The Sound of Music
Special encore presentation tomorrow 8/7c. Watch the special online now.
Known as the funniest woman in vaudeville, Belle Montrose, a.k.a. Isabelle Allen gave birth to Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen in New York City on December 26, 1921. Steve's father and Belle's straight man, Billy Allen, died when Steve was two. Thus, Steve was raised backstage and on the road, attending 18 different schools, and spending summers in Chicago with his mother's large Irish-Catholic family. Although Steve enrolled in Arizona State Teacher's College with good intentions, he was unable to resist the thrill of show business, and dropped out to take a job at a local radio station. There, Steve was able to hone his many skills as announcer, writer, pianist, singer, producer and all around funny guy.
Married with child and another on the way, Steve packed up his family and headed to Los Angeles to break into the big time in 1945. After two years hosting the nightly comedy show "Smile Time," Steve earned a half-hour variety show on the local CBS radio outlet. One night, guest Doris Day failed to show up, so Steve picked up the large standing studio mike and headed into the audience to fill her half-hour slot. The laughs that ensued from Steve's spontaneous ad libs with his audience brought hundreds of people out the following night to line up for a ticket to get into his show. Almost immediately CBS had to move him into a much larger studio. Within a year, the show became the most popular nighttime broadcast in Los Angeles, and in 1950, CBS sent Steve to New York to work in the brand new medium of television.
For the next three years, Steve toiled away, trying to make a name for himself as his marriage went down the tubes. Then, in 1953, two things happened: Steve met and married the love of his life, actress Jayne Meadows. And NBC called. Ted Cott, the general manager of the network's local New York NBC station wanted to create an original late night program when most TV stations were off the air, or at best, broadcasting old Charlie Chaplin films. On July 7, 1953, The Steve Allen Show debuted locally in New York on WNBT, with Steve as the show's only writer, Gene Rayburn (of future "Match Game" fame) as announcer, and trombonist Bobby Byrne leading the orchestra.
Steve jumped at the opportunity to create a show that utilized the best elements of his Los Angeles radio show: the opening monologue; the home base desk; the announcer/sidekick; the bandleader as comic foil; the comedy sketches; the wacky stunts inside and outside the theatre; and ad lib interviews with celebrities and offbeat, eccentric guests and members of the studio audience. But television was a brand new medium, and the talk show was a brand new format. Working his "anything goes" mentality, Steve picked up his microphone and walked not only into the audience but out onto the street to experiment and entertain. Classic recurrent bits were Man-on-the-Street interviews, Letters to the Editor, and Crazy Shots, where sight gags were set to music.
Innovative and informal, the show was an instant hit. Within a year and a half, NBC and its legendary head of programming Pat Weaver decided to go national and expand the program length from 11:30 P.M. to 1 A.M. But Weaver had one request of Allen...NBC had just successfully launched the Today show to begin its broadcast day and Weaver wanted to bookend the NBC schedule by renaming Allen's show Tonight. Allen was amenable and "Tonight!" premiered on September 27, 1954, coincidentally the 35th birthday of Allen's new bride, actress Jayne Meadows, who still regularly enjoys the Tonight Show on NBC today and will happily celebrate her 90th birthday this fall. Broadcasting live from the Hudson Theater in New York City, Steve Allen promised, "This program is going to go on - forever!"
Tonight's first regular cast also included three young singers whose appearances on the show made them overnight stars who still burn brightly today...Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme and Andy Williams. In addition frequent guest appearances on "The Tonight Show" spawned stardom for talents like Sammy Davis, Jr., Don Knotts, Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters, -- even the Muppets! Steve exposed many Americans to jazz for the first time, introducing such legends as Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Count Basie. Soon the biggest stars of the day were lining up to make guest appearances on Tonight with Steve Allen: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Kirk Douglas, Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Grace Kelly, Judy Garland, Jayne Mansfield, Debbie Reynolds, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, Judy Garland, and Abbott and Costello just to name a few.
In 1956, NBC offered Steve a primetime slot on Sunday night to compete against CBS' entertainment juggernaut, "The Ed Sullivan Show." On his second night in primetime, Steve did something no one had been able to do in years...beat Ed Sullivan in the ratings. And he did it with a little help from a young guest star named Elvis Presley. Steve continued to create both shows while filming "The Benny Goodman Story" for Universal Pictures. The grind finally took its toll, and Steve signed off "The Tonight Show" in 1957 to concentrate on his highly rated Sunday night primetime Steve Allen Show.
During his lifetime, the Father of Late Night Television penned over 9,000 songs and 54 books in a wildly prolific career that spanned sixty years and earned not one, but two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Jay Leno expressed America's thanks when he knelt down and kissed Steverino's ring during his final "Tonight Show" appearance, in celebration of the show's 40th anniversary. Steve was still going strong when he died unexpectedly in late 2000, after a minor traffic accident prompted a fatal heart attack. In its memorial tribute to Steve Allen that November, Newsweek may have best summed up his creation of the Tonight Show "The Father of Late Night, the man who created the TV talk show format we go to sleep with and led the way for Johnny, Dave and Jay...He created an insomniac's paradise and changed television forever."