It seems to have been Peter Allen’s fate to be overshadowed by other stars. When he died in 1992 — by which time he had scored an Academy Award, recorded 10 albums and starred on Broadway — Allen was still identified in obituaries as the man who had been discovered by Judy Garland and was the first husband of her daughter, Liza Minnelli.
His songs, too, were hits mostly for other performers: Melissa Manchester with “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” Olivia Newton-John with “I Honestly Love You.” Even “The Boy From Oz,” the new Broadway musical about him that has renewed interest in his work, is causing a stir mostly because of the actor playing Allen: Hugh Jackman.
“Peter was never a name,” says Carole Bayer Sager, a frequent songwriting collaborator of Allen’s. “He didn’t have a No. 1 record of his own, and people in the Midwest didn’t know him. He was kind of a cult figure.”
At its peak, though, Allen’s cult was huge, at least in New York City. He sold out Radio City Music Hall so often in the early 1980s that he was named the concert hall’s official personality. Former New York City mayor Ed Koch once called Allen his favorite entertainer.
His performances were distinguished by visual extravagance and Allen’s seemingly unflagging energy. At one of his Radio City concerts, he came on stage astride a camel, flanked by a battalion of Rockettes. His costumes were similarly outrageous: all gold lame, sequins and gaping collars.
“He was very savvy about what his audience wanted to see — great costumes, great pacing,” says Ann-Margret, a friend of Allen’s who still closes her cabaret shows with a song he wrote for her, “Once Before I Go.”
A private man
But in contrast to his outgoing performance style, friends remember Allen as an intensely private man who shared little about his personal life even with those close to him.
Few friends knew he had HIV, for example, until his final days. And he rarely spoke about his childhood, which had been shaded by his father’s suicide when Allen was 13.
“He just kept everything inside,” says Ann-Margret. His personal philosophy, she says, was, “Don’t show anyone you’re crying, and if you’re hurting, don’t show anyone.”
He expressed those feelings in song with “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” which he wrote with Sager and recorded for a solo album in 1979. Manchester’s version hit in 1978.
“I wasn’t writing that song thinking it was about Peter, but in retrospect, it does echo his personality,” Sager says. “He didn’t believe in crying on anyone’s shoulder.”
Allen had wanted to be a performer since his childhood in rural Australia. Born Peter Woolnough in 1944, he was performing in bars by the time he was 12, playing piano and mimicking the rock ’n’ roll moves of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.
In the 1960s, he partnered with another local boy — Chris Bell — to form an act called the Allen Brothers. The act was managed by Bell’s father, who booked them on concert tours of Australia and Asia.
Judy Garland lends a hand
Garland caught the Allen Brothers in 1964 in Hong Kong, where she was also performing. An enraptured Garland could be heard yelling, “Marvelous!” as she watched the show, and afterward introduced herself to Bell and Allen.
She took the two under her wing, becoming their manager and booking them as the opening act for later concerts she gave in Britain and the United States.
“Peter hit all those places that touched her,” says cabaret singer Julie Wilson, who knew Allen and Garland through a vocal coach the three shared (Wilson also starred in Allen’s 1988 Broadway flop, “Legs Diamond”). “He had the heart, the energy — the same magical things she had.”
Garland also introduced Allen to her daughter, Minnelli. The two married in 1967, although by then Allen had already begun to have affairs with men. One such tryst, recounted in “The Boy From Oz,” apparently got the Allen Brothers fired from a gig in Australia in the early 1960s.
“I do believe that Peter did love Liza and there was a relationship there,” says Sager. “I don’t know how long it stayed sexual, but I don’t believe it was a set-up marriage from day one.”
He and Minnelli separated in 1970. In the same year, he cut off his professional relationship with Bell to pursue a solo career, writing songs with Sager, lyricist Dean Pitchford and others.
“I watched him evolve as a performer. He was shy at the beginning, but then all the sudden his shoulder was leaning in, then one leg would go up on the piano. By the time he hit Radio City, he was on top of the piano,” Sager says with a laugh.
