The Great Fred Allen
When it came to popular entertainment in the 20th century, Fred Allen did it all, from Vaudeville to radio to movies to television. A Boston-area native, Fred rode his razor-sharp wit to the top of his profession. The following comes from Chapter 7 of Much Ado About Me, (published in 1952) which deals extensively on Scollay Square.
I was leaving the world of the Colonial Piano Company and the public library for the actor's world and, in Boston, the actor's world was Scollay Square. Scollay Square was named for William Scollay, a Scotsman who once owned a building there. When a sight-seer who is touring Boston on foot today consults his guidebook, he finds that he has to walk down Tremont Street and pass King's Chapel and the Old Granary Burial Ground to find Scollay Square. If it is night and the sight-seer enters the gloomy and forgotten plaza, he may feel that he has stumbled upon yet another burial ground not listed in his guidebook.
Scollay Square at night is a shabby silhouette bounded on the south by a traffic light; on the north by slowly moving vagrants on their way to, or from, the grubby barrooms and flophouses concealed deeper in the shadows; on the east by a tattooing parlor, an abandoned subway station, and a neon-spattered night club; and on the west, the square is bounded by a large store containing a variety of slot machines, a saloon exuding an aroma of sauerkraut and steam, and a large combination motion-picture and office building, whose denizens have long since fled, and whose entrances are now concealed by heavy wooden planks nailed securely from wall to wall.
Scollay Square today is a burial ground which the ghosts of its former inhabitants are ashamed to haunt.
In I9I2, Scollay Square was Boston's Tenderloin. It was a diverging point for streetcars, a business and shopping center, a few steps away were Adams Square, Dock Square, the Faneuil Hall and Quincy markets, and State Street--the financial center of Boston. Several famous eating places thrived on nearby Brattle Street; the popular hotels--the Quincy House, Young's Hotel, the Crawford House, and the American House--were within easy reach; and for good measure the square boasted a number of theaters and amusement centers to entertain the throngs who came there on business or pleasure. If the Boston of those days was as proper and conservative as the high-button shoe, the average man's answer to conservatism was Scollay Square. Scollay Square was the hot foot applied to the high-button shoe.
High among the amusement attractions within the square area were the theaters. There were the Beacon and the Palace, which featured smalltime vaudeville; the Comique and the Star, with illustrated songs and motion pictures; the Old Howard, which presented traveling burlesque shows and vaudeville; and the Bowdoin Square Theatre, which had its own stock company. There were also two museums: Walker's Nickelodeon and Austin and Stone's. Austin and Stone's dime museum, at the corner of Howard Street, had by then been a landmark for thirty years. This dime museum, made famous by P. T. Barnum, gave more for your money than any form of entertainment ever devised by man. Following Barnum's success with his New York museum, similar shows opened in other cities, exhibiting freaks and curiosities, both real and phony, plus varied vaudeville features, and always advertising their "attractions" in the lurid lingo of the circus. Of all these newer museums, Austin and Stone's was the best known.
Presiding over the museum's activities was the famous lecturer Professor Hutchings. The Professor's mouth was an adjective hutch, and his vocabulary was extensive and impressive. The Professor was loath to use one word if eight or nine would do. As a fair sample of Professor Hutchings's rhetoric, here is his introduction of a mediocre contortionist: "Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to observe the gyrations and genuflexions of the muscles of this peerless athlete as he is about to perform an almost impossible feat! Marvelous! Marvelous!" The Professor always climaxed his verbosities by mumbling, "Marvelous! Marvelous!" as an afterthought.
In opening the museum show, the Professor moved from platform to platform, introducing the freak attractions: "Chang, the Chinese Giant, direct from Barnum's New York museum, and engaged at seven hundred dollars a week; Miss Eva Eversole, the Armless Wonder, who, though born without arms, possesses such a sweet and cheerful disposition as to endear her to all; Mile. Airline, the Human Match, who contains so much vital fire that she can light a gas jet by touching it with only the tips of her fingers; Peggy, a sow imported from Ireland, who on the high seas gave birth to a litter of fourteen little pigs." Professor Hutchings garnished the introduction of each freak attraction with equal flights of oratory.
