Las Vegas Sun

September 18, 2019

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Pioneer comic Allen remembered

Comedian Bernie Allen, eager to watch some of the biggest names of the era perform, attended a 1966 Friars Club dinner honoring entertainment legend Joe E. Lewis.

It became his big break into show business.

"Every big star in entertainment was there -- it was standing room only," Allen recalled in 2000, noting that the luminaries included Frank Sinatra, who had played Lewis in the 1957 movie "The Joker Is Wild."

"I was standing in the back of the room when Bobby Gordon, Lewis' road manager, saw me and ... invited me to do my routine," which mimicked a shell-shocked World War II German soldier.

Comedian Buddy Hackett heckled Allen, and Allen brought Hackett into the act. The crowd loved it, and Sinatra, who was sitting with Sands hotel President Jack Entratter, suggested he book Allen.

Bernie Allen Kleinberg died Friday of apparent complications from falling off his motorized wheelchair at the Rose Cottage Assistance Living Center in Las Vegas. He was 87.

Services for Allen, a resident of Las Vegas since 1974, will be 5 p.m. today at Palm Mortuary, 7600 S. Eastern Ave.

Allen had been at the living center since September. He moved there shortly after his wife, Norma, died on Aug. 29, their 62nd wedding anniversary.

Allen, who would have turned 88 on Feb. 27, was to have performed at the Bootlegger Bistro on Feb. 25 at his annual fund-raiser for the homeless. It was one of the few performances he made regularly after his retirement in 2002.

"He was here a week ago last Saturday and stayed late entertaining a group of senior citizens, just flooring them," said Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt, Bootlegger owner, noting the Feb. 25 birthday party will be a memorial event from noon to 4 p.m. "He was telling me he was now the entertainment director of Rose Cottage and we all had to sign up to entertain."

Allen may best be remembered as the second Allen in the comedy team of Allen and Rossi. A couple of years after breaking up with wired-hair comedian Marty Allen for the first of what would be three times, Steve Rossi became the straight man for Bernie Allen from 1972 to 1977.

Rossi on Saturday called Allen "a legend in Las Vegas."

"The big thing he had going for him was that, once he was in character, he could ad-lib and be funnier than the jokes themselves," Rossi said. "He was very visual, like a big sad dog -- so likable and lovable either as the German guy or as the French magician who screwed up every trick but thought he was great. You couldn't help but laugh.

"He was risque, but never offensive. It was always cute the way he did it."

The period with Rossi was one of the most productive of Allen's career. They headlined at the old Silver Slipper on the Strip, in the Casbah Theater at the Sahara, at the Copacabana and Latin Quarter in New York, at the Americana in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, among other venues.

They performed twice on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and made several appearances on the Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and the Dinah Shore television shows, as well as appearances on TV game shows, including "Match Game" and "Treasure Hunt."

Local entertainers over the weekend remembered Allen as a friendly guy who remained true to his art.

"If I made a survey, I wouldn't find one guy (in show business) who disliked Bernie," longtime Las Vegas entertainer Sonny King said Sunday. "He was just a lovable guy. If I sound a little hoarse today, I'm not ashamed to say that I cried all day yesterday. His first job here in Las Vegas was with me. His last appearance, here at the Bootlegger, was with me."

Entertainer Freddie Bell, a friend for 50 years, said he talked with an ailing Allen on Wednesday and noted, "even to the end, he never lost his sense of humor."

Entertainer Pete Barbutti said Allen "remained true to the art form."

"He may not have had the lasting power of other comedians, but he was a purist." Barbutti said. "He was a gentle soul."

Born Feb. 25, 1916, in New York City, Allen early in his career worked New York's Catskill Mountains resort circuit.

During World War II he was wounded in his legs by shrapnel in France. He returned home and in 1947 opened Bernie's Luncheonette in the Bronx. For 10 years he operated the restaurant as a zany cook who told jokes to customers as he flipped their eggs in the air.

On weekends he was a standup comic at Moe Silverman's Paddock Night Club in Yonkers. He also began to gamble heavily at local horse race tracks, eventually losing his life's savings and the restaurant. For a while, he drove a cab to make a living.

On Oct. 23, 1957, Allen was driving his taxi when he picked up former world middleweight champion Rocky Graziano, who was en route to the Sugar Ray Robinson-Carmen Basilio world middleweight championship bout.

Allen, a former New York Golden Gloves champion, entertained Graziano with humorous anecdotes and even made the story about how he lost his restaurant sound funny. Graziano, who had an extra ticket for the fight, invited Allen to sit with him.

Afterward the two went to a restaurant where Graziano introduced his new friend to entertainer Martha Raye, who hired him to manage her private security company and helped him along in show business.

After his Las Vegas debut, Allen, between 1966 and 1969, worked nearly every lounge in town before going on the road. At a gig at the lounge of the Flambohan Hotel in Puerto Rico, he met Rossi, who at the time was booked at the La Concha Hotel with his then-partner Slappy White.

The new Allen and Rossi team returned to Las Vegas in 1972 for an eight-week engagement at the Sahara. In 1974 they signed to work the Silver Slipper.

When the team broke up, Allen again fell off the entertainment radar screen for several years. He became a successful local real estate investor between occasional performances.

In 1989 Allen opened for Redd Foxx at the Hacienda hotel. In the early 1990s, Allen began working the comedy night spots that started popping up in town, including the Improv and Riviera Comedy Club.

In his later years Allen became a champion for the homeless, writing letters to Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush urging more federal money be allocated to build low-income housing.

The price of admission to Allen's annual Bootlegger shows was at least one article of old clothing for donation to Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada's St. Vincent's homeless shelter.

Allen said he was passionate about the cause because he almost was homeless when he gambled all of his money away in New York.

"When I was driving the cab I felt like the unluckiest man in the world till I drove down to the Bowery and saw men in the vestibule of an empty store freezing to death," Allen said in 2003. "I used to take a few of them to the Lion's House, where a person could get a cot for 50 cents."

In April, Allen was asked by TV talk show host Larry King to write his own eulogy for a book of celebrity-penned eulogies King was writing for Doubleday called "Remember Me When I'm Gone."

Allen at the time told the Sun he was thrilled that anybody knew he was still alive to ask.

Allen is survived by two sons and a daughter.

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