Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen (December 26, 1921 – October 30, 2000) was an American musician, comedian and writer. As the first host of The Tonight Show, Allen was instrumental in innovating the concept of the television talk show, and is often called the father of television talk shows.
Death of Steve Allen
On October 30, 2000, Allen was driving to his son’s home in Encino, California when his car was struck by another vehicle backing out of a driveway. Neither Allen nor the other driver believed they were 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, Allen 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 Allen’s chest to rupture causing blood to leak into the sac surrounding the heart. This condition is known as hemopericardium. In addition, Allen also suffered four broken ribs as a result of the accident. Allen was 78 years old, and is interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park-Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles.
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Steve Allen on The Tonight Show (Rare Clip)
Allen was born in New York City, the son of Isabelle (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, Arizona while still a sophomore. He enlisted in the US Army during World War II and was trained as an infantryman. He spent his service time at Camp Roberts, near Monterrey, California, and did not serve overseas. Allen returned to Phoenix before deciding to move back to California.
Allen became an announcer for KFAC in Los Angeles then moved to the Mutual Broadcasting System in 1946, talking the station into airing a five night a week comedy show called "Smile Time", co-starring Wendell Noble. Allen had an opportunity to move to CBS Radio’s KNX in Los Angeles and did so. His music and talk format gradually changed to include more talk to 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. Instead Allen picked up a microphone and went into the audience to ad lib for the first time. In 1950 and for 13 weeks his show substituted for Our Miss Brooks, for the first time exposing Allen to a national audience. Allen next went to New York to work for TV station WCBS.
He achieved national attention when he was pressed into service at the last minute to host Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts when its host was unable to appear. Allen turned one of Godfrey’s live Lipton commercials upside down, preparing tea and instant soup on camera, 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 11:15 pm to 1:00 am on the east coast.
While Today Show developer Pat Weaver is often credited as Tonight’s creator, Allen often pointed out that the show was previously "created" — by himself — as a local New York show. "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", Allen told his nationwide audience that first evening. "Boy, 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..
In 1956 NBC offered Allen a new, prime-time Sunday night Steve Allen Show aimed at dethroning CBS’s 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 semi-coherent 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 bassett 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 went on to stardom.
Allen remained host of "Tonight" for three nights a week (Monday and Tuesday nights were taken over 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 ironically, what the critics had called an epic battle of two talk 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 LA, he continued to write songs, hosted other variety shows, and wrote books and articles about comedy.
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, "Naw."
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 Steve Allen Show syndicated by Westinghouse TV. The show, taped in Hollywood, was marked by the same wild and unpredictable stunts, 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 and an early musical performance by Frank Zappa. 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.
The theater in Hollywood was billed as the "Steve Allen Playhouse" at the corner of La Mirada and Vine, and was an old vaudeville theater. It was built in 1906, and was the theater where Bob Hope did his first stand-up act, and was also the theater for filming the "You Bet Your Life" program with Groucho Marx. During a renovation, the entire interior of the building was burned out, and it is now a mental health clinic.
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 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 in "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 beinng lathered 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 premiered in local syndication in 1972, taped in Hollywood. 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 3-hour comedy show that was heard nationally on the NBC Radio Network, featuring sketches and America’s best known comedians as regular guests. His co-host 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-songwriter Frankie 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", which 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!
Allen could also play a trumpet–sort of. He wrote and recorded a tune called "Impossible" in which he tries to play it straight, but continues to bust up 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 the denigration of popular tastes, of which Allen himself wrote about in his last book, "Vulgarians at the Gates", than any obtuseness on the shows’ 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 which debunked pseudo-scientific claims. (for more about Allen’s skepticism, see Paul Kurtz, "A Tribute to Steve Allen", Skeptical Inquirer magazine, January/February 2001.)
Allen was also 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 eight 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 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.
It must be remembered that Allen was in his late thirties at the time, 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 to a national audience that he named his first son Steve Allen Lewis after him.
Allen also had many black jazz artists on his early Tonight show, all exposed to a national audience for the first time, including Earl Hines, Billie Holiday, Bobby Short, Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, Sarah Vaughn, Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Count Basie. Allen was honored with numerous awards from black organizations for that very same trailblazing.
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.
Allen’s second wife was actress Jayne Meadows, daughter of Christian missionaries, and sister to actress Audrey Meadows. The marriage of Allen and Meadows produced one son. They were married from 1954 until his death in 2000. Allen had three children, Steve Allen Jr., Brian Allen, and David Allen, from an earlier marriage to Dorothy Goodman that ended in divorce.
