PETER ALLEN (10 February 1944 - 18 June 1992)
Bryce Hallett pays tribute to Australia's pioneering showman Peter Allen who died 20 years ago at the age of 48.
THROUGHOUT Peter Allen's life, after long nights partying, he would say to his friends, "When I fade, I fade quickly", and so it was on June 18, 1992, when he lost his battle with an AIDS-related illness. Earlier that day he had been on the phone at the hospital in San Diego taking calls from his close friends Bette Midler, Carole Bayer Sager and Peter Frampton.
Bayer Sager, with whom he had written many of his best-known songs, including Everything Old Is New Again, We Don't Cry Out Loud and Quiet Please There's a Lady On Stage, summoned up the courage to ask Allen if he was afraid of dying, to which he answered, "Thank God I lived!"
The remark typified the entertainer's strong-willed, irrepressible nature, but the news of his untimely death sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry. His one-time wife and lifelong friend Liza Minnelli was told moments before she went on stage at the London Palladium. She immediately called Peter’s mother Marion Woolnough in Sydney. Peter had meant the world to her and, shocked and dazed, she took down all the photographs of Peter that were proudly displayed in her Bondi flat, the very same flat where years earlier he had sat up on the rooftop and written the lyrics to Tenterfield Saddler.
A few years after Allen's death the wheels were set in motion for the new Australian musical The Boy From Oz. The production, directed by Gale Edwards and starring Todd McKenney in a career-defining role, was inspired and given impetus by the Stephen MacLean TV documentary and his 1996 biography of the same name. Produced by Robert Fox and the late Ben Gannon, The Boy From Oz was a milestone in the history of Australian theatre. It struck a chord with audiences throughout the country from the moment it opened at Her Majesty's Theatre in Sydney in 1998.
In paying lively and heartfelt tribute to the singer-songwriter, The Boy From Oz was also blessed with a uniformly brilliant cast, notably the legendary Jill Perryman and the extraordinary Chrissy Amphlett whose portrayal of Judy Garland sent shivers down the spine. A later version starred Hugh Jackman making his Broadway stage debut. His high-energy performance was acclaimed but the American production was largely panned by the US critics.
The Boy From Oz, however, is by no means the definitive version of Peter Allen. Many stories about the irreverent, quick-witted and impatient performer are made no mention of in the show, including the time he performed at the Continental Bathhouse in New York. The thing to remember is that the natural-born entertainer was never more at home than when he was in front of an audience. It didn't matter where. As long as there was an audience to cheer and applaud, he was in his element. He was akin to a ringmaster at a carnival of his own making; a place to dream and to escape from the sorrow and pain of his childhood.
Born Peter Richard Woolnough on February 10, 1944, in the northern NSW country town of Tenterfield, he grew up in nearby Armidale and later in Lismore. He developed a talent for playing piano by ear and by the age of 11, he was working part-time entertaining locals in the lounge of the New England Hotel. His mother was fiercely protective, a bright and bubbly force in his life who took him to the movies whenever she had saved up enough money. His father Dick Woolnough was the polar opposite. He had returned from the war depressed and drank himself into oblivion. Increasingly abusive and cruel, Dick committed suicide when Peter was in his late teens.
On the morning of his father’s funeral, Peter sat for his Higher School Certificate, his head buried deep in the exam papers as though nothing else in the world mattered. Even at that time, well before he had co-written the lyrics to We Don't Cry Out Loud with Bayer Sager, he had learnt to "paint on a smile" and to "hide the pain". This essential stoicism, combined with a hunger for life and a generosity of spirit, would help propel the career of the young singer at home and abroad. It was an era when being Australian was truly exotic and adventure-seekers from all areas of the arts were venturing overseas to try their luck.
At the age of 15, Peter met Chris Bell and together they became the Allen Brothers, a clean-cut duo styled on the Everly Brothers. By 1960 the Allen Brothers had gained a national audience on the TV variety show Bandstand hosted by Brian Henderson. In 1962 they embarked on an Asian tour and a couple of years later, when performing at the Hilton Hotel in Hong Kong, Judy Garland got to see their act. Garland and her boyfriend at the time Mark Herron had flown in from a disastrous concert in Melbourne. Things had gone from bad to worse for her with people demanding their money back. Judy was a wreck and the one time she needed it the most her voice had packed it in.
As luck and legend would have it, when Allen sat at the piano and played Over the Rainbow, Garland stood up and sang along. The room wasn’t full but it didn't matter. "That voice, who could forget, that raw-nerved, heart-wrenching voice," said Allen of Garland of the chance encounter that would change the course of his life and career. Growing up, Peter had listened to Fats Waller and Elvis Presley on the radio but few made as great an impression as Garland who taught him to be honest through his songs. But if becoming close friends of the legendary star opened up doors and did wonders for Allen's career prospects, then so did meeting her daughter Liza Minnelli.
