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Steve Allen Cast as Man of Mystery

October 07, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

The second speaker had already started his talk at the Round Table West author luncheon at the Balboa Bay Club when a tall, vaguely familiar-looking gentleman in a sport coat, pink shirt and red tie walked in and sat down at a table in the middle of the dining room.

His arrival was not greeted by the predictable gasp of recognition that usually accompanies the entrance of a Hollywood celebrity whose face is known to millions. In fact, barely a single member of the 400-plus audience turned to gape at the man they had paid $25 each to hear speak.

Like Superman who is inexplicably unrecognizable as Clark Kent without his horn rims, Steve Allen just isn't "Steverino" without his trademark specs.

As soon as he was seated, the nearsighted comedian quickly put on his glasses.

"That was deliberate," Allen explained later. "I was uncomfortable because there was someone speaking. First of all, even if I was a milkman I wouldn't want to distract from a speaker, but if you're well-known sometimes you hear (loud whispering), 'There's Paul Newman!' and the poor guy on the stage is out of luck, so I sometimes disguise myself."

Actually, arriving "incognito" at the author luncheon last week seemed appropriate for Allen, who is cast as an amateur detective in his latest literary endeavor, "Murder on the Glitter Box" (Zebra, $18.95).

The comedian, as they say in the movies, plays "himself" in the fast-paced murder mystery, which begins when he is asked to fill in for a famous late-night talk show host. It's show business as usual--until Allen hands a nervous guest a drink of vodka during a commercial break and the guest proceeds to drop dead.

"It turns out he has been poisoned," Allen told his Round Table West audience. "My name is inevitably on the list of suspects because I did, after all, hand him the drink that killed him. But, of course, I did not know there was poison in the drink."

Steve Allen, amateur sleuth. It has a nice ring to it.

In fact, Allen is already six chapters into a sequel, and there's talk of a movie version of "Murder on the Glitter Box." Casting the lead character, naturally, poses no problem.

Actor and author are just two labels that can be attached to the 67-year-old entertainer, who was introduced by Round Table West's Margaret Burk as a "Renaissance man": comedian, pianist, playwright, poet, philosopher, author of 33 books, composer of 4,000 songs and creator of the Emmy Award-winning PBS series "Meeting of Minds."

Although flattered by the frequently quoted appellation, Allen confessed to his audience that he finds the compliment a bit embarrassing: "I've never seen myself as a Renaissance man. I see myself more as a man of the Dark Ages, working my way through the Reformation--perhaps eventually getting to the Renaissance if I keep working very hard at it."

The fabled Allen wit was in ample supply during his talk in which he discussed everything from his book ("It's a comic novel, although it's a serious whodunit") to America being "the most celebrity happy-culture in history" to Zsa Zsa Gabor ("I never saw anyone wearing diamond handcuffs before").

He topped it off with a couple of Jerome Kern tunes at a baby grand piano and, after a near-unanimous standing ovation, spent 30 minutes autographing copies of his book. ("He's writing 'love' to his ladies," gushed one woman clutching two autographed copies of the book.)

As befitting his celebrity status, Allen received star treatment during his one-day stay in Orange County: Round Table West boosters John and Donna Crean offered their private limousine to pick Allen up at his Encino home, and the Bay Club provided a suite overlooking Newport Harbor (stocked with orange juice and fruit at his request) so he could rest before being driven to a book-signing that evening at Book Carnival in Orange. For its part, Book Carnival was asked by Allen's office to provide a limo for the return trip home. That was a first for owner Ed Thomas: "I don't mind doing it. We'll just have to sell enough books to make it worthwhile."

Despite the star trappings, there was no sign of star temperament, and Allen proved gracious and warm during an interview in his suite after the talk. By turns reflective, serious and funny, the man who served as the original host of the "Tonight" show in the '50s proved to be an ideal interviewee as he sat on the "guest" portion of the suite's sofa.

Allen, who has written four novels, explained that the success of his previous murder mystery, "The Talk Show Murders," several years ago led to his current publisher approaching him 2 1/2 years ago to see if he'd be interested in writing a murder mystery they had in mind. ("The Talk Show Murders" featured a private eye who sets out to solve a series of murders that occur on four different talk shows.)

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