In the theater these days, new musicals — that is, musicals that are not revivals of old musicals — are scarcer than
heterosexual choreographers. Fortunately, a splendid new musical has recently arrived — the long-awaited Ragtime. A
production is playing Toronto and a second is presently at the Shubert Theater here in Los Angeles. Toronto's will soon grace the Great White
Way (i.e., Broadway) where it will doubtlessly be a smash hit, in for a long run.
Ragtime is based on the 1975 novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow. Mr. Doctorow is rumored to have been less than
thrilled with the movie crafted from his book in 1981, but ecstatic over this new musical. He should be. What's on stage is a stirring,
emotional pageant based on the pageantry of turn-of-the-century America and all that it promised and, for some, delivered. The songs are fine,
though not quite as memorable as one might like, but the staging and performances more than compensate for any shortfall in the score.
The story follows several intersecting storylines, but mainly that of Coalhouse Walker, a piano-playing "man of color" who is the
victim of a gross civil injustice. Seeking satisfaction — and getting none amidst the red tape and white faces — he embarks on a
violent rampage of retribution. It challenges all to address the concept, troubling to some, that America is not always the bastion of equal
opportunity for all.
Coalhouse is played by Brian Stokes Mitchell, who is soon to depart. He will go to New York, open the production there and win
next year's Tony Award for Best Performer (Male) in a Musical. I don't see how he can miss. He is brilliant as the tormented musician
whose life is, at first, set to a gentle ragtime melody, but then does a radical key change to sturm und drang.
In fact, the whole cast is uniformly excellent, most notably John Rubinstein as a Jewish immigrant, LaChanze as Coalhouse's common law
mate, Susan Wood as Evelyn Nesbit, and my pal Jason Graae as Houdini.
Jason is one of the great performers trodding today's musical comedy boards. He was one of the original Plaids in Forever
Plaid, and has done dozens of other shows, including Forbidden Hollywood, which is where I met him. He's been doing voices on a new
cartoon show I'm doing, and you also hear him as the current voice of the Lucky Charms leprechaun. If you want to hear well-sung show tunes,
pick up his CD, You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile on the Varese Sarabande label. End of Jason Graae plug.
Thanks to Mr. Graae and his muscle at the box office, I saw Ragtime last evening from spectacular seats — fourth row,
center. Being up front is critical at the Shubert, which is roughly the size of the Louisiana Purchase. Those in the back rows are always
out of sync with the rest of the audience, owing to the amount of time it takes light from the stage to reach them.
But as fine as the view was, I was even more excited by who was sitting next to me. My date Teresa took D13, I sat in D14 and
then an older couple arrived to claim D15 and D16. I looked over and discovered that the man sitting adjacent to me was Steve Allen.
That's right: Steve Allen. The man who invented The Tonight Show and about half of television comedy. The man who
wrote the song "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," among countless others, plus about forty books I have in my library. The man who
Come on. You know who Steve Allen is. (If you don't, I've lost all respect for you. Don't ever let me catch you
reading my column again, you swine.)
Steve Allen. And sitting over in D16 was his spouse of many years, the charming and witty Jayne Meadows. Steverino led the
standing ovation at the end and started yelling, "Bravo!" Guess he liked it.
Before the curtain went up, and later during intermission, I chatted with him. I told him how much I'd admired his work (and,
like many, liberally plagiarized therefrom) and then we discussed the state of the entertainment industry with particular relevance to the impact of
television on —
No, I can't lie to you people. The above paragraph is utter fiction. I wanted to chat with Mr. Allen, wanted
to tell him how much his work has meant to me. But the truth is that I didn't say one word to him all evening, not even those times he turned
and inadvertently elbowed me in my lower and hard-to-avoid abdomen.
I have met some pretty big celebrities in my day — some whose names I haven't even dropped in these pages yet. Usually, I
can manage to say something that isn't too stupid. But somehow, though I'm sure he would have been gracious, I couldn't raise enough
temerity to say Word One to Steve Allen. The following may give you some sense of why this is...
Steve Allen's résumé is large enough to...well, to fill the Shubert Theater. He has written books and songs and TV
shows and essays, and he has performed in almost every way a performer can perform, short of ballet dancing — although I do have a vague memory
of him and Louis Nye in tu-tus in some sketch. I first knew him as a host of late night talk-variety programs. He originated The
Tonight Show and hosted it from 1953 (when it was a local show in New York) through 1957.
NBC, in its finite wisdom, erased or lost almost all the kinescopes of those shows. Of all the gaps in TV history, this is
perhaps the most egregious. From all evidence, it was on those shows that Allen and his crew invented a hefty chunk of everything that made
television different from all pre-existing media. Ed Sullivan...Milton Berle...Sid Caesar...they were all wonderful, all pioneers in their
ways. But by and large, they were taking what had been done before on the live stage and on radio, and dragging it in front of cameras.
Steve Allen did a lot of the same things, but he also did television that could only have been television — unrehearsed bits,
live demonstrations, unplanned conversation. Often, they just turned Steve loose in an unscripted situation and hoped magic would happen.
It always did.
I was too young to watch Steve's Tonight Show but, in 1963, he did a not-dissimilar syndicated series that I recall vividly and
would love to rerun. I have often heard others around my age say the same thing. We all fought with our parents — please,
please, please — to stay up late enough to watch the first part...which, of course, always turned into seeing the whole program.
This Steve Allen Show came from a small theater on Vine Street in Hollywood, abutting a shabby 24-hour emporium called the
Hollywood Ranch Market. Just about everyone who mentions this series distinguishes it from Allen's other talk shows by referencing the
Hollywood Ranch Market. Steve's crew was always pointing a camera out the side door of their theater and running over there to create some kind
of mischief. (The H.R.M. is, sad to say, history. It was at the corner of Vine and Fountain, where you'll now find an Office Depot and an
El Pollo Loco.)
