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Happy Birthday, Portland Hoffa!

It pains me to have to say this…but I have heard from many an old-time radio devotee that Portland Hoffa—born on this date in 1905—is an acquired taste.  Her trademark high-pitched voice as husband Fred Allen’s favorite stooge (Portland jokingly referred to herself as a “wooge”) on his long-running radio program has been known to alienate both fans and would-be fans.  In their defense, these individuals have company; the wife of one of Fred’s sponsors once lobbied heavily to have Portland removed from Allen’s program, finding her annoying.  In a letter to an agency vice-president, Allen laid down the law (in his trademark lowercase style):  “you tell him that portland is my wife, that she makes my life livable, and that her presence on the show is not a matter of negotiation.  we are a family and we work as a family.  if he doesn’t want mrs. allen, he doesn’t want mr. allen.  i’m telling you and you tell him—never mention this subject to me again.”

The woman who would become Portland Hoffa Allen acquired her birth name because she was born in that Oregon city—likewise, her siblings went by Lebanon, Cortland, and Harlem.  (The exception was her youngest sister Lastone—pronounced “Last-un”—because her parents decided enough was enough.)  Though born in The Beaver State, Portland grew up in Jamaica, NY, where she attended school and was more interested in basketball and archery than the three R’s.  Before she reached voting age, Hoffa secured work on Broadway as a stage performer in productions like The Mimic World (1921) and Make It Snappy (1922).  It was in The Passing Show of 1922 that she would meet Fred Allen. She would also appear in Marjorie (1924), Tell Me More (1925), and George White’s Scandals of 1926 before tying the knot with Allen in 1927.  (The Allens would appear together in the successful stage revues The Greenwich Village Follies of 1925-26The Little Show [1929] and Three’s a Crowd [1930].)

Portland Hoffa would also accompany Fred on his various vaudeville engagements. It was not uncommon for husband-and-wives to team up together in those days, as witnessed by the success of George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, Jim and Marian Jordan, etc.  When network radio expressed an interest in Fred’s comedy with the CBS Radio premiere of The Linit Bath Club Revue on October 23, 1932, Portland would sign on as his sidekick.  She would be billed as “Portland Hoffa” on the air, but her character differed from her real-life persona as Mrs. Allen. Hoffa was a slightly daffy young girl, filled with enthusiasm and always anxious to read a letter from home (both Gracie Allen and Mary Livingstone played similar characters on their radio shows).  Portland would exuberantly greet Fred with “Mis-ter Allen!  Mis-ter Allen!” prompting her husband to respond along the lines of “Well, as I try to make both ends meet in this tight vest—if it isn’t Portland!”  (Hoffa’s actual voice was soft and gentle; Fred often speculated that Portland’s on-air squeak was born out of mike fright and it was kept that way because it was popular.)

With each incarnation of Fred Allen’s program—The Salad Bowl RevueThe Sal Hepatica RevueThe Hour of Smiles—Portland maintained her “wooge” duties. She continued in that capacity when the Allen show took on its most popular 1930s form, the hour-long Town Hall Tonight.  In the 1940s, when Fred’s program reverted back to a half-hour, Hoffa was faithfully by her husband’s side…and whenever she would ask after his monologue “Shall we go?” the audience knew there would be a trip down “Allen’s Alley.”  Portland was also in support of Fred whenever he would guest on the likes of Command Performance and The Radio Hall of Fame, and on shows showcasing the talents of Bing Crosby, Edgar Bergen, and his “feuding” nemesis Jack Benny.  The Fred Allen Show would acknowledge its final curtain call on June 26, 1949, a casualty of both declining ratings and Fred’s health problems.

In the fall of 1950, when Fred Allen became a semi-regular on NBC’s The Big Show, Portland Hoffa became a semi-regular as well.  One of the couple’s most delightful guest appearances was on an April 12, 1952 broadcast of The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, where Portland uncharacteristically sang Sweet Marie…accompanied by Fred on banjo.  Hoffa would also be in attendance during Allen’s forays on the small screen like The Colgate Comedy Hour and All Star Revue.  When the October 17, 1954 edition of Omnibus featured a segment on Fred’s recently-published Treadmill to Oblivion, Portland was reunited with former Allen Show players Kenny Delmar, Parker Fennelly, Peter Donald, and Peter Van Steeden.  And when Fred Allen became a regular on the popular panel show What’s My Line, the February 27, 1955 telecast made use of Portland as that evening’s “Mystery Guest.”

When Fred Allen passed away in 1956, Portland Hoffa retreated from show business. In 1959, she married bandleader Joe Rines, who later became an advertising executive.  She gathered up a large portion of her first husband’s famous correspondence and saw it published as Fred Allen’s Letters in 1965. (She appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson that same year to promote the book in what would be one of her last TV appearances).  Rines died in 1986, two years after Portland celebrated the second of two silver wedding anniversaries. Hoffa-Allen-Rines would leave this world for a better one in 1990.

James Thurber, a good friend of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Allen, memorably observed to Portland that “everything you and Fred said to each other was somehow akin to The Sweetheart Duet from Maytime.”  I make no secret of my love for both Fred and today’s birthday girl, and Radio Spirits features several of their most memorable broadcasts from the 1930s on the must-own CD collection Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: The Feud.  Portland and her husband are also guests on the Jack Benny sets Be Our Guest and On the Town, and you’ll hear classic Fred Allen Show broadcasts on our potpourri compilations of Comedy Out West and Great Radio Comedy.  Shall we go?


  1. John Cashwell says:

    Yes, I can’t stand to hear Portland Hoffa speak, that is, I couldn’t stand to hear her until now. I am slowly acquiring a taste for her and her husband. The truth is that I really couldn’t take much of Fred or Portland. But over the course of several radio shows, I have slowly started to sort of like them both. To me, Jack Benny was the king of that type of radio of show.

  2. Thank you for this. I have always pictured Portland as short and rotund. Like many I find her voice annoying but after this I will think of her much more kindly. I try not to look at pictures of the performers after I saw one of Bob Bailey. It took me quite a while to shake that image when listening to Johnny Dollar.

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