Tuesday, May 24, 2011

An Interview with Marty Allen - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: I want to ask you a little bit about the parts of your career that nobody knows about. You started out in a team with the "Singing Star of the Blue Baron Orchestra." Someone named Tiny Wolfe.

Marty Allen: Oh, Tiny Wolfe. That was a long time ago. Yes, just for a very short while in Pittsburgh. It wasn't actually like a team. We more or less got together... he was doing gigs and I was doing gigs and they started putting us together, but we didn't actually go out and become a comedy team or anything like that. He was a singer and I was doing comedy. They kind of wanted all of us together and I don't even know how all of that happened! It didn't last that long anyhow.

Kliph Nesteroff: I had heard he was the house emcee at the Club Casino.

Marty Allen: Yes, he was the house emcee at a club and he kept calling me back because he was very outgoing and full of life and he took a liking to me. He said, "I want you on as often as I can get you." But it was not a big deal.

Kliph Nesteroff: The billing I found is from January 1950 and the newspaper blurb says, "Marty Allen, the Squirrel Hill comedian makes his first downtown appearance..."

Marty Allen: I started playing all the little clubs around Pittsburgh and I became one of the favorites and that's how it all began. One day I got the call... this was after the war... then one day they said to me, "We want you to work with a singer." I said, "Where?" "At a club. This is going to be your big deal." I said, "What's the big deal?" It was with Sarah Vaughn. I went, "Oh my God!" And she took a liking to me. She called Nat King Cole. At that time, all the singers at the agency were using comedians [to open for them]. If Tony Bennett went out - there was a comic. If Tony Martin went out - there was a comic. If Nat Cole went out - there was a comic - and she told him about me and that's how I got connected with him.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was another man you briefly teamed up with that nobody has ever heard of. July 1950 - you teamed with Rex Dale.

Marty Allen: Yeah, I worked... well, I worked with different guys, but not for long periods of time or anything of consequence. Rex was a very talented guy out of Philadelphia. For a while we did gigs together, but it wasn't like we were going to team up forever.

Kliph Nesteroff: But learning your craft along the way...

Marty Allen: (grunts)

Kliph Nesteroff: You two performed at Boston's Latin Quarter with Billy Eckstine, May 1951.

Marty Allen: Yeah, we did pretty good together. He was an excellent straight man. We played all kinds of gigs together, but it was never going to be a long term deal. None of that ever happened, actually, until I got with Steve Rossi who had been the production singer at The Sands. Nat King Cole, more or less, put us together. That's when we got hot. Now I work with my wife who is not only a phenomenal singer and piano player, but she's a great straight woman and they're calling us the new George Burns and Gracie Allen... only I'm Gracie Allen!

Kliph Nesteroff: Now what can you tell me about Mitch DeWood...

Marty Allen: Who?

Kliph Nesteroff: Mitch DeWood. You were in a comedy team with him for eight years.

Marty Allen: Oh, yeah. I was with Mitch for a while. He was a relative of Danny Thomas. We worked together for quite a while and then we broke up and I started doing singles again. It seems that I always ended up with these straight men kind of guys. It was good for a while, but it was in the period in which I was developing.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did have some major gigs with him.

Marty Allen: Oh, yes. We did some major things together.

Kliph Nesteroff: You and Mitch DeWood played one of your first big gigs at The Paramount on Broadway with Nat King Cole...

Marty Allen: Yes and we played The Latin Quarter and The Copacabana and all of those places.

Kliph Nesteroff: Why did you and Mitch DeWood choose to part ways?

Marty Allen: Well, all of these things were amicable. I was either going into something else or... it lasted for a while and we were very good. Mitch and I were very good together. I went off to do other things. Then I started getting calls. They started calling me for game shows, but they couldn't use two people. Steve and I parted very amicably also and I became a regular on Hollywood Squares. I would do other game shows and one thing lead to another and I was doing a dramatic bit with Barbara Stanwyck in Big Valley. Different things happened. That's how it all developed.

Kliph Nesteroff: I want to you ask about some other comedians that were around Pittsburgh and Philadelphia back then. Fisher and Marks.

Marty Allen: Oh, yes. They were a very good team out of Philadelphia. Yes, I knew them very well. For a while they were very hot and they very well known, at that time, in the nightclub circuit. We were friends for a long, long time and I think the one guy passed away. Maybe both of them. I haven't heard from them in years. I remember Louie and I remember them as a very good act.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was a fellow named Jackie Heller.

Marty Allen: Yeah, well, he owned a nightclub. It was a boat on the river on the Monongahela. He was a very talented singer and very well known nationally. He had a club. Jackie Heller's, what was it? The Showboat?

