A year and a half ago, Peter Allen thought his show business comeback had permanently stalled in a small nightclub in Philadelphia. “I was playing every night to about 20 bored people,” he recalls. But on May 11, at the starlight roof of the Waldorf Astoria, the Australian-born entertainer received the “Entertainer of the Year” award from the national U.S. entertainment magazine, After Dark. The citation accompanying the award, which has been
bestowed on a mixed bag of performers from Mae West and Lucille Ball to AnnMargret and Barry Manilow, praises Allen for “writing moving and incisive songs,” and “generating a white-hot excitement that has dramatically swelled his legions of fans in the last year.”
The fact is that Allen, at 33, is the most
exotic trash-and-flash performer since Wladziu Valentino Liberace dropped his first two names. Like Liberace, Allen gives his audience at least 110 cents on every dollar. Unlike Liberace, Allen appeals to all sexualities—saved from preciousness by the strains of Strine, avoiding sycophancy by wit and mockery. He puts on probably the best cabaret act to be found today—a fact to be guessed at by people who know him only through his half-dozen albums since these supply the indifferent Allen voice but none of his exuberant personality.
In a typical performance, he bounds on stage in a Day-Glo tangerine suit, orange suede shoes, a 1950s Hawaiian print shirt, a mass of red and white carnations in his hand. Straddling the piano bench, his arms at right angles to his body as he bangs out chords, he will run through a medley of his own songs, from tender ballads like “I Honestly Love You,” and “Tenterfield Saddler,” a touching evocation of his youth in Australia, to the pounding rhythms of “Continental American” and “I Go to Rio” (his biggest hit, now out as a single). As the beat grows more insistent, the audience, caught up in Allen’s epidemical enthusiasm, claps and sways. Allen tears off his shirt, then his pants, and gyrates rhythmically in a skimpy T-shirt and skintight metallic red pants. When the number is finished, audiences always scream for more; Allen always obliges.
The dismal Philadelphia nightclub (Allen has even forgotten the name) seems light-years away—but it really was the beginning of the remarketing of Peter Allen. One of the patrons who caught his show there late in 1976 was Bill Anthony, whose brother Dee manages such headliners as Peter Frampton. “Bill told Dee he should come see the act and he did,” says Allen, adding characteristically, “you see, my problem is that people always say, T like you but everyone else is going to think you’re just too weird.’ Dee liked me.” Says Anthony now of his decision to take over— management of Allen’s career: “We felt Peter’s act is universal—he has this rare ability to communicate with an audience on a one-to-one basis.”
Anthony’s job, as Allen’s new manager was to find him bigger audiences, to see that Allen could play to thousands, not tens. How did he work the miracle? “I didn’t change my act,” Allen explains. “Dee just booked me in different kinds of places—rock places—so that I got new, younger crowds.”
Relaxing recently at the offices of A&M Records in New York, a well-tanned Allen, clad in blue jeans and a beige armystyle shirt, reflected on his checkered showbusiness career. A grocer’s son, he left school at the age of 14, and joined with Chris Bell to form the Allen Brothers (though they are not related). From Australia, the Allen Brothers spent three years bouncing from Taiwan to Korea to Hong
Kong. By the age of 19, Peter and Chris had become fixtures in the lounge of the Hong Kong Hilton. There young Allen met Judy Garland, who was to have immense personal and professional influence on his life. “She told me I reminded her of Fred Astaire,” Allen remembers wryly, “and I thought, ‘What a rude thing to say’.”
But Allen soon became a Garland fan, traveling to Japan, England and later to the United States with her. The Allen Brothers often opened her shows and one of Peter’s best known ballads, “Quiet Please, There’s a Lady in the House,” is a tribute to Garland. In Tokyo, she introduced daughter Liza to the young Australian: they were engaged in 1964, married in 1967, and divorced in 1974 (after living apart for four years). “We broke up for all the obvious reasons, the ones they write movies about. Girl becomes a big star. Husband stays home. Liza staying home to cook little meals for her husband.” In fact he broke up with Liza and with his partner Chris (now a flying instructor in Washington) on the same day. “All of a sudden I didn’t have either of them and it felt great,” he says. He moved down to GreenwichVillage, traded his tuxedoes in for blue jeans, and began to write songs. His first big hit was a hit for fellow Australian Olivia Newton-John: I Honestly Love You became one of her biggest selling singles.
Allen’s style as a performer was evolving as well: he got his new act together at Reno Sweeney’s, a small New York nightclub popular with New York’s gay community. He has been called “pansexual,” and “the first male pop star of the ’70s with a flamboyantly gay style,” but he’s hesitant to answer questions about his own sexuality. “Am I gay? My God, nobody’s ever asked me that! Well, I don’t want to be typed as anything. Bisexual? That’s just another sexual stereotype. I never want to define myself. That’s just not important to me.” Still, one of Allen’s newest songs, Two Boys, written with composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager is, according to Allen himself, “probably the first non-questioning gay song.” And during his act Allen likes to put the audience on by saying, “I guess by now you are wondering, ‘Is he or isn’t he?’ ” After a meaningful pause, he continues, “Well ...lam... (very long pause)... Australian.” It brings down the house.
These days Allen has given up most of the compulsive partying that made him a fixture in New York café society before his move to California almost two years ago. “I know all the people,” he says, “so why should I go? I used to get kicked out of parties in New York for doing what I now get paid to do on stage.” He views his own success with the ironic detachment that characterizes his most haunting ballads: he’s not holding his breath. “People tell me I’m going to be the next superstar but last week I was in Seattle opening for Sha-Na-Na and nobody had ever heard of me. ‘Peter whoT they asked.” People won’t be asking for long.
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