If the stars are twinkling a bit more lately, it’s because one of Earth’s brightest has taken his place in their midst. On November 1, Steve Allen passed away in his sleep and into the realm of legend. His wife, actress Jayne Meadows, once described him as “a good Irish Catholic boy. One of the true, clean wits around.” He was that, and much more — a comic genius, musician, actor, novelist, poet and activist, Allen was one of the most talented individuals of the twentieth century.
The creator and original host of NBC’s The Tonight Show and the Peabody and Emmy Award-winning PBS series Meeting of the Minds, Allen credited his comic talent to his mother, vaudeville actress Belle Montrose, and her lower-middle-class Irish Catholic family. Allen described their humor as “sarcastic, volatile, sometimes disparaging but always very funny.” Allen’s father, Billy, who acted as Belle’s straight man, died before Allen was two.
Allen was born on December 26, 1921 in New York City. As a child he traveled with his mother constantly, attending eighteen different schools. He studied at Arizona State Teachers’ College but dropped out in his sophomore year to take a radio job. It was at ASTC that he met his first wife, Dorothy Goodman.
After serving in the infantry during World War II, Allen resumed working in radio as announcer, writer, pianist and producer at station KOY back in Arizona, where he developed his own style of comedy. In 1945, Allen took all of his savings, totaling $1,000, and moved his family to Los Angeles to break into big-time radio. He eventually landed a half-hour music and talk show with a CBS radio station. As the show grew, Allen added more talk and less music. Within a year Allen’s show became the most popular nighttime show in the history of Los Angeles radio. Following this success Allen made the natural transition into television, gaining national network exposure with The Steve Allen Show. In the early fifties, his marriage to Goodman failed and they divorced.
In 1953, NBC offered Allen a ninety-minute time slot and The Tonight Show was born. Within the same year, Allen met and married actress Jayne Meadows, star of stage and film. Allen would go on to act in film, theater and television, with his wife collaborating with him on several television and stage projects. One of his most notable performances was playing jazz great Benny Goodman in The Benny Goodman Story. In 1986, Allen was inducted into the TV Academy’s Hall of Fame.
Of all his varied talents, Allen considered music his greatest gift and is honored in the Guinness Book of World Records for writing over 7,900 songs, including “South Rampart Street Parade,” “Picnic,” “Gravy Waltz” and “This Could Be the Start of Something Big.” He also composed the score of the MGM film A Man Called Dagger. But his brilliance shone beyond the fields of comedy and music. Allen authored 54 books, including poetry, short stories, an autobiography, humor and politics. He was also a playwright, penning the musical Sophie and The Wake, a drama based on his Irish American childhood and nominated by the Los Angeles TV Critics Circle for best play.
Allen also wrote about social issues and politics, taking on such issues as the plight of migrant farm workers, anti-Semitism and racism. But his cause célèbre in his later years was the quality of television and film. He was a member of the Advisory Board for the nonprofit Dove Foundation, which supports more wholesome films and television, and honorary chairman of The Parents Television Council, which strives to improve all aspects of the entertainment industry. In his last book, Vulgarians at the Gate (April 2001), Allen accuses today’s television programmers and performers of pandering to the lowest common denominator in order to gain advertising dollars and audience share. He asks, “What kind of a society will we bequeath to our children, one dominated by media conglomerates that push anything for a quick buck, or one that reflects the highest standards of our heritage?”
At 78, Allen was unstoppable, adding finishing touches to two books and performing to a sellout crowd the day before his death. He is survived by his wife, four sons and twelve grandchildren. ♦