May 23, 2022
In the 1930s, when radio was the top form of entertainment, listeners gathered around to tune into the biggest, most popular radio shows. Two of the best were The Jell-O Program, hosted by Jack Benny, and Texaco Star Theatre with Fred Allen. Radio performers were always looking for gimmicks to engage the audience and hook in more listeners and, in 1936, they hit on a gold mine of a gimmick. Jack Benny and Fred Allen, seen in these colorized photos, started a fake celebrity feud that they continued for a full decade.
Both men used their radio shows to make cheap shots at each other, to the delight of their audiences who faithfully tuned in so they could hear the quips and insults. Who doesn’t love a good celebrity feud? In truth, however, Benny and Allen were good friends, and their ongoing feud was a ratings gimmick. Here’s how the feud started and ended.
The Jell-O Program with Jack Benny
Jack Benny’s radio show, which debuted on May 2, 1932, went by several names to reflect the current corporate sponsor. During the start of his faux feud with Fred Allen, his show was called The Jell-O Program with Jack Benny. It was a comedy with a ‘show within a show’ structure. As Benny attempted to host his ‘show’, he would be interrupted by random characters, make comments about the advertisements, and interact with the audience. Benny poked fun at himself and portrayed himself as a penny-pinching marginally talented musician, which the audience thoroughly loved. Benny’s radio show set the bar for comedy radio shows of the 1930s.
Texaco Star Theatre with Fred Allen
Like Jack Benny’s show, Fred Allen’s radio show, which debuted on October 23, 1932, changed names as program sponsors changed. Allen shared the hosting duties with his wife, Portland Hoffa. The audience was entertained with various skits and performances by some big-name guest stars. Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra, Edgar Bergen, Roy Rogers, and more appeared on the show. In his “Allen’s Alley” segment, he interacted with stereotyped characters played by actors. Fred Allen’s radio show ran through 1949 and was one of the top radio shows of its time.
The Start of the Feud
The fake feud between Jack Benny and Fred Allen started on December 30, 1936. On that day’s episode, Allen had 10-year-old violinist Stuart Canin on as his special guest. The future professional musician wowed the audience with his performance of Schubert’s The Bee. After Canin’s performance, Allen made a reference to Jack Benny’s violin playing – which, remember, was intentionally sub-par as part of his comic self-bashing –and said that, if a 10-year-old could play so well then a “certain alleged violin player should be ashamed of himself.” Benny was listening to the show and caught the insult. He responded on his next radio show on January 3, 1937. The audience loved it. They felt as though they were part of the feud. Benny and Allen were astute enough to gauge the audience’s reaction. After that, there was no stopping the two comedians.