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October 31, 2000

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Steve Allen: There Was Only One


       Halloween has played its dirtiest trick ever and the humor is missing. Steve Allen has left us and I feel guilty. He has made me laugh harder and longer than any human being on earth. I feel guilty because I'm selfish. I want him to break me up one more time and he can't.
       When I received the news shortly after noon Tuesday of Steve's passing, I was stunned as if I'd lost a member of my family. I had just received a letter from Steve in the last week and this simply was not supposed to happen. This column was not meant to be written....at least, not now.
       No matter our fields of endeavor, most of us have an idol, maybe even a few. Typically, they are people who achieve a level of excellence most of us aspire to and never reach. In sports, mine was Bart Starr. Watching number 15 on third and short going for the bomb still is a vivid memory. In sports announcing, the great Ray Scott was my icon. He could say three words: "Starr....Dowler....Touchdown!" and sound like the Voice of God.
       You who have been with us at GSCC since the outset know my greatest influences in entering a broadcasting career were Tom Kennedy, Jack Narz and Hal March----though my vocational direction drifted to television news. They were the greatest pure broadcasters. The fourth one in that category for me was the man who was just taken from us at the age of 78.
       I never had the opportunity to press the man's flesh. However, Steve Allen gave me three and a half of the most cherished hours of my life. Those were the three times he guested on my local radio show in 1995, 1997 and late last year.
       Mind you, the first time out, I'm trying to conduct a professional interview while avoiding blubbering all over myself about actually being on the phone with one of entertainment's all-time greats. Yet, this man---who has sat at the table or shared the stage with virtually ever legend in show business---calmly answered every question I had and complimented me on doing my homework.
       I had just finished reading the updated version of Steve's book "Dumbth," an entertaining, yet challenging, tome which hit the nail on the head about how our standards of dress, conversation, education and---in particular---personal service have deteriorated to the point of embarrassment.
       Steve told me how he and his wife Jayne had been in a restaurant in San Diego the day before and Jayne had asked the waitress if she had any no-fat milk. Three minutes later, the waitress came back and said, "No. We don't have any no-fat milk, but we do have fat-free milk."        I shared with him a story of going to a fast food restaurant near Atlanta a few years earlier, ordering a vanilla shake and having a sourpuss clerk return a long, long, long time later, slam the cup down in front of me and proclaim in a sarcastic tone, "It COME OUT CHOC'LIT!"
       That classic cackle of Steve's responded on the other end and he asked if he could use the story. Oh, sure, I was going to tell him no....right? Two years later, he not only remembered the story but told me he had used it. Talk about headswelling! To think a poor little college professor from Waycross, Ga., had provided material for Steve Allen! Only in America.
       Last year, in an interview which will be transcripted in full in the near future, after Who Wants to Be a Millionaire rang the bell, Steve spent a half-hour taking me through his views on game shows and his years on What's My Line? and I've Got a Secret.
   Steve on game shows: "They're fun to do. And they can be relatively easy shows to do if they aren't overcomplicated. The ones which are don't stay around long. That's why What's My Line? lasted as long as it did. It fit a simple premise: what do you do for a living? You didn't have to write a script for that show to be funny. You had people on the panel who each fit a different role. Arlene (Francis) was the ultimate in grace and intelligence. Bennett (Cerf) was the consummate game player. The audience had a love-hate relationship with Dorothy (Kilgallen). The chemistry made the show."

   Steve on game show hosts: "There's always been a built-in bias in the industry against emcees or announcers. Actors and directors don't hold them in very high esteem because they're not thought of as talents who can play a role. The best emcees don't work with scripts and that frustrates actors.
   In fact, hosts have to play more roles at one time than any actor does. They have to be a relatively nice person or the audience will leave them. They have to be rather glib but have a sense of how to make the contestant funny. They have to have a sense of timing, they have to direct traffic and they have to be good communicators. It's a much tougher job, in many instances to play yourself than to be "in character," but no actor ever accepts that.

