Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, Sherlock Holmes, and Steve Allen

Steve Allen created THE TONIGHT SHOW. He was an enormously talented man. Additionally, he was an accomplished musician and as if that wasn’t enough, a frequent game show panelist. He wrote numerous books on comedy. He won Emmys and God knows what else. He was one of my idols growing up. And one of my comedy writer heroes was his head writer, Stan Burns. But sometimes talent is not limitless. Mr. Allen could do a lot of things but solving crimes wasn't one of them.

Among his many endeavors, he wrote several mystery novels in which he and his wife Jayne Meadows were the two master sleut
hs. Needless to say there’s just a touch of grandiose ego in these unfathomable tomes. My favorite is MURDER IN VEGAS. Steve and Jayne go to Las Vegas. Steve performs in a big hotel showroom. And the bodies start to fall. The police are baffled. Ah, but not Steverino. Master entertainer by night, dynamite detective by day, Steve Allen does it all. Here are a few ACTUAL hard boiled excerpts. Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler – eat your heart out.


The first thing I did on coming off stage was to remove my formal dinner jacket and throw it on the couch in my dressing room, picking up a tan windbreaker in its place. From my dressing room closet, I also grabbed a tropical straw hat with a wide brim and a pair of dark glasses: private eye Allen was about to go incognito.
In the dream, after having erotic, but unfulfilled designs on an unidentified but highly desirable woman, I was suddenly swimming in an ocean at night…

(There’s an image I could live without – Steve Allen seducing a hot babe. Yikes!)
Jayne reached out once again and felt the leg, a towel-covered thigh, and slowly her hand traced upward over the unconscious form, until coming to a cord wrapped tightly about Christie’s neck. It had been pulled with such vigorous force that Christie’s neck seemed broken, with her head lying to one side at an impossible angle.

Jayne loosened the cord, though she knew it was too late. Her heart was racing. “Oh dear!” she said. It was impossible to fool herself any longer into thinking this was a faint – Christie Hamilton had been murdered.

I cannot claim the distinction of being Jewish, but a whispered “oy” escaped my lips at that moment.
“Mr. Allen… there’s a phone call,” said the pretty slave girl in a pale lavender mini-toga.
As for young women, some of them seem to feel that since men are titillated by the revelation of a bit of kneecap, breast, shoulder or navel it logically follows that to quickly proceed to a state of either near or totally nudity is a wise course. They are quite mistaken in this. Or, to put the matter in simpler terms, one Sophia Loren is worth a thousand Madonnas.

(And finally, I kid you not….)

And this young woman too, was obviously trying to sound as if she had spent her early years in a black ghetto. There’s something dumb about that, ladies and germs.


maven said...

Thanks for mentioning Dad. :)

David K. M. Klaus said...

I enjoyed one of Mr. Allen's earlier mysteries, although I was surprised by a scene in which he described himself as accidentally spilling a drink on another airline passenger and offering to send the guy an entire case of his favorite booze by way of apology. A bottle I could see, but an entire case? That would be awfully generous.

VW: "sonso". I don't think I have to write the rest of it outright.

VP81955 said...

Celebrities shouldn't go sleuthing (though I'll give Gracie Allen a pass for teaming up with Warren William's Philo Vance) Steve was a brilliant man, but so was Dashiell Hammett, and he probably couldn't have hosted a talk show.

A close relative of the Allen books are the books written by the late George Baxt, in which Hollywood stars of the past (who all conveniently happened to be dead when each book was issued) solve crimes Those receiving such treatment included Garbo, Dietrich, Powell & Loy and in his last book, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Well, when George met his maker in 2003, Carole had some choice things to tell him as he stood before St. Peter...

wv: "misto" -- an over-the-top gossip columnist who's not comprised of solid matter.

wv2: "biturb" -- something to feed engines that feel a bit bloated.

Bill Peschel said...

I have a book of super short stories at home that includes one by Steve. The name escapes me, but it was about a guy who delivers movies to Hollywood types, and he avenges himself on a director by inserting frames into his movies encouraging him to kill himself (this was when subliminal advertising of the Latest Threat). It was a pretty good setup and I liked the story, although I don't recall cringing at it like I did at some of these excerpts.

Richard said...

I cannot claim the distinction of being Steve Allen, but a whispered “oy” escaped my lips at several moments while reading this.

Dave said...

Speaking of Steve and murder, I'm reminded of one of my favorite late Allen appearances -- and certainly the best one with Jayne: their double act on "Homicide" as a married couple who hated each other.

YEKIMI said...

a Possible Friday ? for you, if you haven't answered it before or if you may even know: While watching brit-coms on our local PBS station [even if they are 10-15 years old] I became to wonder if the process of writing sit-coms and filming/taping them in England or other English speaking countries is very much different than over here. It's obvious the censorship isn't as strict because our local PBS station lets everything through which may be because it's on a digital sub-channel.

YEKIMI said...

Oh, and I always thought Steve Allen was one of the funniest people ever to grace the TV screen.

Pat Reeder said...

