Sherman was born in Chicago to Jewish American parents Percy Copelon and Rose Sherman. Percy was an auto mechanic and race car driver who, like his son, suffered from obesity (he weighed over 350 pounds), and died while attempting a 100-day diet. Sherman’s parents divorced when he was in grade school, and Allan adopted his mother’s maiden name. Due to his parents constantly moving to new residences, Allan attended over a dozen public schools in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. He attended the University of Illinois, where he earned mostly “C” grades and contributed a humor column to The Daily Illini, the college newspaper, but never received a degree because he was expelled for breaking into a campus sorority house with his then-girlfriend.
Sherman devised a game show he intended to call I Know a Secret. Television producer Mark Goodson used Sherman’s idea and turned it into I’ve Got a Secret, which ran on CBS from 1952 to 1967. Rather than paying him for the concept, Mark Goodson-Bill Todman Productions made Sherman the show’s producer. Sherman was reported to be warm and kindhearted to all who worked for him. But sparks often flew between Sherman and anyone who was in a position to try to restrain his creativity. As producer of I’ve Got a Secret, which was broadcast live, he showed a fondness for large scale stunts that had the potential to teeter on the brink of disaster. He once released 100 rabbits onstage as an Easter surprise for the Madison Square Boys Club, whose members were seated in the studio. The boys were invited to come up onstage to collect their prize. Although the resultant melee made a good story, it did not necessarily make for good TV. The relationship between Goodson-Todman and Sherman became strained to the breaking point when he finally fought to execute an idea that was destined to fall flat. His plan was to have Tony Curtis teach the panel how to play some of the games he had played as a child growing up in New York City. The problems manifested themselves when it became obvious that Curtis had never actually played any of the games that Sherman had brought the props for. The situation might have been salvaged had the props worked as planned, but they did not. The handkerchief parachute failed to open and land gracefully, and the spool “tank” which was propelled by rubber band, moved painfully slowly. The spot, which aired June 11, 1958, was a disaster and Sherman was fired as producer. His dismissal did not, however, prevent Mark Goodson-Bill Todman from bringing Sherman back many times as a guest on their shows in subsequent years after he achieved celebrity status following the release of his albums. Sherman also produced a short-lived 1954 game show, What’s Going On? which was technologically ambitious, with studio guests interacting with multiple live cameras in remote locations. In 1961 he produced a daytime game show for Al Singer Productions called Your Surprise Package, which aired on CBS with host George Fenneman.
In 1951 Sherman recorded a 78-rpm single with veteran singer Sylvia Froos which contained “A Satchel and a Seck,” parodying “A Bushel and a Peck” from Guys and Dolls, coupled with “Jake’s Song,” parodying “Sam’s Song,” a contemporary hit for Bing Crosby and his son Gary. The single sold poorly and when Sherman wrote his autobiography, he did not make reference to it. Later, he found that the song parodies he performed to amuse his friends and family were taking on a life of their own. Sherman lived in the Brentwood section of West Los Angeles next door to Harpo Marx, who invited him to perform his song parodies at parties attended by Marx’s show-biz friends. After one party, George Burns phoned an executive at Warner Bros. Records and persuaded him to sign Sherman to a contract. The result was a long playing album of these parodies, My Son, the Folk Singer, which was released in 1962. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. The album was so successful that it was quickly followed by My Son, the Celebrity, which ended with “Shticks of One and Half a Dozen of the Other,” fragments of song parodies including Robert Burns’ “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye”: “Do not make a stingy sandwich, pile the cold cuts high;/Customers should see salami comin’ thru the rye” and “All day, all night, ‘Cary Grant,'” a takeoff on “Marianne.”