The leading freaks of the day appeared at Austin and Stone's. There was Miss Corbin, billed as the four-legged girl born with four perfectly formed legs. Her family, being well-to-do, refused all offers to place her on exhibition, but when she reached the age of 17, she developed an inordinate desire to travel, so to humor her she was allowed to appear in several important cities." Riley, the Man-Fish, ". .. who eats, drinks, reads, and smokes under water." Alistair McWhilkie, the "Man with the Iq-foot beard." Tom Thumb, the first famous midget. Madam Myers, the Bearded Lady; Jo-Jo, the Dog-Faced Boy; J. W. Coffee, the Skeleton Dude, "who weighs 55 pounds"; Zip, the What-Is-It~; Eko and Iko, two albino Negroes who called themselves the "Men from Mars"; Howard, the Lobster Boy, "whose both hands and feet are lobster claws."
Other widely advertised features were Miss Grace Courtland, the Witch of Wall Street, ". .. who foretold coming events with startling accuracy" and "was consulted constantly by the leading financiers of the country"; Hercules, the Steam Man, "... a mechanical figure pronounced and indorsed by a critical press and public as the wonder of the century: seven feet ten inches in height, and containing the entire motive power within his own mechanized body"; Professor Smith and His Trained Goat, "... the animal who performs many unusual tricks, and who has been taught to talk and carry on an intelligent conversation with his trainer"; the Fat Ladies' Convention, "... an assemblage of fat ladies weighing from 432 to 806 pounds"; and the World's Champion Lady Sprinters. The Professor presented them all: he once boasted, "No subject on which I am called to speak is ever slighted, and if a moral lesson or a religious precept can be drawn from it, the opportunity is never allowed to pass unheeded. My constant aim is to elevate and instruct humanity."
Humanity kept the Professor so busy that he had no time to concern himself with the future of some of his freaks. The "Ossified Man," whose condition, according to Professor Hutchings, ". .. was caused by an overdeveloped case of arthritis and would eventually cause him one day to become his own tombstone," was found years later in the poorhouse at Calais, Maine. A promoter salvaged the solidified attraction and made a deal to send the poorhouse six dollars a week in return for permission to put the Ossified Man back on exhibition. The promoter displayed the Ossified Man in empty stores throughout New England. The Ossified Man always drove a hard bargain, but it never seemed to help him financially.
When, with his final mumblings of "Marvelous! Marvelous!" the Professor completed his freak lecture, he moved over to the wild-animal cages to extol the virtues of each individual beast or reptile on display. After this, the Professor stepped into the theater to announce the opening of "the grand variety entertainment." Many stars-to-be strutted the boards of this little vaudeville theater. Sam Bernard appeared there in "a comedy sketch." An old program lists the "Most Refined Song and Dance Team Before the Public, Weber and Fields, in their original song'Success to the Shamrock,' Introducing Many Other Songs and Dances, Dancing a Clog, and Tearing a Tidy Out of an Ordinary Newspaper."
At the close of "the grand variety entertainment," the Austin and Stone's patron might pause to join the crowd in the Curie Hall to watch some persistent checkers addict who was trying to beat "Adjeeb," the East Indian automaton checker player who, for ten cents, met all comers. A rumor, probably started by Professor Hutchings, persisted that "Adjeeb" had been beaten only once, and then by a well-known citizen of Boston. The identity of the well-known Bostonian was never disclosed, nor was that of the expert who manipulated the checker-playing robot.
Austin and Stone's eventually succumbed to progress; indeed, the museum was in extremis when I started frequenting its vicinity in IgIt. But Austin and Stone's had been the seed that enabled Scollay Square to flower. In passing, I want to pay my respects to the memories of Professor Hutchings, Adjeeb -- and the colorful, cheerful dime museum that brought pleasure to several generations of Bostonians.