Despite his Catholic upbringing, Allen was a secular humanist and Humanist Laureate for the Academy of Humanism, a member of CSICOP and the Council for Secular Humanism. 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 smuttiness 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. Coincidentally, his full-page ad on the subject appeared in newspapers a day or two before his unexpected death. Allen had been making speeches in which he referred to himself as an "involved Presbyterian".
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.
Songs for Sale (1950–1952)
The Steve Allen Show (1950)
What’s My Line? (regular panelist, 1953–1954)
Talent Patrol (1953–1955)
The Tonight Show (1954–1957, NBC)
The Steve Allen Westinghouse Show (1962-1968)
I’ve Got a Secret (1964–1967)
The Steve Allen Show (Filmways production, 1968-69)
Match Game (panelist, 1974)
Meeting of Minds (1977–1981, PBS)
Steve Allen Comedy Hour (1980–1981)
The Start of Something Big (1985–1986)
"Theme from Picnic"
"This Could Be the Start of Something Big"
"The Gravy Waltz"
"The Saturday Evening Post"
Bop Fables (1955)
Fourteen for Tonight (1955)
Short story collection
The Funny Men (1956)
Wry on the Rocks (1956)
The Girls on the Tenth Floor and Other Stories (1958)
1970 printing: ISBN 0-8369-3608-6
The Question Man… (1959)
Mark It and Strike It: An Autobiography (1960)
Not All of Your Laughter, Not All of Your Tears (1962)
Dialogues in Americanism (1964)
with L. Brent Bozell, Jr., William F. Buckley, Jr., Robert M. Hutchins, James MacGregor Burns, and Willmoore Kendall
Letter to a Conservative (1965)
The Ground is Our Table (1966)
Bigger Than A Breadbox (1967)
The Flash of Swallows (1969)
The Wake (1972)
Princess Snip-Snip and the Puppy-Kittens (1973)
Curses! or… How Never to Be Foiled Again (1973)
What To Say When It Rains (1974)
Meeting of Minds (1978)
1989 printing: ISBN 0-87975-550-4
Chopped-Up Chinese (1978)
Ripoff: A Look at Corruption in America (1979)
With Roslyn Bernstein and Donald H. Dunn
Meeting of Minds, Second Series (1979)
1989 printing: ISBN 0-87975-565-2
Explaining China (1980)
Funny People (1981)
Beloved Son: A Story of the Jesus Cults (1982)
More Funny People (1982)
How to Make a Speech (1986)
How to Be Funny: Discovering the Comic You (1987)
With Jane Wollman
1992 printing: ISBN 0-87975-792-2
1998 revised edition: ISBN 1-57392-206-4
The Passionate Nonsmoker’s Bill of Rights: The First Guide to Enacting Nonsmoking Legislation (1989)
With Bill Adler, Jr.
"Dumbth": And 81 Ways to Make Americans Smarter (1989)
1998 revised edition: ISBN 1-57392-237-4
Meeting of Minds, Vol. III (1989)
Meeting of Minds, Vol. IV (1989)
The Public Hating: A Collection of Short Stories (1990)
Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion & Morality (1990)
Hi-Ho, Steverino: The Story of My Adventures in the Wonderful Wacky World of Television (1992)
large-print edition: ISBN 1-56054-521-6
More Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion & Morality (1993)
Make ’em Laugh (1993)
The Man Who Turned Back the Clock, and Other Short Stories (1995)
The Bug and the Slug in the Rug (1995)
But Seriously…: Steve Allen Speaks His Mind (1996)
Steve Allen’s Songs: 100 Lyrics with Commentary (1999)
Steve Allen’s Private Joke File (2000)
Vulgarians at the Gate: Trash TV and Raunch Radio—Raising the Standards of Popular Culture (2001)
Allen’s series of mystery novels "starring" himself and wife Jayne Meadows were in part ghostwritten by Walter J. Sheldon, and later Robert Westbrook
The Talk Show Murders (1982)
Murder on the Glitter Box (1989)
Murder in Manhattan (1990)
Murder in Vegas (1991)
The Murder Game (1993)
Murder on the Atlantic (1995)
Wake Up to Murder (1996)
Die Laughing (1998)
Murder in Hawaii (1999)
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