By Ben Tinsley
GREENVILLE — Comedy legend Marty Allen of Las Vegas recently graced the stage in North Texas — performing for fans and newcomers with Karon Kate Blackwell, his wife and stage partner.
Remember Marty Allen? He appeared on television hundreds of times in the 1970s and 1980s and was a regular on Hollywood Squares. He was in a cameo on The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! He appeared on Circus of the Stars, and on game shows such as Password.
Allen was cast in 10 made-for-television movies and appeared in theatrical films such as 1972’s The Great Waltz and 1976’s A Whale of a Tale.
“Hello, dere!” is the catch phrase for which Allen is so widely known.
Allen’s representative, Barbara Kenig, probably put it best:
“Legendary comedian Marty Allen … has been making audiences laugh for 70 years, and he doesn’t intend stopping anytime soon,” she said. “Readers will remember Marty from television, film and his Catskill years. The Jewish comic still loves entertaining audiences.”
A lot of Allen’s routine over the years has revolved around his dancing — much of which he learned as a young man growing up in Squirrel Hill, a residential neighborhood in the East End of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Allen remembers taking his sisters to dance class at the neighborhood synagogue every week and making a point of watching them, studying them and learning everything they learned.
Years later, when Allen became a comedian, he would take everything he had observed and absorbed and use it to become a legendary, ferocious onstage dancer.
A Chicago show critic once wrote, “Marty Allen is mostly a clown, even though he tells a joke flawlessly. He’s all Three Stooges rolled into one, or, as he describes himself, “the love child of Phyllis Diller and Buddy Hackett.”
Allen, who turns 94 in March, said he was delighted to perform at the Historic Texan Theater in Greenville, so close to Dallas, in late January.
He said Dallas is a city that holds a special place in his heart.
“Years ago, I came to Dallas quite often to perform,” Allen said to the TJP. “I have such fond memories of Texas and I really looked forward to doing the show there. It has been a long, long time.”
Known far and wide as “the funny man with the wild hair and buggy eyes,” Allen is a walking showbiz history book. He has worked in the top nightclubs and was the opening act for such greats as Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan during the 1950s. He’s also worked with talents such as Ed Sullivan, Elvis, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles and even Phyllis Diller.
“I think I’ve worked with everybody in show business,” he said.
Comedy wasn’t his first choice of profession.
“Originally, I wrote a lot so I thought I would go into journalism,” he said. “But I had that feel to be a comedian. I was the kid in school who made everybody laugh. My parents were wonderful. I grew up in a wonderful Jewish family. My father owned a restaurant and a bar in the produce yards of Pittsburgh and my mother was a housewife and my two sisters were wonderful. There was a great deal of love in that house and I carried it with me all my life.”
He said he had a marvelous bar mitzvah and attended synagogue regularly under the influence of his parents.
“Because of my parents, I was a good Jewish boy growing up,” Allen said.
Allen remembers well the 1950s, the days before he hit his niche, when he was desperately searching for a catch phrase. At the time, he was working alongside Steve Rossi as part of the comedy team of Allen & Rossi.
“One day on stage, I came up with, ‘Hello dere!’ and the audience laughed,” he said. “After the performance, people kept coming up to me and repeating ‘Hello dere!’ So I knew I had something really good.’ ”
He and working partner Steve Rossi lasted 16 years. That resulted in 44 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, a string of hit comedy albums and the 1966 film The Last Of the Secret Agents?
The popular duo parted ways amicably and even reunited for several shows in the 1990s.
As a comedy duo back then, Allen & Rossi used to get pretty wacky.
There’s a .gif file online that captures that magic between them: It shows a manic Allen, possessing an energy reminiscent of MC Hammer, on stage dancing around a stationary, singing Rossi.
Allen is a proud veteran of World War II — a former member of the U.S. Army Air Corps who was stationed in Italy. There, he received the rank of sergeant and also earned a Soldier’s Medal for bravery during a fire that happened while a plane was being refueled. That heroism also earned him a full-dress parade.
In the early 1960s, Allen appeared on Broadway in Let It Ride! at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. He eventually began performing dramatic roles — on The Big Valley TV series and in several other dramatic productions, including a segment of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, The Ballad of Billie Blue and Mr. Jerico.
Remembering his military roots, Allen in 1968 made a “Hello dere” tour of military hospitals in the United States, which he repeated annually until 1972. During these tours, he would talk with and entertain wounded soldiers who had just returned from Vietnam.
Allen and his wife, Karon Kate Blackwell, an accomplished singer-songwriter and pianist, teamed up in the 1980s to perform their musical comedy act to audiences around the country. That partnership lasts to this day and they continue to perform in venues around the country.
Blackwell sat in with her husband during the TJP phone interview and helped clarify certain points he made. She was the one who helped him recall the time he spent taking his sisters to the neighborhood synagogue.
Incidentally, Allen also wrote a book about his fantastic career, Hello Dere, available on Amazon.com and through his own Web page, www.martyallenhellodere.com.
Posting on Facebook, Allen reported his Greenville performance went well and was back in Nevada and on to the next gig.
“Thanks to all the staff at the Texan Theater and to all the fans that came out to see us!” he wrote.
There are no tears for this clown. Allen told the TJP that he still gets a great kick out of performing with his beautiful wife and is totally enjoying his career.
“It has been remarkable and the reaction to the show has been terrific,” he said. “The reaction from my fans has been unbelievable. They have shown a lot of my previous shows overseas and I am getting a lot of fan mail from China, Poland and Italy. It has been remarkable.”