Steve Allen, TV innovator, author, composer, dies at 78

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Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Steve Allen, the zany comedian and witty social commentator whose career zipped at warp speed from one occupation to the next--from hosting the original “Tonight” show to lecturing about morality to composing thousands of songs--has died in Encino at age 78.

Allen, once honorary mayor of Encino, had been carving pumpkins with his grandchildren Monday night at his youngest son’s home. He decided to rest, then lost consciousness and later died, apparently of a heart attack, said the son, Bill Allen.

Although the veteran entertainer had occasionally been in ill health over the past decade, including a bout with colon cancer, Allen lived fully until he died.


On Sunday he performed before a sold-out audience at Victor Valley College. On Monday he worked on promotional plans for the December release of his 53rd book, “Steve Allen’s Private Joke File,” and completed the manuscript for a planned book, “Vulgarians at the Gate,” about violence and vulgarity in the media.

On Tuesday, hours after his death, The Times printed one of Allen’s occasional full-page advertisements lambasting television sponsors for “the filth, sex and violence you send into our homes.”

Allen, who actively supported the Screen Actors Guild during the six-month strike against the advertising industry that was settled only last week, was on the ballot as one of 74 SAG members vying for 25 open seats on the union’s national board of directors. Ballots are due back from members today, with results expected later this week. A SAG spokeswoman said it is unclear what will happen under the union’s bylaws if Allen wins.

The multifaceted performer prided himself on working seven days a week, eight hours a day, telling The Times not long ago: “In some ways, I feel more active now than I did many years ago. I feel like I always have. Energetic. Very, very involved.”

Invented Late-Night Television Format

The son of vaudeville actors, Allen charmed radio and television audiences for decades with his inspired shtick, most of it ad-libbed. As the original host of “Tonight” in the mid-1950s, Allen invented the genre of late-night TV and redefined the art of comedy, serving up screwball skits featuring such characters as the Question Man and antics such as the very emotional reading aloud of letters to the editor.

“My comedy has always appealed to the hip and to the silly, whether it’s the 9-year-olds who dig the silliness, or the high school and college kids who dig the hipness,” he once said.


But Allen was equally comfortable with serious material. In 1977, he created television’s “Meeting of Minds,” which won an Emmy in 1981 for best informational series. The show presented imaginary debates between historic figures such as Charles Darwin, Attila the Hun and Marie Antoinette.

Allen also made a determined effort to introduce his viewers to jazz greats, showcasing soloists with the “Tonight” band and interviewing legendary musicians for a television program called “Jazz Scene U.S.A.”

In perhaps his most memorable acting role, Allen portrayed a legendary jazz clarinetist in the 1955 motion picture “The Benny Goodman Story” with Goodman himself dubbing the clarinet soundtrack.

Allen’s versatility astounded his admirers. He dived into nine feet of Jell-O on “Tonight” and penned a weighty book on religious cults. He composed the song “This Could Be the Start of Something Big,” and published a murder mystery, a musical and books of poetry. He pioneered the concept of taking a hand-held microphone into a TV show audience, and wrote about migrant farm workers in the 1966 book “The Ground Is Our Table.”

The man called “Steverino” was born the day after Christmas in 1921 with a mouthful of a name: Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen. His father died when he was a toddler, and his mother took to the road with a comedy routine, often leaving young Steve in the care of her family, the constantly bantering Donohues. Growing up amid laughter, Allen found that comedy came to him as naturally as coughing.

Allen launched his career in 1942, when he dropped out after desultory studies at Drake University in Iowa and at Arizona State Teachers College. He picked up a job at radio station KOY in Phoenix, producing his own show and launching his first comedy act.


Drafted during World War II, Allen was released from the Army after just a few months because of disabling bouts with asthma. In his 1960 autobiography, “Mark It and Strike It,” Allen described himself as “a pampered, sickly beanpole, too weak for athletics and too asthmatic for the Army.”

Instead, he found his niche in performing. Allen moved west for a job with Hollywood radio station KNX in 1948 and developed his now-famous routine of dabbling with the piano keys, chatting with his audience, commenting on his mail and improvising high jinks. After just two years, Allen transferred his radio act to television with “The Steve Allen Show,” which debuted on Christmas in 1950.

Allen’s greatest success came three years later, when he signed up to host “Tonight” from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., live from New York City.

“I want to give you the bad news first, folks,” he told the national audience. “This show is going to go on forever.” He had no idea.

Johnny Carson, a longer-tenured host of the show now handled by Jay Leno, said Tuesday: “Steve Allen’s death saddens me greatly. All of us who have hosted the ‘Tonight Show’ format owe a debt of gratitude to Steve Allen. He was a most creative innovator and brilliant entertainer.”

David Letterman. who hosts his own late-night program opposite “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” said: “Steve Allen was an enormous influence on television. His early work is really the foundation for what late night shows have become.”


With his madcap antics and free-swinging experimentation, Allen turned “Tonight” into a riotous, and wholly unpredictable, program. Comedian George Carlin described Allen’s verbal fireworks as “crashing, cascading brilliance [with] an instinct for the jugular.” Allen remembered the “Tonight” years more modestly: “It was tremendous fun.”

With a giddiness that belied his scholarly looking spectacles, Allen plunged his 6-foot, 3-inch frame into a huge bowl of salad for a “Tonight” wrestling match. Another time, he donned a vendor’s togs to peddle hot dogs on the street. Occasionally, Allen abandoned the entertainment format to tackle more substantive issues. He devoted one entire show to a news program on organized crime. And to demonstrate the perils of drinking and driving, he downed six double vodkas on air, then let his fumbling drunkenness speak for itself.

Mainly, though, Allen believed in laughter. And he kept his audience rolling throughout his four-year tenure as the “Tonight” host.

From 1956 through 1961, he hosted a reprise of “The Steve Allen Show.” Although his program frequently lost its cutthroat ratings battle with “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Allen attracted loyal viewers with his stable of improv actors, including Don Knotts playing the frightfully nervous Mr. Morrison and Bill Dana assuming the role of the shy, jumpy Jose Jimenez. Allen made some on-the-edge bookings for the era, including Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan and the Smothers Brothers.

Ironically, Allen booked Elvis Presley before Sullivan officially launched the rock legend. But Allen, who railed against rock ‘n’ roll, considering it forever inferior to jazz, scheduled the rocker to make fun of Presley and the new music. Asking Presley to sing “Hound Dog” dressed in top hat and tails, Allen placed beside the singer a mournful basset hound, also dressed in top hat and tails. Rock aficionados today remain as upset by that stunt as by Allen’s habit of reading rock lyrics aloud while ridiculing them.

Allen divided his own life into two parts--with the happiest and most productive segment coming after his marriage to actress Jayne Meadows in 1954. Allen had wed his first wife, Dorothy Goodman, during his stint in Arizona, and divorced her after meeting Meadows. He had three sons--Steve Jr., David and Brian--with Goodman and one, Bill, with Meadows.


Allen and Meadows performed together to rave reviews a few years ago in the A.R. Gurney play “Love Letters.” They had also appeared together in recent popular television series including “Homicide” and “St. Elsewhere” and in myriad commercials.

Meadows lent her name to two of Allen’s companies--Meadowlane Music, which published thousands of his songs, and Meadowlane Enterprises, which produced his television shows, nightclub acts and the odd drama. Meadows inspired Allen throughout his career, helping him achieve his ever-expanding goals and encouraging him to try new fields. “I’ve always been a compulsive reader,” he once said, “but after marrying Jayne, I started reading different things.”

He also started writing different things. First, a collection of satirical short stories (“The Girls on the Tenth Floor,” 1958), then a pamphlet on international politics (“Morality and Nuclear War,” 1961). He wrote a rather rambling novel (“Not All Your Laughter, Not All Your Tears,” 1963), a report on the nation’s lapse into immorality (“Corruption in America,” 1979) and a documentary of his two visits to Asia (“Explaining China,” 1980).

An irascible activist, Allen spoke out loudly against capital punishment and nuclear proliferation. He bemoaned the lapse of what today are called “family values.” But his concern for society’s underdogs led him to consider running for Congress or the California Legislature as a Democrat in the early 1960s. Instead, he chose to zing the public consciousness in writing, churning out “Dialogues in Americanism” and “Letter to a Conservative” in hopes of stimulating political debate.

Allen made millions from his television shows, his commercials for Mocha Mix creamer and Restonic mattresses, his lectures, and royalties on the 8,500 songs that put him in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most prolific composer of modern times.”

But still, he continued to write, speak, act and compose and to perform with several symphonies a year. In 1995, publicizing his new compact disc “Steve Allen Plays Jazz Tonight,” he acknowledged that he had never learned to read music. But he also said he heard notes constantly, describing the sensation as “this magic radio in my head.”


Campaigned Against Violence and Vulgarity

In recent years, Allen turned his biting wit to two long-standing concerns, the increasing violence and vulgarity in the media and the dumbing down of America. As early as 1980, Allen complained that TV comedies were “far too dirty for my taste.”

And he coined a term, “dumbth,” to express his view of most Americans as slow-witted, gullible and bumbling. Although he sprinkled his observations with humor, Allen was dead serious about dumbth, alarmed that Americans seemed oblivious to world events, ignorant of history and clueless about geography.

Yet another of Allen’s preoccupations was religion. He wrote the book “Beloved Son: A Story of the Jesus Cults” after his son Brian joined the Love Family commune. And though he pilloried most religious beliefs as stupid, he raised money for the Unitarian Church, the Salvation Army and other religious groups. He saw no contradiction in helping churches even as he belittled their beliefs.

“If someone were to invent a religion tomorrow in which, if you want to contact God, all you have to do is buy a pumpkin, everyone at first would scoff at the stupid person who believes that somehow pumpkins are physically part of God,” he told The Times in 1992. “But now, Chapter 2: These people open kitchens, buy clothing and build shelters for the homeless. I think their views about pumpkins are dumb, but they are helping starving, miserable people and I admire them, and I will help them.”

As part of that, he and Meadows not only contributed generously to the Los Angeles Mission, but also showed up on Thanksgiving and Christmas to help dish up dinners for the homeless.

In his later years, Allen tooled around Southern California in an aquamarine Rolls-Royce. He marked his favorite parking space with a typically brash warning: “Don’t even think about parking here.” And he filled his Van Nuys office and Encino home with stacks of black notebooks containing newspaper stories and other tidbits of information organized by topic, from AIDS to Congress, economics to politics, religion to “funny men.”


In putting together a retrospective of Allen’s broadcast career, David Bushman, the curator of the Museum of Television and Radio, described his subject as “a man with two sides: the serious man trapped in a vaudevillian’s body.”

Allen seemed to take delight in both of his personalities--the acerbic social commentator and the loony, daring comedian.

As for his frenetic pace, he laughingly called it a genetic secret. “I never planned it,” he said. “All I can say is what Popeye says: ‘I am what I am.’ ”

Allen is survived by Meadows, his four sons, 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.