A true Renaissance man, Steve Allen (1921-2000) accomplished more in one lifetime than most men could in ten. Author of more than 50 books, composer of thousands of songs, and a comic genius, Allen will undoubtedly be remembered best as a pioneer of the late-night television talk show.
Allen's stint as the first host of the Tonight Show, a late-night TV institution, paved the way for his well-known successors, including Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, and Jay Leno. But Allen was far more than just a witty, wise cracking television personality. For decades he captivated radio and television audiences with his unique blend of humor—sometimes sophisticated and subtle and other times bordering on the slapstick. However, this somewhat superficial comic facade masked a complex man of many parts. He was an accomplished pianist who loved jazz, a composer of note, an activist who championed many causes, an actor, and a thoughtful author. Steven Allen was a true fount of creativity, driven by a force that he admitted as bigger than he. "I don't seem to have much control over it," he told People Magazine not long before his death. "There's always a certain excitement that accompanies the creative impulse, and that energy always gets me going."
Born into Vaudeville
Born Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen in New York City on December 21, 1921, he was the son of vaudeville comedians Billy Allen and Belle Montrose. When Allen was only 18 months old, his father died suddenly. Because she needed to continue performing to earn a living, his mother left young Allen in the care of her family—the Donohues—in Chicago while she traveled the vaudeville circuit. His boyhood was unsettled at best, and he attended 18 different schools before finally graduating from high school. Of Belle, Allen later observed that "she had an innate wit" but "was really not ideally cast for the role of mother."
Despite the turbulence of his childhood, Allen credits his years with the Donohues with ingraining in him a sense of comedy and comic timing that, in the years to come, would serve him well. The Donohues created for Allen a world of laughter, bantering and bickering constantly but never without at least a touch of humor. In 1989 he told the Boston Globe: "The reason I don't have ego problems is that I'm clear about one thing. My gifts are in the same category as the color of my eyes: genetic. It's just a roll of the dice."
After finishing high school in Chicago, Allen headed to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and later transferred to Arizona State Teachers College (now Arizona State University) in Tempe. Even the change in location failed to jump-start Allen's interest in formal higher education, and he dropped out of college in 1942. Alone in Arizona after leaving school, he managed to land a job as a disk jockey at Phoenix radio station KOY, where he produced his own show. Outside of work, he developed a comedy act that he showcased in local clubs. In 1943, Allen wed Dorothy Goodman, his college sweetheart, with whom he had three sons, Steve Jr., Brian, and David. The couple was divorced in 1952.
Before long, with World War II raging in Europe and the Pacific, Allen was drafted into the Army, but he was released from his military service obligation after only a few months because of his frequent asthma attacks. In his 1960 autobiography, Mark It and Strike It, Allen described himself in the early 1940s as "a pampered, sickly bean-pole, too weak for athletics and too asthmatic for the Army."
A Job in Hollywood
After his release from the Army, Allen headed west to Hollywood, where he landed a job with radio station KNX in 1948. It was at KNX that Allen developed his now-familiar routine of blending relaxed banter, tickling the ivories, discussing his mail, and spur-of-the-moment improvisations—a blend that clearly appealed to his radio audience. So popular was Allen's radio show that two years later he decided to take it to television. On Christmas Day 1950, the Steve Allen Show made its television debut. Before long, Allen was invited to join the panel of the popular television quiz show, What's My Line?
In 1953, Allen's big break came when he was asked to host a late-night talk show on NBC television. It was an untried format at a time of night—11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.— that usually attracted few viewers, and most knowledgeable observers held out little hope for its success. But they hadn't reckoned on the magic that Allen could conjure up on very short notice. And conjure it, he did. Building on a base made up of the same blend of music, banter, and zany sketches that had so charmed his radio audiences, Allen added the allure of high-profile guest stars. The combination proved irresistible to television viewers who suddenly started pushing back their bedtimes so they wouldn't miss the Tonight Show. Not only did Allen fashion a roaring success out of a format most thought held little promise, but he laid the groundwork for some of the skits his successors would be performing on the Tonight Show years later. Johnny Carson's Carnac owes much to Allen's Question Man, first showcased on the late-night show in the mid-1950s. In 1954, Allen married Jayne Meadows, a film and television actress he had met at a dinner party. Meadows, born of missionary parents in Wu Chang, China, was the sister of Audrey Meadows, who was best known for her portrayal of Jackie Gleason's wife in the "Honeymooners" sketches. Two years later, Allen played the title role in The Benny Goodman Story, a feature motion picture.
Head to Head with Sullivan
Encouraged by the success of the Tonight Show, a success built largely on the charisma and creativity of Allen, NBC, in 1956, asked the comedian to put together a variety/ comedy show the network could air opposite the wildly popular Ed Sullivan Show on CBS Sunday nights. For a while, Allen juggled the responsibilities for both shows. By 1957, however, he left the Tonight Show to focus solely on his Sunday night Steve Allen Show. Allen's show proved to be stiff competition for Ed Sullivan, running neck and neck in the ratings for the four years it was on the air. In 1960, after winning the Peabody Award for the best comedy show, Allen decided to leave the show after seven years with NBC.
