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.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

I Was A Teenage Mormon Missionary

A friend of mine and former missionary companion from the Guatemala-El Salvador mission circa 1972, Lynn Kleinman, has been sending me some pictures from our time together in Retaluleu, Guatemala, and I thought it might be a good thing to post some comments on my time as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Like most young missionary men, I was 19 years of age when I set out to be a missionary and was gone from home and family for two years. When I got my mission call from President Joseph Fielding Smith, I was unsure of where the countries were, but the El Salvador part cued me in that it might be a Spanish-speaking mission. I had wanted to go on a foreign mission but without the foreign language part of it, like somewhere in the British Isles, Australia, or New Zealand. However, I have no regrets about serving in Central America and learning to speak Spanish—I had no foreign language training prior to my missionary training—because I have actually used it quite a bit since, I sold lumber for a little while in Los Angeles and had quite a few customers who spoke primarily Spanish and, in later years, I taught safety and asbestos worker training as a safety consultant in Spanish. I even served as the branch president of a Spanish branch of the Church a couple of years ago.

I learned to love the Latinos and Indian people of my mission and enjoyed greatly my association with them and rejoiced when they accepted our message of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ and were baptized and embraced membership in the Church. Their lives were usually changed for ever for the good. During the past 35 or so years since coming home to the States, I have run into Guatemalans or Salvadorans who either knew me or heard of me from those days—I was part of a singing group that toured the mission for several months in 1972 and helped create some good exposure for the Church and helped generate thousands of referrals for the missionaries to look up and teach. It has been great to see the terrific growth of the Church in my old areas and see the members prosper. Where we only had one Stake—in the capital of Guatemala—when I arrived in the mission, there are numerous stakes and two temples Guatemala and one announced for San Salvador, not to mention the half dozen or more missions that now cover the same territory my old mission covered. While a missionary, I helped teach over 50 individuals who joined the Church. I also heard that some 200 or so individuals came into the Church as a result of seeing our singing group perform and asked to have the local missionaries come teach them more. It was a great experience.

Of course, I also created some great friendships with my missionary companions and others in the mission with whom I worked closely. I hesitate to mention names, not because my memory is bad these days, but because I would probably hurt some feelings by not mentioning some really important ones. However, my first companion was Layne Thompson. I could not have had a better. He was a great example of a missionary who worked very hard when it was time to work and played hard when it was time to relax and play. My last companion was Richard Koplin, a young missionary with great humility and a desire to serve the Lord. I hope I was as good an example and influence on him and my other junior companions as Elder Thompson was for me. Each of my companions had an impact on my work, my testimony, and my desire to serve faithfully. I gained something from each one. It has been said more than once by probably thousands of people that the Church must be true because the young missionaries would have destroyed it long ago. I think there is a bit of truth in that. As good as we young missionaries were, and probably are today, it is remarkable that so much responsibility is given to and accepted by so many young men and women to spread the message of the restored Gospel—a pretty scary thought, if there was not so much faith involved, by both the leadership of the Church and the missionary force in general. In most cases, we were teenagers when we arrived and barely 21 when we returned to our homes. We liked rock and roll music and sports, and loved to do the things that other kids our age liked to do. I remember four of us having a water-fight once in our apartments that also housed the local chapel that ended with all of clothes being dumped in the “pila” which doubled as a baptismal font. In town we held a “rodeo” in our apartments where we rode on a hammock while two others rocked the “horse” at either end to try to dislodge us. It was great fun until the hooks that held the hammock were pulled from the walls. In most cases—not in mine—we left girlfriends at home with the innocent expectation that they would wait for us. We resigned ourselves to a non-dating life for two years and experienced a time in our lives in which we were more attractive to the opposite sex than we would ever be again, but be unable to capitalize on it. I some cases, we would be called to be THE authority of the Church in a small town, presiding over a branch of the Church.

