Fred Allen At Old Orchard Beach

By Walter J. Beaupre

(Article originally published in Radiogram, February 1992, p. 3)

In his next-to-last "Town Hall Tonight" show of the '39 season (see SPERDVAC catalog G-1182; 6-21-39 Fred Allen Interviews the egomaniac director/producer Dawson Bells(Orson Welles?) about his summer theater plans. At one point in the script we hear:

BELLS: Midsummer I'm presenting a season of Shakespeare in a lighthouse

off the coast of Old Orchard, Maine.
ALLEN: What about the audience?
BELLS: The audience will be in Biddeford ten miles away.
ALLEN: How will people know what's going on?
BELLS: The orchestra seats will have telescopes. The balcony seats
will have opera glasses.
ALLEN: And the folks in the gallery?
BELLS: Er....they can't see me.
ALLEN: And that goes for me too!
(A polite "titter" from the studio audience is heard.)

As the most cerebral of the radio comics Fred Allen often went over the heads and around the flanks of his listeners. In retrospect the bit was potentially very funny onmany levels, but on one level the Old Orchard/Biddeford reference was strictly an in-house joke.

Fred must have been looking forward to spending his vacation as he usually did atOld Orchard Beach. He of course knew -- as few of his listeners did -- that Old Orchard Beach was a lively summer resort and that Biddeford was a hopelessly"square" mill town a few miles south. Biddeford was the place where you took yourlaundry or went grocery shopping on a rainy beach day: strictly from dullsville. I'mspeaking now from the point of view of a "hip"teenage tourist in 1939 -- not as an upstanding citizen of Biddeford/Saco today who lives a stone's throw from George Bush's summer place in Kennebunkport!

But Old Orchard did indeed "swing" for the two months of summer each year. It wasdirectly accessible by train from Boston and New York, by Grand Trunk Railroad fromMontreal, by trolly from either Portland or Kennebunkport by way of Biddeford/Saco, and by auto from all other points. Old Orchard was called "Canada's Miami Beach," and French as well as English was heard everywhere. Robert Taylor in his excellentbiography Fred Allen: His Life And Wit spends an entire chapter (pp. 211-220)on Fred's Old Orchard vacations, explaining that Fred's Aunt Lizzie took him there as a child. Taylor also mentions Ocean Park, a very quiet, conservative Baptist enclaveright next door.

As luck would have it, the present writer spent the last two weeks of August, 1939 as a 14-year-old at Camp Judson in Ocean Park. Now, every red-blooded male at CampJudson had two goals in mind:

    1.To make contact with as many girls as possible at Camp Hazzeltine, and
    2. To sneak off to "wild and wicked" Old Orchard whenever possible.
The present writer had a third goal which evolved from rumors floating around Camp Hazzeltine that radio star Fred Allen had a cottage just over the town line in Old Orchard -- and had been sighted. I was bound and determined to meet Fred Allen!

Fred was my favorite of all the radio comedians. The morning after each of his showsI would drive my family crazy by repeating as many of his jokes as I could remember --which was most of them! Imagine what a thrill it would be to meet him in person. Thatwould make the two weeks at summer camp complete! With a fellow camper I deviseda plan. Every afternoon when we went to the beach swimming we took turns standingwatch opposite the cottage identified as the Allen summer residence. By mid August the North Atlantic warmed enough so that you didn't need to test the waters with a brass monkey, but we still spent little time battling the surf. Walking back and forthfrom the beach to the Allen cottage was a pleasant diversion. Actually the cottagerented by Fred was small and very modest. I remember it was not ocean-front property and stood very close to the road connecting Ocean Park to Old Orchard. It faced southeast. There was an open porch along the front. I don't remember any "Beware of the DOG!" sign mentioned in Taylor's account. We simply stood across the streetwatching the porch for any signs of life.

At last we were rewarded when Fred Allen appeared on his porch with some otherman. We yelled "Hi! Fred!" and waved frantically. He stepped down off the porch togreet us. What we said to him next I don't recall, but I do remember that he surprised us by inviting us inside. He surveyed the clutter and said, "Pull up a wet bathing suit and sit down!" We roared with laughter. Fred Allen was even funnier in real life than on the radio! We didn't see Portland Hoffa nor ask about her, because it never occurredto us that Fred and Portland were married. Nor did we ask to be introduced to his friend.I remember Fred Allen as a kind person, a little awkward (as we were) meeting strangers, who seemed pleased that we liked his program.

Frankly, I don't remember much else about that summer except that it marked the endof childhood and innocence. On the day we were to leave camp we were told thatHitler had invaded Poland and the world was atwar.

During subsequent summers at Old Orchard the "Dodge-em" cars and "Noah's Ark"weren't nearly as exciting. Girls took over as the main attraction while the midway and the pier with its dance pavillion were only a backdrop. I never thought to look forFred Allen again at Old Orchard, although I listened faithfully to his radio shows duringthe war years. I'll always be grateful to him for being gracious to two pimply kids -- forbeing FUNNY IN PERSON for our benefit. From what I have read since, he wasapparently that kind of very special guy.

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