By RORY LANCE
When I was very young, there was only one television set in the house. It was the centerpiece of our small living room on Hendrix Street in the East New York section of Brooklyn.
East New York was not only our home, but also that of three generations of extended family. On Sundays aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles, and assorted cousins would all descend upon my grandmother’s house a few blocks away. The adults would discuss the events of the day and the kids would play ball with a “Spaldeen" in the alleyway next to the house, or sit in front of my grandma’s television set watching a Yankee game or a rebroadcast of Mighty Joe Young or Gunga Din. My grandparents had been the very first members of the family to purchase a television set in the 1940s, and they would set up every chair in the house on Tuesday nights to welcome anyone who came by to watch Milton Berle.
Eventually, as we got older and the fights over what to watch became more intense, TV sets multiplied throughout the house. But there were certain shows that the whole family looked forward to watching together. One was CBS's Sunday night broadcast of What’s My Line?, on which celebrity panelists tried to guess a contestant's occupation by asking yes-or-no questions. The most popular segment of the show, the one that kept loyal viewers watching for more than twenty years, was the panelists' weekly attempt to identify a well-known mystery guest by asking their questions while blindfolded. It was great fun to watch famous people like Cary Grant or Eleanor Roosevelt try to disguise their voices to fool the panel. These were the Sunday evenings of my childhood: television, family, and Eleanor Roosevelt. And they were wonderful.
In the spring of 2016 I learned of a new cable channel, Buzzer TV, which broadcasts old television quiz shows, and I started watching. To my delight, on its schedule was What’s My Line? But these were not the episodes I remembered -- they were much older broadcasts from earlier in the program's run. The panel featured my familiar regulars: actress and radio personality Arlene Francis, syndicated columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, and publisher Bennett Cerf. In this earlier period, though, the fourth seat was occupied by a radio comedian named Fred Allen, of whom I knew very little. He'd had a famous mock feud with Jack Benny, that was pretty much it for me. But by the end of the first episode, I was a fan: Allen's dry style and off-the-cuff delivery were just fascinating.
Jack Benny, George Burns, Bob Hope, and many others were popular radio comedians who had successfully adapted to television in the early 1950s. Fred Allen may have been the most creative and influential of them all, but he never quite managed that transition. It wasn't for lack of trying, though he was publicly suspicious: “Television is a medium because anything well done is rare,” was his classic comment.
When his radio program was canceled in 1949 after seventeen years on the air, Allen and the networks struggled to find the proper vehicle for him. Because of his adept ability at ad-libbing and improvisation, they tried all sorts of formats: quiz shows, interview programs, anthologies. But television seemed incapable of presenting Fred Allen as vividly as had radio. What was it that radio had offered? Well, this vaudeville comedian was permitted to operate a laboratory to experiment with comedy -- and those experiments would bear fruit for decades to come.
By 1932, when Allen made his first major appearance on radio, he was already an established vaudeville headliner who had successfully graduated to the Broadway musical stage. Radio was a new medium still trying to find its voice, and many vaudeville stars simply imported their stage routines. Ed Wynn, one of the earliest celebrated radio comics, would actually wear his trademark “Perfect Fool” costume and makeup -- goggle glasses and silly hat -- for the benefit of the ninety or so people in the studio audience, even though tens of thousands of listeners would never see it. By contrast, Fred Allen wanted to develop comic techniques that were tailor made for this new world of sound and imagination.
To appreciate his contribution, one need look no further than what makes us laugh on TV today. There are only three main formats used in television comedy, and Fred Allen developed them all. One, satiric reporting of current events. Two, celebrity guest interviews. And three, situation sketches. No matter what television comedy you watch, you are laughing at some form of these three comic techniques -- introduced, developed, and perfected by Fred Allen.
But by the early 1950s, when most of his colleagues were turning in their radio microphones for television cameras, Fred Allen was without a regular network show. It wasn’t until Steve Allen left the fourth panelist’s chair of What’s My Line? when he was offered The Tonight Show that an opportunity opened up for Allen to finally find his television niche. His quick wit and satiric observations were a welcome addition to the sophisticated, erudite atmosphere of the Sunday night favorite.
So there I was, watching these old Fred Allen What’s My Line? episodes for the very first time and finding a new hero. His compulsion to find a joke in every situation was mesmerizing. Once his wife Portland was the mystery guest: when her identity was finally revealed to Allen’s surprise, his response was, “You can’t trust anybody.” When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were in the mystery slot and Rodgers recalled working with Allen thirty years before in a 1920s musical revue, he replied, “I can assure you, I was much funnier then than I am now.”
The Allen era was a two-year run, from 1954 to 1956 -- and then, without any warning, I was confronted with the final episode. It began with an uncharacteristic closeup and speech by host John Daly, announcing to the viewing audience that Fred Allen had passed away the night before the broadcast. Portland Allen had insisted that the show go on as planned; that’s what Fred would have wanted. So unfolded the most somber half-hour I've ever seen on television. At the end, each panelist (including Steve Allen, who had come in at the last minute to help out his old friends) was given a moment to honor a man whose career mirrored the development of show business throughout the first half of the Twentieth Century.
Rory Lance is the stage name of Player Rory Schwartz. He is an accomplished character actor on both the musical and dramatic stages and in numerous film and television projects. He has also spent much of his career teaching and introducing young people to the joys and challenges of the theatre. This piece was adapted from his book My Year In Vaudeville.