Friday, June 20, 2008


One of my favorite entertainers as a child was Steve Allen. I liked to stay up late, if I could get away with it, and watch “Steverino” on NBC’s Tonight Show. Most people of the baby boomer set probably think of long-time-host, Johnny Carson, when they think of the Television Talk Show/Variety Show format that still flourishes today, with the likes of Jay Leno and David Letterman. Many entertainment personalities have tried their hand at it in the past 50 years, and the concept of a comedian telling jokes, interviewing other celebrities, and introducing performers (old and new) has been the staple for late night television viewers for half a century. As good as Johnny Carson was for twenty years, he did not originate the concept. Before him, Jack Parr sat behind the Tonight Show desk. And before Parr, there was the father of late-night TV talk, Steve Allen.

Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen
December 26, 1921—October, 2000

Steve Allen was a child of vaudeville performers and was raised in Chicago by his mother’s family. He attended college in Tempe Arizona, but left during his sophomore year to work in radio at a local station. Allen enlisted as an infantryman during World War II but did not serve overseas. After the war he returned to California where he had been stationed in the military and landed a job as a radio announcer. Allen parleyed his announcing duties into a comedy show that increased his popularity and opened doors for his concept of a musical and talk format that he continued to develop.

Allen was a very innovative and creatively spontaneous performer. When a scheduled guest to one of his shows, Doris Day, was a no-show, Allen opted to go into the audience to conduct impromptu interviews of average people—this idea evolved into his “man on the streets” bits that he later did on television. This became a staple of his shows and is a popular exercise of talk show hosts to this day. As a last-minute stand-in host for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, Allen ad-libbed commercials to the delight of the studio and radio audiences exposing Allen’s talent to it’s biggest audience yet.

In the early 1950s, Allen moved to New York City, where he did radio shows for CBS, but eventually created a late-night variety/talk television program for local television in 1953. The local popularity of the show convinced NBC to launch Steve Allen’s concept as “The Tonight Show” the following year. In 1956, while continuing his duties as The Tonight Show host Monday through Friday, NBC began a Sunday night variety show with Allen as the host to compete with Ed Sullivan’s show on CBS. During these New York years, Allen was instrumental in launching the careers of many performers on his TV programs, including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Don Knotts, and Johnny Carson. Allen also starred in Hollywood films during the fifties, including the dramatic “Benny Goodman Story” which allowed him to bring many of the greats of the big band era to the big screen with him and pay homage to the music genre that he loved. In 1957, Allen left the Tonight Show to focus on the Sunday variety show, but left that show and New York to return to Los Angeles in 1959.

In Los Angeles Allen continued to host syndicated variety shows and worked on music composition and books—Allen would eventually write more than 10,000 songs during his career—writing songs that were recorded by major artists and garnered a Grammy award and authoring some 50 books on comedy and his views on life. During the next three decades, Allen’s shows provided further important exposure for up-and-coming comedians like Rob Reiner, John Byner and Ruth Buzzi, and influenced many talk show hosts who would come later.

One of his best projects was the award-winning program “Meeting Of The Minds” which he produced and which was aired on PBS from 1977 to 1981. Meeting Of The Minds was a talk show format where Allen was host and actors--his wife of 46 years, Jayne Meadows, often played the female figures--portrayed famous people from different times in history gathered together to discuss their views on various topics, such as politics, religion, morality and society. This necessitated substantial research into the famous historical characters and their opinions, to extrapolate the conjectured discussions. This show was a jewel among the typical television fare of the time.

Steve Allen was liberal in his politics and most of his social views for the greater part of his life—he was a self proclaimed secular humanist—and though he generally defended liberal freedom of speech, he seemed to turn more socially conservative in his later years and became troubled by what he considered smutty content on radio and television. He aligned himself with those who wanted to restrict content like the Parents Television Council, Prior to his death, which resulted from an auto accident in 2000, Allen began referring to himself in speeches supporting restriction of offensive material in the media, as an “involved Presbyterian”. A full-page advertisement in support of his proposed restrictions against offensive content appeared newspapers the days before his death.

Steve Allen was an original, and he set the template for an industry format that will likely continue on long after most of us who saw it’s inception are gone. He was unwilling to be satisfied by mediocrity and constantly moved on to the next opportunity, and tried to make quality programing the ideal and stretch his obvious talent. In much he was probably ahead of his time, but Steve Allen should get the acknowledgement his particular genius deserves: he was the first and, in my mind, the best at what he did.

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