Allen was a credible pianist and a prolific composer, having penned over 14,000 songs, one of which was recorded by Perry Como and Margaret Whiting, others by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Les Brown and Gloria Lynne. Allen won a Grammy award in 1963 for best jazz composer with his song The Gravy Waltz. Allen wrote more than 50 books, has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a Hollywood theatre named in his honor.
Life and CareerEdit
Allen was born in New York City, the son of Billy and Isabelle Allen (nee Donahue) a vaudeville comedienne, who performed under the stage name Belle Monstrose. Allen was raised on the South Side of Chicago by his mother's Irish Catholic family. Milton Berle once called Allen's mother "the funniest woman in vaudeville".
Allen's first radio job was on station KOY in Pheonix, Arizona, after he left Arizona State Teachers College (now Arizona State University) in Tempe, While still a sophomore. He enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II and was trained as an infantryman. He spent his service time at Camp Roberts, California, and did not serve overseas. Allen returned to Pheonix before deciding to move back to California.
Allen became an announcer for KFAC in Los Angeles and then moved to the Mutual Broadcasting System in 1946, talking the station into airing a five-nights-a-week comedy show, Smile Time (co-starring Wendell Noble). After Allen moved to CBS Radio's KNX in Los Angeles, his music-and-talk-hour format gradually changed to include more talk on a full-hour, late-night show, boosting his popularity and creating standing-room-only studio audiences. During one episode of the show reserved primarily for an interview with Doris Day, his guest star failed to appear, so Allen picked up a microphone and went into the audience to ad lib for the first time. His radio show attracted a huge local following, and in 1950 it replaced Our Miss Brooks, exposing Allen to a national audience for the first time
Allen's first television experience had come in 1949 when he answered an ad for a TV announcer for professional wrestling. He knew nothing about wrestling. so he watched some shows and discovered that the announcers did not have well-fared names for the holds. When he got the job, he created names for man of the holds, some of which are still used today.
After CBS radio gave Allen a weekly prime time show, CBS television believed it could groom him for national small-screen stardom and gave Allen his first network television show. The Steve Allen Show premiered at 11 am on Christmas Day, 1950, and was later moved into thirty-minute, early evening slot. This new show required him to uproot his family and move from LA to New York, since at the time a coast to coast program could not originate from LA. The show was only a modest ratings success and was cancelled in 1952, after which CBS tried several shows to showcase Allen's talent.
Allen achieved national attention when he was pressed into service at the last minute to host Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scout because Godfrey was unable to appear. Allen turned one of Godfrey's live Lipton commercials upside down, preparing tea and instant soup on camera and then pouring both into Godfrey's ukulele. With the audience (including Godfrey, watching from Miami) uproariously and thoroughly entertained, Allen gained major recognition as a comedian and host.
He was a regular panelists on the popular panel show What's My Line? (where he coined the popular catchphrase "Is it Bigger than a breadbox?") from 1953 until 1954 and returned frequently as a panelists after Fred Allen died in March 1956, until the series ended in 1967.
- The Benny Goodman Story (1956)
- Steve Allen starred in The Benny Goodman Story opposite Donna Reed.
- Down Memory Lane (1949)
The Tonight ShowEdit
Leaving CBS, he created a late-night, New York variety TV program in 1953 for what is now WNBC-TV. The following year on September 27, 1954, the show went on the full NBC network as The Tonight Show, the fellow radio personality Gene Rayburn (who later went on to host his game shows such as Match Game, 1962-1982) as the original announcer. The show ran from 11:15 pm to 1:00 am on the East Coast
While Today developer Sylvester "Pat" Weaver is often credited as the Tonight creator, Allen often pointed out that he had previously created it as a local New York show. Allen told his national audience that first evening: "This is Tonight, and I can't think of too much to tell you about it except I want to give you the bad news first: this program is going to go on forever...you think you're tired now. Wait until you see one o'clock roll around!".
It was as host of The Tonight Show that Allen pioneered the "man on the street" interviews and audience participation comedy breaks that have commonplace on late-night TV.
The Steve Allen ShowEdit
In 1956, NBC offer Allen a new, prime-time Sunday Night variety hour, The Steve Allen Show, aimed at dethroning CBS's top-ranking The Ed Sullivan Show. The show included a typical run of star performers, including early TV appearances by Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Many popular film and television stars were guest stars including: Bob Hope, Kim Novak, Errol Flynn, Abbott and Costello, Esther Williams, Jerry Lewis, Martha Raye, The Three Stooges and a host of others.
