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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Adieu, Steverino, Offbeat Wit of the Test-Pattern Age

November 03, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

Steve Allen amused himself. Off stage, far from the camera lights, he often enjoyed a good private joke, if only to see what somebody's response to it might be.

For example, Steve had a habit of finding out as quickly as possible if he were making the acquaintance of somebody well-informed or completely clueless.

On days when he kept a business appointment, he sometimes tested the intelligence quotient of the first person he met.

"May I help you, sir?" a receptionist at a television station might say, staring at him blankly.

Steve didn't crave recognition, but this would be his cue to see what kind of bulb he was dealing with--bright or dim.

"I'm here to be interviewed," he would say.

"And your name?"

"Hitler," he'd say. "Steve Hitler."

Too often, the receptionist would jot it down, with neither astonishment nor curiosity. One young man inserted an ID sticker into a typewriter, tapped out STEVE HITLER, then gave it to Allen, telling him to wear it on his lapel.

*

A number of years ago, the author and television personality Dick Schaap, whom I'd come to know from his work for ABC News and ESPN Sports, asked out of the blue: "How often do you hear from Steve Allen?"

Never, I said.

"You will," Schaap declared.

The prospect did not fill me with dread. On the contrary, Steve Allen had been a force of childhood, a staple of bedtime television, pre-Paar, pre-Carson, generations pre-Leno, back when very little would follow Allen's program on TV except an Indian's face over a test pattern.

Funny the details you remember. The "man on the street" interviews. Stepping into a studio audience to ask screwy questions, with a huge Hebrew National salami awarded as a prize. Reciting rock 'n' roll lyrics sincerely, like poetry, to mock their absurdity: "Who put the bomp, in the bomp-de-bomp-de-bomp? Who put the ram, in the ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong?"

If you think today's "Tonight Show" is off the wall, you should have seen yesteryear's. Exterior shot: A New York sidewalk. Steve Allen strolls along. Suddenly, a pay phone rings. Steve answers, listens and hangs up. A look of panic. Then, in front of dozens of pedestrians, he strips off his suit and eyeglasses inside the phone booth, revealing a Superman suit underneath.

Sid Caesar's may have been the prime-time show of shows, but Steve Allen's was the late show of shows. I can still hear his mirthful bird coo of "smock, smock," like a crazed myna. I still see him jump into a tub of Jell-O.

And to think he'd become someone who would crusade against the quality of TV.

Allen's mission late in his life--which ended this week, at 78--was to remind entertainers that being filthy was not a requirement for being funny. He was not conservative, professionally. No performer is meek who persuades U.S. Marines into faking a beach landing, panicking guests at a nearby hotel. What Orson Welles once did for radio, Steve Allen did on TV.

His personal tastes? They varied. Musically, he not only preferred jazz and classical, but once penned an essay titled: "Consider the Possibility That Your Tastes in Music Are Related to Your Degree of Overall Intelligence." In it he cited studies that infants exposed to Mozart developed superior IQs.

Of course, this was the same Steve Allen who willingly put Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis on his TV show. Elvis and a hound dog were given goofy outfits to wear. Jerry Lee kicked away a piano bench, so Allen flung it back. These too might have qualified as extemporaneous intelligence tests.

Steve composed music, little of it confused with Mozart's. A record producer once sniffed: "Steve Allen's written 5,000 songs. Name two." He once wrote 350 in a week, on a dare from singer Frankie Laine, in the window of a Hollywood store.

*

I had the privilege of spending an afternoon in Allen's nondescript suite of offices on Burbank Boulevard, and sure enough, correspondence from him came periodically thereafter. Often he'd clipped out something that he was "sending to friends and relatives around the country."

He decried the "Howard Sternization of America" and mocked most TV as mental junk food. Nutty he didn't mind; he minded smutty.

"I don't mind a dirty joke," Steve Allen said, the last time we spoke. "I mind it that everything's dirty now. So much of TV is vulgar or violent.

"That's not entertainment. That's a national disgrace."

*

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to: Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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