Watching Steve Allen Say Goodnight to Late Night, for the Second Time
The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
Today at “From the Archives,” we continue our randomly selected theme as we look at some of the more rare finales in television history. This week we watch as Steve Allen says goodbye to late night TV. Again.
Steve Allen sits at a piano in a darkened studio, alone except for a few stagehands. “Saying goodbye to this show feels like graduating high school and going to college,” he begins. “You realize you might be going to a bigger, better school, but there’s still a measure of sadness leaving people and places that have become a familiar part of your life. The last day of school is never fun.”
As long-time readers of this column already know, Steve Allen’s career in late night goes all the way back to the first episode of the very first version of the Tonight Show. It was here that Allen developed many of the familiar formulas of late night television that are still in place today. However, Allen became too popular to waste at 11:30 at night, so NBC moved him to Sunday nights where he would try to bring down CBS’ powerhouse, Ed Sullivan. After a nice run there, he returned to late night on a syndicated show, sponsored by Westinghouse. In October of 1964, Steve Allen broadcasted his final episode of The Steve Allen Show.
The camera looks down a long, dark street as the band plays a peppy version of Allen’s signature tune, “This Could Be The Start of Something Big.” “From Hollywood!” shouts the announcer. “It’s the Steve Allen Show!” The crowd is going wild. Suddenly, off in the distance we see Steve Allen walking towards the camera in a trenchcoat. He gives a little wave to the camera, as he steps into his set, takes off his coat, waves to the audience and steps over to his round table. Not the ordinary late night desk; the set has a much different feel with symmetrical ceiling fans, palm trees, giant columns and ornate sconces. Before taking a seat, Steve brings a hand to his neck and moving his hand briskly across it, he gives the “cut” symbol. The silence is jarring and immediate. “Quiet, isn’t it?” Steve muses. “The applause you’ve heard, for the first time here, was fake. Nobody was invited to the party tonight except you at home. I thought we might be able to get closer to you if we didn’t have anyone here.”
Steve has, at this point closed out a number of TV shows, and he reflects on this. In the past, he says, they’ve invited a million celebrities and had a “wild night.” But tonight Steve seems to be in more of a reflective mood, which ends up giving this final show a rather melancholy tone. He begins the program by showing a number of photos from his long career in radio and television, from his first appearance in 1946 on the Mutual Network’s Smile Time (along with his comedy partner Wendell Noble, and without his glasses!), to his appearance in the movies with the titular role in The Benny Goodman Show, to the present. Throughout it we see many of the celebrities he’s worked with over the years including a super young Sammy Davis Junior, and his “regular girl singer,” the pre-famous Peggy Lee. He talks about the heavy hitters of comedy that encouraged him and taught him a lot about the business such as Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Georgie Jessle, and Phil Silvers.
And one of the elements that seems to run through all of Steve Allen’s many TV shows are the wild stunts, that would go on to inspire such late night heroes as David Letterman. He talks about how during his Night Owl radio he took part in a $1,000 bet in which he wrote 50 songs a day for seven days (and won!). Or when he got into the ring with then-heavyweight champ, Ingmar Johannson. Or how like the stagehands are dismantling the set for his show as he’s hosting it.
Throughout the evening, Steve is showing some “old odds and ends of videotape” from this particular series, as requested by the fan mail they’ve received. One such clip comes from a night when the announcer started the show with the familiar, “ladies and gentlemen, Steve Allen!” and as he walked out, from the other side of the stage came Johnny Carson. And so the pair decided to prank call on the air another legend of late night, Jack Parr. Without any sort of plan, Steve begins the call informing Jack that he is calling from Time Magazine and is trying to confirm a story that he’s retiring from TV next year. Parr, who was clearly woken out of a sleep, is not happy at all. Steve hands the phone off to his “editor,” Johnny Carson who tells Parr what they’re calling about. “This is Johnny Carson,” states Parr. The three of them chat for a bit until eventually Parr asks, “Are we through now?” Allen responds “I think we died three minutes ago,” to which Parr replies, “I got some laughs on my end.”
Steve also showcases a couple of the comedy sketches from the program. These include a musical version of “Dracula” as written by a Rodgers and Hammerstein-style author. In it, Dracula, played by Gabe Dell, and his wife, played by Allen’s real life wife, Jayne Meadows are visited by Steve Allen as his nephew, Irving Dracula. The main joke of the piece is how they keep shoehorning popular songs of the day, such as when Dracula’s wife brings her husband breakfast by placing her head on a silver platter. When he only drinks a little of her blood, she offers more, singing a verse from “All of Me.” The sketch ends with one of the strangest leaps when Irving’s fiancé can’t believe he destroyed his aunt and uncle to save her and Steve responds: “We weren’t that close, they still owe me a bar mitzvah gift, and besides, that’s show business!” and the cast breaks out into “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Another sketch follows, a parody of the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford film of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (Allen clarifies: “It’s not really a satire. Just a pretty broad burlesque.”) that’s even more one note: Steve Allen and Louis Nye are in drag. That’s about it.
Steve talks a little bit about how slapstick was an important part of the show, and then has quite the clip package to demonstrate it: a montage of 15 separate moments in which someone is hit with a pie. This includes one massive incident in which the entire audience wore plastic shower caps and ponchos and were told to pie someone who I assume was the show’s director. When the clips of pies are over, this same man is sitting next to Steve, and presents him with a farewell gift on behalf of the crew. It’s a giant framed certificate, and when Steve reads it aloud he laughs genuinely. He is given one share of stock in Westinghouse Electric, the show’s (former) sponsor.
The last clip of the evening is something a little different in that it was, according to Steve, entirely ad-libbed. He explains that over the years the show would bring in all sorts of young ladies who were hired to promote various weeks for corporations. On this occasion a woman was brought into promote “National Pear Week.” She appeared wearing Greek attire, dressed Steve in a matching toga, and keeps talking about the romance of pears. Before the clip begins, Steve assures us his intentions were entirely honest but the audience had a mind of their own. What follows is a long string of double entendres involving Steve and the woman talking about pears in a way that sounds like he’s talking about “a pair” (for those of you who are too innocent or so beyond innocence that 1960s innuendo isn’t strong enough, we’re talking about breasts here). She offers him a pear, he asks “a pair of what?!” The audience explodes into laughter. It’s hard to convey, but Steve and the woman (Her name wasn’t given. I’m not trying to objectify her further, but I don’t have much to go on.) are genuinely giddy as they realize how well this bit is going over and their enjoyment is pretty infectious.
With that, we’re back to Steve in his now bare studio. He says his goodbyes. He thanks the audience, his sponsors, and he lets us know that he’ll be back on TV soon (and he’s not wrong: his late show would be back in 1968, and he would continue hosting the CBS game show I’ve Got a Secret until 1973). He then turns to the piano and plays a song he wrote for the Broadway show Sofie but was ultimately cut for being too sad, called “The Final Curtain.” It is, in fact, quite sad. Steve walks off the set, and that’s it.
The thing that struck me most while watching this finale was Allen’s way with words. Maybe it’s just from being on live radio and television for so many years, but he’s able to fill so much time with a constant stream of words but it never feels like he’s repeating himself to fill time. The show itself is 90 minutes, and while the sketches do go on more than a little too long, I could have listened to him talk his way through his collection of photographs from his career for twice that. Luckily TV audiences didn’t have to say goodbye for long to Mr. Allen.