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Happy Birthday, Parker Fennelly!

It would become one of radio’s most beloved weekly rituals in the late 1940s: comedian Fred Allen would venture into “Allen’s Alley” to ask its inhabitants a topical question about a recent event in the news.  The first door he knocked on was the residence of a windy Southern politician (Senator Beauregard Claghorn) who demonstrated what “filibuster” was all about in his conversations with Fred.  The second door Allen approached was the home of a taciturn New Englander named Titus Moody, who greeted his visitor with a simple “Howdy, bub.”  Titus was played by actor Parker Fennelly—born on this date in 1891—and never was there a more perfect match between performer and character.  Fennelly was New England from his head to his toes, entering the 19th century as a new resident of Northeast Harbor, Maine.

The son of Nathan and Estelle Fennelly, young Parker (kind of hard to imagine Fennelly ever as a young man!) attended primary and high schools in his hometown.  He may not have been a whiz at the three R’s, but when it came to performing in school plays he tackled each role with enthusiasm.  Parker decided early on to pursue an acting career, and with a financial assist from a cousin he was able to attend the Leland T. Powers school in Boston.  During his stint in Beantown, Fennelly became a member of that city’s Toy Theater company. He later found work on the Midland Chautauqua Circuit with the Maud Scheerer Shakespeare Players, followed by a gig with the Jack X. Lewis Stock Company. After marrying his wife Catherine Reynolds in 1918, the couple formed the Parker Fennelly Duo, performing on stage in short plays and readings.

Before greeting Fred Allen each week in his enthusiastic New England manner, Parker Fennelly worked a great deal on the Broadway stage.  He appeared in the casts of Mr. Pitt (1924), The Small Timers(1925), Florida Girl (1925), Babbling Brookes (1927), and Black Velvet (1927).  Even after he became established in radio, Fennelly continued to appear on stage whenever possible, with productions like The County Chairman (1936), Yours, A. Lincoln (1942), Our Town (1944), Happily Ever After (1945), Live Life Again (1945), Loco (1946), and The Southwest Corner (1955) to his credit.  In addition, a story Parker wrote was expanded into play form by George M. Cohan, becoming 1937’s Fulton of Oak Falls. He also wrote Cuckoos on the Hearth, which had a four-month run in 1941 and 1942.  Fennelly even added “director” to his list of credits, with 1931’s Technique.

Parker Fennelly, however, was a creature of radio. In fact, his boss Fred Allen joked in Treadmill to Oblivion that Fennelly had been a man of the medium since “shortly after Marconi had turned his invention loose.” He performed for many years as a partner to Arthur Allen on the long-running Snow Village Sketches (also known as Soconyland Sketches) beginning on NBC in 1928. Allen portrayed the happy-go-lucky Dan’l Dickey and Fennelly was his sterner chum Hiram Neville.  (The show would air on NBC and CBS until 1943, with a revival on Mutual in 1946.)  Parker and Arthur also performed as The Stebbins Boys (of Bucksport Point), though their “Yankee codgers” also went by The Simpson Boys (of Sprucehead Bay).  With Margaret Burlen, Fennelly starred in a 1936-37 CBS series, Ma and Pa. Later, Parker played a similar character opposite Charme Allen in Mother and Dad (heard on CBS between 1942 and 1944).

Parker Fennelly portrayed Mike Hagen on the daytime drama Valiant Lady and emoted on other soap operas such as A House in the CountryMary Foster, the Editor’s DaughterThe Story of Ellen Randolph, and Your Family and Mine.  Fennelly had recurring roles on shows like The Adventures of the Thin Man (he was Sheriff Ebenezer Williams of Crabtree County);  The American School of the AirIt’s MurderBarrie Craig, Confidential InvestigatorPrairie FolksScattergood Baines (the 1949 Mutual reboot) ; and Stand By For Adventure.  In the summer of 1947, Parker was the star of Lawyer Tucker, a CBS comedy-drama about a homespun legal eagle.  He’d follow that with a 1949-50 Mutual sitcom, Mr. Feathers, portraying another homespun codger (though not in the legal profession).

Many of Parker Fennelly’s radio roles, it could be argued, were variations of the laconic, common-sense New Englander that he had essayed on-air over the years (well before he landed his most famous gig as Titus Moody on The Fred Allen Show). Of Moody, Fred remarked: “I liked Titus Moody the best.  I had more fun writing his lines and trying to invent things for the old boy to do than I had working on the others.”  Allen was, of course, a Boston native—“That may account for my attitude toward Mr. Moody.”  In addition to working alongside Fred, Parker joshed along with Jack Benny, Bob Burns, and Alan Young.  Rounding out Fennelly’s radio c.v. are appearances on such shows as The Adventures of SupermanThe Aldrich FamilyBest PlaysBoston BlackieCasey, Crime Photographer, The Cavalcade of AmericaThe Columbia WorkshopCrime Does Not PayFront Page DramaGene Autry’s Melody RanchGrand Central StationGreat PlaysInheritanceListener’s PlayhouseThe MGM Theatre of the AirThe MarriageMeet Corliss ArcherRadio GuildThe Radio Hall of FameSuspenseThe Theatre Guild of the Air, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Parker Fennelly’s first credited film role was in 1949’s Lost Boundaries. After that auspicious debut, he would rack up roles in the likes of The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and It Happened to Jane (1959).  Parker would replace Percy Kilbride (who had retired from the franchise after sustaining injuries in an automobile accident) as “Pa Kettle” in the final “Ma and Pa Kettle” film, The Kettles on Old MacDonald’s Farm (1957).  One of Fennelly’s funniest film turns was in The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! (1966), where he plays another one of his Yankee eccentrics…oblivious to the fact that his wife (Doro Merande) is bound-and-gagged behind him (see the photo at the top of this essay). He’d finish his movie career with roles in the Andy Griffith comedy Angel in My Pocket (1969) and the Don Knotts vehicle How to Frame a Figg (1971).

Andy Griffith was also responsible for Parker Fennelly’s regular TV gig as “Mr. Purdy” in his 1970 series Headmaster. Before that, Parker was always in demand as a guest star on many a small screen favorite like The Phil Silvers ShowFather Knows BestHave Gun – Will Travel, and Route 66.  But for many couch potatoes of my generation, Fennelly is best remembered as the Titus Moody-like spokesman for Pepperidge Farm in commercials he did for the company between the late 50s and early 80s (“Pep’ridge Fahm remembahs”).  It’s only fitting that Parker—so identified as the New England sage who probably spent his spare time whittling on the porch of a feed store—would live to the ripe old age of 96, passing on in 1988.

“Parker Fennelly,” wrote Fred Allen in Treadmill to Oblivion, “in my estimation, is the finest simulator of New England types we have in radio, the theater, in Hollywood or even New England.”  Since I make no secret of my worship of the comedian, I will not argue with him…instead, I recommend you check out Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: Grudge Match—which features a classic Fred Allen Show broadcast that features our birthday boy (“King for a Day” from May 26, 1946).  Radio Spirits also has Fennelly on hand on The Aldrich FamilyBarrie Craig, Confidential Investigator: Song of Death, Boston Blackie: Death WishCasey, Crime Photographer: Blue NoteCrime Does Not Pay, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: Medium Rare Matters.  Happy birthday, bub!

One Comment

  1. John says:

    Didn’t make the connection between Fennelly and the Pepperridge Farm guy.
    Now that I know the name I can connect his voice to programs I know I’ve heard him in

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