Do You Remember? The First of the Late Night TV Talk Shows

With all the changes in the late night TV talk show hosts in U. S. of late, I thought it might be fun to take a look at the original late night host: Stephen Valentine Allen (“Steverino”).

steve-allenBorn to vaudeville parents, Steve Allen’s early life was a bit convoluted. His father died when Allen was a little less than two years of age. According to many reports, the former Belle Montrose, his mother, had mental issues. Allen attended some 18 different schools during his early years, and he was known to run off quite often.

Steve Allen (December 26, 1921 – October 30, 2000) was an American television personality, musician, composer, actor, comedian, and writer. Though he got his start in radio, Allen is best known for his television career. He first gained national attention as a guest host on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. He graduated to become the first host of The Tonight Show, where he was instrumental in innovating the concept of the television talk show. Thereafter, he hosted numerous game and variety shows, including The Steve Allen Show, I’ve Got a Secret, The New Steve Allen Show, and was a regular panel member on CBS’ What’s My Line?

Allen was a credible pianist and a prolific composer, having penned over 14,000 songs, one of which was recorded by Perry Como and Margaret Whiting, others by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Les Brown, and Gloria Lynne. Allen won a Grammy award in 1963 for best jazz composition, with his song The Gravy Waltz. Allen wrote more than 50 books, has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a Hollywood theater named in his honor.

At the age of 16, he ran away from his mother and ended up staying with an aunt. Allen began composing songs, the one talent he claimed. In truth, Steve Allen wrote 4000+ songs; all this is quite ironic because Allen admitted to not being able to read a note of music.

Allen’s first radio job was on station KOY in Phoenix, Arizona, after he left Arizona State Teachers College (now Arizona State University) in Tempe, while still a sophomore. He was hired as an announcer, but he soon took on the additional responsibilities of writing news and commercial copy. He enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II and was trained as an infantryman. He spent his service time at Camp Roberts, California, and did not serve overseas. Allen returned to Phoenix before deciding to move back to California.

In Los Angeles, he landed a job at KNX as a disc jockey. The show was entitled Breaking All Records. Allen, literally, broke old vinyl records rather than to play them. The concept was hit: Soon Allen had a talk show filled with chatter and lots of fans. Requests for personal appearances followed. People would tour the studio just to watch Allen work. Lucille Ball’s mother was a frequent “visitor.” Fanny Brice, Ethel Barrymore, and Al Jolson were reported to be among Allen’s earliest fans.

From KFAC in Los Angeles, Allen then moved to the Mutual Broadcasting System in 1946, talking the station into airing a five-nights-a-week comedy show, Smile Time, co-starring Wendell Noble. After Allen moved to CBS Radio’s KNX in Los Angeles, his music-and-talk half-hour format gradually changed to include more talk on a full-hour, late-night show, boosting his popularity and creating standing-room-only studio audiences. During one episode of the show reserved primarily for an interview with Doris Day, his guest star failed to appear, so Allen picked up a microphone and went into the audience to ad lib for the first time. His radio show attracted a huge local following, and in 1950 it replaced Our Miss Brooks, exposing Allen to a national audience for the first time.

Allen’s first television experience had come in 1949 when he answered an ad for a TV announcer for professional wrestling. He knew nothing about wrestling, so he watched some shows and discovered that the announcers did not have well-defined names for the holds. When he got the job, he created names for many of the holds, some of which are still used today.

After CBS radio gave Allen a weekly prime time show, CBS television believed it could groom him for national small-screen stardom and gave Allen his first network television show. The Steve Allen Show premiered at 11 A.M. on Christmas Day, 1950, and was later moved into a thirty-minute, early evening slot. This new show required him to uproot his family and move from LA to New York, since at that time a coast to coast program could not originate from LA. The show was only a modest ratings success, and was canceled in 1952, after which CBS tried several shows to showcase Allen’s talent.

Allen achieved national attention when he was pressed into service at the last minute to host Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts because Godfrey was unable to appear. Allen turned one of Godfrey’s live Lipton commercials upside down, preparing tea and instant soup on camera and then pouring both into Godfrey’s ukulele. With the audience (including Godfrey, watching from Miami) uproariously and thoroughly entertained, Allen gained major recognition as a comedian and host.

Tonight Starring Steve Allen was a talk show hosted by Steve Allen. It was the first version of what eventually became known as The Tonight Show. Tonight was the first late-night talk show, as well as the first late night television series of any time to achieve long-term success. Allen’s run as host of the show lasted for two and a half seasons, beginning in fall 1954 and ending with Allen’s dismissal in January 1957. During its run it originated from the Hudson Theatre in New York City.

Tonight_with_Steve_AllenOriginally a 40-minute local program airing from 11:20 P.M. to 12 Midnight on WNBT New York as “The Steve Allen Show,” the program was moved to the full NBC network in the Fall of 1954. The first network episode of Tonight aired on September 27, 1954, and ran for 105 minutes instead of the 60-minute duration of modern talk shows (however, the first ffiteen minutes were shown on very few stations). The announcer of the show was Gene Rayburn, who would eventually become a top-game show emcee, best known for his 22 years at the helm of the Match Game, and the bandleader was Skitch Henderson. Allen’s version of the show originated such talk show staples as an opening monologue, celebrity interviews, audience participation, and comedy bits in which cameras were taken outside the studio, as well as music. The success of the show led to Allen receiving a separate weekly prime time show, which aired on Sunday nights. Allen gave up the Monday and Tuesday shows, with guest hosts taking over for the summer of 1956. Beginning that fall, Ernie Kovacs (who came over from the faltering DuMont Television Network) was the regular Monday and Tuesday host for the 1956–1957 season with his own cast and regulars, including his own announcer (Bill Wendell, who would later work with David Letterman) and bandleader.

A kinescope of the very first episode survives and Allen’s opening monologue has been rebroadcast many times on Tonight Show anniversary specials and in documentaries such as Television. In his opening remarks, Allen makes the prescient statement that Tonight! “is going to go on forever” (an apparent reference to the show’s run time, then clocking in at 105 minutes with commercials). With several hosts over the decades, it has done just that, albeit with a much different meaning than Allen intended.

Jayne Meadows and Steve Allen

Jayne Meadows and Steve Allen

Allen was married to Dorothy Goodman in 1943 and they had three children, Steve Jr., Brian, and David. That marriage ended in divorce in 1952. Allen’s second wife was actress Jayne Meadows, sister to actress Audrey Meadows. The marriage of Allen and Meadows produced one son, Bill Allen. They were married in Waterford, Connecticut on July 31, 1954. They remained married until his death in 2000.


About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
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