morning, The Springer Show had its UK debut on ITV1.  It is the beginning of a limited run of talkshows (if you can call them that) hosted by super-smug US schlockmeister Jerry Springer.  Even though it is recorded at the Granada studios in Manchester, one wonders in what ways this Mancunian version could possibly differ from the Chicago-based original—accents, hairstyles, and chav wear excepting.  Will locals recognize each other and compete over who is going to be trashiest? Sounds like John Waters’s Baltimore.  At least, it would be community service.

Springer recently derided UK television for being “ten years behind” stateside entertainment.  Might that be a compliment? Is it even an accurate assessment, given that many of the post-Springer reality formats—shows that make Jerry seem quaint—were developed in the UK?

No doubt the UK Springer season was greenlighted in response to the highly controversial but hugely successful London production of Jerry Springer—The Opera, which aired earlier this year on BBC1 to a storm of protests. Given the reawakening of the religious right in the West, Springer might still be able to push some holier-than-thou buttons, sanctimonious as his own curtain call commentaries are. Still, it all seems so old hat.

Some fifty years ago, US radio comedian and satirist Fred Allen (1894-1956) had this to say about so-called reality shows, which “became popular with the sponsors long before the listeners at home were conditioned to them,” programs that

appealed to the businessman because they were cheap. Reduced to essentials, a quiz show required one master of ceremonies, preferably with prominent teeth, two underpaid girls to do the research and supply the quiz questions and a small herd of morons, stampeded in the studio audience and rounded up at the microphone to compete for prizes. The prizes generally [. . .] were donated by their makers in return for a mention of their merchandise on the program.

The audience-participation show varied slightly. This pseudo-entertainment consisted of a covey of frowsy housewives, flushed at a neighborhood supermarket, and an assortment of tottering male extroverts gathered from park benches. The purpose of the program was to establish the senility of the participants in the process of playing an antiquated parlor game. These shows not only were inexpensive—some of them became very popular, which justified their existence in advertising and corporate circles.

The commercials have gotten longer, the attention span shorter, and the vocabulary smaller—but the “herd of morons” is forever flocking to the trough.  By the way, just how long do the commercial breaks have to get until we all refuse to chomp? Meanwhile, Fred Allen’s wit is alive and well worth our time.   Just listen to recordings of his popular comedy-variety series to discover how he, along with a small herd of writers that at one time included novelist Herman Wouk, tickled and uplifted the multitude with a verbal virtuosity rarely attempted, let alone achieved, by today’s television entertainers.