Across on Hanover Street was Walker's Nickelodeon. The Nickelodeon was more of a penny arcade and shooting gallery. One attraction always seemed to be there. He was Sam Johnson, who ate glass and poison, then drank two buckets of water which he held down for a short time and then expelled. While admission to Austin and Stone's was ten cents, with ten cents extra to see "the grand variety entertainment," the Nickelodeon charged five cents admission and ten cents extra for the Big Girl Show. The Big Girl Show consisted of six misshapen females singing off key and executing dance routines completely devoid of skill or rhythm. If sex had been known in Boston at this time, these girls would have set sex back two hundred years. Terpsichore was defiled on the hour on an upstairs stage that looked like the interior of a packing case; a roll curtain in front mercifully concealed the stage and its desecrators from view. As the Big Girl Show started and the principals romped onto the stage, the last girl on the right pulled up the roll curtain and tied it off; when the show was over the same girl lowered the curtain. For manipulating the curtain the girl received two dollars extra each week.
With the passing of Austin and Stone's the most popular amusement emporium in Scollay Square became the Old Howard. The Old Howard, first known as the Howard Athenaeum, occupied the site of the Millerite Tabernacle. In I845, the Adventists had assembled in white ascension robes on Howard Street to be ready for the end of the world. By I9I2, the Adventists in ascension robes worrying about the end of the world had given way to burlesque-show chorus girls wearing short dresses and worrying about making both ends meet. Howard Street was the smalltime actor's Broadway. The Old Howard dominated the street and every week presented a new burlesque show. This show went on in two acts; in be-tween the acts there was a program of three acts of vaudeville.
The Old Howard's slogan was "Something doing from I P.M. to IIP.M. Between five and eight when the burlesque performers went out to dinner, the vaudeville acts and an old movie carried on. The burlesque shows of that era were clean and funny; the smut and the strip tease came later. All of the great burlesque stars appeared here, as did boxing champions, six-day bicycle riders, and other sports celebrities. The Old Howard's clientele was predominantly stag, and the theater was a popular rendezvous for sailors. The Charlestown Navy Yard was but an anchor's throw across the river from Howard Street, and sailors returning from long cruises invariably rushed to the Old Howard to check on the current models of female pulchritude and to see if any improvements had been made during their absence.
Gallery admission to the Old Howard was ten cents, and order was preserved in the gallery by a burly special policeman carrying a billy club. Before the burlesque show started, the officer appeared in the first row of the gallery and announced loudly, "Hats off! And no smoking! Keep your feet off the rails!" To convince the galleryites of his sincerity the officer smote the iron gallery rail with his billy. Metallic reverberations ensued, and for minutes no galleryite could hear a thing.
Outside the Old Howard, there were many places to eat and things to do. On one corner of the alley there was a fixture named Martin. The years and the elements had worn away his first name: he was just Martin. Martin was "the Hot Dog Man"; he stood by a small steaming copper-colored boiler on the sidewalk, dealing out succulent masterpieces to famished epicures for five cents.
Jack's Cafe was across the alley on Howard Street. A fewdoors down was Higgins's Famous Oyster House. The Higgins enterprise consisted of five small buildings joined together, merging into a hotel, a bar, the CafC Oriental Room, and the famous glassed-in Palm Garden. The oysters must have had something to do with the hotel's success. There were thirtyfive rooms in the hotel, and many days five hundred were rented. Bellboys at the Higgins averaged fifty dollars a day. The Higgins slogan was "Your grandfather dined here." The slogan didn't mention what else your grandfather might have done there.