The show's regulars were Tom Poston, Louis Nye, Bill Dana, Don Knotts, Pat Harrington Jr., Dayton Allen and Gabriel Dell. All except film veteran Dell were relatively obscure performers prior to their stints with Allen, own name; Nyle was "Gordon Hathaway", fey Madison Avenue executive; Dana played amiable Latino "Jose Jimenez"; Knotts was an exceedingly jittery man who (when asked if he was nervous, invariably replied with an alarmed "NO!"; Harrington was Italian immigrant "Guido Panzini"; Dayton Allen played wide-eyed zanies answering any given question with "why not?". Gabe Dell usually played straight men in sketches (policemen, newsmen, dramatic actors, etc.) Dell was also one of the original Dead End Kids and often played the character Boris Nadel, a Bela Lugosi/Dracula lookalike.
Other recurring routines included "Crazy Shots" (also known as "Wild Pictures"), a series of sight gags accompanied by Allen on Piano; Allen inviting audience members to select three musical notes at random and then composing a songbased n the three notes; a satire on radio's long-running The Answer Man and a precursor to Johnny Carson's Carnac the Magnificent (Sample answer: "Et tu brute."/Allen's reply: "How many pizzas did you eat, Caesar?").
The live Sunday night show aired opposite The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS and Maverick on ABC. One of Allen's guest was comedian (and future successor to Allen as host of The Tonight Show) Johnny Carson. Among Carson's material during that appearance was a portrayal of how a poker game between Allen, Sullivan and Maverick star James Garner (all impersonated by Carson) would transpire. Allen's programs also featured a good deal of music; he helped the careers of singers Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, who were regulars on his early Tonight Show and Sammy Davis Jr.
Allen's show also had one of the longest unscripted "crack-ups" on live TV when Allen began laughing hysterically during "Big Bill Allen's Sports Roundup". He laughed uncontrollably for a minute, with the audience laughing along, because as he later explained, he caught sight of his unkempt hair on and off-camera monitor. He kept brushing his hair and changing hats to hide the messy hair and the more he tried to correct his appearance, the funnier it got.
Allen helped the recently Polaroid become popular by demonstrating its use in live commercials and amassed a huge windfall for his work because he had opted to be paid in Polaroid Corporation stock.
Allen remained host of "Tonight" for three night a week (Monday and Tuesday nights were taken up by Ernie Kovacs) until early 1957, when he left the "Tonight" show to devote his attention to the Sunday night program. It was his (and NBC's) hope that The Steve Allen Show could defeat Ed Sullivan in the ratings. Nevertheless the TV western Maverick often bested both The Ed Sullivan Show and The Steve Allen Show in audience size. In September 1959, Allen relocated to Los Angeles and left Sunday night television (the 1959-60 season originated from the NBC Color City in Burbank as The Steve Allen Plymouth Show, on Monday Nights) Back in Los Angeles, he continues to write songs, hosted other variety shows and wrote books and articles about comedy.
Later TV ProjectsEdit
From 1962 to 1964, Allen re-created The Tonight Show on a new late-night The Steve Allen Show, which was syndicated by Westinghouse TV. The five-nights-a-week taped show was broadcast from an old vaudeville theatre renamed The Steve Allen Playhouse on 1228 N. Vine St. in Hollywood. (Several sources have erroneously identified Allen's show using the name of his theater.)
The show marked by the same wild and unpredictable stunts and comedy skits that are often extended down the street to a supermarket known as the Hollywood Ranch Market. He also presented Southern California eccentrics, including health food advocate Gypsy Boots, quirky physics professor Dr. Julius Summer Miller, wacko comic Prof. Irwin Corey and an early musical performance by Frank Zappa.
During one episode, Allen placed a telephone call to the home of Johnny Carson, posing as a ratings company interviewer, asking Carson if the television was on and what program he was watching. Carson did not immediately realize the caller was Allen. A rarity is the exchange between Allen and Carson about Carson's guests, permitting him to plug his own show on a competing network.
One notable program, which Westinghouse refused to distribute, featured Lenny Bruce during the comic was repeatedly arrested on obscenity charges; footage from this program was first telecast in 1998 in a Bruce documentary aired on HBO. Regis Philbin took over hosting the Westinghouse show in 1964, but only briefly.