Kliph Nesteroff: The Carousel?

Marty Allen: Yeah, maybe The Carousel. I remember Jackie too. He was a very talented guy and a very good singer.

Kliph Nesteroff: Never a comedian.

Marty Allen: No, not a comedian, just a very good singer and the owner of the club. And very well-liked.

Kliph Nesteroff: So it was Nat King Cole that eventually suggested you pair with Steve Rossi...

Marty Allen: Yes, well, I was with Eydie Gorme at the Chez Paree in Chicago. I was working alone. Steve Rossi was a production singer at The Sands. He told Nat he was tired of being a production singer and he wanted to do something else. Nat King Cole said, "Well, Martin and Lewis exploded. There's always room for another team. There's a guy that's very funny who I've used by the name of Marty Allen. Give him a call! Maybe he'll want to team up!" He called me and at first I said, "I don't know. I don't know if I really want to do anything like that." Eventually I said, "Okay, well, why don't you fly in..." So he flew into Chicago. He looked like Rock Hudson and he sang phenomenal. I said, "Well, let's give it a shot." We started playing little clubs and you could tell right then, as you're working, whether there's a reaction or if something is catching fire. We noticed that the people were reacting to us! That's how it all began! And then when we were ready we went with Nat. We played The Copacabana, The Chez Paree, The Sands playing with Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Lena Horne, Paul Anka and that was the thing. We skyrocketed.

Kliph Nesteroff: Of course. You guys were everywhere. It's ridiculous.

Marty Allen: (laughs) Yeah.

Kliph Nesteroff: There wasn't a show on TV that you guys didn't appear on. It's amazing. You mentioned The Copacabana. Do you remember anything about Jules Podell?

Marty Allen: He was a nice man. He really knew how to run the club, I'll tell you that. If you played The Copacabana and you did well there - it was all over, baby! From then on you could go anywhere. If you played The Copa and you made it - the columnists - Earl Wilson and Dorothy Kilgallen - they gave us rave notices - and that's how it all happened.

Kliph Nesteroff: I heard that you two initially put off appearing on television because you wanted to be cautious.

Marty Allen: Well, no. We had a deal with the Sullivan show. We did so many Sullivan shows... he just kept calling us back, one show after another. People say, "You were on The Ed Sullivan Show?" I say, "I did more Sullivan shows than Ed Sullivan!" That's my line (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: Great line.

Marty Allen: We scored everywhere. We became Allen and Rossi. Hot. I started getting offers. They said they could use me. They'd like me to become a regular on this and that and I'd get a call to do a dramatic bit and Steve and I parted very amicably. I see him occasionally. We didn't part in a feud like Martin and Lewis. Very friendly.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned Dorothy Kilgallen. It is fun watching you two on What's My Line and I've Got a Secret...

Marty Allen: Yeah, we were on those. I think Dorothy was the one, when they had the masks on, Dorothy was the one who knew who we were.

Kliph Nesteroff: I think you're right.

Marty Allen: Yeah. Have you ever seen that?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I have.

Marty Allen: We broke 'em up. They were hysterical. We did Allen Ludden's Password all the time and we were doing all of those things.

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm a bit too young to have experienced that whole era, but one of my first introductions to you was a game show you taped in Toronto called The Joke's On Us hosted by Monty Hall and featuring Nipsey Russell and Jack Carter and yourself.

Marty Allen: Oh yeah, yeah. Jack Carter was on that (laughs). Are you from Canada?

Kliph Nesteroff: I live in Vancouver.

Marty Allen: Oh my! What a city! It's the greatest! We just got back from Hawaii and then we were in Vancouver and we had to fly from Vancouver back here [to Las Vegas]. What was the place in Vancouver called back then... The Cave?

Kliph Nesteroff: The Cave, yeah.

Marty Allen: Yes, I remember that. The city itself is phenomenal. Are you writing a history of show business?

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, I'm always working on pieces related to showbiz history. Right now I'm writing a piece on Shecky Greene.

Marty Allen: Ah, Shecky. I just saw him. I went to see him when he was here at the South Point. Shecky is one of the guys I love. I think Buddy Hackett and Shecky and Rickles - these are the kind of comics that turn me on. I always enjoy watching them. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I love watching Shecky because he is so inventive.

Marty Allen: Yes, his mind is brilliant in that respect and Buddy Hackett was one of the funniest guys there ever was.

Kliph Nesteroff: I have heard that Buddy Hackett could be difficult.

