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"Mrs Fred Allen"
The first time I sang in the church choir; two hundred people changed their religion.
Fred Allen, Age 4, with younger brother, Bob
Nothing in the boy hood of John Florence Sullivan points towards his growing to be one of the great entertainers of his time, Fred Allen, yet every bit of it seems to be in preparation.
Born into poor circumstances on May 31, 1984, in Cambridge, Mass, Johnny lost his mother, Cecilia, to pneumonia before the tender age of three. A family council decided it would be best for Johnny, along with his brother and father, to live with his maternal Aunt Lizzie. Aunt Lizzie kept house for ailing husband (a plumber stricken with lead poisoning,) her two sisters and brother Joe, as well as Johnny, his brother Robert, and father, James Henry Sullivan. The older Sullivan, heartbroken over the loss of Cecilia, had taken to drink. Aunt Lizzie was able to manage the extended family on meager resources, "sometimes owing a little to the landlord or the grocer." The first chapter of Allen's first autobiography, Much Ado About Me, is focused around the kindness and thriftiness of his aunt. In a later chapter he writes that "another dilemma to my Aunt Lizzie was like another raindrop to an umbrella." When his father remarried the boys were given the choice of moving in with their father and his new bride or remaining with Aunt Lizzie. Allen writes "I owed something to the wonderful woman who had been a mother to me for some twelve years. I said that I would stay with my Aunt Lizzie. I never regretted it."
On the occasion of his fourteenth birthday, young Sullivan was instructed to don his best suit and meet his father at a "popular alcoholic shrine." His father explained that at fourteen Johnny could begin working, and introduced contact who lead him to the Boston Public Library. The young men employed at the Library were runners and stack boys. Sullivan started his career as a runner. When a patron selected a volume from the catalog room and wrote its number on a slip of paper. The stack boy would retrieve the book from the shelves, and it would be delivered to the patron in the reading room by the runner. On the nights that he took the duties of stack boy he found himself possessed with time to read and study. On one of these nights he began studying the history of comedy.
Fred Allen, fourth from the leftIn the fall of his fourteenth year Sullivan entered the High School of Commerce, the founding of which was a pet project of Boston Mayor John F. Fitzgerald, grandfather to President John F. Kennedy. "I had heard of students' working their way through college," said Allen. "In the library, I was working my way through high school." Along with his studies of comedy at the library, Sullivan taught himself to juggle. A small promotion at the library afforded him the means to attend the theater on occasion, and when a juggler was on the bill, he would privately practice until he learned the performer's tricks.
Soon after graduation he was invited to perform in an amateur review of Library employees. Nervously he learned some patter and practiced his tricks. On the night of the show he was a small hit. A young lady in the audience told him "You're crazy to keep working here at the library. You ought to go on the stage." Although it was slow to develop, this small ember of praise would flare into a life dedicated to performing.