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Steve Allen

Steve Allen

In two short parts totalling 22 minutes, Steve Allen talks about his role as Benny Goodman in The Benny Goodman Story as well as many other Big Band related subjects.

Part 1

Part 2 

Biography for Steve Allen

Stephen Valentine Patrick William "Steve" Allen (December 26, 1921– October 30, 2000) was an American television personality, musician, actor, comedian, and writer. Though he got his start in radio, Allen is best-known for his television career. He first gained national attention as a guest host on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. He graduated to become the first host of The Tonight Show, where he was instrumental in innovating the concept of the television talk show. Thereafter, he hosted numerous game and variety shows, including The Steve Allen Show, I've Got a Secret, The New Steve Allen Show, and was a regular panel member on CBS' What's My Line?

Allen was also known as 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 composition, with his song The Gravy Waltz. Allen wrote more than 50 books and has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Early life

Allen was born inNew York City, the son of Isabelle Allen (née Donohue), a vaudeville comedienne who performed under the name Belle Montrose, and Carroll Allen, a vaudeville performer who used the stage name Billy Allen. 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 Phoenix, 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, near Monterey, California and did not serve overseas. Allen returned to Phoenix before deciding to move back to California.

Career

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 format gradually changed to include more talk on his half-hour 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-defined names for the holds. When he got the job, he created names for many of the holds, some of which are still used today. The gig lasted several months before ABC decided to replace the matches with old movies.

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 a thirty-minute, early evening slot. This new show required him to uproot his family and move from LA to New York, since at that time a coast to coast program could not originate from LA. The show was only a modest ratings success, and was canceled in 1952, after which CBS tried several shows to showcase Allen's talent.

The Tonight Show

Allen achieved national attention when he was pressed into service at the last minute to host Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts 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. Leaving CBS, he created a late-night New York talk-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, with fellow radio personality Gene Rayburn (who later went on to host hit game shows such as Match Game) as the original announcer. The show ran from 11:15pm to 1:00am on the East Coast.

While Today Show developer 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 nationwide 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 become commonplace on late-night TV. In 1956, while still hosting Tonight, Allen added a Sunday evening variety show scheduled directly against The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS and Maverick on ABC. One of Allen's guests was comedian Johnny Carson, a future successor to Allen as host of The Tonight Show. 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 helped the careers of singers Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, who were regulars on his early Tonight Show, and Sammy Davis, Jr.

The Steve Allen Show

In 1956, NBC offered Allen a new, prime time Sunday night Steve Allen Show aimed at dethroning CBS' top-rated Ed Sullivan Show. The show included a typical run of star performers, including early TV appearances by Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. However, Allen, a pianist whose love of jazz influenced all his TV shows and the music presented on them, had a strong personal distaste for rock 'n' roll music. He "came from the sheet music era, where songwriters crafted compositions that anyone could play around the piano at home." For him, the "nonsense lyrics" of rock 'n' roll "were expressions of the semicoherent sexual frenzy barely contained within the recordings and live performances. Rock 'n' roll was about the excitement the artists pitched and the kids caught; it wasn't supposed to hold up when lyrics were amputated from the big beat. But that comic bit was just one of Allen's misdemeanors. "He often presented skits ridiculing rock musicians: for instance, controversy surrounded his decision to present Elvis Presley wearing a white bow tie and black tails and singing Hound Dog to a live basset hound for comedic effect. On the other hand, Allen was the first television show host to present many African American jazz musicians. Allen also provided a nationwide audience for his famous "man on the street" comics, such as Pat Harrington, Jr.; Don Knotts; Louis Nye; Bill Dana; Dayton Allen; and Tom Poston. All were relatively obscure performers prior to their stints with Allen, and all went on to stardom. Other memorable Allen routines involved composing a song based on three suggested notes and a satire on radio's long-run The Answer Man.

Allen remained host of "Tonight" for three nights 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. While he did defeat Sullivan on a few occasions, Sullivan continued to dominate; but what the critics had called an epic battle of two television giants ended up with both beaten handily by the Western Maverick.In September 1959, Allen relocated to Los Angeles and left Sunday night television. Back in Los Angeles, he continued to write songs, hosted other variety shows, and wrote books and articles about comedy.

Later years

The 1985 documentary film Kerouac, the Movie starts and ends with footage of Jack Kerouac reading from On the Road as Allen accompanies on soft jazz piano from The Steve Allen Plymouth Show in 1959. "Are you nervous?" Allen asks him; Kerouac answers nervously, "Noo," a take-off on the character usually played by Don Knotts.

Allen helped the recently invented Polaroid camera 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.