The show also featured plenty of jazz played by jazz played by Allen and members of the show's band, the Donn Trenner Orchestra, which included such virtuoso musicians as guitarists Herb Ellis and flamboyant comedic hipster trombonist Frank Rosolino (whom Allen created with originating the "Hiyo!" chant later popularized by Ed McMahon). While the show was not an overwhelming success in its day, David Letterman, Steve Martin, Harry Shearer, Robin Williams and a number of other prominent comedians have cited Allen's "Westinghosue show", which they watched as teenagers, as being highly influential on their own comedic visions.
Allen later produced a second half-hour show for Westinghouse titled, Jazz Scene USA, which featured West Coast jazz musicians such as Rosolino, Stan Kenton and Teddy Edwards. The short-lived show was hosted by Oscar Brown Jr.
Allen hosted a number of programs up until the 1980s including: The New Steve Allen Show in 1961 and the game show I've Got a Secret (replacing original host Garry Moore) in 1964. In the summer of 1967, he brought most of the regulars from over the years back with The Steve Allen Comedy Hour, featuring the debuts of: Rob Reiner, Richard Dreyfuss and John Byner and featuring Ruth Buzzi, who would become famous soon after on "Laugh-In". In 1968-71, he returned to syndicated late-night variety-talk with the same wacky stunts that would influence David Letterman in late years, including becoming a human hood ornament; jumping into vats of oatmeal and cottage cheese and being slathered in dog food, allowing dogs backstage to feast on the free food. During the run of the series, Allen also introduced Albert Brooks and Steve Martin to a national audience for the first time.
A syndicated version of I've Got a Secret hosted by Allen and featuring panelists Pat Carroll and Richard Dawson was taped in Hollywood and aired during the 1972-73 season. In 1977, he produced Steve Allen's Laugh-Back, a syndicated series combining vintage Allen film clips with new talk-show material reuniting his 1950s TV gang. From 1986 through 1988, Allen hosted a daily three-hour comedy show heard nationally on the NBC radio network that featured sketches and America's best-known comedians as regular guests. His co-host and radio personality Mark Simone and they were joined frequently by comedy writers Larry Gelbart, Herb Sargent and Bob Einstein.
From 1977 until 1981, Allen hosted the show Meeting of Minds, which aired on the Public Broadcasting Network (PBS). In the show, actors "portrayed historic individuals engaging in spirited, at times heated, debates over issues of racism, women's rights, crime and punishment and religious toleration. Allen first had the concept for the show in 1959, but took about twenty years to make it happen.
In 1963, Allen's national fan club was headed up by two 10-year-old boys from Minnesota, Fred Frandle and Brian Tolzmann conducted one of the final interviews with Allen in August 2000.
Composer, Actor and AuthorEdit
Allen was an accomplished composer who wrote over 10,000 songs. He began his recording career in 1953 by singing with Decca Records' Brunswick Records sublabel. In one famous stint, he made a bet with singer-songwriter Frankie Laine that he could write 50 songs a day for a week. Composing on public display in the window of a Hollywood music store, Allen met the quota, winning $1,000 from Laine. One of the songs, Let's Got to Church Next Sunday, was recorded by Perry Como and Margaret Whiting. Allen's best-known songs are "This Could Be the Start of Something" and "The Gravy Waltz", the latter having won a Grammy award in 1963 for Best Jazz Composition. He also wrote lyrics for the standard "Picnic" and "South Rampant Street Parade". Allen composed the score to the Paul Mantee imitation James Bond film A Man Called Dagger (1967), with the scores by Ronald Stein.
Allen wrote the music and lyrics for the Broadway musical Sophie, which was based on the early career of "The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas" entertainer, Sophie Tucker. The book for the show was by Philip Pruneau; Libi Stagier and Aunt Lund were featured in the leading roles. "Sophie" opened at the Winter Garden Theatre after tryouts in all three cities on April 15, 1963, to mostly unfavorable critical notices; it closed five days later on April 20. after 8 performances. As Ken Mandelbaum noted in his 1991 book "Not Since Carrie", "The show received consistently negative negative reviews in Columbus, Detroit (and) Philadelphia... the score went unrecorded (by the cast), although several months later Judy Garland sang three songs from "Sophie" on her CBS television series... Tucker was around when the show about her was done; she even inveseted in it when it was floundering on the road at sat through the opening in a box seat. Allen's only other produced musical was the 1969 London flop "Belle Star", which starred Betty Grable. A "complied" recording of "Sophie" was later released with vocals by Allen, Libi Staiger, Judy Garland and others. The CD release (AEI-CD 027) is currently out-of-print and rare.
