This week’s holiday atmosphere includes Sirius/XM rebroadcasting classic Bing Crosby Christmas specials, with introductions by recently retired Regis Philbin. Listening to these radio shows is the closest one can easily get to opening a time capsule.
In the 1970s, a local AM radio station (WGST if I recall correctly) used to devote part of its evening programming to airing old radio shows–and I vaguely remember hearing Fred Allen periodically. I know the name.
But this week I was absolutely flummoxed to hear a 1954 Christmas special, where Crosby went on at length (I came in on the broadcast mid-show, this could have been an ad) at how great Fred Allen’s then new book, Treadmill to Oblivion, was. The book is out of print (you can see parts of it at Google Books), so unfortunately it’s not something you can pick up at the local bookstore. Allen, a popular radio show host, was clearly unhappy with the seeming demise of radio, thanks to television. Allen likely would have made his way in TV (much like his peer, Jack Benny, did)
In trying to research the book, I ran across a 1989 Garrison Keillor New York Times review of a then new Robert Talyor-penned biography of Allen. The last paragraph of the review touched upon the naming of Allen’s 1954 book and Allen’s impact on the larger landscape of comedy history.
“Treadmill to Oblivion is a pretty bleak title for a memoir by an old comic. Allen chose it over genial ones like ”Looking Back” or ”Microphones and Memories,” and meant what he said, and ”Fred Allen: His Life and Wit,” trying to rescue him from oblivion, only proves him right. Comedy is temporary art unless you’re Mark Twain. Thirty years after you knocked them dead, your best stuff is just damp hyphens, a wet glow on the plate.”