Town Hall Tonight with Fred Allen: Crisis on the Showboat (NBC, 1939)
The last-surviving installment of Fred Allen’s seminal Town Hall Tonight will just so happen to be the next-to-last show of the 1938-39 radio season. And a good thing, sort of, because Allen is about to be divested of the title that has enabled him to a comfortable presentation of his realistic hybrid between the better of vintage vaudeville and his own forward-looking satire.
You could permit me to bore you with the story, but I’d rather you got it from the master’s pen, as he would recall it for Treadmill to Oblivion:
The president of the new agency had been a famous quarterback in college football. An old wives’ tale often told around the watercooler in the office related that, after he had left college, whenever he met one of the other players who had been on the team with him he could never recognise the fellow until he had asked him to bend over. The president was going through life as a quarterback running the team. He also did some of this thinking at the quarterback’s working level. Only two people think lower than a quarterback—a sandhog on the job and a man looking out of a manhole.
When our Town Hall Tonight program was taken over by the new agency things began to happen—mostly to us. The college quarterback started sending turtle-necked memos which intimated that, as the mink said when it backed into the electric fan, “the fur is going to fly.” The show was going to receive “All of the agency’s thinking,” which meant that everything we were doing was going to be overhauled completely. We were told that the Town Hall idea was corny. The most popular show in radio at that time was Jack Benny’s. Jack had a group of pleasant people gathered around the microphone to engage in an informal half-hour of comedy, music, and song. The quarterback, being an advertising man, knew the importance of the word “copy.” His solution was that all we needed to improve our show was to copy the Benny program in style and structure.
I tried to explain the value of the Town Hall title and the appeal the locale had to small-town listeners. He said that the Jack Benny-type show was the trend. I argued that no two comedians could use the same methods. A comedian can only be funny doing and saying the things that fit his personality and feel right to him. The quarterback’s reply bluntly stated that Jack Benny’s show had the largest audience on any network. The size of our audience could be improved. My rejoinder asserted that no one person could please everybody. Heinz made 57 varieties of pickles yet he did not please all of the pickle lovers. Other people made pickles and survived in business. I claimed that radio was like the pickle business. Let Jack Benny go along selling his big dill. I would take the other side of the street and peddle my little gherkins. It was a futile as trying to convince a Russian delegate at the U.N. Nothing helped. The Town Hall title disappeared. It became just another group of actors gathered around a microphone in a radio studio. The colourful illusion had been completely stripped from the program.
Small wonder that Allen would pounce when, after a single season performing the bowdlerised former Town Hall Tonight, as The Fred Allen Show (also known as The Hour of Smiles), Texaco would take over the show’s sponsorship—under the rubric of Texaco Star Theater.
And there will be no small irony in that: During Town Hall Tonight‘s final season, Allen murders the newborn Texaco Star Theater in the ratings.
Texaco Star Theater is born as a variety show heavy on the dramatic elements: the high-priced talent includes John Barrymore, Una Merkel, Adolphe Menjou, and Charles Ruggles, not to mention stage directing legend Max Reinhardt, and Texaco is even given to bragging about the big bucks the oil company is drilling to pay for it–$18,000 worth of talent per show, big money in 1938.
All it does for Texaco is abject humiliation. With the clever idea of airing the show at 9:30pm Eastern time Wednesday nights, Texaco hopes the vehicle will clip off just enough of Allen’s audience in his final half hour and that of Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge in its first half hour. The only thing getting clipped this season, however, is Texaco Star Theater, because guess which two shows pull in with the two top ratings on the night at season’s end? In a season during which the average Hooper rating is 11.7, Kyser finishes as cock of the Wednesday night walk with a whopping 16.9, and Allen is nipping at his tail feathers with a 15.3, while Texaco Star Theater—following a move to a more conventional (for an hourlong show) time slot at 9:00pm Eastern, and with lightweight comedian Ken Murray now hosting the extravaganza—is lucky to finish the season with an even 10.
In a perfect example of “if you can’t beat him, join him,” Texaco pulls the plug on the show in June 1939 . . . and re-launches it again over a year later—with Fred Allen doing what he does best, now under the Texaco Star Theater rubric under which he will stay until his health forces him to his first radio retirement. Texaco allows him to restore as much of the Town Hall ambience as he can get away with, and he won’t really seem to mind too much changing the “March of Trivia” to “The Texaco News” or re-naming his Mighty Allen Art Players the Texaco Workshop Players.
Incidentally, you may care to know that both Allen and the sponsorship agency that strong-armed him into changing Town Hall Tonight aren’t quite correct about Jack Benny owning the largest audience in radio in 1938-39. Benny owns a very large audience, all right; on Sunday night, when the average Hooper is 16.4, The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny pulls down a phenomenal 27.7, the no-questions-asked top rating at 7:00pm Eastern time. But it’s only the second-largest audience of the night and the season: the ratings champion, for night and season, will be The Chase & Sanborn Hour with Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, airing an hour after Benny and also on NBC, drawing an off-the-charts 32.2.
Tonight: After pondering the summer playhouse action pending for Broadway actors, reviewing the no-talents who hope to find summertime work, polling the (alleged) audience on opportunity recognition, and an interview with a Movietone News cameraman, the Mighty Allen Art Players (Jack Smart, Minerva Pious, possibly Walter Tetley, possibly John Brown) unfurl a Mississippi River satire.
With Portland Hoffa. Announcer: Harry Von Zell. Music: Peter van Steeden Orchestra, the Merry Macs, Lyn Murray’s Town Hall Quartet. Writers: Fred Allen, Arnold Auerbach, Harry Turgend, Herman Wouk.
TOUCH THAT DIAL!
Amos ‘n’ Andy: A Budget for the Cab Company (NBC, 1929)—Freeman Gosden, Charles Correll.
The Great Gildersleeve: Father’s Day Chair (NBC, 1942)—Harold Peary, Lurene Tuttle, Watler Tetley, Lillian Randolph, Earle Ross, unidentified others.
The Couple Next Door: The Pipers Go On a Diet (CBS, 1960)—Peg Lynch, Alan Bunce.
The Green Hornet: Walk Out for Profit (Mutual, 1941)—Al Hodge, Raymond Toro, Lee Allman, Gil Shea, Jack Petruzzi.
The Adventures of Philip Marlowe: The Golden Cobra (CBS, 1950)—Gerald Mohr, Howard McNear, Lyn Allen, Michael Ann Barrett, Wilms Herbert, Bill Lally, Lou Krugman.