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 theater 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 was marked by the same wild and unpredictable stunts and comedy skits that 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 Sumner 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 didn't immediately realize the caller was Allen, and the exchange is classic humor from both, beginning to end. 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 time the comic was repeatedly being 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. Allen's show also had one of the longest unscripted "crack-ups" on live TV when Allen began laughing hysterically while imitating an announcer reading the sports news. He laughed uncontrollably for over a minute, with the audience laughing along, because, as he later explained, he caught sight of his unkempt hair on an off-camera monitor and found his look ridiculous.

The show also featured plenty of jazz played by Allen and members of the show's band, the Donn Trenner Orchestra, which included such virtuoso musicians as guitarist Herb Ellis and flamboyantly comedic hipster trombonist Frank Rosolino (whom Allen credited 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 "Westinghouse 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, 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 television programs up until the 1980s, including the game show I've Got a Secret (replacing original host Garry Moore) in 1964 and The New Steve Allen Show in 1961. He was a regular on the popular panel game show What's My Line? (where he coined the popular phrase, "Is it bigger than a breadbox?") from 1953 to 1954 and returned frequently as a panelist after Fred Allen died in March 1956, until the series ended in 1967. 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 nightly variety-talk with the same wacky stunts that would influence David Letterman in later years, including becoming a human hood ornament; jumping into vats of oatmeal and cottage cheese; and being slathered with dog food, allowing dogs backstage to feast on the free food. Allen in those two years also introduced Albert Brooks and Steve Martin for the first time to a national audience.

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 premiered in local syndication in 1972. 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 cohost was radio personality Mark Simone, and they were joined frequently by comedy writers Larry Gelbart, Herb Sargent, and Bob Einstein.

Allen was an accomplished composer who wrote over 10,000 songs. In one famous stunt, he made a bet with singer-songwriterFrankie 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 Go to Church Next Sunday, was recorded by both Perry Como and Margaret Whiting. Allen's best-known songs are "This Could Be the Start of Something Big" and "The Gravy Waltz," the latter having won a Grammy award in 1963 for Best Jazz Composition. He also wrote lyrics for the standards "Picnic" and "South Rampart Street Parade." Allen composed the score to the Paul Mantee imitation James Bond film A Man Called Dagger (1967), with the score orchestrated by Ronald Stein.

Allen was also an actor. He wrote and starred in his first film, the Mack Sennett comedy compilation 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 the June Allyson program the preceding season.

Allen could play a trumpet—sort of. He wrote and recorded a tune called "Impossible," in which he tries to play it straight, but continues to burst out laughing. (The recording has been played on the Dr. Demento radio show.)

From 1977 to 1981, Allen was the producer of the award-winning PBS series, Meeting of Minds, a "talk show" with actors playing the parts of notable historical figures and Steve Allen as the host. This 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 passing. This may be more an indictment of popular tastes—which Allen himself wrote about in his last book, "Vulgarians at the Gates"—than of any obtuseness on the show's part.

Allen was 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. He also wrote book-length commentaries on show business personalities ("Funny People"; "More Funny People"). 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 that debunked pseudoscientific claims. (For more about Allen's skepticism, see Paul Kurtz, "A Tribute to Steve Allen," Skeptical Inquirer magazine, January/February 2001.)

Allen was notoriously contemptuous of rock 'n' roll music, although he was showman enough to scoop Ed Sullivan by being one of the first to present Elvis Presley on network television (after Presley had appeared on the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey Stage Show and Milton Berle shows). "Allen found a way... to satisfy the Puritans. He assured 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."In fact, on this occasion, Allen had Elvis wear 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. According to Jake Austen, "the way Steve Allen treated Elvis Presley was his federal crime. Allen thought Presley was talentless and absurd, and so he decided to goof on him. Allen set things up so that Presley would show his contrition by appearing in a tuxedo and singing his new song 'Hound Dog' to an elderly basset hound..."Elaine Dundy says that Allen smirkingly presented Elvis "with a roll that looks exactly like a large roll of toilet paper with, says Allen, the 'signatures of eighteen thousand fans.' " Presley looked "at Steve as if to say, 'It's all right. I've been made a worse fool in my life,' and after he patted the basset hound he is about to sing Hound Dog to, he wiped his hands on his trousers as if to wipe away Steve Allen, the dog, and the whole show."Guitarist Scotty Moore later said that Elvis and the members of his band were "all angry about their treatment the previous night." "The next day, as Elvis entered the RCA studios to record 'Hound Dog,' fans greeted him with signs that declared, 'We Want the Real Elvis' and 'We Want the Gyrating Elvis.' In the press, critics were no kinder with the singer than they had ever been, this time pronouncing him a 'cowed kid' who had demonstrated, once again, that he 'couldn't sing or act a lick.' "In a column in Newsweek, John Lardner wrote, "Like Huckleberry Finn, when the widow put him in a store suit and told him not to gap or scratch, [Elvis] had been 'fouled' by NBC's attempt to 'civilize him... for the good of mankind.'"Presley often referred to the Allen show as the most ridiculous performance of his career.

