Saturday, May 28, 2011

An Interview with Marty Allen - Part Two

Kliph Nesteroff: I found a billing from November 1950. You and your comedy partner Rex Dale playing The Monte Carlo in Pittsburgh. You were on the bill with a female tap dancer named Lu Claire and a singer named Mildred Don and...

Marty Allen: Yeah, so?

Kliph Nesteroff: Backed up by Bobby Cardillo's Orchestra...

Marty Allen: Yeah, so what?

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, what do you remember about...

Marty Allen: Well, those were the early days when I was the local comic. The comic that was starting to come up out of the ranks of Pittsburgh entertainers. I remember playing there with Lu Claire, the girl dancer. If I remember correctly her brother was the agent. I worked with a lot of people and it was like training in baseball or football. You train in the minors and try to improve yourself and try to decide which way you want to go as a performer. This was the training period in which you try to build yourself and figure out who you are.

Kliph Nesteroff: Eventually you and Steve Rossi became identified with The Sands in Las Vegas...

Marty Allen: Uh huh.

Kliph Nesteroff: But you played The Last Frontier hotel in Vegas as early as 1953 with your comedy partner Mitch DeWood. Was that your first appearance in Vegas?

Marty Allen: No, I believe I played The Sahara first. It was all building toward the big thing. It's all your past. It's all [part of] maturing as a performer.

Kliph Nesteroff: You formed the comedy team Allen and DeWood in 1951. Mitch DeWood was...

Marty Allen: Who?

Kliph Nesteroff: Mitch DeWood. Your comedy partner. He was the cousin of Danny Thomas.

Marty Allen: Oh yeah. Yeah, they were cousins.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did the fact that he was a relative of Danny Thomas help you two...

Marty Allen: No. Danny was a very brilliant comic. A very brilliant comedian. He encouraged us, but he didn't do anything... anything that happened came from our basic talents.

Kliph Nesteroff: Before you and Mitch DeWood broke up you had a taste of big time show business. You played The Copa together. I read that on your closing night you had both Jackie Robinson and the Duchess of Windsor in the crowd.

Marty Allen: (grunts)

Kliph Nesteroff: (silence)

Marty Allen: Well, there were always many celebrities in the audience. There was a restaurant called Danny's Hideaway where all the celebrities used to congregate, have dinner and whatever and usually he would bring whichever celebrities were dining at his restaurant over to The Copa for the opening night. So you'd never know who was going to be in the audience and on any given night there were any number of celebrities - so I can't single out any one particular person. I don't know. Was that in a column?

Kliph Nesteroff: The Billboard vaude-review section.

Marty Allen: Yes, well, I couldn't pick out one or two. Whoever was appearing in town you'd have show up at your opening night. Many a night you'd have the biggest actors, actresses and comedians. You never knew who was going to be in the audience.

Kliph Nesteroff: I heard that while you were playing a gig in Canada, you met Paul Anka long before he was famous.

Marty Allen: Yeah. Yeah. I met his parents. They came to see me at a show and invited me to their home for dinner. That's when I first met Paul. He hadn't begun his career yet. He was just starting singing and writing.

Kliph Nesteroff: Speaking of Canada - did you get to know the comedy team of Wayne and Shuster? Along with Allen and Rossi they were one of Ed Sullivan's favorite comedy teams.

Marty Allen: Oh, yes. Many times on the Sullivan show. They did so many. They were an excellent team and Ed loved them. I don't know how many times they appeared, but I know they did many.

Kliph Nesteroff: They hold the record.

Marty Allen: I'm not sure if they hold the record.

Kliph Nesteroff: Another mainstay of Vegas was comedian Joe E. Lewis.

Marty Allen: He was very likable and a very fantastic comedian, very funny. You know what happened? Sinatra made a movie of his life and he was one of the first acts I remember meeting. I thought he was just so wonderful. What was nice about him was that he was a nice guy to everybody. He wasn't aloof. Just an excellent comic.

Kliph Nesteroff: In 1961 the comedy writer Jay Burton had written a screenplay with Allen and Rossi in mind called Baby Boy.

Marty Allen: Nah.

Kliph Nesteroff: Around the same time you hired Bob Hope's former writer, Gig Henry, to produce some material.

Marty Allen: Well, there were a lot of people that wrote for us. You never knew who they were. I couldn't say it was Bob Hope's writer or this one's writer. They were writing for everyone so you can't single out any one particular writer. All were very good comedy writers and they would write material for you. You never knew what they were going to come up with and if it fit your type of comedy then you were very lucky.

