No matter how big the superstar of the 1950s or 1960s he opened for, Marty Allen was ready with a quip to catch them off-guard and endear them to him immediately.
Before performing with The Beatles in their string of famous first U.S. appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, Allen walked up to John Lennon and said: “John, a lot of people mistake me for you.”
To Elvis Presley, Allen’s first words were: “Quit doing my act!”
Answering the phone when The Comic’s Comic rang him up on Friday, however, Allen’s opening salvo was his lifelong calling card: “Hello dere!”
Allen turns 93 today, and he has been celebrating his “100th birthday (give or take a few)” with shows last night and tonight at The Downtown Grand in Las Vegas. “At least I’m working,” he told me over the weekend.
Allen broke big as a duo act, working off straight man Steve Rossi as Allen & Rossi from 1957 through the 1960s, before splitting amicably. Rossi died last year. For his more recent shows, Rossi has paired up with his wife, Karon Blackwell.
But before we get to that, please enjoy Allen performing his “Punch Drunk Fighter” character, responding to Rossi in a 1964 TV appearance.
Nat King Cole had introduced Rossi to Allen, after Rossi wanted to stop being a production singer, because duos were hot in comedy. Allen & Rossi weren’t quite Martin & Lewis or The Smothers Brothers, but they did achieve hotness themselves — as Allen likes to call even now, “I did more Sullivan shows than Ed Sullivan!” They also made regular visits to the talk shows of Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas. And upon going solo, Allen had a recurring spot on the original run of The Hollywood Squares from 1966 to 1980 — even serving as the game show’s substitute center square when Paul Lynde wasn’t available.
How often do you perform now?
“We’ve been doing quite a bit. We did a casino in Milwaukee…and then we went to Mill Valley, the Throckmorton Theatre. We’ve been busy. And you know, the act is good. My wife Karon is a fantastic singer. And we do routines and we do excerpts from the book.”
That book would be “Hello Dere!” Allen’s memoir, published last year. “It has over 200 photos and talks about all the people I’ve been friendly with and working with: Nat King Cole, and Sinatra, and Lena Horne, and Shirley Bassey in London,” he said. “These are all superstars who are not going to come our way again. I’ve been a very lucky person.”
You’ve also met the Pope, right?
“Oh, yeah, Pope Pius XII. When I was in the service,” Allen said. He served in Italy with the U.S. Army Air Corps, working on the ground crew and rising to the rank of Sgt. Allen. “I had a three-day pass to the Vatican. I worked my way in to see the Pope. My friend asked me to get rosary beads blessed by the Pope. I said it’d be easier to get Eisenhower to get you a discharge! I was very fortunate to do that…(the Pope) always had an audience with a lot of military people, and I was fortunate in that respect.”
He lovingly recalls working with so many star singers, “and they always used a comedian to more or less open the show. So you did your 20, 25 minutes and got off. The fact is, you were working with such great superstars. Not only a thrill, but emotionally, I was so happy and so blessed in the fact that I was working with them. It was unbelievable that it was happening to me. When Steve and I got together, we performed with The Beatles.”
On the second of three straight Sundays that The Beatles performed to screaming fans for Sullivan’s show, Allen switched out his classic catchphrase for the occasion, announcing: “Hello, I’m Ringo’s mother.”
“And our rise on our own to headliners. A lot of wonderful things, and I put it all in the book. Like I say, Sean, I lived in a time with superstars that will never come our way again. And then I got fortunate meeting Karon (his stage partner and wife since 1984). Steve and I split very amicably. We hit a peak. He wanted to go one way and I went another.”
Allen is grateful also for meeting “my closest friend in Ernie Borgnine,” he said. “We were very close. I helped arrange the marriage between him and Tova Traesnaes…that’s when they were invited to The White House by Betty Ford. I got to dance with Betty Ford. This was like a dream and yet it all happened.”
One of his odder credits that was very real and not at all a dream: Several years of performances with Circus of the Stars from the late 1970s into the early 1980s. Allen performed with chimps, dogs, elephants and even other stars.
“I could relate to animals in a certain way,” Allen recalled. “If they asked me to work with an elephant or a chimpanzee, I knew how to react with them. Because basically, Sean, I’m, like a little kid. I’m not only a comedian. I’m actually funny. I guess the animals were laughing when they had a chance to work with me.”
“That was a wonderful show. I performed with all kind of animals. It was fun. Mike Douglas. The Perry Como show. Garry Moore. To meet a brilliant comedian like Carol Burnett…to be involved with brilliant women comedians like Phyllis Diller, who not only was a fantastic performer but a very close dear friend. Joan Rivers, another brilliant comedian.
“Elvis. Being close with Elvis. One of the funniest things was when I walked over to him the first time I met him, made him laugh in such a way, I told him to quit doing my act. He almost doubled over with laughter. Can you imagine anyone saying that to Elvis?”
Allen hasn’t watched any of the Comedy Central Roasts, but he was an active participant back in the day, both with the Friars Club and with the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts.
“To work with Dean was a fun time. He knew how to work with everybody. He treated everybody so well on his show,” Allen said of Martin. “He had the perfect sense of timing for comedians, actors, actresses, everybody wanted to be on his show, he was very lovable. He was warm. And he could handle any sort of situation.”
Of the Friars, Allen recalled: “Steve and I were Roasters in New York. It was a great thrill. Being honored in that way made you very proud. They thought you to be worthy of a Friars Roast. Or Dean Martin. The one I think of so wonderful, he was honoring Carol O’Connor. I made a hard hat on it. It went so well, and it was fun. The roasts were fun.”
Today, at 93, Allen is grateful to still be asked to perform, and to get to do so with his wife. “Karon is a phenomenal straight lady,” he said. “They call us the new George Burns and Gracie Allen, except I’m Gracie.”
Any special plans for tonight? “Yeah, I’m trying to figure out how to blow out 93 candles. It might take a whole evening. Listen, I get up. I take my vitamins. I do my exercises, and then I go out and do my show. We do a comedy bit and then we show pictures on the screen of various celebrities. I do short remarks about them. And then we do more comedy. And it’s a combination of the book and comedy.”
“The fact that I’m entertaining. I love that I’m entertaining. To have someone come over and say we had a great time watching you, that’s all, that’s worth everything to me.”