Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Fred Allen, vaudeville and vanished fame

In his day Fred Allen was probably one of the most famous people in America. He had a popular radio program, Allen’s Alley, and millions of people listened to him. His nasally voice was as familiar as any movie star or U.S. president. Nowadays I’d be safe in betting that if asked, very few people would know who Fred Allen was, or what he did to make him famous.

It’s the way of fame: Each generation builds on the talents of the last, developing its own stars and celebrities. Short attention spans cause us to forget the past. So it is with Fred Allen, apparently. He died in 1956. His autobiography, Much Ado About Me, was published posthumously. This chapter, excerpted from the book for the November 12, 1956 issue of Life magazine, is about vaudeville, by 1956 nearly as vanished in public consciousness as Allen is now. It was during those years, touring with vaudeville troupes from city to city that Allen honed his act, and from whose ranks many of the most popular entertainers of the 20th Century came. 

Some of Fred Allen’s radio shows can be heard on the Internet Archive.

Copyright © 1956, 2013 Time-Life

In 1956 comedian Phil Silvers was popular as Sgt. Ernie Bilko on the TV sitcom, You’ll Never Get Rich, aka The Phil Silvers Show. These ads for Camel cigarettes, which came out the same year, use Silvers and the cast to sell smokes. Silvers, and actor Maurice Gosfield, who played fat, dumb Private Duane Doberman, were as famous as anyone in America at the time.

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