Among my earliest memories is that of my mom letting me stay up a little late on some nights to see Steve Allen. Watching him taught me how to do comedy, and reading his books on humor taught me how to think about comedy. Years later, when I was a struggling writer with no Hollywood contacts, out of desperation, I wrote a letter to him c/o his publisher, asking advice. I really only did it as an exercise (perhaps in futility) and never expected an answer.

Lo and behold, I received a personal letter back, complete with a pun on my name, offering his sympathies and an invitation to look at my stuff and give his guidance and opinions.

Shortly afterward, I got to meet him after a show in Dallas. He remembered who I was and told me my stuff was on his desk, and he apologized for not replying sooner but said he would get back to me as soon as he could. A couple of days later, I got a letter from his secretary, saying that Mr. Allen had called her from Dallas and told her to write to me to be sure I knew that he did intend to contact me, but he had just been very busy and fallen behind. I later found out that by "busy," he meant "battling cancer." But he still went way out of his way to help out a kid from Texas that he didn't know from Adam.

Later on, when I was writing a book, I wanted to include a chapter on a song he wrote. He not only gave me an interview, he sent me two large boxes, one of printed material and the other of cassettes of his music, some of it never released on record, with the note, "Good luck with the book! Hope this helps."

So if he put out a bad mystery novel or two along the way, I'm inclined to cut him an awful lot of slack.

VW: "aterche" - What a hillbilly calls his briefcase.

Paul Duca said...

I'd like to say something a little off-topic, but it does fit here. I'm not picking on Steverino personally, but he is part of something that does bother me a little.

There have been a number of celebrity couples whose personal/professional pairing has been publicly touted as an ideal "love match"--Allen and Meadows, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Alex Karras and Susan Clark, Amy Grant and Vince Gill, as well as others at different times.

Then you discover the people left behind...such as Steve Allen's first wife and three sons in Phoenix. I caught an episode of the old game show THE NAME'S THE SAME where Steve, Jr. appeared (from the week before Dad began THE TONIGHT SHOW).
Karras dumped his wife and five kids in Detriot for Clark. Grant and Gill both discarded spouse and children to be together.

I'm not pointing fingers, I don't claim to know the whole story, the issues and emotions behind these things--I understand Newman's first marriage was kaput before meeting Woodward. I am also aware that these marriages had/have defied the odds in or out of the public eye and lasted for decades (although Amy and Vince still have a way to go before catching up with the others I mentioned). I just don't like the hype machine touting a whole happily ever after for such pairing--while saying "Pay no attention to the women and children behind the curtain!"

ajm said...

Those Steve Allen mystery novels, according to accomplished mystery writer Jon L. Breen, were actually ghostwritten by Walter J. Sheldon and Robert Westbrook...

Max Clarke said...

I still smile at the episode of Steve's show when it came back from the summer break.

The Steve Allen Show opened with a big production number in which the people on stage sang, "Steve's Back!" A bit like watching a parade, very festive, with Steve being Steve. Then, at the end of the "Steve's back!" number, Steve turned his back on the audience, and I guess somebody tore off his shirt, and we all got to see Steve's back. Very clever.

Anonymous said...

Back in the 20th century there was a short-lived tv show starring puppeteer Wayland Flowers and his creation Madame. I watched the show, enjoyed it, and one particular exchange has stayed with me all these years.

One of the characters complained she was being forced to do something she didn't want to do. So Madame turned on her and barked, "Nobody has to do anything! Except Steve Allen who has to do everything."


Earl B said...

And let's not forget, he also invented the Steve-O-Meter.

A. Buck Short said...

Only one question. “How’s yer sister?”

Isn’t the real mystery how a guy can have written over 7,000 songs, yet nobody can remember more than two of them-- Gravy Waltz, This Could Be the Start OF Something Big? Note we’re saying “remember” here, not “recognize when reminded of,” or "songs from movies, reviews, etc. that people generally don't know he wrote." Still....

Alrighty then, maybe this:

Later doing match commentary with Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse Ventura (wish I had the clip). And “No more Stallin’?” Priceless.

But I will have to quibble with you (a verb one can imagine Mr. A working wonders with). Are Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows any harder to accept as master sleuths than the well documented fact of their longtime bridge partners Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé running a bail bonds agency in Henderson? Not when you realize both men married private Y’s. Didn’t the foursome provide counsel Flea Bailey of the Hollywood & Vine law firm with that ultimately successful appeal in the Sam Sheppard murder trial: Blame it on the Bossa Nova? Or their time in witness protection: Go Away Little Girl?”

As Mr. Allen might say, “I rest my case. And then after my case has a little time to recover, I’ll take it on a short walk to clear its head.” But I digress. Or as he’d put it. “Let me know when I trigress, and I’ll stop.”

I’ve often observed that the funniest people are also sometimes the last ones to know when something they didn’t intend as funny actually is. But how can you not love the Spy vs. Spy imagery of that “incognito” disguise? Is this something Louis Nye would find unfathomable? I DON’T THINK SO! Just look at the sports jacket. And as an expert in murder mystery, who could stretch dying into three acts better than Louis Nye?

