As Gracie Allen was to George Burns, as Mary Livingstone was to Jack Benny, so was Portland Hoffa (1905-1990) to Fred Allen. Hoffa was both Allen’s wife and his comedy partner on stage and radio. Unlike Gracie Allen she did not outshine her husband, and unlike Livingstone, she wasn’t Allen’s feeder. She usually played a precocious kid on the radio show. Her fame has receded with Allen’s, since unlike Burns and Benny, he did not leave a big footprint in film and television.
Hoffa was named after the Oregon city in which she born. Her whimsical parents had named her siblings Lebanon, Harlem, Lastone, and Fredericka. By the time she was in her middle teens, the family had moved to New York City. Hoffa was only 16 when she became a Broadway chorus girl in the show The Mimic World (1921). This was followed by Make it Snappy (1922) with Eddie Cantor. She met Allen in her third revue, The Passing Show of 1922, although she went on to do some additional shows without him: Marjorie (1924), Tell Me More (1925), and George White’s Scandals (1926). She married Allen in 1927, partnered with him in vaudeville and appeared with him on Broadway in The Little Show (1929) and Three’s a Crowd (1930).
From 1932 through 1949 she was a regular on The Fred Allen Show, which for many years was the most popular radio comedy program in the nation. From 1950 through 1952 the pair were frequent guests on Tallulah Bankhead’s show. After this, there were a handful of television appearances with Allen: The Colgate Comedy Hour, the All Star Revue, Omnibus and What’s My Line?, before Allen’s death in 1956. In 1965 she published a book called Fred Allen’s Letters and went on The Tonight Show to promote it.
Hoffa married big bandleader Joe Rines in 1957. The pair later went into advertising.
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.
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