By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Troy Farah
By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Brian Palmer
Steve Allen is dead. I don't think any of us has a problem with that.
People who've lived long, prosperous and productive lives are entitled to long, uninterrupted stretches of inactivity, punctuated by blissful nada. And the spectacle-sporting comedian, who rose to prominence during the days of live television, certainly knew a thing or two about death. Pioneer of the talk show format (and self-proclaimed Renaissance man), Allen conceived a series for PBS in 1977 called Meeting of the Mindsin which he got to interview famous dead people who proved too difficult to book in real life.
Coupled with the annoying bonus of watching Allen's shrill-voiced wife, Jayne Meadows, portray every woman in history from Salome to Aphrodite -- roles best left to someone 30 years her junior -- you got to see Allen mix it up with "real" Renaissance men like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Because all the guests' round-table dialogue was based on writings or quotes attributed to the old masters, they never got to ad lib -- Allen's stock in trade. Ah, if only Michelangelo could've pulled a Burt Reynolds and catapulted a cream pie at his host.
Just imagine this Emmy-worthy episode of Meeting of the Minds had it ever aired: Leonardo da Vinci poking Allen's chest with his finger, questioning what makes old Steverino such a multitalent.
Leonardo da Vinci: With my heightened powers of observation, I've painted and sculpted masterpieces the world still marvels at. I drafted the first in-depth studies of anatomy, flight, architecture, water and air dynamics, war machines and nature. I've perfected pulleys, cogwheels, suction pumps; these are all things the world has benefited greatly from. All you've done, Steve, is write songs for Ann Jillian, think up foolhardy shows like this one and patent the Funny Fone Call, which my friend Alexander Graham insists he was doing way before you andthe Jerky Boys.
Allen:C'mon Leo. You don't hear Cleopatra talking to me like that, do you?
Ever since he left the Tonight Show in 1957, Allen's been force-feeding the public his padded résumé, how he's the author of countless published books, plays, musicals, magazine articles and poems. How he's recorded more than 50 albums/CDs. And then there's that business about having scribbled more than 7,200 songs. That comes out to roughly a song a day -- every day -- for 20 years straight, or (for the math majors) a song every other day for the last 40 years. According to Steve Allen Online! (www.steveallenonline.com), up until his death, he churned out, on average, "40 songs a month" and was never more than two feet from a tape recorder, commemorating his every thought for posterity like Michael Keaton in Night Shift.
The same official Web site recounts one incident in a Kalamazoo, Michigan, hotel lobby, where 200 people witnessed Steve Allen miraculously write 400 songs in a single day. But don't call the Vatican to nominate him for sainthood. After all, how good can these songs be? One imagines him whipping up incidentals like "Hand Me That Ashtray," "Picking My Nose," "Bellhop Blues," "My Boxers Are Riding Up" and "Somebody Get Me a Fresca," all the while fielding suggestions from the assembled audience. No doubt this mob would've sued for co-writing credit if even one of these songs were to live on past that lobby. Should these 400 songs be counted toward the 7,200 tally? I demand a hand recount!
If you were to emulate one of Allen's long-running comedy routines and ask the "Man on the Street" to name one Steve Allen composition besides his theme song "This Could Be the Start of Something (Big)" -- also a 1960 Top 200 hit for Steve and Eydie -- he'd be flummoxed to name a single ditty. Unless the street happened to be in Branson, Missouri, and that man happened to be Andy Williams.
In 1957, with one hit under his belt, the young singer was coerced into recording an entire album of Steve Allen songs for his debut long-player. In a move that would be later repeated by the Rolling Stones for their first album, the cover offered a picture of Williams without a single word explaining who the hell he was. Instead of being obscured by shadows like those surly Stones, a dopey golf hat covers Williams' blue eyes. In contrast to this "guess who" album art, the back sleeve contains a near-actual-size blow-up of Steve Allen's face with fawning liner notes superimposed over it. It is with this album's hyperbole that the birth of Steve Allen as out-of-control Renaissance man can be found:
"His tremendous popularity is no illusion. It is firm and solid. Here is first rate ability and talent that goes in several directions.
He writes books and they are published.
He plays the piano and sings.
He writes short stories and he is an actor.
He writes songs and they are sung."
Some pretty noncommittal praise there. Take Allen's acting. His debut was an uncomfortably humorless portrayal of Benny Goodman in a 1955 biopic -- you could've substituted Goodman's clarinet case and gotten a more animated and watchable performance. Otherwise, Allen had his hands full portraying himself for most of his life, although he once guested as "Allen Stevens" on an episode of Batman. Granted, he did provide an amiable counterbalance to Jayne Meadows' scenery-chewing appearances on The Love Boat. (Oh Lord, we don't need another Meadows!)