Stage performer, songwriter
As a songwriter and stage entertainer, Peter Allen sang, danced, wrote, kicked, and leapt his way into the hearts of audiences around the world. A performer in the tradition of Judy Garland and Bette Midler, Peter Allen began singing in his native Australia. Eventually, he toured Southeast Asia, was booked in London, and made it to America, where he starred in sellout shows at Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, and on Broadway. As a songwriter, Allen wrote a number of hits for both himself and other singers and received an Academy Award for his work on “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do),” the title theme for the 1981 hit film Arthur. Toward the end of his life, Allen performed continually in New York, Los Angeles, and Sydney, Australia. And while he maintained residences on both coasts of the U.S., his heart remained Down Under; in an interview with Yale Alexander of the New York Native, he confided with characteristic warmth, “I do still consider Australia home. In fact, I wrote a song for the Australian Tourist Board. When I go there I can walk down the street and people say ‘G’day, Pete!’”
Born Peter Woolnough Allen in Tenterfield, Australia, on February 10, 1944, Allen began his career in the small town where he was raised, Armidale, about 350 miles north of Sydney. He first hit the stage at the age of five as the leader of a school musical-variety holiday show. During the school year, Allen spent his weekends at the local “picture theatre” devouring Hollywood musicals and winning first place in a weekly talent contest. In fact, Allen won the contest so often that the theater hired him to perform professionally on Sunday afternoons.
Allen’s mother encouraged his musical leanings from this early age. With his father and uncles off to World War II, Allen was raised primarily by his mother, Marion, with the help of his grandmother and three doting aunts. In their book Peter Allen, David Smith and Neal Peters detailed Marion Allen’s initial support. She remembered recognizing her son’s talent early: “Once, when he was seven years old, we went to visit some friends, and they had a piano. Peter wandered over to it and we hardly took notice of him. Half an hour later we heard a perfect rendition of ‘Put Another Nickel in the Nickelodeon’ (a popular song of the time). He just played it! With two hands! He knew how to sing every popular song of the day, and somehow he was able to play them by ear. When this happened I thought ‘Well, I must get him to a piano.’” Piano and dance lessons
For the Record…
Born Peter Woolnough Allen, February 10, 1944, in Tenterfield, Australia; died of AIDS, June 18, 1992, in San Diego, CA; son of Dick and Marion Allen; married Liza Minelli (a singer and actress), 1967 (divorced, 1973).
Played piano in hotels and bars, Armidale, Australia, 1955; with Chris Bell, formed the Allen Brothers, 1958; appeared on Australian Bandstand, c. 1959; toured Southeast Asia, 1960-64; “discovered” by singer Judy Garland, 1964; toured Europe and U.S. as opening act for Garland, 1964; toured U.S., late 1960s; solo performer in clubs, New York City, 1970-1992; performed in one-man Broadway show Up in One, 1979; performed at Radio City Music Hall, Sydney Opera House, and throughout the U.S., 1980s; appeared in Broadway show Legs Diamond, 1988. Songwriter, 1970-92; songs included “I Go to Rio,” “Quiet Please, There’s a Lady Onstage,” “I Honestly Love You,” and “Don’t Cry Out Loud”; also cowriter of “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do),” 1981.
Awards: Academy Award (with Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager, and Christopher Cross), 1981, for “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do),” from film Arthur.
followed, and by age 11, Allen was playing piano alongside his dance instructor at a local hotel and bar in Armidale.
The deaths of two relatives propelled Allen and his mother out of Armidale when Allen was 13; first his grandmother died, which left the boy with “a habit of wringing his hands that lasted for a couple of years,” according to Marion Allen, as quoted by Smith and Peters in Peter Allen. Then Allen’s father, who had become a violent alcoholic since returning from World War II, shot himself. Ostracized in Armidale, the adolescent Allen and his mother left town.
Relocated in Lismore, another small town in eastern Australia, Allen was swept off his feet by the rock and roll touring show of pianist-singers Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Soon Allen was traveling to beach towns and performing whenever he could; finally, he withdrew his money from the bank and hopped a bus to an audition in “Surfer’s Paradise,” a stretch of beach on Australia’s east coast. In a loose imitation of Little Richard, Allen wore enormous white cricket shoes, which he kicked up onto his upright piano and then off his feet into the audience after each show. Through the course of his regular gigs in Surfer’s Paradise, Allen met Chris Bell, who would become his partner.
At 14 Allen appeared with Bell on Australian Bandstand, one of the most popular Australian television shows of the time. The two then embarked on a three-year tour of Southeast Asia, where they were “discovered” by the famous American singer and film star Judy Garland. Allen and Bell had been playing at the Hong Kong Hilton in 1964 when Garland caught their act. Allen and Bell, by then dubbed the Allen Brothers, played with Garland in Tokyo; immediately thereafter, Garland invited the two to be her opening act at the Palladium in London and later on her U.S. tour.
While touring with Garland, Allen met the singer’s daughter, budding star Liza Minelli. The two were engaged in 1964 and married in 1967. But, after touring with Bell and becoming a regular on NBC-TV’s Tonight Show, Allen began to grow apart from both Minelli and Bell. Based in New York City, he had turned to writing introspective songs toward the end of the ’60s, while Minelli was focusing on film roles in Hollywood. In March of 1970, Allen separated from Minelli, dissolved his partnership with Bell, and began a second career as a solo singer and songwriter.
