He and his longtime comedy partner, straight man Steve Rossi, were a ubiquitous television presence for more than a decade; Nat King Cole brought them together.
Marty Allen, the bubble-eyed comedian whose Brillo pad-like hair always looked as if it were trying to escape from his head, has died. He was 95.
Allen, who kept a generation laughing throughout the 1950s and ’60s with his comedy partner, straight man Steve Rossi, died in Las Vegas of complications from pneumonia with his wife, Karon Kate Blackwell, by his side, Allen’s spokeswoman told the Associated Press.
Between 1957 and 1968, Allen & Rossi — in addition to countless nightclub appearances — popped up on television on at least 700 occasions, making more than 40 visits to The Ed Sullivan Show alone. Three of the four times the Beatles appeared on the legendary variety show, the comics were on as well.
The zany Allen led the charge with a cherubic face full of exaggerated expressions and his signature catchphrase, “Hello Dere.” The phrase came about purely by accident.
“We were in Philadelphia at the Latin Casino, and Steve asked me some kind of question in the middle of the act, but I blanked. I couldn’t figure out what he’d asked me,” he told The Las Vegas Sun in a 2014 interview. “Maybe I was thinking of something else, and out of my mouth I said, ‘Hello Dere!’ He looked at me as if I’d lost my mind, so I repeated, ‘Hello Dere!’ When the show was over, people came over and laughingly said, ‘Hey, Hello Dere!’ “
“I said, ‘My gosh, I’ve got something that you dream about.’ You go all your life to try to find some kind of a gimmick, and there it was. It was friendly, and it was warm. Wherever we went, if they said General de Gaulle, I’d say, ‘Bonjour Dere!’ If it was Israeli, I’d say, ‘Shalom Dere!’, and it caught fire. ‘Hello Dere!’ became one of our lucky pieces.”
Just as distinctive was Allen’s crazy, flyaway hairstyle. It just seemed to help make anything he did all the funnier.
“When we were on with the Beatles, they kept looking at me, at my hair, and they were hysterically laughing. We took a picture because they couldn’t believe that anybody would have that kind of a style haircut,” Allen told the Sun. “I’ve always had it, and it was more or less a great trademark. There’s no secret formula. I shampoo and comb my hair, and that’s the way it goes.”
Allen & Rossi released 16 comedy albums and headlined one feature film, The Last of the Secret Agents? (1966), before parting ways in 1968. Allen continued on with a successful television and nightclub career. Rossi teamed up with other comedians, including Joe E. Ross and Slappy White, but never approached the level of success he had with Allen.
But Allen & Rossi split on good terms, and through the next three decades, the team would reunite when opportunity knocked. In 1984, they joined forces for a series of shows in Atlantic City, which led to a tour. Vegas World (now the Stratosphere) signed them for a lifetime contract in 1990. They played the hotel/casino for four years before going their separate ways again.
Marty Allen was born Morton David Alpern in Pittsburgh on March 23, 1922, and he attended Taylor Allderdice High School in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. (Other notable graduates of the school include directors Rob Marshall and Antoine Fuqua and rapper Wiz Khalifa.)
He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, was stationed in Italy during World War II and rose to the rank of sergeant. After a plane caught fire during refueling, Allen’s actions earned him a Soldier’s Medal for heroism.
Allen returned to Pittsburgh after the war and launched a career in comedy. Sometimes he appeared on stage alone, other times with a bandleader or singer. For several years, he teamed with straight man Mitch DeWood, playing such clubs as Miami Beach’s Monte Carlo and New York’s Copacabana. They would warm up the crowd for the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Eydie Gorme and Nat King Cole.
During a 1967 appearance on the game show What’s My Line?, Allen and Rossi revealed that it was Cole who suggested they become an act.
“Steve was a production singer at the Sands Hotel, and I had worked with Nat on numerous occasions, on concerts, and we were very good friends. I helped pick out a lot of his hits,” Allen joked as he lifted his eyes skyward with an incredulous look.
Allen went on to tell host John Daly and a panel that included Woody Allen that Rossi had mentioned to Cole that he was interested in doing a nightclub act, and the singer thought he’d be the perfect foil for Allen.
For more than a decade, Allen & Rossi performed nonstop. The tall and handsome Rossi typically opened with a song and then introduced one of Allen’s comic characters: a punch-drunk fighter, Christopher Columbus, a clueless golfer. The first words out of Allen’s mouth were always “Hello Dere.”
The jokes would run something like this:
Rossi: I understand yesterday you just missed a hole-in-one.
Allen: Yeah, by five strokes.
Allen & Rossi were “must” bookings on many of the variety or talk shows of the era, and they visited programs hosted by Perry Como, Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Garry Moore, Merv Griffin, Dean Martin and Johnny Carson. The pair was also in demand on game shows, making appearances on I’ve Got a Secret, Match Game, Password and To Tell the Truth.
Allen made his Broadway debut in 1961, without Rossi, in Let It Ride, and followed up with roles in the stage musicals Nowhere to Go but Up, Hot Spot and I Had a Ball. In 1968, he made his dramatic debut on ABC’s The Big Valley, playing a hapless ranch hand who brings bad luck wherever he goes.
After his split with Rossi, Allen continued to stretch his acting chops with TV appearances on Love: American Style, Night Gallery, Flying High, Monster Squad, Benson and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.
He was also seen in the features The Ballad of Billie Blue (1972), The Great Waltz (1972), Harrad Summer (1974) and Cannonball Run II (1984).
During the 1970s and ’80s, he was a comic mainstay all over the television dial. The Hollywood Squares featured him in more than 100 episodes, and he was a regular on Circus of the Stars and The $1.98 Beauty Show. In 2014, Allen published his autobiography, titled, not surprisingly, Hello Dere!
Into his 90s, Allen still was bringing comedy to live audiences. Partnering this time with his second wife, Blackwell, a recording artist, he appeared in several venues around Vegas.
As he told the Sun just after his 92nd birthday: “No, no retirement. To be honest with you, I have a great feel for people, I love entertaining, I love reacting to everybody and enjoy what I’m doing. Karon enjoys it, and we hit it off so well. That’s the story, and I’ll go on stage as long as I can go or until they carry me off.”