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.
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.”

Friday, October 7, 2011

'Real Steel' needs more grit, less melodrama

By Steve Crum

Real Steel could have been, should have been much more. Based on Richard Matheson’s 1956 short story and his gritty 1964 Twilight Zone TV episode, Steel (starring Lee Marvin), Real Steel is neither gritty nor classic. Instead, it succeeds as a sort of Family Channel robot bonding tale, in some ways a live action Iron Giant. Such is far from my expectations.

Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) and screenwriter John Gatins have circumvented Matheson’s original premise of a down and out boxer who literally climbs inside his robot boxer for a desperately needed final victory. In this reboot (or re-robot), the focus is on both Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) and his estranged, 11 year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo). Sure, there are various robots along the way, and they look cool while performing spectacularly. As one robot after another is beaten into scrap iron, from Ambush (who fights live bulls at rodeos) to the flashy import Noisy Boy, Charlie’s great metal hope is accidentally discovered mostly buried at a metal parts junkyard. Soon after named Atom, the robot has a literal hand in saving Max’s life. The boy is immediately smitten with Atom, and proceeds to rebuild and recondition the discarded sparring-bot to champion status.

The premise for Real Steel is, nonetheless, fascinating. Set in a future of human-less (and bloodless) boxing matches, robots are the superstars. (Humans still coach, ref, and promote the matches.) Championship bouts are held at the Crash Palace, the Madison Square Garden of tomorrow. It is interesting that, except for the robots and the technology involved in the matches (humans sometimes operate computer control panels to control the robots), the future looks like our present day.

For example, take the impressive opening sequence set in a county fair rodeo arena, which features the robot Ambush tussling with an 800 pound raging bull--not played by De Niro. The set resembles any typical rodeo of today, including screaming fans. As the robot matador tries to clobber the beast into unconsciousness, he/it loses a leg, yet tries to continue fighting, balancing on his good one. The mistake occurs due to trainer Charlie’s neglect at managing Ambush’s remote control on the sidelines. This is the best sequence in the film because of its no frills, bare-boned action. No animals were harmed during the making of this movie, but plenty of robots were.

There are sub-plots of Charlie’s wheeling and dealing with bookies and loan sharks (he is over his head for thousands), and his friendship with robot tech Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly). But the crux of the story centers on Charlie and son Max. Via divorce, Max has exclusively lived with his mother. His mother’s sudden death forces Max to either live with his dad (Charlie) or his rich aunt and uncle. At first, Charlie is happy to sign court papers for Max to move in with his ex-wife’s sister, especially since her husband offers Charlie big bucks to legally sign the boy over to them. However, as Max becomes more involved with bot fighting, he and his father grow closer. While the father-son scenes set a positive, moral tone for the film, they are often ponderous, and distract from the core theme of battling robots, and man’s obvious need for violence, even on a simulated basis. This need for violence extends to children aka Max.

Incidentally, Sugar Ray Leonard supervised the boxing scenes, via professional boxers who were “motion-captured,” computer-wise.

Acting in Real Steel is generally very good, with Jack’s desperate trainer and Goyo’s whiz kid personas particularly impressive. But what one takes from the movie, cutting through all the human family melodrama, are some outstanding robot sequences. After all the Transformers exposure over the last few years, who would have guessed more battling bots would hook our interest? Maybe it is because Real Steel’s bots need humans to think for them.
GRADE on an A-F Scale: B-
Check out the Real Steel trailer: