When I was in high school, I always enjoyed Steve Allen's TV shows. They weren't just funny, to me. They were the epitome of good taste, although I probably took that for granted at the time. The comedy, the music, the sketches, the other features, were all quality.
One night a couple of decades later, in the mid-1980s, I was working dutifully at my desk when I began to think about those shows with affection. I felt a deep appreciation for Steve Allen. It was high time, I thought, that I wrote him a letter of thanks. Amazingly, a couple of days later my wife noticed that he would be appearing at a local comedy club. Maybe I could thank him in person! We determined to go.
As the audience waited to be seated, we were handed index cards and asked to write questions for Steve to answer during the show. The wheels started turning. Would I have a chance to talk to him during the show?
Just then it occurred to me that another opportunity was knocking. I'd done celebrity impressions since I was in high school, and I'd always dreamed of being onstage. Once, when I was a kid, I announced to my parents, "I'm not going to college. I'm going on the Ed Sullivan Show."
So I wrote boldly (but modestly) on the card, "Would you like to hear a fairly good impression of Jimmy Stewart or Ed Sullivan?"
As showtime approached, I was composed on the outside. But a little kid was jumping up and down inside me at the remote possibility that I'd be stuttering as Jimmy Stewart or slurring with hands on hips as Ed Sullivan in the next hour or so.
Before long, the full house was introduced to Steve Allen, who emerged from the back of the room and made his way to the stage accompanied by a four-piece combo playing his theme song, "This Could Be the Start of Something Big."
It was like seeing an old friend. Steve was being Steve, doing what he did so well - entertaining in that witty, zany, thoughtful, articulate way of his. And, as on his TV shows, he combined humor with music. He sang some nonsense songs and a few of his more serious compositions. He played the piano. And he took those questions from the audience. He must have gone through a dozen. Would he get to mine? Did I want him to?
Then it happened. Steve Allen was reading my question! "Well, audience," he said, "would you like to hear the impressions?" They weren't enthusiastic. They had come to see Steve Allen, not me. Then Allen asked the musicians onstage what they thought. They didn't want to hear me, either. But Allen was a big fan, and supporter, of comedy, I knew. And bringing someone onstage might add to the show's spontaneous, partylike atmosphere.
Allen paused. Maybe it was best if I didn't go up there - and yet I really wanted to. Then he said the magic words: "Come on up, Steve!" I was so excited that I wasn't quite sure it was really happening. I felt detached. As I got up, my wife gave me an encouraging little push toward the stage, and up I went.
Steve gave me the microphone, and I heard myself begin to compliment him, to thank him, using Jimmy Stewart's voice! "Steve, I-I-I just wanna thank you for-for all the laughter you've-you've brought us over the years, and-and-and for the great music, and-and...."
And on I went. It wasn't how I had pictured thanking him, but it was probably less embarrassing that way for both of us. Then I did Ed Sullivan, and the audience started laughing. I could hear Steve, sitting at the piano behind me, cackling in that distinctive way of his. I was in front of 400 people - on the Steve Allen Show. A dream had come true.
When I finished, the audience gave me an enthusiastic round of applause. A couple of years later, I made my first professional appearance in a comedy club.
Steve Allen was a gracious man, which may be why he invited me on stage. He was a great entertainer, a deep thinker, a prolific author and composer. But he was also kind, and I had felt the touch of his kindness. I suspect that's a quality that his audiences were drawn to through the years.
When dignity and good taste are less often the norm, it's easy to appreciate Steve Allen. The quality of his contribution to the entertainment industry and to the world will never be outdated.
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