Kliph Nesteroff: Who would be in charge of curating comedy material for Allen and Rossi? Would your manager call for submissions? Was an ad placed in the trades?

Marty Allen: No, no. If you knew of a comedy writer and you told him you had an idea then they would submit it. If it worked out and it was what you had intended then you would buy if off of them. That's how it worked. There were a lot of great comedy writers that eventually got into television and movies. I didn't know if they were Bob Hope's writers! They were comedy writers! They'd submit it. If it was good you would buy it.

Kliph Nesteroff: You and Steve Rossi performed often on The Garry Moore Show. Carol Burnett, of course, was a regular on The Garry Moore Show.

Marty Allen: Yeah.

Kliph Nesteroff: In the early sixties Allen and Rossi teamed with Carol Burnett for a nationwide tour.

Mary Allen: Yes, when she went out on her first tour, which was a smash hit, she was absolutely the darling of everybody on television. Very talented, very likable, and everybody loved her. I believe we went to The Sands Hotel together in Vegas and she broke all records. I had a number that I did with her and Steve and I did something also. The Garry Moore Show was excellent. Garry was very likable and one night we were on with Robert Goulet and Barbara Streisand. We did many of those shows. I eventually ended up doing every show. I got the title "Darling of Daytime Television." I did every game show that was ever on television. I went up and down the dial. I did everything from Beat the Clock to Circus of the Stars. You name it, I've done it.

Kliph Nesteroff: I've seen that episode of The Garry Moore Show with Allen and Rossi, Barbara Streisand and Robert Goulet.

Marty Allen: And I knew right off the bat that Carol Burnett would become one of the biggest stars on television - just by watching her work. She was dynamic.

Kliph Nesteroff: I found a press release from around that time that announced Garry Moore was planning on producing a show that was going to star you and Steve Rossi.

Marty Allen: I don't know what that is. Never heard of it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Allen and Rossi were also slated to have their own TV series in the Fall of 1965 called Hello Dere.

Marty Allen: They always came up with ideas. I don't know how far they'd... you never knew from day to day whether you were going to do a television show or a Broadway show or if you were going to do a movie. Everybody said they were going to do something for Allen and Rossi and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't work. I don't remember it.

Kliph Nesteroff: You two did lots of comedy records and...

Marty Allen: We did a lot of albums and they were big sellers. We did Hello Dere, Hello Dere Again, Batman and Rubin... I remember a whole gang of them. We did very well with the record albums.

Kliph Nesteroff: You also recorded a couple of straight songs...

Marty Allen: I did?

Kliph Nesteroff: You did a single called Israel.

Marty Allen: Oh! I wrote a thing... yeah. Yeah, a long time ago. Uh huh.

Kliph Nesteroff: I read that you sang it on The Mike Douglas Show and then it was released as a single on Roulette Records.

Marty Allen: Uh huh. Uh huh. Yeah. I have it in my files. I believe it was... I'm trying to think when that was. I remember doing it on Mike Douglas and it was very dramatic. It was a different side of me. It was a side of me as a writer and it pleased me very much.

Kliph Nesteroff: That's why I ask. A real departure.

Marty Allen: In fact, I've just finished a book called Hello Dere! Welcome to My Life. It's in the hands of someone who is thinking of publishing it.

Kliph Nesteroff: I saw a photo of you and Steve receiving an award from the National Association of Gag Writers. The award was for Comedy Team of the Year and it was presented to you by the old vaudeville comedy team of Smith and Dale.

Marty Allen: Smith and Dale? The comedy team?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes.

Marty Allen: What year was it?

Kliph Nesteroff: 1962.

Marty Allen: Oh yeah? They were way, way in the early days of vaudeville. Smith and Dale were the Martin and Lewis of that era. Well, we were getting all kinds of awards. I know they were a very popular team. To get an award from them was quite an honor. We kept getting all kinds of awards. It was very rewarding to get these awards. As we kept moving up the ladder we were getting all kinds of, thank goodness, wonderful awards and what they said about us was very, very good.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, you guys were on fire.

Marty Allen: Yeah, we caught fire.

Kliph Nesteroff: You got to know Jimmy Durante fairly well, didn't you?

Marty Allen: Yes, very well. He was a wonderful, lovable man. Very talented and a very lovable man. Very nice man. Very warm. I remember doing something with Jimmy. I think I did an interview with him and he was very kind with me. I knew his wife very well. His wife was a former Copa dancer. My wife and her became very dear friends and I'd go over to his house several times in Beverly Hills. He was one of the greatest performers in our business. One of the great stars of all time.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you influenced at all by the heyday of Martin and Lewis?

