By ROSALIND MARMEL
How do I write about Allan Blye? The more I learn about this very handsome, humble and gentle man the more difficult it gets.
Allan and Blye were two of the first words in my vocabulary. As a very young child, I would hear those two words repeatedly. For years, I thought that he was a thief of sorts who stole comic books from my dad’s drug store and from Service Drugs on Main and Selkirk.
Allan doesn’t deny stealing comic books. He can’t. There were too many witnesses. His across-the-street neighbor, Annette Kaye (nee Korman), who grew up to be the mother of four, including Marvin Kaye, the award winning creator of “Less Than Kind”, remembers reading them with the Blye brothers as they sat on their porch at 269 Selkirk Avenue next to Gunn’s Bakery. The evidence is now hidden away, with Allan’s sons Jeff and Rob. The house was demolished and the lot is now a parking lot for Gunn’s delivery trucks.
Allan interprets it a bit differently, “yes, that is what we did. My friend Archie Cham, (former Chairman of Manitoba’s Gaming Commission) and comedian David Steinberg and I would sit at the soda fountain, order a glass of water and read the comic books.” He reminded me that Winnipeg did not have TV in those days. Trudy Cohen, Annette’s sister tells me that the Blye family had the first telephone, the first electric stove and the first electric refrigerator in the neighbourhood.
All I knew for sure was that Allan Blye was famous. Allan was very famous and Winnipeg was very proud of him. As I grew older, my parents would point at the TV, which by then we had. Again, they would be talking about Allan Blye. I was getting more and more confused. I could see the Smothers brothers; Sonny and Cher; a character appropriately named Captain Blye, King Friday X111th’s royal pilot on the “Mr. Rodger’s Show” on which he appeared over 300 times; Dick Van Dyke; a crazy stunt man, getting into all sorts of messes named Super Dave Osborne; and even Elvis Presley.
I was even told that Allan Blye and Chris Bearde’s one-hour NBC TV special in 1968, “The Elvis Comeback Special” which, as many of Allan’s shows did, struggled to get past U.S. and Canadian censors, was the reason Elvis Presley made a come back after being released from the U.S. Army.
There had been a huge change in the music and film scene since Elvis’s last U.S. #1 single in 1962, “Return to Sender”. The Beatles and “The British Invasion” and folk singers had moved in after Elvis was drafted. Trends had changed. The show was said to be the first #1 rated one-man show on U.S. TV.
By then I was absorbed with music. I still didn’t know who Allan Blye was. I just knew that the TV showed very odd people when Allan’s name was mentioned.
Many looked rather strange. None looked like thieves. By then I had given up asking. My parents had given up trying to explain. I also heard talk about how he was famous for being controversial. I recall asking my neighbor and childhood playmate, Mathew Bellan, who Allan was. Matt didn’t know either. We were busy worrying about other things, having a lot of fun and wondering what we would be if we ever grew up and decided to do anything. I’m still wondering about that. We all know that Matt did grow up and became very influential, especially with Jewish Canadians.
Later I found out that this guy wrote and produced specials for Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, the Osmond brothers, Petula Clark, the “ Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show” for CBS’s Saturday morning TV, “ The Glen Campbell Show” for CBS, the “Bizarre” show for Showtime Cable TV and for Lola Folana. He wrote and produced specials for the long running TV series “The Andy Williams Show” for NBC, the situational comedy series, “That’s My Momma”, starring Clifton Davis and Ted Lange. He did the same for many award shows as well as a mini series for Spike TV titled, “The Super Dave Spike-Tacular Show”.
My confusion went from bad to worse until I attended an Oneg Shabbat service at the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, in Los Angeles. I remember Ed Asner reading from the Torah. The cantor was chanting in a soothing voice as he welcomed in the Sabbath. I asked who the cantor was. Allan Blye? The comic book thief from Winnipeg’s north end had become a cantor?? The late Cantor Benjamin Brownstown of Winnipeg’s Talmud Torah certified Allan as a cantor. He was one of the original founders of the synagogue. Ed Asner whispered to me that the cantor had been nominated for 15 Emmys. Someone told me that he was responsible for initiating sketch TV.
Slowly I began to figure it out. Allan was a producer and a writer. You see neither when watching television. Allan won his first Emmy as head writer and producer for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”. His second was for “The Dick Van Dyke Variety Show”.