Diagonally across from Higgins's on Howard Street was the William Tell Hotel, an actors' hotel. At the William Tell, the rates were five dollars a week, room and board. A full course dinner, for those who were not guests, was seventy five cents. On the corner under the hotel, facing Howard Street, was Hamm's Periodical Store. Mr. Hamm was very popular with actors, and depended on them for most of his business. Mr. Hamm had one trait that endeared him to the acting fraternity: Mr. Hamm extended credit. If times were bad, any actor known to Mr. Hamm could get cigarettes Sweet Caporals, Meccas, Piedmonts, Turkish Trophies -- or anything in the periodical or candy line on the cuff. Hamm's became a hangout for actors; under the street light in front of the store singers and dancers congregated late every night, the singers to form barbershop quartets, the dancers to swap steps or to try to outdo each other dancing. At the side of Hamm's, on Somerset Street, an old colored gentleman stood every night, bending over a large basket from which he sold fried chicken, pigs' feet, and soft-shell crabs.
The Rexford, as rendered in a promotional postcard
At the end of Howard Street, on Bulfinch Street, stood the Rexford Hotel. This was the most famous of Boston's actors' hotels. The girls with the touring burlesque shows always stopped at the Rexford. This inspired most of the single predatory male actors who were appearing in Boston for the week to make the Rexford their home. Also, many of the small-time actors playing in and around Boston for a number of weeks made the Rexford their headquarters. At night the lobby was a madhouse: comedians laughing and telling stories, dancers trying out routines, owners of animal acts with their pets with them, actors sitting in groups panning better actors, criticizing bookers and managers, or bragging about their acts and the number of bows they had taken that night at the theaters where they had worked. Upstairs in the hotel rooms the actors seemed to be awake all night. Rooms were lit at four or five o'clock in the morning. Saxophone, corner, or xylophone solos or ensembles could be heard blocks away. If a xylophone player had a small room, he would keep his door open and leave an octave or two of his xylophone out in the hall. If you were a single man, it was not unusual to have a lady knock at your door at 4 A.M. and ask you for a needle and thread. Everything went at the Rexford. The Rexford was responsible for that much-abused hotel joke: "They ring a bell at 3 A.M., and everybody has to go back to his own room."
Actors' rooming houses were plentiful on Bulfinch Street. After midnight, if you heard a subdued whistle, you knew it wasn't a bobwhite with insomnia in the neighborhood. The whistle was the mating call of an actor. If you were nosy and peeked around the corner of Bulfinch Street, you saw the actor standing in front of a darkened rooming house. After a few muffled whistles, a room above lit up, a window opened silently, and a girl's head appeared. Following a muted exchange, the girl tossed something out the window; a metallic clink was heard as it struck the sidewalk. The girl's head disappeared, the window closed quietly, the actor picked up the key from the sidewalk, opened the door of the rooming house, looked around furtively, and stepped inside.
The firehouse on Bulfinch Street separated the Rexford from another famous establishment -- the Revere House. The Revere House lowered its big wide stone steps like a great portcullis into Bowdoin Square. It was a venerable inn whose hospitality had been sampled by Boston's dignitaries for many years. As the entire neighborhood deteriorated, the Revere House kept abreast of the trend, but although the visiting dignitaries began to stop at the newer hotels uptown, the Revere House's reputation for good food kept the hotel's
dining room crowded until the end.
The Grotto, too, was very popular. Boston had a law that no lady without an escort could enter a cafC where liquor was sold. When a girl was unescorted, but wanted to have access to the Grotto for reasons that were rather obvious, she walked around to Howard Street, stopped in front of Hamm's, and asked one of the actors on the corner to accompany her into the hotel. Once inside, the actor and the girl sat at a table and ordered two beers. When the beers had arrived and the giri had paid the waiter, she excused herself and disappeared. The actor sat at the table and finished his beer; then he left the Grotto and returned to his place in front of Hamm's.
The actor construed this action as one which was done as a favor to another performer and which was also a chivalrous gesture. On nights that actors were not available, the girl stopped any single male in sight and offered to pay him to escort her into the Grotto. The escort fee, paid when the girl was safely inside and seated at a table, was fifty cents. Some of these girls took their work seriously. They often paid the office boy at the Keith booking office a few dollars to learn the names of the big-spending actors who were booked at the Keith Theatre for future weeks. Howard Street had other attractions for the actor.