If we can forgive the man for Gypsy Boots, can't we also cut a little slack under the awning of versatility? We write of what we know. What, like there weren’t a hundred pretty slave girls in skimpy lavender togas as Caesar’s Palace? Or overheard in a rat pack poker game, “I’ll see your Sophia Loren and raise you TWO thousand Madonnas and a Jill St. John. But enough of this lollygagging. We’ll try to have some completely new lollygagging for you in a future comment as soon as my case wakes up from its nap.

Apologies if I may have submitted this in a previous comment to something, but this is true. Mr. Allen is also one of my heroes and I did have the honor and pleasure of meeting him shortly before his death -- which I think you’ll have to agree had to have been far more productive than the alternative (although the image of Jayne Meadows groping a corpse does have some staying power).

I thought of a “man on the street” line on the old Allen Show that literally had my father falling out of his chair, and asked,“So, when Bill Dana informed us that ‘the Hewish People speak Jebrew,’ did the show get any complaints from either the Hews or Jispanics?” This provided my hero with an opportunity to relate the inspiration for the José Jimenez character.

Apparently Allen and cast members were at some event in Santo Domingo, when he was approached by a gentleman who introduced himself as the Dutch representative in the Dominican Republic. Allen replied that he hadn’t been aware the Netherlands maintained a consulate on the Island.

The man responded, “No I am the Dutch representative.” Allen reiterated, “That’s what I mean. I didn’t realize Holland had any connection to this particular part of the West Indies?” To which the somewhat exasperated man replied, “ No I said the DUTCH representative --- Chrysler…Pleeemoth…Dutch!”

But thanks for reminding me of another body of work I know I would have little time to enjoy. Thanks also for the Homicide episode reminder. Schmock! Schmock!

benson said...

I know the writing seems cheesy and all, but I read the books back in the day, and it was what it was, mind candy. I love novels with humor and for a few hours each, these filled the bill.

Maybe to add some context, these books, I think, were around the same time Angela Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher was solving murders

Dave said...

Hey, don't go dissin' Gypsy Boots. I loved the guy -- and in one of those weird coincidences, one of his sons just musical directed a production of "Guys and Dolls" I directed.

Cap'n Bob said...

I've been a mystery enthusiast for 30 years. I read an interview with Steve Allen in which he said he never wrote the books, he divtated them into a tape recorder. I also heard they were ghosted, as ajm said. And if Jon Breen was ajm's source, it's credible. Who knows? Maybe Steve dictated the story idea and someone else fleshed it out. It's been done before.

A. Buck Short said...

RE: Gypsy Boots. No offense intended, Dave. Truth be told, just couldn’t think of another way to drop the name. With two of the four in our family of the Vegan persuasion, I’ve come to acknowledge that my laziness in pretty much accepting whatever the hell they put on the table most of the time, has in fact, saved a fortune on Lipitor. Before that I had contemplated risking acute myocardial infarction waiting for the damned stuff to go generic. No question the man was way ahead of his time – but still, you’ll have to admit, kind of exhausting.

I only wish his dying words could have followed the Adams/Jefferson paradigm with “Jack LaLanne survives?" Adding, “And still cashing in on the friggin’ juicer!”

Anonymous said...

Ken - I'm pretty sure that it was Pat Weaver that created The Tonight Show but Steve Allen was the one who made it The Tonight Show.

As an aside...

I jammed with Steve Allen on piano.

Seconds before that, I heard a familiar voice say, "I really dig your music, man," I looked up and it was him. It made my life.

Years later, I was pitching a show to the Networks. I had him sign the treatment for luck. We sold it.

Steve Allen rocks. And had a helluva laugh.

Mark Bennett

jbryant said...

I always loved Steve Allen, except when he did those mock serious readings of contemporary rock lyrics. He'd stand at a podium intoning "I want some hot stuff baby this evening..." or whatever, prodding us to laugh at the silliness of modern songwriters. I always wanted to follow him with a reading of "Jeepers Creepers" or "Mairzy Doats."

Greg Ehrbar said...

It was always fun to look forward to an appearance from Jayne because she would inevitably mention that she was born in China, which is quite nice, I'm sure.

I've read a handful of the Steve Allen mysteries (including the one in which he and Jayne enter a room and the orchestra immediately begins playing "This Could Be the Start of Something Big" (Coincidence? tribute? To this day, I wonder.)

Anyway, Jayne's birth in China is mentioned in several of the books, too. But I don't think that, in the scene in which Jayne discovers the dead body, that Jayne was just about to tell the victim that she was born in China.

As for Steve's songwriting, he recorded at least very nice two children's albums. One was for Golden Records and also featured his son Bill and Jayne (no, she doesn't say it on the record).

And as for celebrities solving mysteries, believe it or not, there were Whitman junior novels in which The Lennon Sisters solved mysteries and four Walt Disney books featuring Annette Funicello as a teen sleuth. Annette was born in Utica, NY and not in China.

AlaskaRay said...

>>Those receiving such treatment included Garbo, Dietrich, Powell & Loy and in his last book, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.<<

I don't know. I just can't see Powell and Loy as crime solving detectives.

Maybe I need to turn on the TV. I'm sure almost any channel will do.


John Q. Public said...

I woke up at the word "titillated", but since it didn't lead to where I thought it would...