Marty Allen: I had no problems with him. We were always friendly and I knew him from the Catskills. Never had any problems with Buddy, but some people said they had problems. I never had any problems with anybody. When I go to see a show, I go to enjoy. I don't go to criticize. I don't go to take material from them. I just go to enjoy the show, you know? That's the way I've always been and I have my favorites. Buddy was funny. Shecky was funny. These are the kind of guys that appeal to me. When I go to a show, no matter who the comedian, I just go to enjoy. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you remember your first appearance on Ed Sullivan?

Marty Allen: Oh dear God, no (laughs). I can't remember.

Kliph Nesteroff: I suppose they would all blur together. 

Marty Allen: There were so many. I don't think I appeared on there with Mitch DeWood. It was all Steve and I. We did so many.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the experience of doing the show like as a whole? Last minute changes?

Marty Allen: Let me see. We were doing a Peace Corps [sketch] and I was playing like a... Zulu Warrior. Steve was interviewing me and I had this outfit on. Steve was talking to Ed. Ed happened to ask, "Which routine are you doing?" Steve said, "We're doing the Peace Corps and Marty is playing a Zulu Warrior and I'll be interviewing him." Ed said, "Oh! No you are not!" Steve said, "What?" Ed says, "Because I've got Zulu dancers on the show tonight!" I had no idea (laughs). 

I walked downstairs and there were Zulus wearing almost the same outfit that I had on! I ran up the stairs, "There's Zulus!" We had enough time (laughs) and Steve and I changed it real fast. We went next door where there was a novelty shop. I bought bifocal glasses and a cap with a Japanese emblem and I became the head of the World's Fair something Japanese. We switched the lines and did that. Two weeks later Ed said, "Okay. Now you can do your Zulu routine." But that was one of the funniest things. They kept looking at me and I kept looking at them. I said, "Oh. My. God." They didn't think I was making fun of them or anything. It was hysterical. What are the odds they would have Zulu dancers?

Kliph Nesteroff: You did so many episodes of Ed Sullivan - you did far less - if any - appearances with Johnny Carson. Was there a reason for that?

Marty Allen: I don't know. We did several and then... I don't know. I'll tell you the ones we did mainly were Merv and Mike; Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right.

Marty Allen: Then I started doing Mike Douglas even after I had split with Steve. He would use me in all kinds of situations. Like he'd say, "Come down - we're going to have you jump off a building." Or some crazy stunt and he'd say, "I need Marty Allen for that." We did Johnny Carson a couple of times, but certainly not a regular kind of thing.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you get to know Johnny Carson at all?

Marty Allen: Yeah, he was very nice. In fact, I've got some pictures from when we met and... I'm trying to think of some of the clubs we would have met at. I think when he was here. I think he was at The Sahara when I went to see him.

Kliph Nesteroff: You two also appeared on Joey Bishop's short-lived talk show. You must have known Joey Bishop fairly well - a fellow Pennsylvania product.

Marty Allen: I knew Joey from before, yes. That's how I got to meet Regis because Regis was his sidekick. Regis and I became very friendly. Such a nice man. I think he is one of the... he's a gem at what he has done on television.

Kliph Nesteroff: Regis has probably clocked more hours on television than anybody else alive - spare maybe Betty White or Hugh Downs.

Marty Allen: Uh huh. Yeah. He's just a wonderful guy. Joey Bishop was playing nightclubs. He was ahead of me, but he would play Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and different places. We came in contact. I didn't become... I was always working and I didn't have [time for] camaraderie with different people. For the while I worked with Mitch DeWood - it was great. Rex Dale - it was good. Tiny Wolf, you know, I was building myself. Creating Marty Allen. And that's it. I remember the other comedy team that was really good was Pepper Davis and Tony Reese!

Kliph Nesteroff: I don't remember them.

Marty Allen: Oh, yeah! They were excellent! A marvelous comedy team! Very popular. I think they were out of Philadelphia. Look that up. They did very well for a while. Them and Fisher and Marks. They were the two hot comedy teams when I was starting out.

Kliph Nesteroff: I know Fisher and Marks because I have a comedy record by them.

Marty Allen: I don't know if Pepper and Tony did any recordings, but they were very hot. They were an excellent team. You might find some information on them. Pepper Davis and Tony Reese. Anyway, the local paper is here and they need to get something in there for Sunday's paper - so call me back next week.


Anonymous said...

Had the privilege of seeing Marty at the Westward Ho in Vegas a few years back. He was performing with his wife. What a great show, a very, very funny guy. He has very special comedic talent.

Anonymous said...

Marty and Katie are appearing in Monroe Twp NJ next week.

I'm a litttle hesitant-after all, he IS 89.

Tracy said...

This was very interesting to read.. brings back lots of memories!

Tracy said...

This was great!!! Brings back lots of memories! 89 and still working - wonderful!