26 December 26, 1921 – October 30, 2000
In his later years when Steve was to appear on one of the dozens of second-tier talk shows or as a “celebrity” panelist on the game show Win, Lose, or Draw (hosted by family friend Bert Convey) he had a rider in his contract that stated that his introduction would include “and now our next guest is world-renowned recording artist, actor, producer, playwright, best-selling author, composer of thousands of songs, Emmy winning comic genius and entertainer, Steve Allen!” After such a glorious and ass-kissing introduction by the host, Steve would open with his trademark “I am but a humble servant of the Joe six-pack viewer” shtick and then proceed to lecture the audience on why the great Stev-o-rino was ever so modest. Ah yes, the great Steve Allen was enormously talented – and if you don’t believe me, just ask him. Oh, but you can’t…
Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen was born in New York City in 1921 and was the son of vaudeville comedians Billy Allen and Belle Montrose. Belle has been described by Milton Berle as “the funniest woman in vaudeville”. (and who knows comedy better than Milton Berle, the same Uncle Miltie who was banned from Saturday Night Live by producer Lorne Michaels for his inability to perform basic sketch comedy. I hear Ru Paul thinks he’s a prick too). Upon his father’s death at an early age, Belle hit the road and Steve was sent to Chicago to live with relatives. In the course of his youth, Steve attended 18 different schools, attended college briefly, married his college sweetheart, had three kids, drafted into the Army but was discharged after a couple of months, and moved to Los Angeles. Read his bio here for all the boring stuff.
In 1953, Allen was lured away from his radio gig in L.A. to host a local late-night program on New York’s WNBC-TV. With the help of NBC President Pat Weaver they “invented” a form of the late-night “Tonight Show” format that we know today (as much as you can call talking behind a desk with a couch and an announcer an “invention”). Alternating hosting duties with Ernie Kovacs on Tonight!, Allen, together with a solid cast of regulars and the blend of relaxed banter and cool jazz was a welcome relief from the only other late night offering of wrestling. After only a couple of years of co-hosting Tonight!, Allen left to focus solely on The Steve Allen Show which went head-to-head with the great Ed Sullivan and James Garner in Maverick. Always a distant third in ratings to Sullivan and Maverick, Allen left the show in 1960, but not before winning a Peabody for Best Comedy.
Although Allen abandoned Tonight! to focus on The Steve Allen Show, the renamed Tonight Show with Jack Paar (later renamed The Jack Paar Show) ultimately became the first successful late-night talk show. While Allen continued for the remainder of his life to reminded everyone who would listen the he, and he alone, invented the talk show format, it was Paar who elevated the format to the entertainment juggernaut that has endured for five decades. Paar’s ability to coax the most personal information from his guest (who could forget a drunken Judy Garland slurring gossip about Marlene Dietrich) always focused on the star rather than their latest project. Paar’s five years at the helm offered Johnny Carson the perfect springboard for his 30-year run as King of the Late Night TV. Yet all this time Allen would continue to take all the credit for the success of the Tonight Show through all its different incarnations. Consequently both Paar and Carson loathed Steve Allen so much so that he was never invited to sit on couch when either legend was hosting the show. Allen was finally invited back only when Jay Leno took over the reins from Carson.
Throughout the 70s, 80s, and into the 90s Allen was able to do pretty much whatever he wanted. Allen was financially set for life when one of the advertisers, the Polaroid Company, paid Allen in stock in the 1950s (just a few years after the advent of the instant film camera) and cashed out after the run-up of the stock. After a few more marginally successful TV shows, Allen sequestered himself to his production company Meadowlane Enterprises to churn-out more books, poetry, music, scripts, and records, none of which were commercially successful.
Several years after his passing, one of Steve Allen’s former PAs boarded the Dearly Departed Tour and spoke of his time at Meadowlane in the 1980s:
“I was a couple of years out of college and a struggling musician when I answered an ad for a Production Assistant at Meadowlane Enterprise in the valley. I didn’t know at the time it was Steve Allen. I think I worked there for 6-8 months, I don’t remember. I try to block it out from memory.