And when they weren't clogging the aisles of the Hollywood Ranch Market, they were blocking traffic out on Vine, holding ostrich races
or flying a chicken-suited Steve on a crane. One night, they staged war games, with dozens of uniformed soldiers storming the produce section
of the market, stabbing the cantaloupes with bayonets, and engaging in a full-scale food fight.
Of many TV shows, it could be said that the audience never knew what would happen next. The 1963 Steve Allen Show went
that one better: Watching it, one got the idea that the host never knew what would happen next.
Sometimes, it was silly, like putting him in swim trunks, tossing him as a part of the world's largest salad, and inviting the audience
up to have a bite. Sometimes, it seemed dangerous, like putting him in a crate and blowing it up with dynamite. Steve called stunts in
that category, "the staff's plots against my life." But he always went along with them and always made them funny.
A producer told me a story once that I'd like to believe is true. It took place on one of Mr. Allen's later talk shows — a
show taped on a set where bookcases surrounded the host and his desk. Steve had even brought many volumes from his home library to fill the
bookcases, and would occasionally consult one during a broadcast.
One day during a taping, one of the guests used a large, polysyllabic word — something like "kalopsia."
Allen stopped the conversation, turned to the studio audience and asked, "How many people here know what that word means?" Not a
lot of hands went up and Steve responded, "Whenever I hear a word and am unaware of its meaning, I always make a point to go look it up." And
with that, he reached over to the shelves, hefted a large, frighteningly-unabridged dictionary and began leafing through it.
During all this, the producer was in the control room, squirming in agony. This was, to him, dull, dull, dull. Finally,
Steve read aloud the definition of kalopsia: "A condition where one is deceived into thinking things are of higher quality than they actually
Thirty seconds on a TV show can seem like The March of Time if nothing's happening, and this producer couldn't abide ten without a
laugh or a song or someone getting hit with a pie. Alas for him, Allen was on an etymological binge. They taped several shows that day
and, each time someone uttered an unfamiliar word, out came the dictionary for another 20-30 seconds of page-turning. The producer actually ran
back to the green room, where guests wait to go on, and begged everyone not to use big words on the show.
After the taping, he took his concern to Steve, who replied politely that he had no intention of ceasing or desisting. "With all
the hours of television devoted to mindlessness," Mr. Allen reportedly said, "We can surely take thirty seconds every now and then to teach people a
new word." And since Steve Allen felt that way and this was The Steve Allen Show, that was that.
But not quite. The producer went to the prop man and gave him an order: "Find a book just like Steve's, hollow it out, and put a
little blasting cap inside — one that goes bang like an exploding cigar. I want it rigged so that when Steve opens it, it'll go
off. Then he'll think twice about going for the dictionary." The prop man complied. Before the next tape day, Allen's lexicon was
replaced with the booby-trapped one.
All during the afternoon's taping, the producer was praying for someone to use a big word so he could spring his surprise. No one
did. At one point, seething with frustration, he called the Talent Coordinator and tried to see if they could arrange a last-minute booking of
William F. Buckley.
But it wasn't necessary. Just at that moment, a guest used the word "pejorative" and Steve stopped and polled the house: "How
many people here know what that word means?" Few did, so Steve reached for the dictionary.
As the producer giggled in anticipation, Steve Allen opened the book —
— and it exploded. Really exploded.
The prop guy had miscalculated. Instead of a small bang, it was more of a loud kaboom. A bolt of flame
erupted and the blast drove Steve backwards. He crashed back into the bookcases and they went toppling. Since they were anchored to the
set, it came tumbling down with them, bringing with it all manner of lights and stanchions and uprights — all of it burying the host.
The producer was in shock. He rushed from the control room to the set, saw cataclysm everywhere and gasped aloud, "My
God! I've killed Steve Allen!"
He ran up to the disaster, hurling stagehands and grips aside, and began to claw through the debris. With the strength of ten, he
threw pieces of scenery and bookshelving aside until finally, at the bottom of it all, he'd uncovered the upper half of the first host of The
Tonight Show. "Steve," he begged. "Steve, speak to me!" In tears and desperation, he cried out, "Say something! Tell me
you're going to be all right!"
There was a long pause but finally, Steve Allen opened his eyes. "Did you do this?" he asked in a soft, hurt voice.
"Yes," the producer moaned. "Yes, it was my idea! I told them to do it!"
Steve smiled, raised his hand in an "OK" gesture and said, "Funny bit."
Like I said, a brave man. Today, I love Leno and Letterman but not for their spontaneity, which is nearly non-existent.
Talk shows today are pre-planned, pre-interviewed, and loaded with pre-taped and carefully-edited segments. No one on TV today has the guts to
put their own image on the line and to try and make reality entertaining. (Allen also functioned with writing staffs, an eighth the size of
Dave's or Jay's, though his shows were 50% longer.)
That was the point the producer was making when he told me the above anecdote which, like I said, I hope is true. Steve knew what
made good television, and knew how to be a good sport, even when the joke was on him.
One of the reasons he invented so much of television's repertoire was because he was there first, so just about anything he did was an
innovation. But he was, and still is, a courageous and clever man, with enough respect for an audience to appear before them nightly, armed
only with his wits.
He did it well enough that, when you find yourself sitting next to him in the fourth row of the Shubert Theater, you want to turn to
him and say, "Mr. Allen, it is an honor to be this close to you. I just want to thank you for a lifetime of wonderful work, which has inspired
just about everyone, myself included." You want to say that...but you just can't find the words...
And that's no kalopsia.