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Steve Allen Biography

A short snapshot of Steve Allen, original host of ‘The Tonight Show’

By

Steve Allen, original host of The Tonight Show
Getty Images / Hulton Archive

Born in New York City the day after Christmas in 1921, Steve Allen would eventually give the world the best known late night talk show in history, The Tonight Show. He would virtually create the genre we know and love today - and make than only a footnote in a larger comedy and entertainment career.

Full name Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen, the late night talk show host was the son of a famous vaudeville comedian - his mother, Belle Montrose (real name, Isabelle Donohue Allen). Early in life, Allen moved to Chicago to live with his mother's family.

He attended Arizona State University in Phoenix - back when it was named Arizona State Teachers College - but dropped out during his sophomore year. He took a job in radio in Phoenix, Ariz., but his early career was cut short by World War II.

Allen enlisted, but never saw action overseas, returning to Phoenix after the war. After catching up and before settling down, he packed his bags and went further west, to California.

TV Time
Allen quickly found work as a radio announcer (a big deal back then, when TV was still very much in its infancy). He created a popular comedy sketch show titled Smile Time and took the show from the Mutual Broadcasting System to CBS Radio, where it eventually became a nationally syndicated program.

Smile Time helped form the foundation for his eventual talk show career. The hour-long show was filled with Allen's quirky monologues, celebrity interviews, comedy sketches and interaction with the studio audience - all hallmarks of most successful late night talk shows today.

Allen's first television gig was as a wrestling announcer. His claim to fame was giving several pro wrestling maneuvers and holds their signature names. But the wrestling program was cancelled after only a few months.

Which was O.K., because CBS, the home of his popular radio program, was ready to launch Allen into primetime TV.

In 1950, The Steve Allen Show premiered. It received mild success and was cancelled after two years. But it helped set the stage for Allen's eventual move into late night. In order to have a nationally broadcast show, Allen had to move from L.A. to New York, which he did.

The Tonight Show
After The Steve Allen Show was cancelled, Allen made several guest appearances on other programs and game shows before leaving CBS for NBC. There, he tinkered with an idea for a late night variety program that would match in many ways the success he found on Smile Time - funny monologues, celebrity guests, comedy sketches and interaction with a live studio audience.

NBC liked the idea and, along with creator Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, The Tonight Show was born.

The show premiered on September 27, 1954, at 11:15 a.m. with Allen as host and Gene Rayburn as announcer. Rayburn would go on to fame as the legendary host of Match Game.

During his three-year run on Tonight, Allen created much of the genre we still see today. And though the show was a success, Allen was eventually lured away by the opportunity to host a primetime program instead.

A Stellar Career
Allen's new program, The Steve Allen Show, went head to head with the insanely popular Ed Sullivan Show and held its own. The show featured comedy bits and musical guests, as well as variety acts and celebrity appearances. Guests included Elvis Presley, Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello, and more. His regular stable of comedy actors included Don Knotts and Tom Poston, known for The Andy Griffith Show and Newhart, respectively.

Allen hosted his Sunday night live program while still hosting Tonight three night a week. A guest host, Ernie Kovacs, hosted the other nights. But he eventually left Tonight in 1957 to concentrate on his primetime program.

Fast Facts

  • A prolific composer, Allen wrote thousands of songs, many of which were recorded by well-known performers like Perry Como, Margaret Whiting, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme, Les Brown and Gloria Lyne.
  • Allen is a Grammy winner. He won in 1963 for best jazz composition.
  • He is an author of more than 50 books.
  • A theater in Hollywood bears his name, The Steve Allen Theater.
  • Allen wrote more than 50 books, has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a Hollywood theater named in his honor The Steve Allen Theater.
  • Hosted a late night talk show similar to Tonight, also called The Steve Allen Show, from 1962 to 1964. He famously called Johnny Carson during his show, impersonating a TV repairman.
  • Allen had two wives, four children and two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
  • Allen died in 2000 from a massive heart attack after a minor car accident. Allen walked away from the accident unaware that an artery had ruptured. He died later that day during a nap.

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