The Daisy Lunch, next to the Old Howard, was popular. The Daisy diner could get up slowly off his stool after consuming beans, frankfurters, bread and butter, apple pie and ice cream, all washed down with a large mug of hot coffee, and settle his obligation for twenty-five cents. If the waitress was pretty and the diner was in a generous mood, he might throw her a nickel tip. A little alehouse, next to Hamm's, was a gathering place for some of the older performers, who liked to sip their ale, puff at their pipes, and discuss their yesterdays.
The Bucket of Blood was a poolroom down in a cellar under Higgins's; it was in this sunken billiard emporium that the betting fraternity consorted. The Howard Street habituates soon became acquainted with all the coast defenders, the smalltime actors who lived in rooming houses nearby. As they walked down Howard Street on their way to the Daisy Lunch or to the streetcar, to leave for some suburban theater, they formed a parade of unique characters. There was Dancing Bandy, who featured his famous Bandy Walks: during his final dancing number Bandy walked in step like a fat man, a minister, a Jewish pushcart salesman, an effeminate male, a Civil War veteran and so on. There were Malumby and Musette, an Englishman and his wife who impersonated costermongers, wearing suits and dresses covered with pearl buttons, and singing Cockney songs. There was Hindu Sam, the fire-eater, and his famous Hindu Basket Trick. Hindu Sam placed his small son in a small wicker basket and, after closing the top and chanting a few incantations, proceeded to thrust long swords through the basket from every possible angle without impaling the boy. Sam claimed that his Hindu powers enabled him to protect his small son from harm. Sam's Hindu powers, however, could not stop his small son from growing. When the boy became too large to fit into the basket, Hindu Sam's theatrical career came to an abrupt end.
Also in the procession would be the Minstrel Maids, featuring Cassie French. Cassie had an enormous bust. With her short neck and protruding bosom, Cassie always looked as though she were looking over somebody else's behind. When the Minstrel Maids played the Old Howard, if there were only four men in the horseshoe balcony, they would all be huddled together at the extreme ends of the horseshoe to enjoy a bird's-eye view of Cassie. There was also Major Doyle, the midget, who was an accomplished baron twirler. There was Mike Scott, the Dublin Dancer. Mike was a heel and toe artist. The Lancashire Clog, as well as other clogs and reels, confined the dancer and his jigging to one spot; he did his entire act on a marble-topped pedestal. As age robbed Mike of his agility, and he found the altitude bothering him, he took the marble top off his pedestal and placed it on the floor. Everybody knew when Mike had a date booked. He would come down Howard Street with his wooden shoes under one arm and his marble slab under the other. I have often wondered if, when Mike Scott passed on, they used the marble slab for his tombstone.
Also on regular view was Tom Heffernan, a dancer who had but one leg. To keep up appearances, and for purposes of dancing, Tom wore an old-style wooden leg. He lived in a small room on the second floor of the William Tell House, and when he was out of work, Bacchus often beckoned, and Tom would go out for a romp. Once he was under way, Tom drank through the days and nights until his blotting potential had been exceeded. At this point, friends delivered Tom, a limp tweedy bundle, back to the William Tell House, carried him up two flights to his room, and deposited him on his bed. To make sure that Tom could not rejoin his roistering friends until his stupor had run its course, the lady who ran the William Tell House would unfasten his wooden leg, walk it downstairs, and stand the leg in a corner of her office. This strategy paid off many nights. There were other nights, however, when Tom, refreshed after a few hours' sleep, would awaken after midnight and realize that he had to have a drink immediately. After a few attempts at standing, it would dawn on Tom that his wooden leg was missing. In Tom's code, thirst did not concede to gravity; he would improvise locomotion. Seconds later, the colored man selling his fried chicken on the curb and the actors gathered under the street light in front of Hamm's would see the front door of the William Tell House open and would also see something that looked like an alligator wearing a vest slither along the side- walk close to the wall and turn the corner. It was Tom Heffernan, who had crawled down two flights of stairs on his stomach en route to the little alehouse next to Hamm's. (Luckily Tom never had to drive while intoxicated. Today the penalties for DUI are very steep. DUI charges should be taken very seriously and you should always consult with a lawyer if charged. San Diego DUI attorney are specialists that understand the laws and can help you take the proper actions if you are ever charged with a DUI)