Allen was also an actor. He wrote and starred in his first film, the Mack Sennett comedy compliation Down Memory Lane, in 1949, His most famous film appearance is in 1955's The Benny Goodman Story, in the title role. The film, while an average biopic of its day, was heralded for its music, featuring many alumni of the Goodman band. Allen later recalled his one contribution to the film's music, used in the film's early scenes: the accomplished Benny Goodman could no longer produce the sound of a clarinet beginner, and that was the only sound Allen could make on a clarinet! In 1960, he appeared as the character "Dr. Ellison" in the episode "Play Acting" of CBS's anthology series The DuPont Show with June Allyson though his The Steve Allen Show had been in competition with June Allyson program the preceding season.
From 1977 until 1981, Allen was the producer of the award-winning PBS series, Meeting of Minds, a "talk-show" with actors playing the parts of notable historic figures as hosts. The series pitted the likes of Socrates, Marie Antoinette, Thomas Paine, Sir Thomas More, Attila the Hun, Karl Marx, Emily Dickinson, Charles Darwin and Galileo Galilei in dialogue and argument. This was the show Allen wanted to be remembered for because he believed that the issues and characters were timeless and would survive long after his death.
Allen as a comedy writer and author of more than 50 books, including Dumbth, a commentary on the American educational system and Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion and Morality. Twenty of his books were concerned with his views about religion. Perhaps influenced by his son's involvement with a religious cult, he became an outspoken critic of organized religion and an active member of such humanist and skeptical organizations as the Council for Media Integrity, a group the debunked pseudoscientific claims.
Allen and rock musicEdit
When Allen was often critical of rock 'n' roll music, he often booked rock 'n' roll acts on his television program, The Steve Allen Show. The program featured acts like: Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Louis Jordan & The Tympany Five, The Treniers and The Collins Kids. Allen famously scooped Ed Sullivan by being one of the first to present Elvis Presley on network television (after Presley have appeared on the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey Stage Show and Milton Berle shows) Presley was an exceedingly controversial act at the time, but "Allen found a way...to save the Puritans". H assured his viewers that he would not allow Presley 'to do anything that will offend anyone'. NBC announced that a revamped, purified and somewhat abridged Presley' had agreed to sing while standing reasonably still, dressed in black tie". Allen had Elvis wearing a top hat and the white tie and tails of a "high class" musician while singing Hound Dog to an actual hound who was similarly attired. Presley often referred to the Allen show as the most ridiculous performance in his career.
The singer was also featured in a cowboy sketch with Allen, Andy Griffith and Imogene Coca. The sketch was consistent with other situations in which Allen had singers in such comedic scenarios on his show. In contrast to the simple "singing in front of the curtain" style of the Sullivan show. The house singers on the early Tonight show were similarly incorporated into the program's sketches. In addition, Allen's skit with Presley actually was less a put-down of Presley and mainly a satire of the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride, the Shreveport-based country music radio show (over KWKH) Presley performed on in 1954 and 1955.
In a 1996 interview Allen was asked about the show. Asked if NBC executives expressed any concerns about Elvis's planned appearance, Allen replied that he'd "read more nonsense about" it and a lot of wrong reports have gotten into the public-" "If there ever was, I never heard about it. And since it was my show, I think it would have brought to my attention." Regarding Elvis's movements he stated "No! I took no objection to the movements I'd seen him make on the Dorsey Brothers show. I didn't see a problem. Of course, I had read about some of the controversy, much of it generated by Ed Sullivan, who was opposite of our show CBS. It didn't matter to me. I was using good production sense in booking him.
In his book, Hi-Ho-Steverino! Allen wrote the following, "When I booked Elvis, I naturally had no interest in just presenting him vaudeville-style and letting him do his spot as he might in concert. Instead we worked him into the comedy fabric of our program". "We certainly didn't inhibit Elvis' then-notorious pelvic gyrations, but I think that the fact he had on formal evening attire made him, purely on his own, slightly alter his presentation.