Our mission President, Harvey S. Glade, a man of great faith, was willing to let 5 young men under the age of 22 go rambling across two countries with acoustic guitars, a tiny PA system, and a suitcase a piece—usually, this was accomplished by bus, but often by hitch-hiking or begging rides where we could find them—trying to get to the next town, where the local “Elders” were preparing for us to give a performance that would, hopefully, not embarrass the Church, but convince people that they should look into this new religion. This group was “La Familia Unida” (the united family) and consisted of Randy Teel, from Texas; Scott Eddo, from Southern California; John Cameron, from Ohio; Scott Shirley, from Idaho; and myself. We had all had some experience entertaining to greater of lesser degree prior to our missions and were eager and ready to sacrifice ourselves and our “talents” for the greater good. The idea fo rthe show was Cameron's brain child. He went to President Glade immediately upon arriving at the mission and proposed a show where the missionaries would promote the Gospel message through song and dance--dance was Cameron's department. The idea evolved into a sort of folk quintet who strummed acoustic guitars and sang a variety of songs from Rock, to Broadway, to Spanish popular, to religious hymns, and presented a show about the Church’s Home Evening program. As ill conceived as it sounds, the “show” was pretty successful. We were young and dumb enough to want to do it and our Mission President was inspired enough to let us try it. We had a great time—at least I did. We went everywhere in the mission—everywhere in Guatemala and El Salvador where we had missionaries. In some places we played to very small crowds, and it was doubtful that the people “got it”, and in other places where we played before more than a thousand or full houses and the folks really bought into us. We did a nationally broadcast radio show in Guatemala and appeared as guest performers on the most popular TV show in El Salvador, “Buscando Las Estrellas” (Searching for The Stars).
I still keep in touch with those guys and we hope to do a reunion performance at our mission reunion this October (08).

I might mention here that Scott Shirley has written a very entertaining history of La familia Unida and our many escapades which is posted on the Guatemala-El Salvador Alumni website ( He has also posted the “Shirley Chronicles” ( the same website, which is also very entertaining and tells of his experiences as a missionary. I might say here also that I feature prominently in the Shirley Chronicles, since he and I spent around 16 months of our missions together as companions, living at the same apartment, or living in close proximity in the same district. So, if you want to know more about my missionary experiences from a secondary, unbiased source, his would be the best. For example, it tells about us being thrown out of the Guatemala City Zoo for causing a disturbance—we had set up a street display and had so many people around us listening to us that foot traffic was through the area was stopped—I was also thrown out of the San Salvador zoo for the same offense.

My mission not only made me a better Latter-day Saint, but it made me a better American and more appreciative of the stature of the United States in a troubled world. I know from experience, of living in the third world, that we Americans are truly a blessed people. No other nation on the earth has so much to offer in opportunity for success and the freedom to pursue a dream. It is easy for me to understand why so many want to come here and take advantage of both opportunity and freedom. It is also easy for me to understand why we are hated by so great a segment of the population of the world. For some, we represent the greatest challenge to their way of life, whether it is religious or political dictatorship, or nationalistic jealousy. No nation has been more ready to help in the time of need and do the hard work and expend their resources than the United States of America. And, I must also add, that no Church or religious group has been more eager to respond in the same ways throughout the world in time of need than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

My mission was a blessing to me that has extended throughout my life. It is a common saying within the Mormon culture that “my mission was the best two years of my life”. I can say that it truly was up to that point. It pales in comparison to marrying and seeing your children born and watching them grow into adults. I hoped that my sons would also go and have the same testimony and character-building experiences that I had. My second oldest, Tyler, has done so—he went to Chile, so we share a common second language—and I have hope that my youngest, Dylan, will take advantage of the opportunity in a couple of years. Nothing I had done up to that point in my life had prepared me more for life than my missionary experience. It taught me to serve others, to put the welfare of others before my own, it taught me to pray for others, to struggle with my own testimony of the Gospel and help others struggle to gain their own. I learned that I could accomplish great things, if I applied myself and trusted in the Lord—a truism that I have had to rely upon many times in my life since. My mission helped sculpt me into the work of art, such as it is, that I am today.