Steve Allen was a multi-talented entertainer who accomplished many things in his long career, though he may be best-remembered for establishing the basic late night talk show format that has continued ever since.
A wacky comedian named Jerry Lester is given due credit for the first popular show in the late night timeslot. His "Broadway Open House," which made a star out of a buxom blonde who named herself Dagmar, made networks realize people would stay up late to watch television, so money could be made after 11:30 p.m.
Lester gave way to Steve Allen's "Tonight Show," which introduced comedians Don Knotts, Louis Nye, Dayton Allen and Bill Dana in a series of "Man on the Street" skits. Allen also featured four young singers — Andy Williams, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme and Pat Kirby — who performed on a rotating basis. One night, when Williams and Ms. Kirby were featured, Lawrence and Ms. Gorme were off getting married.
Allen's late night show became so popular in the mid-1950s that NBC went a step further and threw him to the lions by adding a prime time show to his busy schedule. The peacock network hoped Allen could dethrone Ed Sullivan, and the two men went head-to-head on Sunday nights at 8. Sullivan prevailed, but Allen's career never slowed down. He made a few dreadful movies (or gave dreadful performances in so-so films), composed a lot of music (his biggest hit was "This Could Be the Start of Something Big") and emerged as the star of yet another talk or variety show with his name in the title.
I met him in 1962 in connection with the launching of yet another "Steve Allen Show," this one promoted by the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company. I observed Allen more than I interviewed him, because there were a lot of people who wanted a piece of him during his brief visit to Cleveland, then the home of one of the Westinghouse-owned stations. The company had recently launched "The Mike Douglas Show" for daytime audiences, and hoped Allen would capture late night viewers, though Westinghouse coudn't be sure the independent stations who bought Allen's program would place it in a late night timeslot.
|Akron Beacon Journal, June 3, 1962
There was a long wait for the guest of honor at KYW-TV’s recent “Hooray for Steve Allen” party in Cleveland.
The hoopla as a promotion for Allen’s new television show which begins June 25 at 11:15 p.m. over Channel 3.
When Allen finally made his appearance — about 90 minutes after the party started — he went directly to a small stage to address the 200 guests.
“It’s so nice to be here in . . . in . . . ” He took a quick look at a name scribbled on a slip of paper in his left hand. “ . . . in Cleveland.”
It was a corny bit, but most of his audience laughed. They had a good excuse. For 90 minutes they had been getting silly on free booze.
“The Westinghouse people are keeping me busy plugging our new show,” Allen continued. “I have to be in 27 cities . . . by midnight.”
Allen then gazed down on his tan suit and continued. “I guess by this time of day I should be wearing a dark business suit . . . but it’s been a long time since I was in the dark business.”
With that, the guests — sober or not — were assured that Allen’s humor hadn’t changed. He still enjoyed creating laughs from a play on words.
When he was a panelist on “What’s My Line” a few years ago, he’d frequently goof on something just said by the panelist next to him. For example, if that panelist received a “No” answer to the question, “Is he an olive stuffer in a pickle plant?”, Allen would use his turn to ask, “Well, is he a pickle stuffer in an olive plant?”
It was Allen who made a bit out of doing serious readings of popular song lyrics, such as, “Hey lonny ding-dong, a ring-a-ling-a-ling, sh-boom, by-oh, ba-dooba-dooba-aday.”
The word play was usually harmlessly amusing, though when Allen repeats someone’s statements word for word, he often seems to be making fun of that person. It’s easy to understand why. Given Allen’s schedule — particularly junkets like the KYW party — his sense of humor may be the key to survival.
For instance . . .
When Allen completed a 10-minute routine on the stage, he was immediately swamped by party guests, the first of whom wanted the guest of honor to pose with a KYW radio announcer and wear a “Hooray for Ronnie Barrett” button.
Allen went along with it, but his feelings probably were summed up by an onlooker: “Who’s that other guy?”
“Why, that’s Ronnie Barrett,” someone answered.
“That still doesn’t help me,” the first man shot back. “Who’s Ronnie Barrett?”
Soon Allen was ushered over to six young women who were wearing bathing suits and shivering in the 60-plus degree weather. Pictures were taken.
Allen looked at the young women, but couldn’t linger, because someone else was bending his ear.
“I’m Harvey Smedley, Steve, and my buddy Sammy Spraybottle says he knew you out on the coast. Remember Sammy?”
“The name sounds familiar,” Allen replied unconvincingly, as someone else stepped in and pulled the celebrity away.
(“Big man! He doesn’t even remember Sammy Spraybottle!”)
“I’m Sarah Leach, Steve, and I just love your shows. I think they’re simply terrific! It’s so nice to have you back on television, honest . . . ”
Allen smiled appreciably, but was hauled away again. This time he was cut off by someone who apprently didn’t know who Allen was.
“Pardon me, buttdy . . . did you see Charlie Sinclair?”
“Who?” asked Allen.
Allen shrugged, and the man walked away disappointed.
