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Retro Redux: Steve Allen – Modern Renaissance Man

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"Multi-talented" is a term I've casually used when writing about various performers, but I can't imagine anyone better suited to the description than Steve Allen. He authored dozens of books, composed thousands of songs, was an accomplished musical performer — and along the way became a TV pioneer, the forerunner to Carson, Leno, and Letterman .

Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen was born in New York and raised in Chicago, the son of Vaudeville performers. Although he was a talented pianist and was never far from a keyboard, his career began in Arizona (where he was attending college) as a radio announcer. His professional life was interrupted by his service in World War II, but in the post-war years he eventually relocated to the Los Angeles area, where he began to find some success as a radio host and comedian.

Witty and intelligent, he was an audience favorite and soon began to climb the ladder of success in radio. After a few years he moved to New York, where TV was beginning to take hold and many radio stars were making the transition. Performing as host on a number of shows  — among them professional wrestling — he began to attract some notice, especially when he filled in for Arthur Godfrey on the Talents Scouts show. Although the famously-prickly Godfrey might not have appreciated Allen's brand of humor, the audience loved him and it gave his career a nice kick upwards.

It was the early Fifties by then, and new TV shows were being created almost every day. Allen found himself hosting a New York late-night talk show, one that was soon taken nationwide on NBCthe Tonight Show had been born. (See rare video below.) It was a key moment in early TV and Allen stayed with the show for several successful seasons, but eventually moved on to prime-time hosting duties and a long career that included everything from movie appearances to countless awards and honors. Along the way he helped many young stars get their start (including Johnny Carson).

Throughout his life, Allen was a busy performer and a tremendously prolific writer, penning everything from self-help books to fictional mysteries starring himself. But he also devoted a lot of time to music, and as a composer he churned out a staggering number of songs. The best-known is probably his Grammy-winning "Gravy Waltz," which is still a familiar melody to most of us. Countless jazz performers took to the instrumental and a version with lyrics has been recorded by many top singers, including Mel Tormé.

Steve Allen died in 2000, survived by his wife of forty-six years, actress Jayne Meadows. He left behind a legacy of astonishing magnitude and diversity, and I'd urge anyone who is intrigued by a modern renaissance man to dig a little deeper into the fascinating story of Steve Allen.


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