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July 25, 2014

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Q+A: Marty Allen celebrates 92nd birthday, reflects on his 70 years of comedy

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Marty Allen and Karon Kate Blackwell.

Marty Allen at Bagel Delicatessen

Italian-American Club President Nelson Sardelli presents comedy legend Marty Allen with a smoked whitefish complete with candle for Allen's 92nd birthday at Bagel Delicatessen. Launch slideshow »
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Las Vegas entertainers Allen & Rossi (Marty Allen, front center, and Steve Rossi, back center) with The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964.

At age 92, legendary Las Vegas comedy icon Marty Allen is still going strong, and he has no plans for retirement or even slowing down. In fact, in addition to his standup gigs, he’s writing a book looking back over his seven decades of comedy.

He celebrated his birthday on Sunday and tonight, Marty, with wife Karon Kate Blackwell, open three nights of shows at the Plaza downtown.

Marty admits that he was a comedy cutup in high school in Pittsburgh and during his time with the U.S. Army Air Corps stationed in Italy during World War II. It was there that he became a sergeant and earned a medal for bravery for his heroism during a fire.

After the war, he turned to journalism for his future career while studying at the University of Southern California. He did a little comedy act in small clubs to supplement his G.I. Bill college studies. He became so successful that it became his full-time occupation, and by the 1950s, he opened for stars such as Sarah Vaughan, Eydie Gorme and Nat King Cole.

Marty teamed with another legendary Las Vegas entertainer, Steve Rossi, and they became regular fixtures with 40 appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” where they met The Beatles on their first U.S. television appearances.

They won the first-ever lifetime contract in Las Vegas at the Vegas World casino, which is now the Stratosphere. Marty appeared on Broadway in the 1961 and 1964 shows “Let It Ride” and “ I Had A Ball,” respectively.

It’s been nonstop ever since with regular bookings at casinos coast to coast and on Royal Caribbean cruise lines. This past Sunday after a birthday lunch, I talked at length with the jokester who also has appeared on hundreds of Hollywood game shows — more than any other entertainer.

Champagne wishes for a very Happy Birthday. It’s a milestone at 92 years of age! How are you feeling, and how are you celebrating?

Karon and I had lunch with a friend. We just got back home and are sitting writing some stuff down because we've been working on a book. We hope to have it out shortly. It's going to be very good. It more or less tells about all the different people that I worked with like Nat King Cole and working with Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford and Shirley Bassey. It's going to be a wonderful book. I have a very good feel about it.

And your memory is solid back to all those days?

I remember everything; it’s unbelievable. In fact, I just told somebody that I must have gotten about 200 birthday cards, but I remember several years ago when I got a birthday card from the president of the United States, and I did not know that Abraham Lincoln remembered me.

You’re still a cutup. Marty, go back to the time in the military for a minute for me. You didn’t really have a plan in your mind to be a full-time comedian?

When I was in school, I was a real cutup, I used to do all kinds of crazy things. I did pantomime, and I would try to break everybody up. I enjoyed it so much, but I really started out in journalism because I liked to write. I was very good in English, and I could write a short story or novella. I had a feel for that. Then I thought I'd be a newspaper reporter because I told everybody I looked great in a trench coat. I always had that feel, but in my hometown of Pittsburgh, I started playing little clubs and little joints, and I played everything.

I started to build myself up and then the next thing I knew came the war and I wanted to be in the service; that was very important to me. I wanted to serve my country because I love it so much. Then I got involved in the Air Force, and I was stationed in Italy with the 15th Air Force; heavy bomb group B24s. After the war, I came back out and returned to Pittsburgh and became like local comic. Next thing I know, one day the agent said I’m putting you with a girl singer, and I think you're going to do very well.

He said I think you’re going to love the singer, and I asked who is it? He said Sarah Vaughan; I almost fainted. Sarah Vaughan! I went to work opening the show because in those days comedians were more or less the opening act. At that time, all the singers were the No. 1 attraction. Sarah took a liking to me, and she recommended me to her friend, Nat King Cole, That’s what really started it all.

I worked with Nat quite a while, and that to me was unbelievable. Then I went on tour. I was in Chicago at the Chez Paris with Eydie Gorme as her opening act. Steve Rossi was the production singer at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. He told Nat Cole that he was tired of being a production singer and wanted to do something else. Nat said that comedy teams were always good, Martin and Lewis are hot, and he says I have a comedian, maybe if the two of you got together.

So Steve called me in Chicago, and I said no. I was doing really well; I wasn’t interested. He says let’s talk about it, and I said if you want to fly into Chicago. He flew into Chicago, and we took a liking to each another. He was a handsome young man and had a great voice, so I said we’ll give it a shot.

So we started playing little joints, and I could feel right off the bat the audience’s reaction, and when I felt that we were ready, I called Nat, and we started to build up. We started doing “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The next thing we know we’re on with The Beatles.

And the rest is history, as they say. Two things I want to ask you that you’re probably sick to death of answering, but I’ve got to ask them. Where did “Hello Dere” come from? And where did the brillo-pad hair come from?

