Friday, September 5, 2008

Middle of the Night Memories of Fred Allen

Frequent readers of this blog (you know who you both are) already know my nerdy little secret. The one show this bleary-eyed TV critic PVR's every night and watches the next day isn't Hole In The Wall or America's Got Cramps or whatever the hell else they're sticking us with this fall. It is a panel show from the '50s--What's My Line.
GSN offers it at 3 a.m., where black and white can still be seen overnight. It's easy enough to find, it's the one show on at that hour that is not an infomercial.

What's My Line was considered the classiest of the panel shows, predating even the long-running Canadian effort, Front Page Challenge, and lasting 17 seasons, from 1950 to 1967. Last night, GSN re-ran one of the saddest, most moving episodes of the entire series. The episode originally ran on Sunday, March 18, 1956. This was--believe it or not--even before I was born.
It was also the day after Fred Allen, the brilliant radio wit and beloved What's My Line panelist, died. The end came shortly after midnight, on St. Patrick's Day, as Allen had gone for a walk. He dropped dead of a heart attack on the streets of Manhattan. He was 61.
Allen was a major star in vaudeville and especially in radio but never really caught on in television, a medium he frequently derided. Marshall McLuhan might have deduced that Allen was too "hot" for the "cool" medium. His humor ran both hi and low brow, both literate and absurd, but the highs were pretty cynical and sharp for their day. You had to actually listen to Allen's barbs, which worked better on radio than on television.
His brilliant, spirited radio segment, Allen's Alley, introduced listeners to a street full of eccentric characters, including his wife, Portland Hoffa, blustery Senator Claghorn (the model from the Warner Bros. cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn) and several ethnic stereotypes of the day such as gossipy Mrs. Nussbaum. Check out this link to the OTR.Network Library where there are dozens of vintage Allen radio broadcasts to choose from.
Go straight to No. 57, the "King for a Day" sketch featuring Jack Benny. Even if you were not a regular Alley listener you knew Allen from his famous "feud" with Benny. The two comedians milked the bogus battle every chance they had, providing a model for every phony feud to come.
While scripted humor was Allen's forte, he had a sizzling and always ready wit. He came up with my favorite line about TV ever: "Imitation is the sincerest form of television."
He also blurted this still true classic:

Television is a triumph of equipment over people, and the minds that control it are so small that you could put them in the navel of a flea and still have enough room beside them for a network vice president's heart.

What is extraordinary about the What's My Line broadcast is that Allen's fellow panelists--Arlene Francis, Steve Allen (sitting in for Fred), Dorothy Killgallen and Bennett Cerf--along with moderator John Charles Daly, decided to carry on and do a regular show despite their obvious grief. That's how much they respected Allen: he was show business to them, and dammit, the show must go on. Check out this YouTube clip of Daly's opening remarks, followed by the panel's closing tributes to Allen:




The rest of the show held more than its share of '50s surprises. The very first guest was Montreal Canadiens' legend Jacques Plante, who wasn't even a mystery guest (the segment where the panel was blindfolded), that's just how obscure hockey (and Canada) was to these well-heeled New Yorkers. His occupation, of course, was goaltender. Plante didn't object to the panel mis-pronouncing his name (Plant"--Daly later congratulated him on his VEEzna trophy win) but he did mention he recorded seven shutouts that season, allowing only one goal in 25 other games--extraordinary totals. The Canadiens were in the first year of a five year Stanley Cup-winning run.
The next guest signed in as Mrs. Julius Lederer. Turned out to be a very young Ann Landers, the advice to the lovelorn columnist--as she was identified on the show. She gave her 50 bucks to the Heart fund in Allen's name.
The mystery guest that night was Cid Charisse, who was thanked by Daly for coming in even after she questioned if it would still be appropriate.
As I've mentioned here before, there's an extraordinary air of civility and dignity on these scratchy old black and white broadcasts, almost unimaginable in today's tacky Moment of Truth era. Allen's other oft-quoted (and usually mis-attributed) quip, that "Television is a medium because anything well done is rare," seems more true today than it was in 1956.

If you are curious to read more about Allen and What's My Line, Steve Beverly over at the mothballed site tvgameshows.net has a 10-part history that will satisfy even the nerdiest insomniac.
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