In 1962, capitalizing on his success, Jubilee Records re-released Sherman’s 1951 single on the album More Folk Songs by Allan Sherman and His Friends, which was a compilation of material by various Borscht Belt comedians, such as Sylvia Froos, Fyvush Finkel and Lee Tully, along with the Sherman material. As suggested by the albums’ titles, Sherman’s first two LPs were mainly reworkings of old folk songs to infuse them with Jewish humor. His first minor hit was “Sarah Jackman” (pronounced “Jockman”), a takeoff of “Frère Jacques” in which he and a woman (Christine Nelson) exchange family gossip (“Sarah Jackman, Sarah Jackman,/How’s by you? How’s by you?/How’s by you the family?/How’s your sister Emily?” etc.). The popularity of “Sarah Jackman” (as well as the album My Son, the Folk Singer) was enhanced after President John F. Kennedy was spotted in a hotel lobby singing the song. By his peak with My Son, the Nut in 1963, however, Sherman had broadened both his subject matter and his choice of parody material and begun to appeal to a larger audience. Sherman wrote his parody lyrics in collaboration with Lou Busch. A few of the Sherman/Busch songs are completely original creations, featuring original music as well as lyrics, rather than new lyrics applied to an existing melody. The Sherman/Busch originals – notably “Go to Sleep, Paul Revere” and “Peyton Place” – are novelty songs, showing genuine melodic originality as well as deft lyrics. However, Sherman had trouble in getting permission to record for profit from some of the well-known composers and lyricists, who did not tolerate parodies or satires of their melodies and lyrics, including Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, George and Ira Gershwin, Meredith Willson, Alan Jay Lerner, and Frederick Loewe, as well as the estates of Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Kurt Weill, and Bertolt Brecht, which prevented him from releasing parodies or satires of their songs. In the late 1950s, Sherman was inspired by a recording of a nightclub musical show called My Fairfax Lady, a parody of My Fair Lady set in the Jewish section of Los Angeles that was performed at Billy Gray’s Band Box. Sherman then wrote his own song parodies of My Fair Lady, which appeared as a bootleg recording in 1964, and were only officially released in 2005 on My Son, the Box. Alan Jay Lerner did not approve of having the parade being performed; however, he reluctantly settled to allow the performances of “Fairfax Lady”, on the strict conditions that the show could only be allowed to be performed inside the Fairfax Theater, without any touring company, and that the musical could not be videotaped or recorded for any album. Although Sherman believed that all the songs parodied on My Son, the Folk Singer were in the public domain, two of them, “Matilda” and “Water Boy” – parodied as “My Zelda” and “Seltzer Boy,” respectively – were actually under copyright, and Sherman was sued for copyright infringement. In 1963’s My Son, The Nut, Sherman’s pointed parodies of classical and popular tunes dealt with automation in the workplace (“Automation,” to the tune of “Fascination”), space travel (“Eight Foot Two, Solid Blue,” to “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue”), the exodus from the city to the suburbs (“Here’s to the Crabgrass,” to the tune of “English Country Garden”), and his own bulky contours (“Hail to Thee, Fat Person,” which claims his obesity was a public service similar to the Marshall Plan).
At the height of his popularity in 1965, Sherman published an autobiography, A Gift of Laughter, and, for a short period at least, Sherman was culturally ubiquitous. He sang on and guest-hosted The Tonight Show, was involved in the production of Bill Cosby’s first three albums, appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and sang “The Dropouts’ March” on the March 6, 1964, edition of the NBC-TV satirical program That Was The Week That Was. Also in 1964, Sherman narrated his own version of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf in a live concert at Tanglewood with the Boston Pops under Arthur Fiedler. The concert, which was released as the album Peter and the Commissar, also included “Variations on ‘How Dry I Am,'” with Sherman as conductor, and “The End of a Symphony.” In “Variations,” Fiedler was the guest soloist, providing solo hiccups. In 2004, Collector’s Choice reissued the complete RCA Victor album on CD. Sherman’s later albums grew more pointedly satirical and less light-hearted, skewering protesting students (“The Rebel”), consumer debt (“A Waste of Money”, based on “A Taste of Honey”), and the generation gap (“Crazy Downtown” and “Pop Hates the Beatles”). Sherman was often tapped to produce specialty song parodies for corporations. An album of six paper-cup and vending machine related songs, titled Music to Dispense With, was created for the Container Division of the Scott Paper Company for distribution to its vendors and customers. It consisted of the tracks “Makin’ Coffee” (a parody of “Makin’ Whoopee”), “Vending Machines,” “There Are Cups,” “That’s How the Change Is Made,” “The Wonderful Tree in the Forest” and “Scott Cups.” Sherman also created a group of eight “public education” radio spots for Encron carpet fibers, singing their praises to the tunes of old public-domain songs. Entitled Allan Sherman Pours It On for Carpets Made with Encron Polyester, it featured an introduction by Sherman and comprised the tracks “Encron Is A Brand New Fiber” (to the tune of “Shine On, Harvest Moon”), “Put Them All Together, They Spell Encron” (to the tune of Eddy Arnold’s “M-O-T-H-E-R”), “There’s A Fiber Called Encron” (to the tune of William H. Hill’s “There is a Tavern in the Town”), “Encron Alive, Alive-O” (to the tune of “Molly Malone”), “Encron’s the Name”, “Why They Call It Encron” (to the tune of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”), “Encron, Encron” (to the tune of “Daisy Bell”) and “Encron Is a Great New Fiber” (to the tune of “Take Me to the Fair”).