Sarah Leach caught up with Allen again. “You naughty man,” she scolded. “Do you know what happened?”
“I can hardly wait for you to tell me.”
“When I stopped to talk to you, I lost my husbnd. Isn’t that a scream?”
“Have you tried lost and found?” Allen joked, and was immediately confronted by another stranger.
So it went for the rest of his rather brief visit. He had to get to the airport to fly to Baltimore. Tomorrow he’d also visit Boston and New York.
The point of each stop was the same — to publicize his late night television show which replaced Mike Wallace’s “PM.”
Allen will start with just 15 channels. The competing “Tonight” is shown over 150 channels.
“Several other stations are negotiating,” said Allen. “We should be carried by 20 cities within a short period of time.”
He said there is no definite format as yet.
“I’ll have a ‘family’ like I’ve always had on my shows,” he explained, “but, that, too, will deveop later.”
That ‘family’ may include Louis Nye, Pat Harrington Jr., Tim Conway and Bill Dana, among others, and viewers may expect some of the old Allen routines, including an occasional man on the street
“I’m going to try to r e capture the mood of our old ‘Tonight’ shows,” he said.
That’s ironic, because Allen’s big competition,, of course, will be the show he started, but one which reached even greater heights under Jack Paar.
Comedy and music will be important, but like the dearly departed Paar, Allen has opinions on issues he considers important, and he’s not afraid to express them. He tried to do this on his last NBC show, but was muffled. He advised American on books to read, and was criticized.
His most recent TV show, over ABC, upset the American Medical Association over the “Ben Dedicated” skits which were thinly disguised spoofs of “Ben Casey.”
The off-camera Allen once led a crusaide to save Caryl Chessman from execution. He has spoken out against nuclear testing.
Allen’s notion that performers should speak out may lead to some controversial programs.
“The Westinghouse people, rather than tell me to ignore the issues, have encouraged me to discuss them,” said Allen. “I’ll have more freedom than ever.”
He was about to say more when he was pulled aside by another party guest, who wanted Allen to meet his wife and pose with her for a photograph.
Then Allen was rushed away to catch that plane to Baltimore, where, in about three hours, the circus would start all over again.
As I recall, this program lasted about four years. Allen's specialty was performing outrageous stunts, such as the night he went "swimming" in a pool filled with Jell-o. You could always count on Allen to feature a lot of music. He didn't have a high opinion of most contemporary hits — one of his comedy bits was to make fun of rock 'n' roll lyrics by reading them in the manner of a serious poetry recital.
He had his last "Steve Allen Show" during the 1980-81 season, and also was host of "Meeting of Minds" (1977-81) which featured discussions as they may have taken place between such people as Oliver Cromwell, Catherine the Great, Mahatma Gandhi and other famous historical figures. It was a pretentious project — presented by PBS, as I recall — that was well-intended, but did not attract many viewers.
Allen had much in common with a man who came along a few years later — Dick Cavett. Both men were considered brighter than the usual talk show host. Both were funny, though Allen was far more imaginative in his approach to entertainment, and neither was impressive in their few opportunities to do films or television shows in which they were playing anyone but themselves. Both also had to participate in game shows they undoubtedly felt were beneath them.
I noticed among his credits an appearance on a 1982 television tribute to Ernie Kovacs, called "Television's Original Genius" in the program title. Many comedians have thanked Johnny Carson for giving them their careers a big boost by featuring them on "The Tonight Show." Allen did the same thing for many entertainers, including Kovacs, who first came to my attention in the mid-1950s as a guest host on "The Tonight Show."
It was a gutsy thing for Allen to do, turning over his show to Kovacs on Monday and Tuesday nights. The Ernie Kovacs versions of "Tonight" were the zaniest in that program's long history. He opened on program by sitting in the audience, wearing a dreamy smile while he listened to a recording of song performed off-key by Florence Foster Jenkins, the woman made famous many years later by the Meryl Streep film. I'd say more than 95 percent of those attending the show and those watching at home had no idea who was singing and why Kovacs was finding the awful music so blissful.
His stints as host of "The Tonight Show" made Kovacs a celebrity, and he soon went to Hollywood where he proved to be an excellent actor, appearing in a rather strange assortment of films that included "Operation Mad Ball" with Jack Lemmon; "Bell, Book and Candle" with Lemmon and James Stewart; "It Happened to Jane" with Lemmon again and Doris Day; "Our Man in Havana" with Alec Guinness and Noel Coward; "Strangers When We Meet" (with Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak), and "North to Alaska" (with John Wayne). Kovacs was particularly good at playing Snidely Whiplast-kind of villains.
However, his life was cut short when he had a fatal automobile accident in 1962, a week before what would have been his 43rd birthday.
Steve Allen rolled on and on, working until he died in 2000, at the age of 78. His death also was related to an automobile accident, though it seemed at the time that his injuries were not life-threatening. However, a reputured blood vessel led to bleeding that hours later caused his death, which initially was blamed on a heart attack.