Monday, September 19, 2011

A Tale of Two Steves

A Tale of Two Steves
©2011 by LeeZard

Author's note: I haven't posted for quite some time and for that I apologize. Over the past several months LeeZard has been launching a new business which has sucked up most of his time and energy. This piece, however, has been knocking around in my mind ever since mid-summer when I saw Steve Martin in concert with his Bluegrass band, The Steep Canyon Rangers.

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It doesn't seem odd to LeeZard that two of his most favorite entertainers are named Steve. Nor is it surprising that their careers - and their talents - were/are both extensive and parallel.

Steve Allen and Steve Martin were born in different generations and at almost opposite ends of the country. Allen was born December 26, 1921 in New York City and Martin August 14, 1945 in Waco, TX. Neither finished college and both found early show biz success in Los Angeles.

Steve Allen's career spanned more than half a century and touched nearly every segment of the entertainment industry. His list of accomplishments is staggering.

After more than 40-years Steve Martin is still going strong and, likewise, is an entertainment renaissance man.

It is the span of their careers along with the depth and breadth of their talents that make them LeeZard's all time faves.

The Steves began their careers doing something that would later be only a piece (or, in Allen's case, pieces) of their repertoire; Allen as an announcer-writer-pianist-producer for a Phoenix radio station and Martin performing magic tricks at Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm. Ultimately, both found their home and rocketed to their initial fame in television comedy and, it was in that realm that LeeZard discovered each one at a different time in his life.

I remember the young LeeZard in the mid-1950s sitting in front of the old black and white TV with his dad watching the very first iteration of "The Tonight Show" on NBC. Yes, it was Steve Allen who launched 
that iconic program (First Tonight Show). His style was a cross between zany and intellectual and it was both captivating and hilarious. (In this video, Steve had a monitor just offstage; one look at himself and he lost it - live TV at its best: Steve Allen Cracks up).

Likewise, I remember Steve Martin as a regular guest on the original Saturday Night Live (SNL) in the mid 1970s, also on NBC. His style was a cross between zany and zanier, also captivating and hilarious (Steve Martin/Dan Ackroyd-SNL). We wouldn't learn until later that Martin's intellect was not to be overshadowed by his zaniness.

Steve Allen went on to a hugely successful TV career, winning a Peabody Award, one of broadcasting's highest honors, in 1960 for the best comedy show (The Steve Allen Show). The TV program for which he wanted to be remembered for, however, was the much-honored and respected PBS show "Meeting of the Minds." Produced, written and hosted by Allen, the show featured actors portraying famous historical figures who engaged in debate and discussion in a talk show format.

More than 20-years later, riding his popularity on SNL, Steve Martin became the most successful standup comedian in history, filling big arenas and winning Grammys for his platinum selling albums. Either man could've stopped right there and lived the rest of their lives basking in wealth and fame. But, for each Steve, the creative juices were just beginning to flow and it is here where the parallels are most striking. While they both touched virtually every aspect of entertainment, each showed unique abilities in different areas.

Both men made the jump from TV to film, although Allen's film career was not nearly as extensive as Martin's. Steve Allen's eponymous role as the lead in The Benny Goodman Story is his most famous but the film is known more for its music than its cinematic excellence.

Steve Martin has appeared in more than 40 films, mostly comedies but he's been known to flash a serious side as well. He's produced at least six movies, several TV shows and written ten screenplays and many teleplays.

Both Steves were/are prolific writers and performers in the music field and as authors. Steve Martin has written 12 books, both fiction and non-fiction, while Steve Allen racked up more than 50 titles.

In my mind, though, it is their music that will leave the strongest legacies for both. While Allen was considered a "passable" piano player, he wrote an astonishing number of songs. Some put the estimate at more than 10,000, including at least one classic, "This Could be the Start of Something Big, (Performed by Allen's good friends Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme)" which he used as the Tonight Show theme song, and one Grammy-winning jazz composition - "The Gravy Waltz (Performed by Mel Torme)."

Steve Martin learned to play the banjo at an early age and used it primarily as a prop in his early-career comedy routines but he is one helluva bluegrass picker. While he has been writing bluegrass music for more than 40-years, it is only in the past few years that Martin has focused on this genre, releasing two albums (one of them a Grammy winner) and touring with The Steep Canyon Rangers. For a detailed look at Martin's fascination with banjo music, see the lengthy liner notes for his album "The Crow" at http://www.stevemartin.com/stevemartin/music.html.

LeeZard recently had the pleasure of enjoying Steve and The Rangers in concert at a small outdoor venue in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. It was intimate, sometimes funny (Jubilation Day), sometimes poignant (
Daddy Played the Banjo - Live at The Grand Ol' Opry) and always brilliant.

Yes, there have more talented entertainers over the generations but none, I think, expressed their talents so successfully in so many ways as the Two Steves. Let me know if you agree or disagree.

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A final note: In researching this piece, I did find one piece of information about Steve Allen quite disturbing. Apparently, in the mid 1950s, Allen was NOT a big fan of the new music known as Rock & Roll and subsequently went out of his way to mock, if not humiliate, such artists as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis when they appeared on either The Tonight Show or The Steve Allen Show. While I abhor his actions, this in no way diminishes Steve Allen's broad shadow across the entertainment pantheon. 

For more information on Allen's treatment of Elvis (scroll down to "Allen and rock music): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Allen

Here is the video of Allen's impolite treatment of "The King." Note also the so called petition Allen presents to Elvis, curiously looking like a roll of toilet paper. It gets worse for "Hound Dog" in the second half of the video. For shame Steve! (Steve and Elvis)