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An Appreciation

Entertainment's Man for All Seasons

November 03, 2000|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The successive proprietors of "The Tonight Show" permanently extended the country's television day.

But it was Steve Allen, who died Monday, who first staked out the territory in 1953 and, in the mind of many of us, gave the show an ease, sophistication and spontaneity that it never quite managed again. The commercials piled up; there was a kind of stopwatch urgency about the proceedings. Even so, the seeming impromptu quality of "The Tonight Show" is still its greatest asset amid the flood-tide of packaged programs.

Steve was the most versatile of all the show's hosts: a gifted jazz pianist who would have prospered if he had lived by piano alone; a prolific songwriter whose "This Could Be the Start of Something Big" became a standard, and a quick-witted host who was his own best writer. It says much for his impeccable musical taste that Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme and Andy Williams all sang on the show in its early days.

Memory says that "Tonight" followed an ambitious but unfocused mishmash called "America After Dark," and the style Steve brought to "Tonight" is essentially still in place: the man at the desk (or the piano), with guests, vocalists, a band, skits and audience involvement. Yet the show as Allen presided over it was relaxed.

He had a gift for taking notes from the audience and transforming them into instant bits of material, often very funny. It was a daring venture on an essentially live program, demonstrating the quick wit he had perfected in his earlier days as a radio personality.

One night a note came up written in the margin of a page from the telephone directory. I can't remember what the question was, but Steve noted an unusual name among the phone listings, a name resplendent with Zs and Ys. Steve dialed it and the wife answered. Steve quickly gathered that the husband, Louie, was watching the show in the bedroom. In a wild guess, he said, "Louie's in his underwear." The wife's shriek confirmed that it was all too true. That occasional feeling that the television set is watching you was suddenly a reality, and the wife could be heard screaming for Louie to get under the covers. It was a small, delicious moment, in which Steve Allen's "Tonight" show abounded.

No wonder that his successor, Jack Paar, was able to famously say that his was the only show people watched through their toes. Paar was equally quick-witted, but his somewhat mesmerizing unpredictability gave the show a changed ambience, and the question of his time became, "What is Jack Paar really like?"--as if we didn't know, watching night after night.

Steve was to the end restlessly ambitious, and his public-television show "The Meeting of the Minds" was a far cry from "The Tonight Show," except of course that it was witty and literate. Just a few days ago, one of his assistants sent me half a dozen audiocassettes, adding to many I had previously received embracing the songs he had written, performed or featured on his shows. He had a way of succeeding at whatever medium he turned hand to, including mysteries and social commentary.

My memory of Steve, whenever I ran into him at gatherings, is of him with pocket tape recorder in hand, dictating a thought, an order, a question, to be transcribed by his secretary the next morning. He never retired or let illness slow him down significantly. He was a remarkable, valuable, many-gifted man.

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