When they announced their engagement towards the end of 1964, Garland burst into tears. She could not have been happier and nor could they. Peter was 23. Liza was 20. They had the world at their feet. It was the swinging ’60s when popular culture was in a state of flux - TV, fashion, music, art and design - it was all up for grabs. Peter and Liza were crazy about each other and mutually protective. He helped release her from her family demons while she encouraged his song writing. They were the perfect double act, or so it seemed, but just like the Allen Brothers, the time would come for them to part. On the very same day. It would be a milestone from which there would be no turning back.
In Garland’s eyes, Peter was one of the family, as unstable as that could be, but his willpower, zest for life and insatiable curiosity put a rocket under his dreams. When Minnelli's career was gathering momentum, Allen's was all but disintegrating as he played small clubs in New York's East Village and did battle with his record company in LA. One time he found himself washed up, literally, on the beach at Fire Island, New York's favourite gay summer vacation destination.
After a long night partying Allen passed out on the beach in front of a house where the owner of the famous Continental Bathhouse, Steve Ostrow, lived. It proved to be another of those fateful encounterswhich characterised so much of Allen's life. No sooner was he taken inside than he was introduced to Ostrow's house guest Bette Midler who was then making a name for herself. Peter later recalled that they didn't hit it off at first, perhaps because they were too alike, each trying to have the last laugh.
"She’d be telling the bluest of jokes then she’d behave like a stitched-up matron if you did the same,"' he said. They would, of course, become close friends. Midler would later present Allen with an Oscar (along with its three co-writers) when Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do) won Best Song at the 1982 Academy Awards. She also sang Tenterfield Saddler at Allen's memorial service during which she forgot the words halfway through, looked incredulously to the heavens, and said, "I'm sorry Peter . . . Oh, he would love this."
The well-worn term ''rollercoaster'' is frequently used to describe the careers of any number of showbusiness celebrities but it is especially apt for Allen. The peaks were radiant and fun-filled; the troughs full of heartbreak and tragedy. He had the world at his feet when he played to packed houses at Radio City Music Hall in New York. As he sang and danced to Everything Old Is New Again on a stage big enough to land a Qantas airbus, he kicked up a storm with the legendary Rockettes and descended from the rafters atop a white grand piano. He even rode a camel.
But behind the dizzying success was the presence of AIDS or what was once called "a designer disease thing" that nobody at the time knew much about. It would take a huge toll on the artistic community of which Allen was a vital, well-connected part. When his partner and lighting designer, a handsome Texan by the name of Greg Connell, succumbed to the disease the world became decidedly lonelier for the entertainer. He sought solace in the company of good friends and poured out his heart in his songs.
Soon after, he threw all his energy into what would become one of Broadway's legendary flops, the musical Legs Diamond in which Allen got to play a gangster from the Roaring Twenties. He turned down the lead in a revival of Me and My Girl because it was a replacement role. He conceded that Legs Diamond had only ever been a B-grade movie but he believed that it was a great idea for a musical and perfect for his set of skills. His former agent Dee Anthony told him the project was doomed while the in-demand choreographer Bob Fosse found others shows to keep him busy. Undeterred, Allen chased his dream and got his name in lights above the show's title.
Legs Diamond had more previews than performances. New York's venerated theatre critic Frank Rich hated just about everything about the "lame and confusing" production. He asserted that Allen had a genius for self-promotion. The experience signalled the beginning of the end. He seldom talked about Legs Diamond after it closed but when he sang We Don't Cry Out Loud in his concert it suddenly seemed tougher, more passionate than it had before.
"...Fly high and proud - and if you should fall - remember you almost had it all".
The failure of the show was one of the most publicised events in Allen's career but there are many stories about the showman's determination, tenacity, larrikin antics and acts of friendship which shed light on a vulnerable, generous and hugely gifted man. When Peter Allen celebrated his 42nd birthday in 1986, a couple of his friends hired a young man they'd spotted playing at the late-night club, Chez Josephine in Hell's Kitchen.
Harry Connick Jr was keen to oblige, saying he was a big fan of Mr Allen's and loved his songs. Everyone in Peter's crowded NewYork apartment could barely believe what they heard as the 19-year-old breezed his way through some pop, jazz and swing standards. Peter said to Harry: "Ï'm going to be your personal champion. Promise me that you'll sing a duet with me one day. I know you're going to be famous, I kid you not. You're young, cute, talented - I should hate you!".
Peter saw in Harry something of his younger self. He told him that when the going got tough, as it surely would at times, to hold his head high, paint on a smile and be true to himself. And to have lots and lots of fun. Years later Harry Connick Jr, a bona fide star, described Allen as "a top-notch entertainer" and a great source of inspiration. "He was incredibly shrewd... There was really no one else like him."
Bryce Hallett is the writer of the one-man touring show, The Lives of Me - Untold Stories of Peter Allen, starring the pianist/singer/actor Robert Bertram.