How Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa Fell in Love

Illustration of Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa on the cover of Radio Stars magazine in February 1935
Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa on the February 1935 Radio Stars magazine

The day of which I write was approximately five years ago. It was behind the scenes of The Passing Show, a fleshy, flashy piece of rhinestone entertainment on pre-Depression Broadway. It was one of those days on which stars have headaches, hoofers get runs in their stockings, and comedians look as full of joie de vivre as Egyptian mummies.

It was a day on which a tall young man called Fred Allen, despondently leaning against a backdrop, considered that life was pretty dull. Life -- what was it but a bunch of old gags to make over, let down the hems, and pin onto new political problems. And the dear public? What was the dear public but a bunch of people who sometimes laughed at gags but usually didn't. In short Allen was feeling what is colloquially known as "lousy." Very.

Now, in case you haven't recognized the principal of this merry piece, the Fred Allen already mentioned is the self same zany who cavorts Sunday-nightly in your loudspeakers for Linit and the Bath Club. And the hoofer who -- in my story -- is about to enter Monsieur Allen's life is none other than the dumb-cluckish young thing named Portland on the same program who claims residence in Schenectady and asks first primer questions with the guilelessness of Lorelei Lee.

This hoofer in The Passing Show had a run in her stocking, probably, but it didn't get her down. She had the sort of face, Allen noticed covertly, that never quite lost hope. Turned up nose, you know; amused blue eyes that held a quiet merriment. Though dressed like innumerable other hoofers, she shone as distinctively as the night's first star, as far as Allen was concerned.

Some newspaperman who knew her had written this line: "Portland Hoffa was a hoofer, and she held herself aloofer." That is to say, she didn't chew gum like cud-punishing bossy, say "gawd," or wear orchids every payday. To Allen, she was a miracle, for she yanked him straight out of his private chasm of despair and changed his opinion of the Younger Generation.

Twirling his false mustache, our boy friend decided to find out more about her. "Such a cute girl ought to get out before it gets her."

So what did Allen do about it? He married her and made her a stooge. His stooge. He made a hoofer into a stooge -- and what happened? But wait. Maybe you don't know what a hoofer is. Well, suh, the sons and daughters of vaudeville call all dancers "hoofers." And a stooge? That's the guy planted in the audience to heckle the comedian on stage. Sometimes he has a seat in the first row downstairs. Usually, he is in a box. Or he may be on the stage. No matter where he makes his headquarters, he "feeds" the dumb, oaf-like queries that give the comedian his chance to spring his laugh line. That's your stooge. Understand?

Hoffa became a stooge, but before she surrendered, believe you me, it took a deal of crafty Allen strategy.

That first day approximately five years ago when an uninvited impulse prodded Allen to learn more about the girl, he employed the method of his grease-painted profession. He wisecracked, he did. And lo! the first faint fires of romance were lighted.

"I'm a doctor's daughter," Hoffa advised him. "My father named me after the city where I was born. Out in Oregon, you know."

"I know," said Allen. ''You ought to be glad you weren't born in Terre Haute or Gila Bend or Hastings-on-the- Hudson."

"One of my sisters was called Lebanon and another Last One," said Hoffa.

"Good gracious."

"Dad thought she'd be the last one," Hoffa continued serenely, "but she wasn't. So he changed her name to Next-to-Last."

So they fell to talking. He told her he'd like to be a novelist, but he kept catching himself laughing up his sleeve and that didn't incubate the heart throbs demanded in literature. Said he wrote and sold vaudeville skits because it was more profitable to sell them than to have them stolen. Said that he'd been born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and started through life as a children's librarian. With that background, he had dared hit the trail in vaudeville, first as a bum juggler, then cashing in on his dry humor in mill towns through New England. He told her he hated dryads, farthingales, wimples, whifflletrees, pogo sticks, arch supporters, duennas, and house deteckatifs.

You can see how well they were getting on. Clicked from the beginning. Before Hoffa could put on the brakes, she got a look behind the comedian's eyes and saw that he was lonely and disillusioned and weary of looking at life through rose-colored footlights. But whether he was trying to be funny with her, or something, she couldn't quite decide. She thought not.

He and Hoffa got to meeting each other. Apparently just coincidentally. And Hoffa found out that even funny guys that looked like judges, could be awfully romantic. And Allen found out that little hoofers, even in the midst of a harum-scarum existence, and without benefit of a throne room, could be as queenly as anything. So presently Allen married the girl, and that huge, ingratiating bunch of solemnity and wit became "my husband" to Hoffa.

Allen hadn't thought of getting himself encumbered. But with the destinies of two to consider, he thought it out pretty deliberately. There was nothing left to do but to break her in as a stooge. He broke her in. That was at Lake Nipmuc, Massachusetts. The first time, she was cold and clammy with fright. He had to hold her hand, pat her on the shoulder, and promise to buy her a soda afterwards if she was a good girl and went through with it without any more jitters. Just when it was time to go on, the manager came backstage and said that there wasn't enough of an audience to bother.

It was better after that. He had a way of welcoming her on the stage. He said, "Anybody who looks at me now is crazy." She liked that. And the first thing anybody knew, she was the stooge supreme, piping out the right silly questions as if absolutely devoid of any sense.

Three years at that. Stooging up and down the back roads of vaudeville circuits. Working their way to the front. And finally getting a job on Broadway. It was a show called Polly, and Hoffa was so weary of acting the goof that she stayed home and read books while actor Allen went out and sang for his supper. And how Allen missed her. He begged her to come back. So she bravely took up the yoke of her stoogedom in the memorable First Little Show and Thee's a Crowd.

In the Little Show, Hoffa wore a pair of shorts and a satin blouse. One night she heard gales of laughter. She got quite cocky over the way she was getting the laughs. In fact, she was planning to call Allen's attention to it later in the dressing room. As she was about to jump into her dance routine, husband Allen placed firm hands about her waist and walked her off. Not until then did she discover that her velvet tights had split, and a white silk inner lining that looked like something else had stimulated all the laughter.

Working night after night on Broadway soon exhausted both of them. They decided to Get Away From It All. They decided to go to Europe, to the gaiety of gay Paree. They went. Somehow, it wasn't what they expected. Within a fortnight, they were back in the U.S.A., basking on the sun-drenched sands of Atlantic City. Home-folks, those Aliens. From that day on, they bought American.

In 1932, Allen brought his dry conclusive voice to radio. Hoffa, too. And suddenly life became for her a matter of being quiet while her husband worked. The old bugaboo of New Material stared them in the face, and threatened to separate them. Resignedly, Allen retired to his office and began to dictate to Hoffa's younger sister. With him, gags are a science, and he revamps such wheezes as used to give Caesar hysterics, and applies them to modem conditions. While he writes programs and magazine stories, Hoffa keeps quiet and works jigsaw puzzles. Sunday nights, she speaks her pretty piece, mentions Schenectady again, and heckles ol' Mister Allen. Allen's used to it by this time. No matter how it sounds, it's all put on. It's all just a gag. A gag of five years' standing. Actually, they're closer than this, and the love that brought them together and helped to conquer Broadway is still the talk of the Big Town's radio row.

And that is my little tale's happy ending. It's the only kind of ending possible. when the girl is a goil like Portland and the guy is a feller like Fred.

Hilda Cole in Radio Stars, May 1933