Marty Allen: No. I thought they were wonderful. I thought Dean was a phenomenal straight man and Jerry was a brilliant comedian. They were top notch, but my style was altogether different. I always felt that my style was different. I speak to Jerry... Jerry and I have always gotten along very well. There was no rivalry or competition. We just became very good friends.

Kliph Nesteroff: In the late sixties you and Steve put out a comedy record called Allen and Rossi Meet the Great Society...

Marty Allen: Yeah.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was also a book called Allen and Rossi Meet the Great Society.

Marty Allen: Yeah. The book was a cartoon book. We had our own captions put above [our photos]. It was very funny. A really funny book. We used all kinds of images of people from Washington and people from the movies and it was our own cartoon book and it sold very well.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were the ones who actually wrote the material that's in the book?

Marty Allen: I wrote a lot of the... we wrote a lot of the captions.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you two broke up you started doing dramatic roles. You did an episode of Big Valley with Barbara Stanwyck.

Marty Allen: Yes. I was nominated for all kinds of acting awards because it was a dramatic bit. How it happened was they saw me in Vegas and they told me they had this part. At the time I had the wild crazy hair. He said, "Would you cut your hair?" I said, "Yeah." I played the part of a Jonah. A Jonah is a bad luck guy. If you were on the range or something and the cattle ran away - they'd blame it on the Jonah. They said he was a bad luck kind of guy and he should be off the ranch.

The Barbara Stanwyck and Linda Evans characters come to my defense and say there's no such thing as a Jonah. It was very dramatic and I received many accolades after I did it. Then I did other dramatic bits. I was running up the dial. Steve and I parted very amicably. After we did all these shows and had great success I started getting offers to do all these shows and they couldn't use two guys. We had reached a peak. We parted very friendly and then I became a regular on Hollywood Squares and I got that title "Darling of Daytime Television." I must have done hundreds of game shows. Every game show that came out I was on. Password. Beat the Clock. You name it and I did it.

Kliph Nesteroff: I saw you do a dramatic turn in a low budget film from 1972 called The Ballad of Billie Blue.

Marty Allen: Ballad of Billie Blue. Yeah.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you recall about that experience? It was a Christian film.

Marty Allen: Yes, it was a religious... well, it became a religious film. It was one of the first dramatic things I did. Then I did a very wonderful film called Mr. Jericho with Connie Stevens and Patrick Macnee from The Avengers. We went to Malta and filmed it in Malta. It was for television. I believe it was for ABC.

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned that the Ballad of Billie Blue "became" a religious film. Does that mean when you accepted the part it wasn't initially a Christian movie?

Marty Allen: Well, I... it wouldn't matter to me if it was or if it wasn't. I was offered a part and I went ahead and did it. Then after that I did a film called A Whale of a Tale where I played a fisherman. Whether it was religious or not... I think it eventually became religious. I think it wasn't supposed to be at the beginning, but somehow it turned out that way.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the experience of doing The Last of the Secret Agents like? When I spoke to Steve Rossi he told me it was miserable. He said you two were at odds with the director and the writers.

Marty Allen: Well, the movie was very funny and it was a very excellent movie.

Kliph Nesteroff: (silence)

Marty Allen: We wanted to do more of our routines [in the picture] because it would prove who we were as a comedy team. The director went in a different direction. When you're doing a big film like that and you're a comedy team, you want to do your comedy material. One or two of your [signature] routines to enhance it, but he went in a different direction. But the movie... people say they love the movie! We got tremendous reaction. Have you ever seen it?

Kliph Nesteroff: As much as I could.

Marty Allen: Oh no, it's an excellent movie. Very funny.

Kliph Nesteroff: (silence)

Marty Allen: Nancy Sinatra was in it and wonderful character actors...

Kliph Nesteroff: Lou Jacobi.

Marty Allen: Lou Jacobi, yes. I have people that keep calling me to see if they can re-release it. They think if they showed it today it would be considered a comedy classic.

Kliph Nesteroff: (silence)

Marty Allen: I don't know if Paramount still owns it, but I enjoyed the movie. Every time I have watched it I thought it was funny and not only that, but it was done very well. Very tasteful.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the experience of working with director Norman Abbott like?

Marty Allen: Well, he was a good friend of ours. We had no problems. It wasn't like we didn't know who Norman Abbott was. He directed in a different way and made it more like a story rather than playing it like us doing routines in the movie. It had a wonderful story idea. And everybody that ever saw it - they thought it was a classic comedy! If it was brought back today people would relate to it.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you two know Norman Abbott?

