Well loved for his frizzy hair, bug eyes and zany sense of humor, comedian Marty Allen was a regular small-screen fixture from the early 1960s onwards. In fact, thanks to his one-time ubiquity on the box, the “Hello dere!” funny man was once hailed the Darling of Daytime Television. But he was equally loved for his work in the clubs, and that love was reciprocated in full. Indeed, Allen was still cracking gags right up to the end.
Morton David Alpern first said “Hello dere!” in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on March 23, 1922. Born to Jewish parents of East-European extraction, Allen graduated from the city’s Taylor Allderdice High School. But soon he was off to Europe himself, serving as a U.S. Army Air Corps sergeant in World War II. It was while stationed in Italy that Allen received his first acclaim. The serviceman was awarded a Soldier’s Medal for bravery after heroically intervening when a fire broke out as an airplane refueled. Allen saved several men’s lives when he drove a fuel truck safely away from the scene and then returned to roll out the flames with his body.
Allen’s road to stardom began when the hero returned home and decided to hit the stage. He forged a comedy act with Mitch DeWood as his straight man. The duo delighted audiences with song and dance as well as impressions and gags throughout the 1950s. Allen and DeWood saw their name in lights at many prestigious clubs and theaters, including the Copacabana in New York and Monte Carlo in Miami Beach. They also opened for various big names, such as Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan, before calling time on the partnership.
But Allen’s showbiz career truly took off when he joined forces with crooner Steve Rossi in 1957. Their old-fashioned act would typically see Rossi belt out a song before playing the straight man to Allen’s various comic creations. These included a befuddled golfer, a punch-drunk boxer and an incompetent doctor. Allen would always open with his popular catchphrase, “Hello dere!”
And this humorous hook became famous nationally as the pair became firm favorites on the TV-chat-show circuit. As the 1960s rolled round, Allen and Rossi racked up many appearances on entertainment shows hosted by the likes of Perry Como, Johnny Carson and Dean Martin. In fact, the duo guested on The Ed Sullivan Show an astonishing 44 times. It is a testament to their popularity that the show’s producers chose them to follow The Beatles on the program on each of their two appearances. On the first occasion, Allen won over the screaming crowd by saying, “I’m Ringo’s mother!”
Notwithstanding any dubious parenthood claims, Allen and Rossi also popped up on several game shows of the era, including Password, Match Game and I’ve Got a Secret. But questions were asked when the double act hit the big screen together in spy spoof The Last of the Secret Agents? in 1966. Sadly, the movie bombed with both critics and audiences alike, with The New York Times damning it as a “vehicle made of plywood and cheesecloth.” Allen and Rossi, perhaps realizing their limitations, amicably split up just two years later.
However, by this point Allen had already proved he could go it alone. In the early 1960s he had made his Broadway debut in Let it Ride! before going on to appear in other musical productions Hot Spot, Nowhere to Go But Up and I Had a Ball. Following his split with Rossi, Allen got serious for once with a dramatic role, playing Waldo Diefendorfer on ABC’s TV western series The Big Valley.
Indeed, it soon seemed that the small screen could not get enough of Allen’s talents. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, he went on to land parts in TV favorites Love: American Style, Flying High, Night Gallery, Benson, Monster and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. His familiar face also showed up on the big screen in the likes of The Great Waltz, The Ballad of Billie Blue, Harrad Summer and Cannonball Run II. Nevertheless, Allen remained a game show regular too, appearing on more than 100 episodes of Hollywood Squares.
But behind the scenes, Allen’s workaholic nature was put to good. The philanthropic performer toiled tirelessly for various charities from early on in his career. In 1968 he kicked off an annual tour of U.S. military hospitals – titled Hello Dere! – in which he entertained wounded soldiers back from the Vietnam War. Allen was also involved in Fight for Sight, the American Cancer Society, mother-and-baby charity March of Dimes and served on the board of the Epilepsy Foundation.
As if to prove that their split had indeed been on friendly terms, Allen rekindled his old partnership with Steve Rossi in 1983. Seven years later, the duo landed a residency at the Vegas World Hotel and Casino, and appeared on the bill there until 1994 when they split up for good. Happily, however, the seemingly inexhaustible Allen had also formed another musical-comedy double act on the side. And it was one that would change his life personally as well as professionally.
Allen’s partnership with singer-songwriter Karon Kate Blackwell saw them tour regularly for more than 30 years. And Allen and Blackwell mixed business and pleasure, having married in 1984. The funny man had first walked down the aisle with Lorraine Trydelle, a hotel manager, in 1960. But, tragically, he had been left a widower when she passed away in 1976.
However, with Blackwell now by his side, Allen continued to work well into his tenth decade. The then 92-year-old spoke to The Las Vegas Sun newspaper about his longevity in 2014. When asked, Allen said, “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.” For good measure, he added, “That’s the story, and I’ll go on stage as long as I can go or until they carry me off.”
Indeed, good to his word, Allen was still making people laugh two years later, telling the audience at one New York show, “It’s unbelievable to be 94 years old. My wife says, ‘What do you want for your birthday?’ I told her, ‘An antique.’ So she framed my birth certificate.”
Nevertheless, the ever-prolific Allen was forced to take a break on Christmas Day 2017 when he sadly broke his hip. However, even after just having surgery, the nonagenarian star was still thinking about his next nightclub commitment. According to entertainment website Vegas News, Allen had an unusual request in the recovery room. The veteran comic asked a doctor to hand him his cellphone so he could organize his next show.
Sadly, however, a statement on Allen’s website just two months later revealed that the star had told his final joke. Allen peacefully passed away in a Las Vegas hospice with wife Karon by his side. A spokesperson later informed the Associated Press that the comedian had died of complications from pneumonia on February 12, 2018.
Subsequently, numerous celebrities took to Twitter to pay their respects. Las Vegas stage magician Lance Burton said, “What a funny man who brought joy to millions of people for 95 years.” Ventriloquist Terry Fator, another Sin City regular, tweeted “Show business lost a legend tonight… and I lost a friend.”
Allen’s fellow comedian Gilbert Gottfried added, “Farewell to one of the funniest people onstage and off.” Allen’s widow, Karon, later told the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper that she took comfort from such tributes. She said, “What has kept me going is all the outpouring of love I’ve felt. Marty really touched a lot of people.”
A month after his death, in March 2018, Allen’s life was celebrated with a matinee show at Las Vegas’ Rampart Casino. Speakers included crooner George Bugatti, and comedians Lou Magelowitz, Louie Anderson and Warren Durso. Sean and John Scott from contemporary circus show Absinthe also performed in tribute to Allen’s skills as a dancer.
Carrot Top and Terry Fator, two of Allen’s favorite comedians, sent video tributes to the memorial event. Attendees were also treated to footage of Allen’s most popular TV appearances. These included a performance with Steve Rossi on The Dean Martin Show and a sketch with Martha Raye which saw Allen covered in cake mix.
Later, Karon explained to the Las Vegas Review-Journal why she chose to stage such an uplifting afternoon of entertainment. “He loved to dance, and I loved to play for him while he did it,” she said. “Marty wanted a party, a very fun celebration, and that’s what we’re giving him.” The performance took place on what would have been Allen’s 96th birthday.