Today is the birthday of Lester Allen (1891-1949). Allen originally hailed from Utica, New York which leads me to suspect that he got his start on the upstate New York-based Proctor Circuit (that’s just logic, I have yet to run that down). It’s said that he also performed in the circus.
By the 1920s, he had a healthy career on Broadway and in vaudeville. He appeared in the first six editions of George White’s Scandals (1919-1925), wrote the book for the 1925 edition of Earl Carrol’s Vanities and appeared in Rufus LeMaire’s Affairs in 1927. In the 1925 show Florida Girl he met Nellie Breen who became his sometime vaudeville partner in the team of Allen and Breen. Meanwhile, he continued to perform as a solo, as when he emceed at the Palace. He was one of the stars of the Kalmar & Ruby/ Guy Bolton show Top Speed (1929-1930), which was later made into a Joe E. Brown film. His last Broadway show was Shady Lady (1933).
With vaudeville dead and Broadway in serious trouble Allen turned to films. In 1929 and 1930 he starred in a couple of Paramount shorts but that work, too dried up. After nearly a decade he returned to films, but now as a bit player, often uncredited. He tended to get cast in show biz related pictures, like The Heat’s On (1943) with Mae West, Irish Eyes Are Smiling (1944), The Great Flamarian (1945) and The Dolly Sisters (1945). Towards the end of the 40s, he started to get decent roles in films like Vincent Minelli’s The Pirate (1948). He actually had a recurring roles (as a comical Indian) in the Ma and Pa Kettle series when his career was cut sadly short when he was struck and killed by a car at the age of 57.
Here he is in a great vaudevillian clip from The Great Flamarian. Thanks to Pat Cashin of Clown Alley for posting it:
For more on vaudeville history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. To learn more about early film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc