Sunday, October 30, 2011

Farewell, Steverino


[Published 11 years ago, Nov. 3, 2000, in The Kansas City Kansan, regarding Steve Allen’s death]

By Steve Crum

Death of an icon. The passing of a show business pioneer. Cliche headlines that are true in this case. As I sit here Tuesday afternoon, two hours after hearing of Steve Allen’s death, I am stunned.

Friends have called, leaving messages of his sudden death that occurred Oct. 30, the day before I write this. According to the Allen family’s official statement, he was “at the home of his youngest son, Bill, in Encino, California. Mr. Allen was resting after a visit with four of his 12 grandchildren when he lost consciousness and died of an apparent heart attack.”

Steve Allen was about a month away from his 79th birthday.

Press reports got the story mostly right, even though half the TV and newspaper blurbs incorrectly said he had died Oct. 31. Six different media sources that I read and heard (including the three major TV networks) said that Allen had written 4,000 songs in his career. This is true, but not all the truth. He actually had over 8,500 original songs published, which garnered him the Guinness Book distinction as “the most prolific composer of all time.”

I was well aware of the media errors, because I have made it my business to know Steve Allen. He is the person about whom I have said from my youth I would most like to emulate. The majority of wit and humor I have been accused of possessing is traceable to Allen. Maybe all of it. Because of him, I sneaked late night TV viewings from as far back as grade school in the late 1950’s. He exposed me to humor--purely zany, wonderfully ridiculous, infectious and inventive. I was a member of his comedy club of which there were millions more like me, inclusive of all ages. It was a vicarious experience, of course, but with me were Tom Poston, Louis Nye, Don Knotts, Gabe Dell, and Dayton Allen.

And it was a party time full of laughter and camaraderie. The skits were clever with characterizations as defined as Nye’s Gordon Hathaway (“Hi, ho, Steverino”), Poston’s man on the street who never could recall his name, and Knott’s nervously shaking persona. Steve Allen, the host, was always the joyful ringleader. He laughed at his comics, and at himself. His was a high-pitched blast of a laugh that some have labeled a cackle. But it was more like an amplified, uncontrollable giggle--and America loved to hear it. That is because it was a spontaneous happening triggered by someone’s wig slipping or a piece of scenery falling or a wild double take. Not only was Allen’s laugh in itself funny, his reaction also abetted the overall hilarity.

I shall not try to repeat what the media has already said this week regarding Allen’s show business credentials. In fact, I devoted two consecutive columns weeks ago to his accomplishments. That was after I spent three days in Allen’s presence during his Lawrence-to-Iola, Kansas tour in conjunction with the annual Buster Keaton Celebration held at the end of September. (Allen performed at Lied Center in Lawrence and was special guest speaker at the Keaton affair.)

Saying at the time that it would probably be the last time I would ever get to see Steve Allen in person (I had interviewed him in 1964 as a Wyandotte High School Pantograph reporter), I meant it in a proximity sense, since Allen resided on the West Coast. Allen and his wife Jayne still did limited touring with a romantic play, and Allen himself performed various one-nighters--like the one he did in Lawrence. There he reminisced, played the piano, sang some of his great songs like This Could Be the Start of Something Big, and relaxed on an on-stage couch commenting on clips shown from his six decades on TV and the movies.

In Iola, I sat a seat behind Allen as he and a packed auditorium watched Buster Keaton’s 1924 classic, Sherlock Jr. Allen suppressed his famous giggle, but he chuckled constantly. Afterwards he admitted he had never seen this Keaton film, and felt it was “way ahead of its time in humor and film technique.” He even asked for a video copy to take home to show his grandchildren. He got his wish.

Steve Allen was always a great social observer and lover of language. At least half of his 50-plus books deal with such subject matter. No doubt that is why he became so adamant a supporter for cleaning up what he considers the film filth and moral decay promoted through the entertainment industry. The Parents for Television Council, led by spokesman Allen, feel that the media is “leading children down a moral sewer.” It was Allen’s passion that his cause would change our lives and our children’s lives for the better.

Now he is gone, but his reform movement not only survives but flourishes, thanks in huge part to him. We also have late night talk shows because of him, as well as his music, recordings, books, and memories.

Oh, those great TV shows with you, Mr. Allen: The Tonight Show, the men on that street, the angry letters to the editor, The Question Man, the ad libs, The Gravy Waltz, Vine Street, the Be-Bop Fables, a Hebrew National Salami, What is a Freem?, Meeting of the Minds, Andy Williams, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, on opposite Johnny Carson, earlier up against Ed Sullivan, your great love of jazz.

And your great love of life that you shared with me and the world, Steverino.
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Addendum: In Iola, I asked Steve Allen about his daily regimen. Allen replied, “My daily regimen? It’s easy. I just get up at the crack of dawn, stuff up the crack, and climb back into bed.”
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