Basically the day would start out with one of the secretaries dropping by his house in Encino and pickup the days work including the dreaded micro cassette of all of his dictation. They would bring that back to the office, type it up, and distribute copies to everyone. He had specific people for video and music catalog and projects, promotion, answering the occasional fan mail, manuscripts for new books, and the like. We were essentially a production house of crap. Not a single project before my time, during my employment, or after was worth a damn. He did make a bit of money off the rental of historic video clips, mostly for Dick Clarks popular bloopers show, but that was really it. His books didn’t sell worth a damn and after the initial print run of 10-12,000, with returns he would be lucky to sell 2,000 so Meadowlane would purchase the remainder from the publisher for pennies and then we would put them in storage. God I hate to think what the storage bill was every month.
The problem with Steve was there were two types of people in this world, Steve Allen and everyone else. And everyone else was as dumb as a bucket of hammers. He was an arrogant, self-absorbed, self-titled genius who managed to piss-off everyone he came into contact with. It wasn’t that he was intentionally mean or particularly nasty – he was just, well Steve Allen. I remember this one project that I was involved with, I think it was the jazz station KGO in Los Angeles wanted to do this traditional jazz show every Sunday night for three hours with Steve as the host. Well the initial meeting went fine, but then Steve started hitting the station with a list of demands which included taping the show from his office. I think this was because Steve couldn’t be bothered to drive 20 minutes down the radio to do the show live every week. But even taping the show at the office, he refused to do clean intros and segments – instead leaving it up to editing. The show lasted four weeks and was a dismal failure all because Steve couldn’t be bothered to do it right. Steve always came up woefully short in the execution department – hence his lack of commercial success.”
And what about his wife, Jayne Meadows?
“Surprisingly Jayne was actually fairly nice – a little odd, but basically harmless. I always got the impression that she would be more at home in New York City than out on the west coast. I had a lot more respect for her when she co-starred on an episode of Fantasy Island and then confided in me that it was a piece of crap. She was also very proud of her son Bill who was then working at CBS in the programming department. Bill came around the office once or twice just check on what his Dad was working on. Most guys in his position could have coasted, but he came across as a hard-working, 60-hour a week kind of guy. I remember he would look over at some of the stuff I was working on and just smile and shake his head knowing full well the limited commercial prospects of the projects at hand.”
The morning of October 30th, 2000 probably began the same as any other for Steve. He popped on his toup, after pulling up his long blue socks and slipping into his sassy black briefs. He wore his white Jockey t-shirt under a maroon button down Fieldmaster shirt. He spent the day at his office, which still exists on Ventura Blvd,
left out this foyer
which is still festoooooooooned with his memorabilia, and returned home to have dinner with his wife of 46 years, Jayne Meadows.
That evening, between 6:30 and 6:45, Steve left his home
with his grandson, probably going to drop him off at his son’s house nearby, with him he was carrying a Halloween cake. On his way, while driving his 1993 Cadillac Seville down Valley Vista,
a car driven by a man named Goldenberg backed out of the driveway
and broad sided Steve’s car, slamming into the drivers side of the car. They estimated Steve’s speed between 15 and 20 mph. They exchanged information and Steve laughed when Mr. Goldenberg joked about this being a “heck of way to get an autograph”, and Steve went on his merry way. There was no major injury, no broken ribs or collapsed lung – these injuries are consistent with the CPR that was performed later on.
He got to his son’s house
about 8pm and he was observed to be “confused and shaky”. He lost his balance while ascending the six steps up to the front porch. When inside he sat on the edge of the sofa and chatted with a grandson, and then entered the kitchen to greet other family members. Steve then excused himself to go to the bathroom. After a bit of time, a grandson became concerned and called out to see if he was all right. He heard nothing so he entered the bathroom and found Steve on the toilet, making a snoring sound, slumped to one side. Steve was moved to the floor and 911 was called. They arrived within 3 minutes, but Steve had stopped “snoring” at that point, and his eyes appeared gray and dilated. Paramedics performed CPR for 15 minutes prior to transporting him to hospital,
and in the ambulance. At the ER they were unable to obtain a heartbeat and death was pronounced at 8:56pm.