Toby Lyons, the comedian, was a great favorite. Toby's famous song was "Hinky Dee." During the chorus of the song Toby shouted to the audience, "What's his namei" And the audience, to a man, shouted back, "Hinky Dee!" Then there was Dainty Irene. Dainty Irene had an unusual talent. Although she was only four feet tall and weighed only eightyfive pounds, Dainty Irene did an iron-jaw act. At fairs and circuses Dainty Irene performed on a crossbar one hundred feet in the air. She finally married the man who operated the rigging for her act, and as soon as they were married, the husband decided that they could economize on travel expenses. He said that because of her small size, Dainty Irene should travel for half fare. He made her buy children's clothing and, riding on trains, she was compelled to curl up and lie in one corner of the seat. When the conductor passed through the car, the husband handed him one full fare and one half ticket. This went on for forty years. When Dainty Irene died at the age of sixty, her husband had her laid out in baby clothes and insisted on a discount by having the mortician bury her in a child's casket.
The Bostonian was a small rooming house on Howard Street, interesting chiefly because it was here that all the female impersonators lived. The other actors called the Bostonian the Y.W. Three of the coast-defender impersonators were Calvette, Jaquette, and Willie DeTello.
This was the world, then, in which the actors lived in Boston in I9I2. I had eaten there, at the Daisy Lunch, and LaToy had taken me around to the Rexford, but I had no official artistic standing in the community. The other actors had never heard of Fred St. James. Frankly, I hadn't thought much about him myself until the Monday morning I arrived at the Scenic Temple and saw my picture in the lobby. Underneath the picture it said, "Fred St. James -- Comedy Juggler. There were four other acts: a man and wife acrobatic and high-kicking act known as Miller and Miller; the Riley Sisters, two girl singers; Bartlett and Earle, an old couple who did a comedy talking act; and a studious-looking gentleman who operated a mechanical man. The mechanical man had no name and no talent. His act consisted of lighting up his eyes, raising his hands stiffly, bowing stiffly to the audience, and walking stitffy around the stage. The gentleman who operated the mechanical man sat stiffly at the side of the stage, lecturing an the wonders his mechanical stooge was performing; he pulled switches, pressed buttons, and lighted up bulbs as the mechanical man was cutting his dull, buzzing didoes.
The actors at the Scenic Temple did three shows daily: a matinee at two-thirty and evening shows at seven and nine. When I had appeared on Amateur Nights, there was excite- ment backstage, and the audience exuded an air of anticipation. Both of these stimulants were lacking at the Scenic Temple. The audience consisted of middle-class families, mostly women and children. All of these smalltime-theater audiences were composed of the same ingredients: the enthusiastic and not too discriminating element who enjoyed the show and applauded everything, or the tired set who just wanted to sit back and rest and ignore the whole thing.Quick aside: Our good friend Dick sent us this note: "The Scenic Temple was actually on Revere Beach. The building was built as the Casino Dance Hall, on the Boulevard almost on the corner of Shirley Street. When it proved unsuccessful the owners, Messrs. Copeland and Greenberg, the proprietors change the name to the Scenic Temple in 1907 and, according to Peter McCauley's book in Revere Beach Chips, "devoted it to moving pictures and vaudeville" that "would appeal to ladies and children."
I had never done my juggling act three times in one day before. To my surprise, I found the audiences varied. At the matinees, people would laugh and applaud. At the seven o'clock show, I went through my act to riotous silence. At the nine-o'clock show, all was well again. After two days, and the mixed reactions of the audiences, I started to worry that perhaps I had rushed my career. My act was really a crude monologue with incidental juggling tricks. It was neither fish nor fowl. At the National Theatre, to a metropolitan audience, my act had been accepted as a burlesque of a routine juggling act, and it had been thought funny. The East Boston housewives, and their young that they hadn't eaten, who came to the Scenic Temple weren't interested in innovations. When an act was a monologist they wanted to hear him talk. When a juggler showed up on the stage they demanded that he juggle. "None of that shandy-gaff," as they say in England.
