A portrait of the great radio comic follows his rise to popularity from vaudeville–where he appeared as “World’s Worst Juggler”–to the Broadway stage, and on to “Town Hall Tonight”–his wildly popular radio show.
For two decades Fred Allen, “the man with the flat voice,” was America’s most brilliant radio humorist, and for a time his program was the most popular in the country. This appreciative biography, enlivened by hundreds of quotations from Allen’s books, journals, letters, scrapbooks, and scripts, follows the career of Boston-born John Florence Sullivan (1894-1956) from his early days as a vaudeville juggler to his subsequent appearances as a Broadway comedian, culminating in his 25 years of national prominence. Boston Globe art and book critic Taylor ( Saranac ) discusses Allen’s meticulous working methods, his longstanding “feud” with Jack Benny, his happy marriage and working relationship with Portland Hoffa, Allen’s wife of 27 years, and the characters he used to interview in Allen’s Alley : Ajax Cassidy, Sen. Beauregard Claghorn, Titus Moody, Mrs. Pansy Nussbaum and Falstaff Openshaw. Allen’s cleverness and wit, his preeminence as a master of pace and timing, acknowledged and proclaimed by the likes of James Thurber and Groucho Marx, are fully represented in this delightful, distinguished biography.
Unlike Jack Benny, his long-time contemporary, Fred Allen is perhaps almost forgotten today, except for those who grew up listening to the radio for an evening’s entertainment. He was, nevertheless, one of the leading radio comedians of the 1930s and 1940s. This book covers Allen’s roots in Boston, his days of vaudeville and Broadway revues, and his coast-to-coast success on radio. Television was his downfall, however, and nearly overnight his type of humor, shrewd and sardonic, became passe. This book is very much worth reading, but its excerpts from radio scripts really do little more than suggest what it was that made Allen so funny. Listening to tapes of Allen’s actual broadcasts would give a better sense of his remarkable style.
~ From Wikipedia~
John Florence Sullivan (May 31, 1894 – March 17, 1956), known professionally as Fred Allen, was an American comedian. His absurdist, topically pointed radio program The Fred Allen Show (1932–1949) made him one of the most popular and forward-looking humorists in the Golden Age of American radio.
His best-remembered gag was his long-running mock feud with friend and fellow comedian Jack Benny, but it was only part of his appeal; radio historian John Dunning (in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio) wrote that Allen was radio’s most admired comedian and most frequently censored. A master ad libber, Allen often tangled with his network’s executives (and often barbed them on the air over the battles) while developing routines whose style and substance influenced fellow comic talents, including Groucho Marx, Stan Freberg, Henry Morgan and Johnny Carson; his avowed fans also included President Franklin D. Roosevelt and novelists William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Herman Wouk (who began his career writing for Allen).
Wenceslao Moreno, who started his career as an unsuccessful bullfighter in Spain and then became Senor Wences, a gifted ventriloquist who was able to transform his thumb and forefinger into a convincing dummy that endeared itself to millions of American television viewers in the 1950’s and 60’s, died yesterday, his 103d birthday, at his home in Manhattan.
He and his wife, Natalie, had lived on Manhattan’s West Side for more than 60 years. They also lived in Salamanca, Spain, Senor Wences‘s hometown.
In a career that lasted more than eight decades, Senor Wences repeatedly proved himself a stellar part of the tradition that included Edgar Bergen, Paul Winchell and other popular ventriloquists who delighted audiences from the 1920’s well into the television age.
What set Senor Wences apart from everyone else was that his main character was not carved out of wood, as were Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy and Mr. Winchell’s Jerry Mahoney. Johnny, Senor Wences’s dummy, was naturally formed by one hand. He painted lips on his thumb, draped a ridiculous orange wig across his fist, stuck eyes on the side of his hand, just below the wig, and let the hint of a body dangle below. As soon as he began his act, this unlikely creation came to life as Johnny, a lovable, impertinent little boy, not unlike the boy Senor Wences had been.