He was 78 years old.
They figured the accident had triggered the massive heart attack, as his own physician considered Steve’s health “frail”. Because Steve died late in the evening, his death didn’t make the papers until the morning of November 1st. However, what did appear in the papers the next day was a full-page ad that Steve had taken out in the LA Times, addressing his campaign against filth and vulgarity on television. Thanks to my pal Lisa Burks, here is the ad for all to see.
Steve was kept on ice for 9 days, until a memorial service could be held.
On the 9th of November, post autopsy, Steve’s body was released to Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, and buried in an unmarked grave. Many thanks to Craig Talbott for this location.
In the end, what legacy did Steve Allen leave for us? Was he a great actor? No, he was as stiff and wooden in The Benny Goodman Story (a cheap rip-off of Jimmy Stewart in The Glenn Miller Story) as a teenage boy in the morning. Was he a great songwriter? Author? Poet? Game show contestant? No, no, no, and not bad. No, Steve Allen’s greatest achievement was that he was TVs greatest human resources manager. Steve could spot talent like nobody’s business. Whether it was regulars like Don Knotts, Pat Harrington (One Day at a Time), and Tom Poston (Newhart); or writers like Buck Henry, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen; or musicians Sarah Vaughn, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong – Steve knew talent. And though Steve would have liked to think it was all about him, the fact of the matter is that his nurturing and development of such great talents will outshine him long after he is gone. Commentary, from a known entertainment writer: That “find-a-death” guy is very funny, except when he digresses into “you-read-it-here-first” crap. Who knows if such claims are true? But when it comes to claims, Steverino was hard to top. I have a three – or four – page letter from him taking me to task for daring to suggest in an article that it wasn’t he & he alone who was the auteur of “The Tonight Show.” As Liz Smith would put it, you’d think I’d slapped the queen….
Of course Steve did play a large role in the evolution of “Tonight” but stars rarely “invent” shows in the first place; producers and programming chiefs do or did it, and in this case, it was the latter, the great Pat Weaver, father of Sigourney, who had invented the “Today” show and realized he could invade the late night timeslot too and make yet more money for NBC.
Steve’s version of “Tonight” included many, many sketches, some good and some frail (he’d try to save them by laughing uproariously himself), the point being it was not so much a talk show as a comedy show; Paar, as that piece suggests, really perfected the idea of a “talk” show, proving that celebrities could be funny if they relaxed and chatted with some degree of candor. Paar’s own conversational prowess was considerable; hence, a great show and a new
kind of television……
I could tell you many a tale of Steve the Magnificent, and Steve the Megafool. The phrase “legend in his own mind” is perfect for him. Jack and Johnny both LOATHED him and told me so, as the piece also notes. They found him pathetic with his endless recitation of alleged achievements (I always expected those Allen-authored introductions to include “and beloved inventor of penicillin”) and his need to be adored. The actual Jack quote about Steve’s “career” as a composer is “Steve Allen says he’s written 4,000 songs. Name two.” I think even Jack could name “This Could be the Start of Something Big.” (Steve tried to sing it on the little bit with Diana Ross included in the dead-locator
My own efforts at debunking Steve’s renown as a combination Cole Porter and Pete Tchaikovsky earned me lengthy letters of remonstrance either from him or some poor secretary, flunky or his agent PLUS such treasures as “The Steve Allen Songbook” and copious collections of Allen songs on tape, usually sung either by Himself or by his friends Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. Poor Steve! His claims of being a musical genius are roughly comparable to me insisting that I be acknowledged as the greatest writer who ever lived. My accomplishments are minor and I can live with that; Steve had to have palm branches spread before him upon every entrance, angelic choirs singing in the background….