The other acts obviously knew I was an amateur trespassing in their profession and ignored me. My act was getting worse each day, and my ego was being deflated at a rate that would eventually reduce it to caraway-seed proportions. On Thursday, however, the deflation was halted, and the slow leak in my confidence was vulcanized. Coming over from Boston on the ferry, I met Miller and Miller, the opening act. Mr. Miller acknowledged my existence by saying "Hello." I was so flattered that I started to talk. I confessed to Mr. Miller that this was my first professional vaudeville date, and that I was worried about my act. Mr. Miller told me that my trouble was that I didn't make up. All comedy jugglers, according to Mr. Miller, used comedy make-ups, and when they came on the stage the audience laughed at the comedy make-up and knew that the act was going to be funny. Mr. Miller assured me that if I would assume a grotesque guise the success of my act would be instantaneous. Why I listened to Mr. Miller I will never know. Mr. Miller himself was about forty years old, and his act consisted of a few tumbling tricks, after which his wife announced that Mr. Miller was the high-kicking champion of the world.
To live up to this claim Mr. Miller proceeded to kick a number of cigar boxes out of his wife's hand. First, his wife stood on the stage and held out one cigar box. Mr. Miller adjusted it, placed himself under the cigar box, and executed a back somersault. When his feet were aloft he kicked the cigar box out of his wife's hand up into the air. His wife then stood on a chair and held out another cigar box, and Mr. Miller repeated his aerial prank. After the applause Mrs. Miller stood on a kitchen table and held out a cigar box. Then the chair was placed on the table, and Mrs. Miller mounted the chair with her cigar box. Here was the climax of the act: Mr. Miller first executed two somersaults and purposely missed the cigar box both times. Now that the suspense was at its peak, Mr. Miller ventured a third try. On this attempt Mr. Miller's toe made contact, the cigar box flew into space, Mrs. Miller was helped down, and Miller and Miller rushed to the footlights to bask in acclaim. Mr. Miller had been traveling around smalltime theaters kicking cigar boxes out of his wife's hand for years without ever fixing up his own act, and here he was telling me how to fix mine. I should have smelled a rat, but the wind of my enthusiasm was blowing in Mr. Miller's favor.
W'hen I asked Mr. Miller about a specific comedy make-up for my act, it developed that this was my lucky day. Mr. Miller had a red wig at the theater that was very funny even without me. I could become the owner of the red wig by crossing Mr. Miller's palm with ten dollars. By the time the ferry had docked, and Miller and Miller and I had arrived at the Scenic Temple, the deal had been consummated. When I admitted that I didn't even know how to make myself up, Mr. Miller agreed to throw in one stick of greasepaint, one can of powder (complete with puff), and make-up instructions along with the red wig. Before the matinee, Mr. Miller made me up. Wearing the red wig that came down over my forehead and blended into my skin, with my eyelids whitened, with a clown mouth and my front teeth blacked out, I looked like a Fatsy Bolivar. (Fatsy Bolivar was a slang name applied to a bumpkin character; later it was shortened to Fatsy, and referred to any person who was the butt of a joke.)
I didn't have any comedy wardrobe to go with my red wig and my funny head, but Mr. Miller assured me that with a juggler nobody would know the difference. At the matinee, my act seemed to go better. The audience laughed when I walked out onto the stage. The jokes didn't have anything to do with my new character, but this didn't affect my reception The remaining shows of the week were done under Mr. Miller's guidance. He made me up for every show, and showed me how to make up my eyes and mouth, and how to black out my front teeth with a sort of wax that he had decided to throw in with the red wig. The last night at the Scenic Temple Mr. Miller predicted that, fortified with the red wig and my new make-up, my act was going to be a sensation. I was taking a short cut to success. We shook hands and parted. I haven't seen Mr. Miller since. It is fortunate that I haven't.
