Las Vegas Sun

April 22, 2019

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On the laugh track — and not getting off

It I was at the airport. A kid says to his mother, "Mommy, look, it's a troll doll!"

-- Marty Allen

It's a sure sign of a life well and fully lived that, confronted by a photo of Mannix wiping your bare back in an empty hot tub, you can't recall when, where, why or by whom it was taken.

"What the hell is this?" comedian Marty Allen mutters in genial befuddlement. He tilts the photo in the gray light of his window seat in the Las Vegas Sporting House coffee shop, where he's just picked apart a tuna salad after his daily three miles on the treadmill.

Exhumed from the sarcophagal depths of the SUN archives, the image shows "Mannix" star Mike Connors, a cigarette clamped in his crooked grin beneath a prow of lacquered hair, toweling off a shirtless Allen, whose famous eyes are goggling almost as much in the picture as they are contemplating it years later.

He shows it to Pete, the PR guy riding shotgun on the interview; he doesn't know what to make of it either.

There's nothing written on the back of the photo and nothing about it inscribed in Allen's memory. You can almost hear the whir of the search engines beneath his crop of trademark hair as he leafs through his memories:

There's the time Nat King Cole, for whom Allen opened at the Sands ages ago, was asked about Allen's bizarre appearance. "We were in the Fiji Islands," Cole said, "and the king gave him to me as a gift."

... And here's Allen, dressed in a cop suit, following unwitting Ringo Starr into the "Ed Sullivan Show's" men's room, pretending to be his bodyguard. "In here?" an exasperated Ringo asked.

... And there are recollections from his nightclub years and TV appearances with Steve Rossi, talk show quips ...

But no Mannix. That moment of clowning around is lost among memories from a lifetime of such moments. Try pulling one card from a deck 50 years deep.

He hands the photo back, concluding it must have been snapped during a high-jinky moment in his dressing room at the Sands ... mid-'70s, maybe?

"Don't ask me dates," he says with a chuckle. That goes for career milestones, too. The conversation barely touches on those ("Just say, 'He was part of the Allen and Rossi comedy team'" he will suggest later). That stuff is old news anyway, and Allen wants to live in the now, or at least talk up the now, so he keeps steering the discussion to his current gig at the Westward Ho.

"It's fabulous," he says, and such is his inherent niceness that it comes out not as a boast but simply as a burst of enthusiasm.

The show pairs him with singer Karon Kate Blackwell. After his famous "Hello dere" greeting, he does a few minutes of introductory schtick, brings her on for several rousing numbers, and then they team up for the comic heart of the show: several sketches in which Blackwell pretends to interview Allen as a football star, a punch-drunk boxer and a just-plain-drunk wine steward. They wrap by letting the audience in on a little secret: The lovely singer is, in fact, the troll doll's wife. Gasps of disbelief inevitably result.

It's an act he's described as "a weird '90s version of Sonny and Cher." "What is exciting, what has caught people, is seeing a beautiful girl playing straight to a comic." It is, he insists, the first time a woman has done so. "I'm really excited by it," he says. "That's your angle -- it's the first. Wouldn't you say it's the first, Pete?"

"We haven't been able to come up with anyone else," Pete drawls.

"It's the first," Allen assures. "You think of Nichols and May, you think of Sonny and Cher, and no one else has come along to have that flavor."

Reporter: Who had the hair first, you or Don King?

Allen: I did. I'm his son, you know. I saw him once, and I said, "Dad!" He said, "Dad?" I said, "You got the tickets for the fight?"

Marty Allen ... Marty Allen ... You recognize the eyes, the hair, but the degree of name recognition you feel probably says a lot about your popular culture formative years. Is it very familiar? It's a good bet you saw Allen and Rossi on TV in their Ed Sullivan heyday, or heard their comedy albums, or were aware of their nightclub act in the '50s and '60s, when, says SUN entertainment guru Joe Delaney, "They were large. They ranked right up there with Rowan and Martin and Martin and Lewis as far as live appearances were concerned."

Not too familiar? Well, perhaps you're too young.

For Gens X through Z, he's been lapped on the laugh track by newcomers like Jerry Seinfeld and Robin Williams and Roseanne, with their sitcoms and films and best-selling books. Those audiences probably dismiss him a guy for whom the Westward Ho serves the same purpose that the bush growing out of the cliff serves for Wile E. Coyote: the last handhold before a long, long fall. A guy holding onto his little sprig of show biz with all the traction left in his fingerprints.

Marty wouldn't agree, of course. For one thing, kids love him! "They relate to me," he says. "I'm like a cartoon character. They see the big eyes and the wild hair." And the youngsters who come to see him at the Westward Ho seem to dig his act as much as the oldsters who vastly outnumber them.

Maybe the Westward Ho isn't network TV or a stage at The Mirage, but it's a big room full of laughing people, and what more does a comedian need?

Nor is he a man without projects. He's done several videotapes -- "Marty Allen's Fishing Funnies" and a kid's piece called "A Whale of a Tale," for instance -- and recently mugged and danced through the video for Faith Hill's song "Let's Go to Las Vegas." In Atlantic City, he hosted a tribute to ventriloquist Se~nor Wences that, he says, will probably get picked up for cable or even broadcast TV. And, he hints, some TV types are talking about building a "Benny Hill"-style show around him.