I always wondered what strings he pulled to get some of his utterly hopeless projects produced on TV or even Broadway. He did a musical version of “Alice in Wonderland” that ended up, I think, on ABC some time in the ’70s, and it was utterly wacky in its awfulness. It wasn’t just a terrible musical, it was a terrible FIFTIES musical; it probably had been sitting in one of his file drawers that long…..
He also took me along once when he was producing some sort of variety special for NBC. It was desperation programming but of course Steve acted as if it were a Max Liebman “spectacular” that was going to save NBC from ruin and catapult the whole network out of the ratings sewer. He put out the call to some of his old discoveries to participate in the show and I gather many were sick of such calls and said no.
But Louie Nye was there; his gigs were infrequent at that point, which is too bad because Louie could be hilarious. Anyway, I spent about an hour watching Steve pretend to be producing and directing the show himself, from the stage, fussing over spotlights – their size and color and position – and cue cards and minor set alterations and blah blah blah, lots of silly details that people in production were able to fix with no help from Mister Florenz Ziegfeld. I could see it in the faces of nearly everyone – a look of weary, embarrassed exasperation while Steve paraded back and forth on the stage, shouting out orders.
As I was leaving, I passed Louie Nye’s dressing room. He was sitting at the table with the mirror, slumped over, his hair piece somewhere other than on his head, just a study in crumpled exhaustion. He looked up at me as I walked
by and he tried weakly to smile – but instead made a face like a wounded animal stuck in mud – ya know? Just a look of complete resigned despair, as if saying “Lord, why didn’t you take me YESTERDAY?!?”…..
So sorry to blather on. I bear no ill will toward Steve and wrote many nice things about him — his old comedy shows could be hilarious, and for all his prissy, fussbudgety decorum, he presided over some of the most outrageous
explosions of sheer comic anarchy that I ever saw on TV…..
Letterman has stolen a lot from Steve. I will never forget on his old Westinghouse show, Steve allowed himself to be made into a giant banana split – he laid down in a huge prop dish and let stagehands douse him with ice cream, of course, milk, fruit, cashews, more ice cream, etc etc. What I remember most is his ad-lib upon being freed at last from the bowl: “Those nuts are freezing!” This was ages ago but I was so shocked by that line that it went into my memory bank….
Findadeath friend Alan sends this: Here is a photo I took of Steve and Jayne at the 1987 Emmy Awards in Pasadena.
As was my practice in those days, I mailed copies of the photos I took to the stars themselves. Steve wrote back and asked to borrow the negative so that he could make enlargements and reprints. I sent it to him and in a month or so he mailed it back. I’ve often wondered what it is about the photo he liked so much – the way Jayne looks? (eyebrow arched – though her eyes are a bit crossed!) The way Steve himself looks? It is a good photo I guess. Thanks Alan!
Trivia: Did you know that Steve had a tattoo?? Mmhm. Sure did. A small + sign, or possibly a shamrock on his left arm between his elbow and shoulder. Heard it here first, gang. Sure did. Mmhm. A real rebel.
More: Milton Berle used to baby-sit Steve while his mother and father performed in vaudeville, and the two remained close friends until the end. Ironic that Steve didn’t aim his filth and vulgarity crusade at Berle, who was famous for being a pig. My friend Steve Goldstein adds, “He loathed rock music and would routinely make fun of it by reading the lyrics out loud like poetry to make them seem particularly absurd, like “Tutti Frutti” for example.”
Even more: Wanna see his mailbox?
Answer: They all died on the toilet.
Steve was in the audience when Diana Ross and the Supremes (sans Flo) gave their farewell performance in Vegas, and as Miss Ross went into the audience and had various celebs sing with them, Steve humorlessly participated. Thanks to Find a Death pal John Crawford, you can hear the clip.
Thanks Lisa Burks, C, SS and my eternal gratitude to Michelle Souder. His autopsy report can be obtained from the good guys at the Celebrity Archive!