“When I fade, I fade quickly” – Peter Allen (1944-1992)
I have been on a MOR 1970s-music jag of late, some Leo Sayer, Mellissa Manchester, early Billy Joel-ish stuff. I think it might because when you get to be old, you start to live your life backwards. In those crazy 1970s, I had a real thing for Peter Allen. I think most people today have never heard of him. I wonder if Allen would have sustained a career into the 21st century. He certainly had the talent and the drive, but our pop sensibilities might have changed too much. He seems frozen in time for me.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Allen was an extremely popular concert entertainer and a Grammy and Academy Award winning songwriter.
Born in Australia, he was 14-years-old, when, after the death of his alcoholic, abusive father, he dropped out of school and supported his family as an all-around entertainer in Australia and Asia. He wrote the songs, he sang, danced and played piano. Astoundingly good at everything, he was best as an old-school club act.
In 1964, Judy Garland discovered him performing at the Hong Kong Hilton. She signed him to open for her and introduced him to her daughter Liza Minnelli. Allen moved to NYC the next year, and he and Minnelli got married.
Allen’s career flourished. He was tall, lanky, and nimble with a high-wattage smile. He liked to show-off. In his act, he bantered, then would leap atop a grand piano to dance, and finally sat down to play and sing catchy songs that he had written.
Ebullient and flamboyant, he once rode onstage on a camel. His flashy wardrobe included a red sequined suit and a silver lame shirt open to the navel. He was purposely sexual ambiguous and coy in his performances.
Allen recorded 11 albums and performed live in supper clubs, cabarets, on Broadway, and in concert halls all over our pretty blue planet. He was a favorite of many queens, including Elizabeth II and NYC Mayor Ed Koch. He played sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, and Central Park.
He won his Academy Award for the imaginatively titled Arthur’s Theme from Arthur (1981), which starred Dudley Moore and Allen’s ex-wife. It’s a rather hard to resist tune, which includes that line about ”… caught between the moon and New York City”. It was number one hit.
He gave other artists big hits also: I Honestly Love You for Olivia Newton-John, which won of his three Grammy Awards in 1974; I’d Rather Leave While I’m In Love for Rita Coolidge; Don’t Cry Out Loud for Melissa Manchester, and You And Me (We Wanted It All) for Frank Sinatra.
He also wrote the score and starred in the 1988 Broadway musical Legs Diamond which played for 136 performances. The reviews were scathing, with disbelief at Allen’s attempts to play a straight guy (and a gangster). The failing NY Times’ critic Frank Rich wrote:
”The evening’s most compelling drama was watching Allen figure out what to do with his hands”.
The show was such a flop that The Nederlander Organization had to finally sell their Mark Hellinger Theatre to a Times Square church, which still owns it. The show lost more than $3 million. Allen had had better luck playing himself in a long run on Broadway in Up With One, a one-man show in 1979.
He had much better fortune in death. The musical The Boy From Oz (2003) used his own songs to tell Allen’s life story. It ran on Broadway for more than a year and earned six Tony Award nominations with a win for Hugh Jackman as Allen. It only closed after Jackman’s contract was up. It has gone on to productions around the world, including another long run in 2006 in Australia, again with Jackman.
Allen’s NYC performances in the early 1970’s were in small cabarets, like Reno Sweeney’s and The Continental Baths. But, he became popular enough to move on to the big venues. His popularity was so big at the 6,000-seat Radio City Music Hall, they named him the theatre’s ”Official Personality”, and he was the first ever male member of the Radio City Rockettes.
Here is the juicy part, of course:
Minnelli caught Allen, in bed with another dude on their wedding night. Allen was also chummy with Judy Garland’s fourth husband, Mark Herron. Herron and Allen had an affair during their respective marriages to the famous mother and daughter. I am especially open-minded in matters having to do with sex, but, even I think fucking your mother-in-law’s husband might be crossing the line.
Allen was a sort of gay Liberace. He was just 48-years -old, when he was taken by the plague. He and his long-term partner, Gregory Connell (1949-1984), died eight years later. Allen was the first well-known Australians to taken by HIV/AIDS.