The Marty Allen you don't know, even if you think you know Marty Allen:

* "He's very deep," Blackwell says. "He reads a lot, and he's very serious, but he can't resist a one-liner if there's an opening for one. I could be trying to get into something dead serious, and if I leave myself open for a zinger, he'll get me with it."

* When she says he reads a lot, she means a lot. Three to five books a week, all kinds. He says bookstores have called to see what he's reading so they can tell their customers.

* He recently donated dozens of books on the Holocaust to the Nevada Governor's Advisory Council on Education Relating to the Holocaust. In fact, he's given a lot of time to charity efforts, including Special Olympics, the American Cancer Society, March of Dimes and many others.

* In 1968, he toured more than military hospitals, going bed to bed among the Vietnam wounded. At one, he met a soldier depressed because his prosthetic leg didn't look real. "That can be fixed," he said. "I asked the nurse for some scissors and tape, and I cut off some of my hair and taped it to his leg. He started laughing." A commendation for his generosity was read into the Congressional Record.

* One of his recent engagements was at the 50th reunion of the Nuremburg Trial interpreters. "I hope they all understood me," he says.

On a recent Tuesday night, around 300 people showed up to see Allen and Blackwell's dinner show at the Westward Ho. A small casino tucked near the Stardust, it's crowd is made up largely of Midwestern slot junketeers. The median age must be close to Allen's own, 74. Allen and Blackwell were originally tapped to perform twice a week for participants in its slot tournaments, but, Westward Ho officials say, the response was strong enough that they opened the doors to the public.

Allen onstage: Not for him the vogue in Seinfeldian observational humor, musing quirkily about the significance of soap or parking garages. Nor does he do in-your-face aggro-comedy. "I'm in the mode of a Benny Hill," he says, meaning whimsical, character-based sketch humor, easy on the dirty stuff; he may be the last guy in America for whom "straight man" means the guy who sets up the jokes. Except now, of course, it's straight woman.

Lady interviewer: Were you a drop out?

Wine-taster: No, Caesarian.

As he runs through his characters, he's clearly having a ball. Comedy may be therapeutic for him, but it's not therapy. He's not burning off leftover angst from a bad childhood -- he had a fine childhood -- or working out his demons in biting comic monologues. He's telling jokes! Karon sets 'em up and he knocks 'em down.

Around the middle of the show, the band swings into "Big Spender," and Blackwell introduces her duet partner, Shirley MacLaine. And out shimmies Allen in a red dress, wig and high heels. As they sing, Allen winks suggestively at a guy or two in the audience, his mock come-ons bringing the show as close as it will get to an R rating.

Lady interviewer: Do you and your wife have mutual orgasm?

Wine-taster: No, State Farm.

"It's the most fun I've ever had," Blackwell says of playing foil to her husband. "He's unpredictable -- and I think he's funny. So when I'm laughing up there, I'm really laughing. It's just great big fun."

"He fits in perfectly with our crowd," says John Quinn, Westward Ho's showroom entertainment director. "It's the relationship with the audience. The people who are coming now grew up watching him all the time on TV with Steve Rossi. The response has been so great."

At the retirement home, they threw a party for this guy's 90th birthday. They hire him a girl. She goes up to him and says, "I'm going to give you super sex." And he says, "I'll take the soup."

"You know how some stars are aloof," asks Matt, a regular guy who met Allen during his stint at Vegas World and is his guest for tonight's show. "Marty's not like that at all."

The 300 Midwesterners are eating it up along with their desserts, and as their affirmative laughter swells around the stage, a thought occurs: Try to imagine Jerry Seinfeld deigning to wiggle into a red dress and high heels just to entertain a few hundred slot players.

"Marty would say to me, 'Show biz is my life,'" Blackwell says, "and I thought he was kidding. But he was dead serious. He loves to make people laugh. He'll forever be a little boy."

Afterward, the couple sits at a table at the showroom entrance, chatting, signing autographs, selling tapes of Karon's music -- all proceeds going to charity, of course.

It's a genuine postmodern moment: interviewing a celebrity at the Celebrity Deli -- beneath a picture of that very celebrity. "It's my fish day," Allen says as his and Steve Rossi's likenesses grin down out of a big photo from some production show. "I keep tellin' 'em to take it down," he says.

Marty's jazzed, and not just because it's fish day. He's got great news! Although his run at the Westward Ho is almost over, starting Jan. 13, he and Karon will headline there six nights a week.

He's already brainstorming new characters for the act -- how about Blackwell as Rikki Lake interviewing Allen as ... well, that's still in development.

"The thing is to find who would she be interviewing," he says. "The idea is, what does the general public relate to? That's really what it's all about. You have to remember who you're playing to."

About then, Danny, the owner of Celebrity Deli, stops by Marty's table and gestures at the whitefish skeleton on his plate. "You can use that for a comb now," he says.

Allen bursts into laughter as Danny walks away. "You see," he says. "That's why I say there are no straight men left in America!"