The singer "was later featured in a mediocre cowboy sketch with Allen, Andy Griffith, and Imogene Coca. As 'Tumbleweed Presley,' his big joke was, 'I'm warning you galoots, don't step on my blue suede boots.' "That apparent mockery was consistent with other situations in which Allen had singers in such comic scenarios on his show, in contrast to the simple "singing in front of a curtain" style of the Sullivan show. The house singers on the early Tonight show were subjected to many such stunts. In addition, Allen's skit with Presley actually was less a put-down of Presley and mainly a satire of country music stage shows like the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride, the Shreveport-based country music radio show (over KWKH) Presley performed on in 1954 and 1955. It's highly debatable, given Presley's spirited performance, whether unlike the top hat and tails performance, there was any put-down motivation on Allen's part with this particular skit, since he could have easily done it in any of his other programs.

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 on 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 the fact that he had on formal evening attire made him, purely on his own, slightly alter his presentation."

At that point, Allen was then in his late thirties, and was brought up in his formative years with a big band/jazz perspective. Stan Freberg and others of his generation also comically mocked rock 'n' roll at the time, but credit must be given for simply having the artists on in the first place. Rock 'n' roll was just coming into its own, and the nation itself didn't embrace it collectively at first, particularly folks like Allen, who were brought up in the big band/crooner era. At the very least, he was an unintentional trailblazer of rock simply by breaking in new artists, per Sullivan. Jerry Lee Lewis was so touched by Allen's booking of him for the first time before a national audience that he named his first son Steve Allen Lewis after him.

Allen had many black jazz artists on his early Tonight show, all exposed to a national audience for the first time, includingEarl Hines, Billie Holiday, Bobby Short, Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, Sarah Vaughn, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Domino, Miles Davis, and Count Basie. Allen was honored with numerous awards from black organizations for that very same trailblazing.

In the late 1970s early 80s, Steve Allen recorded a solo piano Pianocorder album for the Pianocorder Contemporary Artists Series, joining other illustrious artists-pianists of the day such as Liberace, Floyd Cramer, Teddy Wilson, Roger Williams, and Johnny Guarnieri to name a few. His solo album was very popular. Pianocorder was founded by Joseph Tushinsky. The Pianocorder was the first modern mechanical player piano made for the public that used solenoids to power the keys. Later, it was bought out by Yamaha-Disklavier and discontinued and is known today as the Yamaha Disklavier. During the late 80s, Allen and his second wife Jayne Meadows made numerous appearances on the drama St. Elsewhere, playing Victor Erlich's estranged parents.

Allen has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: a TV star at 1720 Vine St. and a radio star at 1537 Vine St.

Personal life

Steve 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 from 1954 until his death in 2000.

Allen received a traditionalIrish Catholic upbringing.He later became a secular humanist and Humanist Laureate for the Academy of Humanism, a member of CSICOP and the Council for Secular Humanism.He received the Rose Elizabeth Bird Commitment to Justice Award from Death Penalty Focus in 1998. He was a student and supporter of general semantics, recommending it in Dumbth and giving the Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture in 1992. Allen was a supporter of world government and served on the World Federalist Association Board of Advisers.In spite of his liberal position on free speech, his later concerns about the lewdness he saw on radio and television, particularly the programs of Howard Stern, caused him to make proposals restricting the content of programs, allying himself with the Parents Television Council.His full-page ad on the subject appeared in newspapers a day or two before his unexpected death. Allen later changed his views and began calling himself an "involved Presbyterian" shortly before his death.

Allen made a 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.

Death

On October 30, 2000, Allen was driving to his son's home inEncino, California, when his car was struck by another vehicle backing out of a driveway. Neither Allen nor the other driver believed he was injured and damage to both vehicles was minimal, so the two exchanged insurance information and Allen continued on. Shortly after arriving at his son's home, Allen did not feel quite right and decided to take a nap. While napping, he suffered a massive heart attack and was pronounced dead shortly after 8 p.m. Autopsy results concluded that the traffic accident earlier in the day had caused a blood vessel in his chest to rupture, causing blood to leak into the sac surrounding the heart. This condition is known as haemopericardium.In addition, he suffered four broken ribs as a result of the accident. Allen was two months away from his 79th birthday at the time of his death. He is interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park-Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles.

Steve with wife Jayne Meadows

With wife Jayne Meadows sister of Audrey Meadows

Shows

Songs

Books

Allen's series of mystery novels "starring" himself and wife Jayne Meadows were in part ghostwritten by Walter J. Sheldon, and later Robert Westbrook

        

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