ALLEN, STEVE

U.S. Comedian/Host/Composer/Writer

Steve Allen has appropriately been termed television's renaissance man. He has hosted numerous television programs, appeared in several motion pictures, written more than forty books, and composed several thousand songs. He once won a $1,000 bet that he couldn't compose fifty songs a day for a week.

Allen began his career in radio in 1942 as an announcer for station KFAC in Los Angeles. In 1946 he joined the Mutual Broadcasting System as a comedian and two years later signed with CBS as a late-night disc jockey on KNX in Hollywood. He first gained national attention when his program was booked as a thirteen week substitute for Our Miss Brooks during the summer of 1950. This led to his first television program, the Steve Allen Show which debuted on Christmas Day 1950 on CBS. The show was later moved to Thursday nights where it alternated with the popular Amos 'n' Andy.

In 1954 Allen began hosting a daily late-night show on NBC, The Tonight Show. During the next three years, he introduced many television innovations which his successors continued. Most of these involved his audience. Using a hand microphone, he went into the audience to talk with individuals; he answered questions submitted by the audience; members of the audience would attempt to "stump the band" by requesting songs the band couldn't play. Allen involved his announcer Gene Rayburn in nightly chit chat and he spoke with the band leaders, Skitch Henderson and Bobby Byrne. These techniques epitomized Allen's belief that "people will laugh at things that happen before their eyes much more readily than they will at incidents they're merely told about."

In 1956 Allen became a part-time host on Tonight because he was appearing in a new version of the Steve Allen Show. Still on NBC, he was now programmed on Sunday nights--opposite The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. Thus began one of the most famous ratings wars in television history. Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan were perhaps as distinct from one another as two men could be. Allen was a witty, innovative performer, willing to try virtually anything. Sullivan was a stiff master of ceremonies who compelled his guests to conform to rigid standards of decorum. Although Allen occasionally received higher ratings, Sullivan eventually won the war and after the 1960 season NBC moved The Steve Allen Show to Mondays. A year later Allen took the show into syndication and continued for three more years. From 1964 to 1967 he hosted the highly successful game show I've Got A Secret on CBS.

Steve Allen's most innovative television offering was Meeting of Minds. The format was an hour-long dramatized discussion of social issues. Allen would act as the moderator accompanied by his "guests" in this imaginative exercise, historical characters such as Galileo, Attila the Hun, Charles Darwin, Aristotle, Hegel or Dostoevski. The idea for this program came in 1960, following Allen's reading of Mortimer Adler's The Syntopicon. Rejected by the major networks, the series was accepted by the Public Broadcasting Service in 1977 and ran until 1981.

Throughout his long career as an entertainer Allen also developed a reputation as a social activist. He considered running for Congress as a Democrat from California; he actively opposed capital punishment; he openly supported the controversial comedian Lenny Bruce. He wrote about the plight of migrant farm workers in The Ground is Our Table (1966) and what he considered the collapse of ethics in America in Ripoff (1979). In later years, Allen occassionally appeared on television but spend most of his time operating Meadowlane Music and Rosemeadow Publishing located in Van Nuys, California. Allen died in Encino, California, October 30, 2000.

-Lindsay E. Pack

 

 


Steve Allen
Photo courtesy of Steve Allen

STEPHEN (Valentine Patrick William) ALLEN. Born in New York City, U.S., 26 December 1921. Attended Drake University, 1941 and Arizona State Teacher's College, 1942. Married 1) Dorothy Goodman, 1943 (divorced, 1952); children: Stephen, Brian, and David; 2) Jayne Meadows, 1954; child: William Christopher. Worked as radio announcer at stations KOY, Phoenix, 1942; KFAC and KMTR, Los Angeles, 1944; entertainer-comedian, Mutual Network, 1946-47; entertainer-comedian, CBS television, 1948-50; created and hosted The Tonight Show for NBC television, 1953-57; created and hosted Meeting of the Minds for Public Broadcasting Service, 1977-81; continued television guest appearances, 1970s-90s; composed more than 5,700 songs, several musicals; author of 46 books; vocalist, pianist, over 40 albums/CDs. Recipient: Grammy Award, 1964; Emmy Award, 1981; Named to Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame, 1986. Died in Encino, California, October 30, 2000.

TELEVISION SERIES

1950-52 Songs for Sale
1952-67,72-73,76 I've Got a Secret
1953-55 Talent Patrol
1954-56 The Tonight Show
1956-61 The Steve Allen Show
1967 The Steve Allen Comedy Hour
1977-81 Meeting of Minds
1980-81 The Steve Allen Comedy Hour
1985-86 The Start of Something Big (host)

TELEVISION MINISERIES

1976 Rich Man, Poor Man

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES

1972 Now You See It, Now You Don't
1979 Stone
1979 The Gossip Columnist
1984 The Ratings Game
1985 Alice in Wonderland
1996 James Dean: A Portrait

TELEVISION SPECIALS

1954 Fanfare
1954 The Follies of Suzy
1954 Sunday in Town (co-host)
1955 Good Times (Host)
1957 The Timex All-Star Jazz Show I (host)
1966 The Hollywood Deb Stars of 1966 (co-host)
1976 The Good Old Days of Radio (Host)
1981 I've Had it Up to Here (Host)
1982 Boop Oop a Doop (narrator)
1983-86 Life's Most Embarrassing Moments (host)
1984 Stooge Snapshots

FILMS

Down Memory Lane, 1949; The Benny Goodman Story, 1955; College Confidential, 1960; Warning Shot, 1967; Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, 1968; The Funny Farm, 1982; Amazon Women on the Moon, 1987; Great Balls of Fire!, 1989; The Player, 1992; Casino, 1995.

PUBLICATIONS (selection)

The Funny Men. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.

Mark it and Strike it: An Autobiography. New York: Holt, 1960.

Dialogues in Americanism, with William F. Buckley; Robert Maynard Hutchins; Brent L. Bozell; and James MacGregor Burns. Chicago: H. Regnery Co., 1964.

The Ground is Our Table. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966.

Bigger Than A Breadbox. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1967.

See also Steve Allen Show; Talk Shows; Tonight Show