Sixty years ago, Fred Allen, a 52-year-old comic known for wry jokes, bow ties, and baggy eyes, made the cover of Time magazine. The accompanying article lauded Allen's radio work for its "angry big-city clank, a splashy neon idiom, and sort of 16-cylinder poetry." Intellectuals loved Allen, as did his peers in comedy. Radio rival Edgar Bergen acknowledged him as "the greatest living comedian." Some people would have given the nod to Jack Benny, and Allen might have agreed; the two had been friends for years and were professionally linked by a fake feud they waged on their respective radio shows. But for Allen even to have been in the running with the great Benny shows his high standing at the time.
Two years after his Time cover, however, Allen's show was off the air and his attempts to transfer his topical badinage to television were floundering. That failure--along with the eclipse of radio narratives and sketches, the forms in which he excelled--has left Allen's reputation in near eclipse. Undeservedly so, for he was one of the nation's cleverest entertainers for the better part of three decades.
Fred Allen (the stage name of Boston native John Florence Sullivan) was a product of radio's feeder medium, vaudeville, which had been diverse and flexible enough to accommodate international stars, including Sarah Bernhardt, alongside rank amateurs such as the one Allen described as "a middle-aged woman [who] used to hobble on the stage, leaning on crutches, and sing 'Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage.'" He was little more than an amateur himself when he made his professional debut, at the age of 18 in 1912, in Boston. He followed a team of Chinese acrobats on the bill. Over the next decade, Allen played the North American circuits and roamed as far as Australia, establishing himself as a comic juggler and ventriloquist with a routine that involved the gradual dismemberment of his dummy, Jake. He was admired among vaudevillians for writing his own lines rather than patronizing joke dealers or swiping other comics' stuff.
Allen devotes many pages of his posthumous 1956 autobiography, Much Ado About Me, to his vaudeville days and especially to the Dickensian characters with whom he trod the boards. Among them was Orville Stamm, the "Strongest Boy in the World," who played the fiddle with an enormous English bulldog dangling from his arm. "The bulldog," as Allen described it, "made graceful arcs in the air as Orville pizzicatoed and manipulated his bow." Vaudeville, Allen deadpanned, "asked only that you own an animal or an instrument, or have a minimum of talent or a maximum of nerve. With these dubious assets, vaudeville offered fame and riches. It was up to you."
Regularly broadcast radio shows first went on the air in 1920, and by 1927, 30 million Americans were tuned in. To fill the hours of the broadcasting day, networks and stations relied on material already known to be audience-pleasing, such as live or recorded music and routines performed by performers from Broadway and especially vaudeville. Allen was one of those. As Hollywood began grinding out talkies, advertising-supported radio--free once you'd made the initial investment in the appliance itself--was becoming habitual to mass audiences with shows like Amos 'n'...