   Steve on I've Got a Secret: It was a relatively easy and fun show to do. Garry Moore had done a brilliant job with it for 12 years before I took over. In some respects, I've Got a Secret allowed us to bring some of the style of our NBC show because so many of the secrets allowed us to have interaction with people. You had less structure with this kind of game show, other than to keep the segments on time. What was always fun is when the panel would get off track and the audience and the contestants would erupt in laughter. You couldn't script those kinds of moments.
       Steve had his critics. In the '50s, he was accused of ultra-leftist politics, particularly when he did Tonight Show episodes on organized crime and labor unions. Ironically, in the late '90s and into 2000, much of Hollywood either professed to either ignore or become angry at Steve's war against the industry on behalf of family television with the Parents Television Council. In one newspaper story last year, he was labeled a right-wing extremist by a panel of younger Hollywood producers. I asked him about that and he said, "Well, at least they spread it around. Forty years ago, I had letters accusing me of being a Communist."
       Doubtless, some detractors exist from people who have worked with him---as would be the case with any performer. Through the years, I've read critical accounts which have tabbed Steve as "condescending" and even "demeaning" to some staffers. Betsy Palmer intimated in a Game Show Network interview she did not enjoy Secret as much with Steve as she did with Garry. "They were just two very different people," she said. "It wasn't really the same show with Steve as it was with Garry. The chemistry was definitely different."
       Yet, Pat Carroll---who worked with Steve on the 1972-73 remake of Secret---called him "a true renaissance man." When I spoke with Pat earlier this year, she rattled off some short recollections of a number of emcees and said, "I just don't think there's anything Steve Allen can't do. He has one of the most versatile minds not just in show business but in the entire world."
       Last year, Art Linkletter told me: "Steve is a good friend of mine. He used to sit in on my radio shows in Los Angeles and that was in the era where you had big audiences for all the live radio shows. Steve learned how to work with an audience and became one of the best ever because he always listened to what the people had to say."
       I don't find much of contemporary humor or many modern-day comedians funny. In my perspective, most of it and them add up to three things: four-letter words, sex jokes and bodily-function exhortations. We have no more sense of shame in America and comedians have exploited about every avenue of that deficit remaining. That view does not make me popular with some elements of game show fans when I criticize that style of humor spilling into our genre but I don't care any more than Steve Allen did about his most recent critics. Steve was brilliant as an entertainer because he didn't have to rely on cheap humor. His was a thinking-man's approach to comedy based on one of the quickest wits in television history. In fact, Steve and Pat Carroll are the only two people who could make me collapse laughing almost on sight.
       I never met this icon in person but last year, he made my holiday season. After our radio interview, we were casually chatting and I mentioned having a collection of a number of game shows he and Jayne did in the '50s, '60s and '70s---including a rare 1952 Secret in which he subbed for Garry. "I forgot about that," he said. "I'd like to have some of those, if you don't mind." Over the next few weeks, I put together about two dozen classic games and sent them to Steve. I didn't think anything more about it.
       A week before Christmas, a package came to my door. Inside was a handwritten letter from Steve expressing personal thanks and telling me he and Jayne had gathered the children and grandchildren for a holiday evening of "watching Grandma and Grandpa when they were much younger." Also inside were two of Steve's books which he had autographed, including my favorite, depicting his years in television. Those are two books and a letter which will never be hocked on eBay.
       Steve took great pride in his son Bill's efforts as a producer of family television. Bill worked with Ken Wales on the brilliantly-mounted Christy five years ago, which was killed after CBS moved it to seven different time periods in 22 episodes. As one associate said in an interview Tuesday, when it came to fighting a sometimes futile battle over values in television, "Steve put his money where his mouth was." As a father of two, the distress I have is I see no one of Steve's stature, whether Hollywood did profess to ignore him, willing to take up that cause at the level he has.
       In fact, Steve was the first person who I encountered with a theory---in addition to its phenomenal first year ratings---as to why ABC was willing to exploit and take a chance on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in prime time, particularly in a multiweek format. "They won't say this, but they have very little programming for the family on their schedule," Steve said. "If they put this on for three hours a week, it's an easy way for them to say, 'Who says we don't have any family programming on our network?'"
       If I have a personal sadness, in addition to the knowledge there will be no new Steve Allen, it exists in the futility of my students having no appreciation for this man's groundwork in the broadcast industry. Most of them have no idea who he is. That generational lapse is why some of those ridiculous end-of-century polls last year listed Garth Brooks as one of the ten greatest entertainers of all time and omitted Bob Hope.
       From all accounts, Steve Allen passed away in the fashion most of us wish would be the case when our time comes. He simply went to sleep and never awakened. Last year when I talked to Jayne after Gene Rayburn's death, she told me, "We just live for Christmas because it's our time to spend with the grandchildren." A major void will exist with the Allen family this Christmas but when Steve left us, he was with his grandchildren.
       My life is richer because this man has made me laugh more than any one human being on earth. He made me laugh without being insulting or crude. I have my videotapes and my three and a half hours of interview cassettes which no one can take from me. If I could tell him one more thing, I would assure Steve Allen of this: your life was indeed bigger than a breadbox.

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