It was shortly after the turn of the century in Spain that Wenceslao Moreno found that he could imitate others and throw his voice. In school, when one of his classmates was absent, he would answer for him, and the teacher would mark the missing student present. In those days, he had a friend named Paulo, who lived next door. The friend’s mother would appear at an upstairs window and call for her boy to come home.
”No, Mama,” a voice sounding like Paulo would say. ”I refuse to come into the house.” When the mother demanded that her son obey, the voice would continue in defiance: ”Mama, you attend to your own business, and I will attend to mine.”
Poor Paulo got the dickens on several occasions until it was discovered that he had not been the culprit. It was Wenceslao Moreno.
Other times he successfully imitated the voice of the mailman, telling the tenants of his apartment house that the mail was there and ready for distribution. (There were no mailboxes.) All of the tenants would dutifully come down the stairs and assemble at the front door, only to find that no mailman was there. In one instance, an angry resident dumped a pail of water on the real mailman’s head to teach him not to trifle with the residents of that building.
The little sprite of a voice and impish personality emerged to a widespread audience decades later, in the United States in 1948, when Senor Wences made his television debut and introduced Johnny to virtually the nation’s entire television audience, which assembled on Tuesday nights to watch Milton Berle‘s variety hour.
Shortly thereafter he made the first of 48 appearances on Ed Sullivan’s show. Neither Mr. Sullivan nor his audience ever tired of Senor Wences.
Senor Wences’s Johnny was not a rake or a wise guy, like Charlie McCarthy. He was a disembodied insurrectionist whose single-minded purpose was to nettle Senor Wences in little ways, as small boys are wont to do. And so, if Senor Wences announced to his audience that a certain trick was going to be ”very difficult,” Johnny’s little voice would insist that it was ”easy.” If Senor Wences gave Johnny a dirty look, Johnny would add, ”Difficult for you, easy for me.”
In the conversations that ensued, Johnny would seem to be a completely separate being from Senor Wences, quite capable of saying anything. There were no jokes, per se. Just snippets of silly but strangely eloquent conversation. And the exchanges were always polite, gentle; segments ended with kisses between Johnny and Senor Wences.
Johnny was not the only star Senor Wences developed. The other was Pedro, a talking head in a covered box. Pedro was grouchy, imperious, raspy. He almost did not become part of the act. Originally, Pedro had a body that was crushed in a train wreck near Chicago. Senor Wences, salvaging the head, put it in a box. At first, those who booked the act resisted; they did not think people would relate to a head in a box. Senor Wences prevailed, and Pedro proved almost as big a hit as Johnny.
Whatever happened in the act, whatever pandemonium there might be, Senor Wences would always open the box and say to Pedro, ”You all right?” Pedro would always respond, ”S’all right,” to which Senor Wences would say, ”Very good.” If Senor Wences presumed too much and opened the box when Pedro preferred privacy, Pedro would demand, ”Shut the door!”
When Pedro and Johnny were simultaneously in action, it seemed a wonder that Senor Wences could get through his shows in full control. He had a palpable Spanish accent, and there were times when some found it difficult to understand him. The laughs came just the same; his timing and the gentleness of his message were such that he transcended the bounds of language.
Senor Wences, who was also a formidable juggler, started out as a young torero in local bull rings near Salamanca. After several bulls had got the best of him, he turned to ventriloquism and juggling. By the 1920’s his renown in both fields was such that he was in demand in Europe and Latin America. He first came to New York in 1935, performing at the Club Chico in Greenwich Village.
But it was not until he appeared on television that he became truly famous. In addition to his appearances on the Berle and Sullivan shows, Senor Wences also appeared with Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Perry Como and Jack Benny. He was seen in a specialty act in the 1947 movie ”Mother Wore Tights,” starring Betty Grable and Dan Dailey. In 1963, he toured with Danny Kaye’s International Revue.
In 1996, Senor Wences received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Comedy Hall of Fame for his devotion ”to entertaining generations of audiences and bringing countless hours of joy and happiness to millions throughout the world.” He was also honored by New York City, which erected a blue street sign alongside the Ed Sullivan Theater designating a block of West 54th Street from Eighth Avenue to Broadway as Senor Wences Way.
He remained vigorous well past his prime and was still working in 1986 when he toured with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller in ”Sugar Babies.” His wife, who is his only survivor, said he got that job because she was able to convince the producers that he was a mere 75 years old, 15 years younger than he was.
(Originally published 1999)
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Senor Wences Way, NYC
In the 1950’s Wences did several attempts to make TV commercials. A few for Parkay Margarine and a few for Prince Spaghetti.
Here are videos from those days.
Ed Sullivan Show –
ED SULLIVAN SHOW – Senor Wences Bio and show appearance Information. Go Here
Having photographed many performers over the last 30+ years I can truly say that ‘Senor Wences’ was one of my all time favorite acts!
I was fortunate to have seen Senor Wences and Francis Brunn share a bill at NY’s “Chateau Madrid” club. It was a delight!
“Before that I did a piece in New York entitled “Father was a Peculiar Man“. The title was taken from vaudeville, which interests me a great deal. I took certain 19th century psychological realism and mixed it with vaudeville and American music hall. I’m influenced by reading about vaudeville, and also by television performers of the 1950’s, who were vaudevillians: Jack Benny, Art Carney, Jackie Gleason. My hero is Buster Keaton, one of the great American artists. In fact, he is a character in “Father Was a Peculiar Man”. The point of departure for Father is The Brothers Karamazov; it deals with the family as a degenerating unit. We were dealing with things I’m obsessed with, like the killing of authority, in several different stages. The trajectory of the piece started with the killing of father, patricide in the family, Karamazov; then, killing of the king, the president, the assisination of J.F.K,; the the killing of God, in the crucifixion. In the end there was a redemptive act, when after the crucifixion the audience and the actors sang “Dream a Little Dream” together. There were 60 performers, an entire marching band and it took place in 4 street blocks of the meat packing district in New York. It is an area of cobblestone streets, abandoned storefronts and meat warehouses; it is very dark and it’s all about what is happening behind closed doors in the psychic underbelly of the streets. The piece took place in some abandoned slaughter houses where you could still see the dry brown ask which remained from the blood that had been spilled there. That’s where the vision of heaven and hell was created. The characters were J.F. Kennedy, Jackie O., Buster Keaton, Karamazov.”
“The original impulse behind ‘The Hip Hop Waltz of Eurydice” was my gut reaction to systematic repression and erosion of freedom taking place around me. Instead of feeling helpless about it I decided to create a piece. I think I am on a multi-track; I never think mono. Art today needs to have a holistic nature; it’s not the time for atomistic, Newtonian approach to art. I don’t believe in creating work that is too easily digestible. It’s important to create work that resonates in every aspect of one’s personal and universal self. That impulse grew into different aspects of the piece. “Hip Hop” summarizes what my struggle has been with my work in the last eight years or so. There are certain themes, certain preoccupations, certain obsessions, dreams, nightmares that I’ve had continuously which somehow were tied together in this piece, but not necessarily resolved.
“A spiritual pidgeonholing takes place in this culture; it is a feeling of my God as opposed to your God. Spiritual entrapment is shown in the spear shaking of morality in the name of decency. What is decent is to care about people, not to thumbtack them on the wall and say this is this and that is that.”
Reza Abdoh (1963-1995) was an Iranian-born American director and playwright known for his large-scale, experimental theatrical productions. A prolific artist even in his short, creative life, Abdoh died of AIDS in 1995 at the age of 32, having created an impressive body of stage spectacles known for their sensory overload, ferocious energy and hallucinatory dreamscapes. With his company Dar A Luz, formed in 1991, Abdoh created plays that have made a major impact on experimental theatre worldwide.
Adam Soch is making a documentary film about Reza’s work. He has been documenting Reza’s work for 30 years and needs your support.