Allan started singing at age 4 at Talmud Torah. “Sundays were busy days for me. I did weddings for various rabbis. Fridays and Saturdays, I was paid to sing in the Shaarey Zedak choir. I made $22.00 a weekend helping to support my family.” At age 15, the YMHA was having a talent contest. His friends wanted someone to enter. One of the judges said, “this kid should be doing something.” Allan scored a regular job singing on CKRC while still in high school. When CBC TV arrived in Winnipeg Allan began performing regularly nationally.
In 1958 as he was about to turn 21, Allan was sent to Toronto to replace Robert Goulet on CBC TV’s “Show Time.” Robert was leaving to originate the role of Lancelot in the new Broadway production, “Camelot.” He got a lift from a friend to get there to audition. During this time (1958 to 1968), Allan became Toronto’s Temple Sinai’s full time cantor. It was during this 10-year period that he began writing for TV, radio and individual performers who were appearing in nightclubs and concert halls throughout America.
In 1968 after the airing of a TV show for which he wrote his own comedy acts his phone rang. It was at exactly 11:24 PM on a Sunday. Sundays were Blue in Canada at that time. There was nothing open and nothing to do except to watch television. Allan wondered who on earth was calling that late. He picked up the phone. The voice on the other end said it was Tommy Smothers. Allen was sure that it was a crank call from his buddy Rich Little, the impressionist. Rich did that kind of thing. Allan started to get on his case for calling so late. Tom insisted that he was Tommy Smothers and that he had just seen his name in the credits of a hilarious TV show. He and Dick by a fluke were in Toronto stuck in the old Four Seasons Hotel on Jarvis on a Blue Sunday.
Allan refused to talk to the man. He asked him what his number was, got the number and hung up on him saying that he would call back. He called the number and got the Four Seasons. Sure enough, it was Tom Smothers. Tom told him that he and his brother were trying to put together a TV show and that they wanted him as a writer in Hollywood.
Allan couldn’t afford to fly to Hollywood so he drove to New York, writing a script as he drove. He was interviewed and hired on the spot. He packed up and moved to L.A.
In 1970, he became the head writer and producer for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”. He was nominated for and won his first Prime Time Emmy that year.
Allan’s career flourished. He also was one of the original investors and the consultant for the infamous “Palm Spring’s Follies”, now in its 20th year.
He was the founding cantor for the Synagogue for the Performing Arts for 14 years until his TV career made it difficult to be available for all services.
Allan is now preparing for his third year as cantor of Bet Yom Tov High Holiday services with Neil Schnall as prayer leader at the Woodland Hills Hilton in L.A. with the Bet Yom Tov choir and a string quartet. There is nothing in the world comparable.
Through word of mouth, these unique and practically unimaginable services have been drawing crowds from all over the world. Winnipeggers who attend and participate, many of whom fly to LA for that reason only, include Emmy Award winner and jazz recording artist Aubrey Tadman and wife, Archie Cham, Joel and Sharon Dudeck, Dennis and Nancy Ditlove, Howard and Arlene Packard, Beverly Rosove, Barbara Gauthier, David and Robin Steinberg, Tammy and Harry Lazar, Harvey Ackerman, Lois Ackerman, Elaine and Cy Goldberg, Bob (yes, Super Dave Osborne) and Roberta Einstein, Sharon Thomson and Arnold Glass.
Guest cantorial soloists include Winnipeg’s own Metropolitan and La Scala Opera Star known to be one of the world’s greatest baritones, Norman Mittelman, Aubrey Tadman and Karla Ross – the international concert singer. Ms. Ross has provided music and entertainment for some of Hollywood’s most exciting movie premieres including “The Wedding Planner”, “Charlie’s Angels” and “Stuart Little”. She has shared the stage with Elton John, Liz Taylor, Cher, Sharon Stone, Bruce Villanch, Gary Marshall and more. She has done wrap parties for the Oscar and Golden Globe Award shows, “Friends”, “ER”, “Will and Grace”, as well as “Cabaret” starring Desperate Housewives’ Terry Hatcher, also “The Lion King”.
Mike Lang, a three-time winner of the coveted MVP Grammy Award, who has many Gold records, accompanies on the piano. Mike has performed with Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Barbra Streisand, John Lennon, Josh Grobman, In Sync and Frank Zappa amongst others.
Allan says, “the soul and spirit of these services is based on the Judaic concept that prayer is carried to its intended destination on the wings of song.”
So, this is where Selkirk Avenue’s Allan Blye is now and who he is.