However, Allen was hardly through with television. He took his many talents to ABC, which hosted Allen's weekly comedy hour during the 1961-62 season. This was followed by a show patterned closely after his very successful Tonight Show format. That show, sponsored by Westinghouse, ran for three years, after which Allen jumped to CBS to host for three seasons that network's popular game show I've Got a Secret. Allen and his wife hosted a weekly comedy show for CBS during the summer of 1967. He followed up the summer show with a daily TV series that was syndicated by Filmways and Golden West Broadcasters and ran from 1968 through 1972.
Throughout his years in television, Allen introduced to American audiences some of the most gifted comedians in the land. Among his finds were Jonathan Winters, Don Knotts, Bill Dana, Louis Nye, Tom Poston, Foster Brooks, Gabe Dell, and Tim Conway. Many of these comics worked on Allen's next major television project, a weekly 90-minute program entitled Laughback, which featured a mixture of live comic routines and filmed highlights from past Allen shows.
In a 1989 interview with a reporter for the Boston Globe, Allen offered his views on humor: "Jokes are always about sexual frustrations, about being too fat or too skinny. We laugh at our tragedies in order to prevent our suffering … If we think about the tragedies on our planet, we could spend all day in bed crying. So we laugh to survive, to continue our lives."
Developed Comedy Specials
Allen earned a reputation as a man who could successfully juggle a vast number of projects. In addition to his long-running TV projects, he developed a number of successful comedy specials. Among these was ABC's annual spoof of the beauty pageant phenomenon. Entitled the Unofficial Miss Las Vegas Showgirl Beauty Queen Pageant, the show's premiere outing in 1974 was hailed by Johnny Carson as "the funniest show of the year."
A prolific author and songwriter, Allen turned out more than 50 books and literally thousands of songs, earning a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the modern era's most productive composer of songs. Perhaps his best-known song is "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," which became his theme. His books ran the gamut from humor to social protest. Shortly before his death, he was putting the finishing touches on Vulgarians at the Gate, a protest against what Allen saw as excessive sex and violence on television. One of Allen's earlier books, Beloved Son, drew its theme from a painful family experience. In the mid-1970s, his son Brian joined a commune, operated by what many believed was a cult, and changed his name to Logic Israel. His son's sudden distancing of himself from his father and the rest of his family "hurt and stunned" Allen at first, but in time he came to better understand and appreciate Brian's beliefs. It was this gradual process of acceptance that he recounted in Beloved Son.
Throughout his career, Allen was outspoken on a number of sensitive issues close to his heart. A lifelong Democrat, he once considered running for Congress. In the 1960s he campaigned hard for migrant workers' rights. He held strong opinions about a variety of topics, including capital punishment, nuclear policy, and freedom of expression. Although he remained committed to the importance of freedom of speech, he was deeply offended by the growing sexual content on television, particularly from the tabloid TV shows in the late 1990s. He lashed out at those responsible for such programming, contending that they were "taking television to the garbage dump."
Despite his success, Allen remained a humble man, marveling at being able to achieve all that he had. On that subject, Allen said in an interview with Associated Press: "The world has already let me do about 28 times more than I thought I was gonna be able to do at the age of 217—so, thanks, to the universe." Worried that he might not accomplish all of his goals, Allen in 1979 told People Magazine: "It kills me that someday I'll have to die. I don't see how I'll ever get it all done."
The end came for Allen on October 30, 2000. He showed up that evening at the Encino, California, home of his son Bill, bearing a Halloween cake. He clucked over the Halloween costume granddaughter Amanda, 6, was planning to wear the next night and played with his grandchildren for awhile. Later, he complained of feeling tired and asked if could rest in the guest bedroom. When son Bill went to check on him later, he discovered that his father was no longer breathing. He had died of a massive heart attack.
His death was felt keenly among Allen's friends in the entertainment business. Milton Berle told People Magazine: "We've lost a heavyweight. He was one of the most talented and kindest men we had in the industry." Jay Leno, who recalled fondly watching Allen on TV as a boy, wrote in Time: "He never played dumb. Rather, he played to his intellect. And he was as comfortable talking to the man on the street as with world leaders. The highest compliment my mom could give anyone was that he was a nice man. Steve Allen was truly a nice man." Bill Maher of ABC-TV's Politically Incorrect told People Magazine that Allen was "the Beatles of talk shows. Anybody could get his comedy, and he touched audiences in a powerful way. Everything that came after was just a variation."
Entertainment Weekly, November 10, 2000.
People, November 13, 2000.
Time, November 13, 2000.
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"Steve Allen," Friars Club of California, http://www.friarsclub-ca.org/biosteve.html (November 11, 2001).