Allen also appeared on the shows of entertainers, even the rock and roll program The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom on ABC.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Allen recorded a solo piano Piancorder album for the Piancorder Contemporary Artist Series, joining other artist-painists of the day such as: Liberace, Floyd Cramer, Roger Williams and Roger Williams and Johnny Guarnieri. His solo album was popular. The Pianocorder was the first modern mechanical player pianomade for the public that used solenoids to power the keys. Later, it was brought out by Yamaha Disklavier and discontinued and is known today as the Yamaha Disklavier. During the late 1980s, Allen and his second wife Jayne Meadows made numerous appearances on the drama St. Elsewhere, playing Victor Erlich's estranged parents.
The 1985 documentary film Kerouac, the Movie starts and ends with footage of Jack Kerouac reading from On the Road as Allen accompanies on the soft jazz piano from The Steve Allen Plymouth Show in 1959. "Are you Nervous?" Allen asks him, Kerouac answers "Noo!", a take-off on the character played by Don Knotts.
In 1986, Steve Allen was introducted into the Television Hall of Fame.
Allen appeared in a PSA advocating for New Eyes for the Needy in the 1990s.
Also, Allen made a cameo appearance in Wrestlemania VI in a skit with The Bolsheviks. Allen told the Bolsheviks that he was going to play the Soviet National Anthem while The Bolsheviks sang along; however, Allen simply stalled playing other notes while never actually playing the anthem. He later appeared as a guest commentator during a match later on the show.
Prior to his death, Allen also narrated The Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling, a documentary of professional wrestling from it origins to 1998.
Allen was married to Dorothy Goodman in 1943 and they had three children, Steve Jr., Brian and David. That marriage ended in divorce in 1952. Allen's second wife was actress Jayne Meadows, sister to actress Audrey Meadows. The Marriage of Allen and Meadows produced one son, Bill Allen. They were married in Waterford, Connecticut on July 31, 1954. They remained married until his death in 2000.
Allen received a traditional Irish Catholic upbringing. He later became a secular humanist and Humanists Laureate for the Academy of Humanisms, a member of CSICOP and the Council for Secular Humanism. He received the Rose Elizabeth Bird Commitment to Justice Award for Death Penalty Focus in 1998. He was a student and supporter of general semantics, recommending in Dumbth and giving the Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture in 1992. In spite of his liberal position of free speech, his later concerns abut the lewdness he saw on radio and television, particularly the programs of Howard Stern, caused him to make proposal restricting the content of programs, allying himself with the Parents Television Council. His full-page ad on the subject appeared in newspapers just before his unexpected death. Allen's views changed in the last dozen years of his life, as he called himself an "Involved Presbyterian". He had been married for decades to Jayne Meadows, who was the daughter of a Christian missionary.
Allen made his last appearance on The Tonight Show on September 27, 1994, for the show's 40th anniversary broadcast. Jay Leno was effusive in praise and actually knelt down and kissed his ring.
He was a Democrat whereas his wife was a Republican.
Allen was keenly interested in social justice and wrote pamphlets on a variety of issues, including the problems facing migrant workers, as well as the problems of capital punishment and nuclear weapons proliferation. He once considered running for Congress from California, calling his politics, "middle-of-the-road-radicalism". He actively campaigned against obscenity on television and criticized comedians like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce for use of expletives in their stand-up routines.
On October 30, 2000, Allen was driving his son's home in Encino, California when his Lexus was stuck by another vehicle backing out of the driveway. Neither Allen nor the other driver believed he was injured and damaged to both vehicles was minimal, so the two exchanged insurance information an Allen continued.
Shorty after arriving at his son's home (after carving pumpkins with his grandchildren and taping a radio tribute to an old friend, satirist Paul Krassner) Allen did not feel right and excused himself to go lie down in the den. After a while, his son became concerned and entered the room to find him not breathing. Paramedics were summoned, but could not revive Allen. The postmortem revealed that he had suffered major injuries from the car accident (broken ribs and a collapsed lung were the results of a tempted CPR) and the cause of death was a massive heart attack caused by a ruptured artery. Allen's personal physician believed it had been triggered by shock due to the collision which was aggravated by his age and preexisting coronary artery disease. He had not bothered telling his family about the car accident, and they were unaware of it until after his death.
He is interred in an unmarked grave at Forest Lawn Memorial Park-Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles.
Allen has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a television star at 1720 Vine St. and a radio Star at 1537 Vine St.