During the early 1970s Allen performed his own material in small New York clubs such as the Bitter End and Reno Sweeney. He recorded two albums, Peter Allen and Tenterfield Saddler, for the short-lived Metromedia label, then switched to A&M, for which he recorded five records, then to Arista in the early 1980s, and finally to RCA by the ’90s. His songs spanning the decade from the early 1970s to the early ’80s were his most famous and enduring. Singer Olivia Newton-John’s recording of “I Honestly Love You,” written by Allen and Jeff Barry, hit the top of the charts in 1974 and stayed there for several weeks.
It was during this period that Allen began his dual residency, on both coasts of the U.S., maintaining a home in Manhattan and one in Leucadia, California, near San Diego. Beginning in the 1980s Allen achieved success writing songs for films as well. He even won an Academy Award in 1981 for cowriting “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do),” the theme to the film Arthur, which starred Minelli and Dudley Moore.
As the ’80s progressed, however, the desire to perform once again seduced Allen back onto the stage. Just before his return to Radio City Music Hall in 1982, Stephen Holden of the New York Times recalled Allen’s first smash success there, in 1980. Holden wrote: “Mr. Allen became a Music Hall institution almost two years ago when he made a sensational stage entrance astride a camel, then proceeded to hoof it up with the Rockettes. Not since Bette Midler’s Divine Madness had a solo performer staged such an uninhibited extravaganza in a major New York house. And its success... proved that Mr. Allen had finally arrived as a big-time pop entertainer.”
Broadway also beckoned the star songwriter and entertainer. Allen’s 1979 one-man show, Up in One, mounted at Broadway’s Biltmore Theatre, was very popular. During the show, which the Village Voice described as “more concert than theatre,” Allen created an intimate atmosphere with humorous personal anecdotes. Much of this humor, the Voice reported, derived from his play on his admitted sexual ambiguity. He ended each performance, for instance, with a stunt that would become one of his signatures—dressed in Carmen Miranda-like drag complete with fruit-topped headdress, he “[lurched] onstage with a tacky platter of lurid tropical blossoms” and sang “I Go to Rio” to a samba rhythm. Allen’s other trademark song in his later performances was a tribute to Judy Garland entitled “Quiet Please, There’s a Lady Onstage.”
During the early 1980s the question of Allen’s sexuality became a hot issue for the press as well as material for his act. He became famous for the line “I’m bi-coastal,” which referred ostensibly to his U.S. residences but which also hinted at his sexuality. In their biography Peter Allen, Smith and Peters attested, “The double-entendre nature of saying ‘bi-coastal’ was a funnier, perhaps more daring way to deal with a subject that Peter felt people took all too seriously.” Asked in 1991 by the New York Native’s Yale about the practice of “outing”—revealing a previously closeted gay individual’s sexuality—Allen responded, “I was ‘out’ on stage years before anyone else.... But I think ‘outing’ is limiting. I don’t feel like I should be labeled. I don’t have to decide that I only want to do things one way.”
Allen received what was probably the greatest blow to his career during his second Broadway appearance, in the title role of 1988’s Legs Diamond, which was a flop; the show lost $3 million after a very brief run. Allen explained the failure to Yale as a matter of poor timing and unlucky circumstances, remarking, “The book was dreadful. The original writer was dying of AIDS and was incapable of making any changes. They brought in [actor-writer] Harvey Fierstein to fix it. Things changed every day. I’d come to rehearsal and my brother was gone. The next day my leading lady was gone. If we could’ve gone through the changes out of town, we might have had a chance.” Allen deemed the show “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
After Legs Allen continued to tour the U.S., including prominent stops in Detroit and Chicago, and returned to triumphant applause at Carnegie Hall in 1990. Than, in 1992, the public learned that Allen was suffering from Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare, disfiguring cancer that had become a hallmark of AIDS; leaving his mother and sister in Surfer’s Paradise, where he had been enjoying an extended stay, he returned to the States for radiation therapy. Though they had been divorced for nearly two decades, Liza Minelli was at his side. Allen died in San Diego on June 18, 1992. His death, attributed to AIDS, left the entertainment world bereft. Allen’s role as a cabaret star, particularly, had helped to define the genre as a contemporary form of theater, and his musical gifts and fun-loving attitude had made him a personal favorite among songwriters, performers, and especially, his beloved audiences.
Peter Allen, Metromedia, 1971.
Tenterfield Saddler, Metromedia, 1972.
The Continental American, A&M, 1974.
Taught by Experts (includes “I Go to Rio”), A&M, 1977.
It Is Time for Peter Allen (live), A&M, 1977.
I Could Have Been a Sailor, A&M, 1978.
Bi-coastal, A&M, 1980.
Legs Diamond, RCA, 1989.
Making Every Moment Count, RCA/BMG, 1990.
Also recorded, as part of the Allen Brothers, Chris and Peter Allen’s Album #1; Not the Boy Next Door, Arista; and Peter Allen—Captured Live at Carnegie Hall.
Smith, David, and Neal Peters, Peter Allen: “Between the Moon and New York City” Delilah Communications, 1983.
Chicago Tribune, July 16, 1989.
New York Native, September 16, 1991.
New York Times, September 18, 1977; September 24, 1982; June 19, 1992.
People, July 6, 1992.
Village Voice, June 4, 1979.