In 1972, Allen began a long-term relationship with Gregory Connell, a model from Texas who was six years his junior. Connell eventually became Allen’s lighting director and stage manager. Their relationship was close but limited by Allen’s professional commitments and outside affairs, friends say.
“They were fun and easy together, but they had a tough relationship, too,” says Bruce Cudd, Allen’s personal assistant. “Peter was not monogamous at all, and it was up and down.”
When Connell was diagnosed with HIV in the early 1980s, Allen tried to arrange his performance schedule so he could be with Connell during his final days, says Connell’s mother, Mary Jane Edwards.
“He was with him in the hospital and when it came time to leave the hospital, they went home,” she says. “But he didn’t cancel any shows. After Greg died, he had a show four days later — Greg would have wanted him to go on.” Connell died in their shared house in Leucadia, Calif., in 1984.
Career ups and downs
Allen’s dedication to his career paid off. “I Honestly Love You” and “Don’t Cry Out Loud” were major hits for Newton-John and Manchester, giving him a steady income from songwriting royalties. The biggest hit he had on his own, “I Go to Rio,” went to No. 1 in France and Australia but had little chart impact in the United States.
He was also maintaining an increasingly hectic performance schedule. “Up in One,” his one-man Broadway show, was a hit in 1979, and his following grew to the point that he was able to sell out nine shows in a row at Radio City in 1982.
“That was the exciting thing about Peter: his energy,” says Julie Wilson. “He gave everything he had every darn show, and then on his day off he’d fly off to be on some crazy TV show.”
Then came the nadir of Allen’s career: “Legs Diamond,” a big-budget, critically panned musical about the legendary gangster. Allen starred in the show and wrote the lyrics and music. It closed after weeks of previews and only 64 regular performances.
“It was so ill-conceived that it was unfixable, really,” says Sager, who saw the show in previews. “I told him, ‘It needs a lot of work.’ He said he knew, but he didn’t have time to fix it.”
But the scathing notices inspired a memorable example of Allen’s humor, recalls Wilson, who played a nightclub singer in the show.
“There was a scene where he rises up in a coffin. And at one show after the reviews came out, he sits up and says, ‘Even the critics can’t kill me.’ The audience just howled.”
Privately, though, Allen was smarting from the show’s failure.
“To come out of that not questioning yourself would have been impossible,” says Cudd. “He always wanted to be a big Broadway star, and after ‘Legs,’ no one else was going to hire him to do a Broadway show.”
Allen was diagnosed with HIV at about the same time “Legs” closed, and — as always — he coped with the bad news mostly internally.
“I knew something was wrong — I knew he was having throat problems — but Peter was private,” says actress-singer Ellen Greene, who befriended Allen on the New York cabaret circuit in the 1970s.
He never made a public announcement that he had HIV, fearing audiences wouldn’t want to see a performer they knew was sick. He may also have feared alienating conservative, heterosexual fans: Allen didn’t pretend to be straight after divorcing Minnelli, but he never publicly came out as gay either.
Even many of his friends didn’t know he was sick until January 1992, when he began chemotherapy and radiation treatment for AIDS-related throat cancer. He died that June at the age of 48.
Cudd says he recently discovered a slip of paper on which Allen jotted some draft song lyrics — a method he often used to remember spontaneous ideas. Cudd doesn’t know when Allen wrote them, but the words have a decidedly autumnal — even bleak — tone.
“Trying to recapture the first thrills, you grow more desperate until you kill the reason you began,” the paper reads. “Who will be with you when you die? When you die, when you die?”
Whatever his private thoughts, Allen kept his spirits high with friends. He spent his last days in Leucadia, in the same house where Connell had died.
Sager recalls: “I spoke to him in Leucadia, and I said, ‘Are you frightened of dying?’
“He said, ‘I’m so glad I lived.”’