The hair was my idea because I just let it grow and I was one of the first ones with the zoo roo-type haircut. I saw everybody kept looking at it and thought it was quite a big deal. I just let it grow, and that’s how that happened.

Marty Allen

It’s amazing you are now 92, and you’ve still got your hair.

Yes, and everybody says is that really his hair? And I say as far as I know, yes. In fact, I remember when we were all 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. 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.

Now about “Hello Dere!” 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. 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. A catchphrase that became like Joe Penner’s “Do you want to buy a duck?” 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 Gen. DeGaulle, 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.

Marty Allen

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Marty Allen and George Wallace at Terry Fator’s fifth-anniversary celebration Friday, March 7, 2014, at the Mirage.

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Marty Allen and Fred Willard at Terry Fator’s fifth-anniversary celebration Friday, March 7, 2014, at the Mirage.

Now how long were you partnered with Steve?

I think it was 14 or 15 years. We played everything everywhere. We kept going around, the Copacabana, the “Sullivan” shows, and I start getting calls to do more acting and to do more individual kinds of things. I thought we had hit the pinnacle of success, and we parted very amicably. We were probably the only comedy team that split on a friendly situation.

I still see him, we talk, we never have any arguments of any kind. Then I became a semi regular on “Hollywood Squares,” and I did “Big Valley” with Barbara Stanwyck, and I did Hollywood Palace and all kinds of things. I did all the game shows, and they gave me a title: “The Darling of Daytime Television.”

One day I was in a restaurant in Los Angeles and I walked in and I met Karon. I flipped over meeting her. She was on the road as a piano player and singer, but she got tired of being on the road so she became a hostess at this fabulous restaurant. I walked in and I met her, next thing I know I heard her singing and I said oh my God, she’s phenomenal! I asked her to tour with me in Pittsburgh, and she tore the house apart, and I said we’ve got to do something together, and she turned out to be a phenomenal straight lady.

In fact, today they call Karon and I the new George Burns and Gracie Allen, only I’m Gracie! We started touring and it just caught fire and became a third edition of my career. I had my solo career, a career with Steve and now with Karon. Karon and I have been utterly fantastic together. She is unbelievable. This year it will be 30 years of a great and wonderful marriage.

And you’re 92 years young today. No thoughts of retirement whatsoever?

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 onstage as long as I can go or until they carry me off.

What can we expect from the show at the Plaza this weekend?

It will be very good. Everybody is going to come. We’ve been hearing from everybody, and they all want to come. I look forward to it, and I’m just happy to be able to do it.

Looking back for me — and the new book — can you think of some highlights of your life other than The Beatles?

To be honest with you, being in London and getting the reaction that we got there at the Pigalle Club and working with Shirley Bassey. One day Shirley said, “A friend of mine is coming in to see the show, and I’m sure she’s going to enjoy you.” So I said, “Who’s your friend?” It was Princess Margaret. We were doing our “Man on the Moon” segment, and Steve said to me, “What do you see up there?” I said a sign, it says go home, Yank.

Princess Margaret fell off her chair, she thought it was the funniest thing she'd ever heard. Later on when Shirley introduced us to her, she said how much she enjoyed us, and we sent her our album and she sent us a beautiful letter, which I still have, and for me that was unbelievable. I didn’t get the Queen to come see us, but for me Princess Margaret was the Queen.

And you knew Joan Crawford just as well? Forget the coat hangers, but there must be an anecdote?

We worked with her on the Hollywood Palace shows and then she was married to the president of Pepsi-Cola. I did all kinds of crazy things, and she took a liking. We became not only professional friends, but also very close friends. She would call me up long distance and say, “Marty, I need three jokes, I'm going to a party.” I’d give her three jokes every time she called.

You’d never think of Joan Crawford as having a wild sense of humor.

Her reaction was always unbelievable. Karon reminded me that Joan and I shared the same birthday. Her birthday was also March 23. I would send her a telegram or a bouquet of roses, and she would send me a beautiful note; she loved writing notes.

I did a straight dramatic role with Barbara Stanwyck and Linda Evans — the “Big Valley” television series — and it turned out to be a phenomenal straight-acting role for me. From that, I won even more films and 10 TV movies.

How do you sum it all up to date?

I’ve been a very blessed guy, and God has been very good to me not only health wise but career wise, as well. I enjoy life to the fullest extent.

Happy Birthday, Marty, and have a great weekend of shows at the Plaza. Keep 'em laughing in the aisles.

FOUR OF MARTY ALLEN’S FAVORITE JOKES

A study of economics usually reveals that the best time to buy anything is last year.

If a man works like a horse for his money, there are a lot of girls anxious to take him down the bridal path.

Two drunks were at the zoo. They were standing in front of the lion’s cage. They kept watching the lion, and finally the lion started roaring very loudly. The one drunk said, “OK, let’s go. I’ve had enough of this.” The other one said, “No, I’m going to stay and watch the movie.”

Hugh Hefner still has a different girl to his room every night, only now they are called nurses.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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