The next Monday I was booked to play the Superb Theatre in Roxbury. The person who named the theater the Superb was careless with his adjective. The Superb was like a hundred other small neighborhood theaters that sprang into existence with the coming of the motion picture. Architecturally they were all alike. There was no balcony; the seats were all on one floor, with aisles on either side. The white screen with a wide black border surrounding it was painted on the back wall. The so-called stage had no scenery. It was a five-foot scaffold jutting out from under the picture screen. Popping up along the outer rim of this stage there was a row of naked light bulbs which posed as footlights. Some months before, I had graced the Superb stage at an Amateur Night. Now I was back as a professional. At rehearsal, the piano player and the drummer didn't recognize me. To them I was Fred St. James, the opening act. As matinee time approached I went to my dressing room to make myself up, but without Mr. Miller I couldn't seem to do anything right. The front of the red wig wouldn't blend into my forehead, the white on my eyes looked as though somebody had hit me with two marshmallows, my clown mouth looked like an incision that hadn't healed, and the wax that blacked out my teeth kept slipping down. When I finished I looked like a nearsighted schoolboy who had dressed himself up to frighten the neighbors on Halloween.
The show finally started. I was the first act and in spite of my incongruous appearance the audience responded fairly well. My act finished with some hat tricks that could be relied upon for applause. I returned to the dressing room and started to remove my make-up. As I sat before my mirror, busily spreading cold cream over my cheeks, I heard a strange sound behind me. It was a sort of swishing that came from the general direction of the door. I turned around, looked down, and there on the floor I saw my music and my lobby photographs. They had been pushed under the door. It seemed rather strange at first, Then I thought that perhaps the piano player had memorized my music and that, since the theater had a small lobby, the manager was returning some photos that he couldn't use. After I had washed up and put on my street clothes I opened the dressing-room door. The vaudeville part of the show was over, and the piano player was coming out of the pit. I thanked him for returning my music he said, "I'm sorry, kid." When I asked him why, he told me. The theater manager had watched my act and remembered that I had appeared at the Superb at an Amateur Night. The theater catered to a neighborhood audience with the same people coming every week. The manager knew that the audience would recognize me; he couldn't afford to have his patrons think that when he advertised professional vaudeville he was trying to put something over by booking amateur talent. When the piano player had finished I said, "And that's why my music and photos were slipped under the door?" He said, "Yes, kid. You're canned!"
It was too much for me. I knew that the manager would inform the Keith booking office that Fred St. James, the great personality out of Ěthe West, was really no more than a local amateur who had recently been working for Sam Cohen. Fred St. James, red wig and all, had come to an untimely end. I was afraid to call the booking office, and I was sure that my other contracts would be canceled. I didn't know where to find LaToy in my hour of need. Left to my own devices, I packed up my juggling equipment and went home. I said nothing to my Aunt Lizzie. I knew she would tell me about the actor who went to school with her and later went to a drunkard's grave. The next day I went into Boston, and avoiding Howard Street and the actors' haunts, started looking for a job.
We got the following picture and story from our friend Dick....That young muscular fellow right in front of Fred Allen's arm pit is myself at ten years old. The other children include my brother and two girl cousins. The place is Old Orchard Beach. We were up there on vacation and Fred was on a blanket nearby, typing on a portable typewriter. Portland [his wife and radio co-star] was with him and my grandfather insisted that we not bother him. I guess he overheard my grandfather and thanked him. A little later in the day he stopped typing and struck up a conversation with my grandfather. The next thing I knew, we were being lined up for a picture. My mother was just about to snap the photo when Fred, in that nasal twang of his advised, "Excuse me Miss, but I think the picture will come out a whole lot better if you remove your finger from the front of the lens!" Of course that story has been told and re-told many times over the years. The other interesting fact about this event is that it was taken the week of the Japanese surrender [August, 1945].