Can’t put my finger on why I find the picture above kind of disturbing. Is it that it looks like Steve Allen has pulled a random elderly audience member up onstage and is making her do a routine that may give her a heart attack or break her hip? (It definitely kind of looks like he’s holding her up.) Or is it that it seems vaguely Oedipal? (The woman with him is his mother Belle Montrose). Or is it both? Do I fear that Steve Allen has dragged his elderly mother on stage, dragging her through one of her old routines, placing her in grave danger of injury? Revenge for all of those nights he woke up in the middle of the night alone in strange hotel rooms (the lot of the latchkey vaudeville child)?
At any rate, today is the old dear’s birthday. Belle Montrose (b. Isabelle Donohue, 1886-1964) had a comedy act with her husband, singer and comedian Billy Allen, a.k.a Carroll Allen, a.k.a Carroll Abler. Their progeny, disc jockey, tv variety host and author Steve Allen was born in 1921; Billy died a year and a half later. Thenceforth, Belle and Steve lived with her extended family in Chicago, and she continued to perform in vaudeville with a succession of partners, one of whom was a teenage Milton Berle, who later called her the “funniest woman in vaudeville”. You can judge for yourself. The entirety of her act is quoted from memory by her son (who’d seen it hundreds of times) in his 1960 autobiography Mark It and Strike It. And she has roles in the Disney films The Absent Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963), both starring fellow former vaudevillian Fred MacMurray.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.