Marty Allen: I knew Norman because I had done some things with him for television and we became very good friends.

Kliph Nesteroff: And working with Nancy Sinatra? The movie has a great title song at least.

Marty Allen: Oh yes. I was friends with Nancy long before the movie. I knew her and Frank Jr. for a long, long time before the movie ever came out because I knew the family very well. I knew her mother Nancy Sr. and I knew Tina. I knew them all. I thought she did an excellent job in the movie.

Kliph Nesteroff: I watched you recently on a Dean Martin Roast of Redd Foxx. How well did you know Redd?

Marty Allen: I knew all these guys because we were all working different gigs together and came in touch with each other. We just became friends. Not bosom buddies. In the early days we all used to meet in New York when we were all playing different gigs. There was a drugstore, I remember, called Hanson's Drugstore. All the comics would meet there after they played their different gigs. That's how we all met and got to know each other. We bonded. They don't have that today. It's a whole different ballgame. There isn't one place where they all meet.

Kliph Nesteroff: So many of the guys talk about Hanson's reverently. Hanson's and also the B&G Coffee Shop and...

Marty Allen: Yeah! You know, you'd meet in a coffee shop, "Hey! How'd you do?" "Oh, it was wonderful!" "Where'd you play?" At that time the Catskills were hot and all the comics were playing the Catskills and the different hotels. A lot of them were playing different places in New York, you know, and we'd all meet and talk about the particular places we played. That's how we got bonding between each and every one of us.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you enjoy being a solo performer in between comedy teams?

Marty Allen: Yeah. Mmm hmm. I did. I enjoyed it very much. I could have matured into a single performer. I worked toward it but... I certainly could have made it solo.


Bob Shaw said...

Is it just me, our was that interview semi-awkward?

Tom Misnik said...

that interview, just wow. I felt so uncomfortable reading both parts. I can't fathom what it was like for you.

Nancy Sr? oooook

greg6363 said...

I know it was excruciating to read but let's cut him some slack. He is about 90 years old. Give him some credit for still performing these days, even if it's on a cruise ship.

Kevin K. said...

How does he twice forget a guy he was teamed with for eight years? Something tells me there's more to the story.

Tom Ruegger said...

A classic exchange, Kliph! Great interview!

Marty Allen: Well, the movie was very funny and it was a very excellent movie.
Kliph Nesteroff: (silence)
Marty: ...People say they love the movie! We got a tremendous reaction. Have you ever seen it?
Kliph: As much as I could.
Marty Allen: Oh no, it's an excellent movie. Very funny.
Kliph: (silence)
Marty: (People) think if they showed it today it would be considered a comedy classic.
Kliph: (silence)

Michael Powers said...

The thing I remember most about Allen and Rossi was their unique ubiquity. I recall times when they were on all three television networks at the same time but I guess it just seemed like they were. You just about couldn't turn on a television set without encountering them. I had to go to youtube to get a sense for their act again (I never cared for them during their heyday, when I was a child) and it's not exactly Nichols and May. The surprise was Rossi. Allen was right about one thing, Rossi definitely did look like Rock Hudson. Rossi's charm and apparent regard for his partner come across much more sharply than I recall from childhood and appear today to be the act's real cornerstones. Similarly to Dean Martin with Martin and Lewis, I'm starting to think that Rossi was the secret linchpin of that act.

The best thing in the interview was the story about Allen wearing a Zulu outfit to a Sullivan show featuring Zulu dancers. God, that was funny, especially the way you picture Allen and the Zulus looking at each other.

Apparently, Nancy Sinatra's mother was actually referred to sometimes by friends and acquaintences as "Nancy, Sr." I always thought Frank, Jr. should've used his full first name and billed himself as "Franklin Sinatra" but maybe that wasn't really a viable option.

As I mentioned in an earlier comment regarding Mickey Rooney, when someone gets up around 90, it's time to more or less suspend criticism and just appreciate that they're still around in some form.

Allen's "So what?" response to Kliph's mentioning a specific poster from over half a century ago was certainly memorably different, that's for sure!

It's fascinating to compare Rossi's comments about their movie with Allen's perspective.

Anonymous said...

Recently I re-read "hello I must be going" the book about Groucho Marx. It's mostly transcripts of conversations between Groucho and other entertainers. At one point Marty Allen says that Chico Marx approached him after a performance and told him "Harpo would have loved your pantomime."

Must of been quite a thrill for Marty. He always looked like he could have passed as a Marx brother (if he had better material and more talent).