One track from My Son, The Nut, a spoof of summer camp entitled “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” became a surprise novelty hit, reaching No. 2 on the national Billboard Hot 100 chart for three weeks in late summer 1963. The lyrics were sung to the tune of one segment of Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours,” familiar to the public because of its use in the Walt Disney film Fantasia. That December, Sherman’s “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas” single appeared on Billboard’s separate Christmas chart. Sherman had one other Top 40 hit, a 1965 take-off on the Petula Clark hit “Downtown” called “Crazy Downtown,” which spent one week at #40. Two other Sherman singles charted in the lower regions of the Billboard 100: an updated “Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh” (#59 in 1964), and “The Drinking Man’s Diet” (#98 in 1965). Sherman’s “The End of a Symphony,” spotlighting Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops Orchestra, reached #113 on the “Bubbling Under” chart in 1964, but did not make the Hot 100. The songs on Sherman’s next album My Name Is Allan (1965) were thematically connected: except for a couple of original novelty songs with music by Sherman and Busch, all the songs on the album are parodies of songs that had won, or were nominated for, the Academy Award for Best Song. They included “That Old Black Magic,” “Secret Love,” “The Continental,” “Chim Chim Cheree,” and “Call Me Irresponsible.” The cover of the album bore a childhood photograph of Sherman. That, and the album’s title, were references to Barbra Streisand’s album My Name Is Barbra, released earlier that year, which featured a cover photograph of the singer as a young girl. During his brief heyday, Sherman’s parodies were so popular that he had at least one contemporary imitator: My Son the Copycat was an album of song parodies performed by Stanley Ralph Ross, co-written by Ross and Bob Arbogast. Lest there be any doubt of whom Ross is copying, his album’s cover bears a crossed-out photo of Sherman. One of the songs on this album is a fat man’s lament, “I’m Called Little Butterball,” parodying “I’m Called Little Buttercup” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta HMS Pinafore. Sherman would later parody this same song as “Little Butterball” – with the same subject matter – on his album Allan in Wonderland. The song may have had more poignancy for Sherman, as he, unlike Stanley Ross, was genuinely overweight. Sherman also parodied Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Titwillow” from The Mikado, in the song “The Bronx Bird-Watcher” (on My Son, the Celebrity), as well as several other Gilbert and Sullivan songs.
Sherman’s career success was short-lived: after peaking in 1963, his popularity declined rather quickly. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, impersonator Vaughn Meader vowed to never again do a Kennedy impression, and perhaps because of this ominous shadow – Meader was a very popular parody impressionist of the day – and the resulting reluctance to book such acts, the public saw less of Sherman’s type of comedy. By 1965, Sherman had released two albums that did not make the Top 50 and in 1966, Warner Bros. dropped him from the label. His last album for the company, Togetherness, was released in 1967 to poor reviews and poorer sales. All of Sherman’s previous releases had been recorded in front of a live studio audience – or in the case of Live, Hoping You Are the Same, recorded during a Las Vegas performance – but Togetherness was not, and the lack of an audience and their response affected the result, as did the nondescript backup singers and studio orchestra. In 1969, Sherman wrote the script and lyrics – but not the music, which was written by Albert Hague – for The Fig Leaves Are Falling, a flop Broadway musical that lasted only four performances in 1969, despite direction by theater legend George Abbott and a cast that included Barry Nelson, Dorothy Loudon, and David Cassidy. Still creative, in 1973 Sherman published the controversial The Rape of the A*P*E*, which detailed his point of view on American Puritanism and the sexual revolution. In 1971, Sherman was the voice of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat for the television special. He also did voice work for Dr. Seuss on the Loose, his last project before his death.
Late in his life, Sherman drank and ate heavily which resulted in a dangerous weight gain; he later developed diabetes and struggled with lung disease. In 1966, his wife Dee filed for divorce and received full custody of their son and daughter. Sherman lived on unemployment benefits for a time and moved into the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital near Calabasas, California for a short time to lose weight. He died of emphysema at home in West Hollywood ten days before his 49th birthday. He is entombed in Culver City, California’s Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery.
- November, 30, 1924
- Chicago, Illinois
- November, 20, 1973
- Los Angeles, California
- Hillside Memorial Park
- Culver City, California